Tell Me a Story

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I’m grateful to share this guest post, written by Jen Rose Yokel, with you. In addition to being one of the original members of Greener Trees Reads, Jen is a writer, radio nerd, music lover, and hopeless literature addict, who grew up in the weird state of Florida where wild reptiles roam free. She writes for The Rabbit Room, fancies herself a poet and has been blogging since she begged an Internet acquaintance for a LiveJournal invite in 2002. Currently, she is settling into married life with her husband Chris in Fall River, MA. She doesn’t particularly enjoy writing about herself in third person, but she would like you to know that she really digs Apple products, vinyl records, good coffee, and spelunking used bookstores.

From the moment I stepped inside, something felt different. Different from any church experience I’d had before. I took the copy of what we called a bulletin in my Baptist heritage. Instead it was a list of readings, instructions, recitations.

I was about to experience my first Anglican liturgy.

It felt foreign, and yet, completely at home. There were no lights, no worship band on stage. The priest wore robes, walked to the middle of the church, read Scripture. We stood and knelt and took communion from a common cup. The sermon was short, lively, but the heart of the service was hearing the Word and taking the bread and wine.

It was otherworldly, beautiful in its calm reverence. Funny considering just a decade before I’d craved a more energetic experience than my memories of little Southern churches with a liturgy of hard pews and “Turn to page 320 and sing the first, third, and fourth verses.” I wanted movement, excitement, and everything else seemed dead. Now, I craved quiet, because everything else seemed fake.

My church journey has taken a number of turns, including a couple of charismatic side trips, many rock concert worship experiences, and now, a tiny city church that walks a line between Baptist and liturgical. If I think long enough, every one of them have their flaws. If I go into them with openness and appreciation, every one of them have their beauties.

Cliché as it seems, there’s some truth to the bumper sticker-ish advice: if you find the perfect church, run, because you’re going to ruin it. But what if all of us, together, in our fragmented quirky ways, are all simply telling the greater Story?

This isn’t to excuse harmful theology, but I wonder sometimes if despite all our grasping, searching, and learning, in the end we will always struggle to apprehend “pure truth,” always strain against the confines of logic, always fall short of grasping reality.

Maybe this is why, when asked hard questions about blinding truth, Jesus, the incarnation of the God who wove the universe and history, and continues telling the tale into a new creation, would say, “Let me tell you a story…”

As Luci Shaw tells it in Chapter 3 of Breath for the Bones

“I am reminded of an afternoon when my youngest daughter came home from high school, saying in disgust, ‘Well, today we dissected a grasshopper.’ As if that’s any way to discover what a grasshopper is.

We know the truth about grasshoppers not from a scatter of small body parts under a scalpel on a lab table, but from seeing them arcing up from the long, hot grass in a summer field…” (43)

I could chart the bits a of grasshopper for you and tell you what it does, or I could point to a real one, strong legs propelling it through the garden before you can blink. Dissection kills.

I can tell you what I think I know about God through the stories, grasp for an explanation, cross-reference and dole out doctrine, or I could let you read them and know a little something about Jesus through the way he talked about prodigals and treasures, through the way he put on a towel and washed the grime from his friends’ feet on his last night before dying on earth, before waking from death and changing everything.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to take a systematic approach. Great evil has been done by misinterpreting Scripture, and great good has been done for our understanding and inspiration. There is nothing wrong with memorizing a verse that gives you strength, feeling a flash of insight, or connecting the lines between stories, poems, and letters to see the structure of the Gospel.

What is a problem though is when we fail to recognize the limits of our language and understanding. “Truth is a touchy subject, a daunting word,” says Shaw. “It demands our serious thought… and we’re still baffled by it.” (40) You can’t face infinite God in limited flesh without being mystified.

Rather than letting our differences divide us into camps of black and white, perhaps it’s a better thing to let them give colors and shades to our understanding, to see the thrum of life below the surface with a “baptized imagination.” We seek truth. Our metaphors break down. They bump us up against contradictions and paradox, ask us to believe God’s people are oaks of righteousness and withering grass. Still we go on, together catching fleeting glimpses and trying to describe what a grasshopper is.

Shaw describes faith as “a large, rambling house… added onto over the years.” What happens inside makes it remarkable:

“Inside the building lives a diverse community, an extended family of people variously occupied — cooking, cleaning, studying, conversing, teaching, giving advice,receiving advice, listening, rehearsing, resting, making love, dreaming, creating. They are young and old, male and female, single and married, widowed and divorced, inexperienced and mature, naive and wise. They are school children, parents, laborers, teachers, businesspeople, scholars, artists.

Moving among them, talking and working with them, is and ordinary-looking man; it is the Christ, the One who lends the house its personal warmth, its structure, its creative center, its vision, its reason for being.” (x)

Not a specific kind of church — not in stained glass, icons, fog machines, or a rented movie theater — but a community. And our imaginations unlock the rooms, let us wander into each other’s space where we are free to ask, “tell me a story.”

Where do you see your room in the “house of faith”? What have you learned from people in other rooms?

How does seeing Scripture as a story rather than a theology text alter your understanding?

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This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. If you’d like to read along, the schedule is as follows:

Last week: Intro, Chp 1-2
This week:  Chp 3-5
Sept 15: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Chp 8-10
Sept 29: Chp 11-12



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Graffiti Art and Repentance

Greener Trees Reads was born when a few friends, after attending Hutchmoot 2011, wanted to dig deeper into The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. We found that reading together helped us: 1) Read more carefully 2) View the text from different perspectives (therefore seeing them more fully) 3) Get to know one another along the way (an accidental, but wonderful, byproduct). This fall, we’ll be reading, discussing, and writing in response to Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You are cordially invited to join us. For those who won’t be reading along, the plan is to pluck one idea from each week’s reading to share with you. Please consider the question(s) posed and share your response – we have much to learn from each other.

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Week 1: Graffiti Art and Repentance

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, my husband and I took a trip to New York City. It had been far too long since I’d visited the Big Apple, and I couldn’t wait. At the top of my “to-do” list for the weekend were: two Broadway shows, an exhibit on Children’s literature at the NYC Public Library, and a long, unhurried stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the months prior, I had binged on books (and an occasional movie) about the life of Vincent Van Gogh and was giddy about spending some time with his work. It did not disappoint.

One afternoon, we had a few unscheduled hours before dinner. Since my husband had graciously allowed me to direct the agenda for the majority of our trip, I suggested that he decide what to do in that small slice of free time. After considering multiple options, he landed on visiting The Museum of the City of New York. Sounded great to me. Museum = art = culture. Yet upon arrival, I discovered that museum = graffiti. I paused, weighed my options, and muttered (internally), “I will humor him and endure.” I am a lover of art. Graffiti is an imitation at best.

After entering the museum, I glanced at the first exhibit – and promptly dismissed the “art and artists” represented. Silently, I was pining away for the unfortunate loss of the next few valuable hours. Yet as we meandered through the exhibits, something inside me shifted. My pace slowed. I became more curious and less dismissive. As I read the stories of the featured graffiti artists, as I looked closely at the detailed renderings in their sketchbooks, and as I stood under the massive sections of their intricate work, what I had deemed chaotic I saw as beautiful. The surging symphony of color and line played a melody I’d never heard before. Each display sang the unique song of its artist’s life and experience. In dismissing the graffiti art as less than “real art”, I had been dismissing an entire culture (and its expression) as less valid than my own.

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Less than an hour later, I left the museum having grown – if even just a bit – in compassion. If I could so unwittingly devalue an entire culture, then how frequently do I make the same mistake with individual people? I make assumptions. I dismiss. I devalue. All in the blink of an eye. A crash course on the history of graffiti art in New York softened my heart.

Makoto Fujimura talks about being willing to “stand under art – not over it.” If we’re willing to be curious, to be expectant – to come as a little child – when approaching art, we are given the divine privilege of tasting another’s experience of life. In turn, our hearts are stretched to grow in understanding, compassion, or gratefulness. We become more human.

Poetry, and any art, says something in a way that nothing else can, and that something that art says is so qualitatively different that it demands a radically different expression. Where linear, logical thinking may produce prose with a specific function – information or historical record or critical analysis or instruction – art selects and reflects on a small slice of human experience and lays it out there, a gift to anyone who is willing to savor it and enter into the artist’s experience even in a minimal way. . . It is my soul crying out to your soul: This is what I see and how I feel. Can you see it? Can you feel it too? ( p.4)

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When has a work of art (poetry, painting, music, dance – or even graffiti) impacted you?

How were you changed as a result?

– – – 

If you’d like to read with us, you can order Breath for Bones at the Rabbit Room. The reading schedule is as follows (but may possibly and will most probably shift):

Sept 1: Intro, Chp 1-2
Sept 8: Chp 3-5
Sept 15: Chp 6-7
Sept 22: Chp 8-10
Sept 29: Chp 11-12



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Grandma

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A few years ago at a little radio station in Mystic, Iowa.

We are burying my grandma today.

Friends have been so kind to offer words of comfort and support. Strangely, I’ve felt a twinge guilty to be on the receiving end of such emotional generosity. I’ve watched others endure a fierce anguish at the death of their loved ones. That hasn’t been the case for me. As I stood by my grandma’s bedside in her final hours, the primary feeling that flooded over me wasn’t grief – it was gratefulness.

We grew up 900 miles from my grandparents and were fortunate to see them once or twice a year. She was never part of my daily life, I can’t remember her babysitting us, and the longest period of time that we spent together would have been a week. We didn’t have deep, life-changing conversations and my children have only fleeting memories of her. Yet as I look back over the last four decades, I can see the significant impression that Grandma’s life has made upon my own – and in turn – on my family. When viewed as individual moments in time, our relationship looked like the close-up view of a Seurat painting – colorful, but lacking form and substance. I’m grateful that time has given me a larger perspective. Those individual dots of visits to Iowa and remembered birthdays and quilts made for babies were tiny brushstrokes of what became a masterpiece. Her life was a work of art in the truest sense – taking the raw materials of love for her Lord, her family, and all things creative – and transforming them into life-giving beauty.

Grandma’s life wasn’t easy. I don’t think she finished high school, she married young, and she and my grandpa endured the great depression on a coal-miner’s wage. They raised their four children in little more than a shack in a tiny town in Iowa. Yet they worked hard and dreamed of a better life, one where their children would thrive. And they did.

We remember Van Gogh for his bold use of color. Rembrandt, for his masterful use of light and shadow. Grandma’s life had distinct qualities that have marked her time on earth and those who knew her.

~ A quiet strength and steadfast faith. She was always a safe place for her grandchildren. No doubt, she prayed us into the Kingdom.

~ A home that welcomed all. And at all hours. When arriving after midnight on a trip from Tennessee to Iowa, she would stumble down the hall and greet us by sleepily asking, “Do you want some ice cream?” Every. Time. Candy dishes brimming with butterscotch , photo albums crammed with pictures of grandchildren (and the occasional newspaper clipping reporting that “Lem and Thelma Stolz had grandchildren in town visiting this week”), and walls covered in portraits that she had painted of her grandchildren, all declared that we were loved.

~ A love for all things creative. At 50 years old, she decided to learn to paint – because she wanted to paint her grandchildren. Within a year, she had won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for her work. Many years later, she learned to quilt. The embodiment of her warmth and creativity, she gave dozens of quilts to charity. Our home enjoys handmade quilts for holidays, each baby that’s been born, children’s rooms, and even baby dolls. Such heirlooms are a rare treasure. When I visited Grandma near her 90th birthday, she had recently given up cable television. “I just don’t understand those old people who sit around and watch television. I need the extra money for my crafts.” She painted and quilted until her final years. We are the grateful beneficiaries of her work and her spirit.

~ A grounded presence. She had the rare gift of being both practical and tender. When my grandfather died, grandma was beside herself. She had lived more than fifty years with one man – each life bleeding into the other. Shortly after his funeral, she sat at the kitchen table, memories and tears flowing. Then the tears stopped. “Well,” she said. “Now I can eat chicken. And I can go back to potluck at church.” Grandpa didn’t like chicken, and his declining health toward the end of his life made church attendance difficult. She loved him deeply. She grieved fully. But she chose to see the good in life as it was given to her.

~ A love for music. When my mother was young, she and Grandma had a spot on the local radio show. In homemade matching outfits, Grandma played the piano and they sang gospel songs together. Even in the past few years as her memory and eyesight failed her, the music she loved dearly did not. She couldn’t remember her children or grandchildren, yet she could sit at the piano and play beautifully.

My grandmother will be missed, but we are eternally grateful for her legacy of faith, creativity, steadfastness, and music.

We are burying my grandma today. But the melody of her beautiful life will continue to echo into future generations.

 

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The 90th birthday party.

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Grandma with her namesake (Caroline “Hamilton” – from Grandma’s lineage).



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Catching Up: Conferences, Cliffhangers, and a Movie Critic

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Lots of life happening at our house these days.

A friend recently asked me if she needed to re-subscribe to Greener Trees – she hadn’t received anything in her inbox for a while. I tried to log in to the blog’s administrative page to work on a few things and couldn’t remember my password. Apparently, it’s time for an update.

Here’s what I’ve been up to lately:

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A little over a year ago, I was honored to join a team of wonderful folks over at Story Warren. You can learn more about their mission here. I’m delighted to share that Story Warren’s inaugural conference, Inkwell, will be held in Charlotte on June 21. On that day, two of my favorite worlds will collide. To say that I’m excited is an understatement. The conference is sold out, but there are still tickets available to the Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame concert to be held later that evening. We are lucky ducks, indeed.

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NOAH

Last summer, Greener Trees Reads (online reading group) read Jeffery Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly together. In the fall, I was able to meet and chat with Overstreet during the wonderful weekend called Hutchmoot. We talked about the possibility of working on a future project together. Months later, the idea became reality. Here it is:

Once upon a time, two total strangers — one a mother and a teacher with a background in business; the other a writer, editor, and film critic — became friends after she invited him to join an online discussion of his book about film. They were both Christians. And they met at an arts-and-faith gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville. They both agreed that they wanted to work together on something someday. You can continue reading here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lookingcloser/2014/04/noah-2014-part-two-of-a-two-part-commentary/#ixzz331Sgw68s

This summer, we’ll be listening to and discussing the recordings from Hutchmoot. If you have an interest in the intersection of faith and art, you may consider purchasing the 17 hours of audio here. It will be well-worth your investment.

 * * *

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A simple assigned writing prompt surfaced this long-forgotten memory. We have much to learn from each other – far more than initially meets the eye. Over at Art House America:

Not much was said as we hiked up the trail. Words would have tarnished the moment. The Colorado mountains were doing their thing — offering the fresh taste of reality in a saccharine-laced world. The climb provided ample time to survey the landscape. I was overcome with the beauty, so thick I couldn’t swallow it all in one gulp. I had to take in little sips. You can continue reading here.

* * *

In March, David and I celebrated twenty years of marriage by taking a few days away in the Big Apple. It was a rare grown-up playdate – complete with Broadway shows, unbelievable food, and my first visit to the Met. I’ve binged on the life and works of Van Gogh this spring, so standing before Starry Night was a hi-light. We’re deeply grateful for twenty years of struggle, joy, friendship, community, and far more detours from the assumed path of life than we could have imagined.

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Perhaps the biggest news coming from our home is the newest addition – Little Lucy. It’s amazing how much joy this sweet little pup has brought into our home. She’s six months old and we are all smitten.

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Happy summer from our home to yours!

 



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Return of the Feechies

Apparently, my daughter has grown weary of waiting for me to compile a list of Books for Girls. Said hypothetical list’s predecessor, Books for Boys, has been floating around cyberspace for a while now. I’d always planned on pulling together a companion list, but it seems as though my girl is taking matters into her own hands. I recently discovered this tucked neatly between the pages of her book:

photo-43The second title listed is one of our family favorites (which also happens to appear on the Books for Boys list). We have given the Wilderking books as presents and frequently recommend them to friends who are looking for quality children’s literature. When the books went out of print, they became fairly expensive (the third book in the trilogy, The Way of the Wilderking, has been listed on eBay for up to $100). It’s a sad thing when tales of feechie folk have become too costly to acquire – but take heart. With spring comes hope.

I’m grateful to share with you that the Wilderking Trilogy will be back in print this April. If you preorder our copy before the end of next week, you’ll get yours in early March.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

~ You don’t know what a feechie is? Peruse the Feechie Film Festival.

~ You want to know what kind of practical instruction your children will receive? Here are a few things we learned from the books:

~ How can you reserve copies? Visit the Rabbit Room today. Then while you’re there, go ahead and order The Charlatan’s Boy.

* * *

Full disclosure: The author of the Wilderking books has previously demonstrated a disappointing prejudice against the fine city of Charlotte, NC. We’ve chosen to believe that his views are a result of misinformation rather than deficit of character. The love of good story covers a multitude…

 



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Looking Back: Books of 2013

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The kiddos last January at Makoto Fujimura’s Four Quartets exhibit.

As I look back at the adventures, mishaps, joys and trials of the past year, it seems fitting to recount the books that have gently adjusted my vision. Some books have been read and discussed in a group, while others I’ve enjoyed with my family or alone with a cup of hot tea. Here are a few books that left their mark on my life during 2013:

With the Reading Group
In 2011, a small group of folks came together (virtually) to read and discuss The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers. Greener Trees Reads was born. In the past few years, we’ve read and discussed several books, each of which has stretched, challenged, and inspired me in unique ways. These are the books that we read together in 2013:

Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet*
If you watch movies, read this book. If you’re a parent, read this book. If you want to better love your neighbor, read this book. It’s as much about posture of heart as it is about movie-going. As a result of reading Through a Screen Darkly, I’ve viewed not only movies, but also current events and the people in my life through a different lens. You can get a taste of the book and our group’s discussion of it here.

The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner
I’m an ardent supporter of Makoto Fujimura – both his art and his writing. Last year, our group read his book Refractions, and Mako was kind enough to join our discussion. At his suggestion, we read The Art of T.S. Eliot in preparation of the Four Quartets exhibit at Duke University. This book was a stretch (to say the least) for me, but it was successful in illuminating Eliot’s work as well as exercising literary muscles of mine that had previously been inactive. More on my stretching here.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger*
Shortly after Leif Enger was announced as the keynote speaker for Hutchmoot, I was asked to lead an online discussion of So Brave, Young, and Handsome over at the Rabbit Room. I was hesitant. My only experience of reading with a group had been limited to non-fiction. I had no idea where to start. But this book made the process easy. Enger is a master with words and subtext. I took pages of notes from So Brave, Young and Handsome and enjoyed hearing the insights of others. I emerged from our weeks of discussion reminded and hopeful. Redemption is a messy, beautiful business.

“A line only gets grace when it curves, you know.” Leif Enger (So Brave, Young and Handsome)

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon
I’m not sure how one book can simultaneously be about cooking, seeing the miracles in everyday life, and idolatry, but this one is. An entire chapter dedicated to the cutting of an onion is potentially life-altering, and I own a new whisk and two new knives as a result of my reading.

“Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of clichés. It takes playfulness to make poetry.” Robert Capon (Supper of the Lamb)

With the Kiddos

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This one took me by surprise. A story of friendship, character revealed in hardship, and the hope that creativity can offer. I almost didn’t make it through.  My painful experience of the first few chapters is chronicled here.

The Singing Tree and The Good Master by Kate Seredy
Seredy has quickly become one of our favorite authors. Hard to find in hardback, but worth the hunt.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
It was an honor and a privilege to read and discuss The Hiding Place with my children. A glimpse into our conversation and an explanation of why we still read aloud to with them here.

On My Own

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge
My last read for the year. If you’ve never read Goudge, this is a good place to start. I look forward to reading the remaining books of the Eliots of Damerosehay Trilogy in the upcoming months.

“Beauty and shabbiness are quite compatible. . . A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but it must be a costly and strong beauty, purchased at a high price of service or sacrifice, not skin-deep but bone-deep, if it is to be as desirable at the shabby end as it was at the sumptuous beginning.”  Elizabeth Goudge (The Bird in the Tree)

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson*
Last year, Notes from a Tilt-A-Whirl was significant in shifting the culture of our family (a bit more on that here). Death by Living had a similar impact. “Life is meant to be spent.” Those six words play out in a million everyday choices. I’m fairly certain that the recent decision to add a new member to our family can be traced back to seeds of ideas planted by Wilson. A book can be a dangerous (and glorious) thing.

“When Job lifted his face to the Storm, when he asked and was answered, he learned that he was very small. He learned that his life was a story. He spoke with the Author, and learned that the genre had not been an accident. God tells stories that make Sunday school teachers sweat and mothers write their children permission slips excusing them from encountering reality.” N.D. Wilson (Death by Living)

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger*
For years, I’d heard friends proclaim that Peace Like a River was their favorite book. A few come close to swooning when they speak of it – for good reason. Enger weaves an endearing tail of adventure, family tragedy, and healing, with the bright thread of hope running throughout.

“We see a newborn moth unwrapping itself and announce, Look, children, a miracle! But let an irreversible wound be knit back to seamlessness? We won’t even see it, though we look at it every day.” Leif Enger (Peace Like a River)

Fiddler’s Green by A.S. Peterson*

The sequel to The Fiddler’s Gun. If you’re looking for a meaningful, rich, story that is full of adventure, Peterson’s books are not to be missed.

Lilith by George MacDonald
I read this book by sheer will. It’s been a long time since I started a book and so desperately wanted to quit. But I love MacDonald’s work and decided to trust the author more than my own judgement. I trudged through the first 3/4 of the book, wavering between being bored and wondering if I just wasn’t smart enough to “get” it. The last 1/4 was more than worth the work. I’ll read this one again. And perhaps again.

The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse by Michael Gungor
This is the year I became a fan of Gungor‘s music. Although this book was written with “creatives” in mind, it has significant insight to offer to everyone. After all, we are all “creatives” in some capacity.

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
I’ve heard quotes taken from The Weight of Glory for years. Now I know why. Lewis never disappoints.

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* I’ve had the very good fortune to meet the authors of several of the books listed at a gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville, Tennessee. This year, the sessions of these authors as well as a number of additional writers, musicians, and generally swell people were recorded, and you can purchase the 17 hours of audio here.

May your 2014 be filled with beauty, friendship, and many a good book!

 

 

 

 

 



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Brokenhearted

I’m not really a dog person.

A little over a year ago, we lost our miniature dachshund of fifteen years. Many words could have described her – yappy, longish, feisty, and naughty are among them. But the word that rises to the top of my caricature list would be “loyal.” She was always there – through holidays, sickness, three moves, and all the drama that comes with a family of seven. She sniffed the tiny toes of three new babies. She scuffled around (and under) our feet as we planned two college graduations and a wedding. Maggie loved us well.

Yet as the years rolled by, the demands on my time and the level of my expendable energy were at odds with one another. My heart, which had once been smitten with our little puppy, grew indifferent. “High maintenance” was a term that she earned honestly, and the years were siphoning off my ability to keep up with her needs. I grew frustrated with the cost, upkeep, and energy required of me. I’m sad to confess that in the last months of her life, I was anticipating the relief that would inevitably accompany her passing. When Maggie’s last days actually arrived, I was surprised by the sadness that overtook me. I couldn’t make it through the door of the vet to tell her “goodbye” without dissolving into tears. But the temporary wave of emotion and nostalgia didn’t penetrate my pragmatic resolve. We’re done with dogs. At least for a very, very long time.

With the pang of grief added to the long list of “why we wouldn’t have another pet anytime soon” the kids eventually stopped asking. We didn’t talk about it. I could find no logical reason to sign up for all of the work and inconvenience (and inevitable heartache) that a new dog would bring. It wasn’t practical.

Left alone to the laws of entropy, even the strongest surge of affection deteriorates over time. With our pets, our spouses, our friendships. It’s a slow, steady death.

Initially, we feel deeply – so deeply that love stretches the heart beyond capacity creating an achy, visceral joy. Over time, practicality and selfishness prick tiny holes, each slowly draining drops of life. As joy trickles out like air from a deflating balloon, the heart hardly notices. It regains control. It’s protected from pain. It becomes resentful. Even numb.

Yet unsolicited and without warning, the Giver of all Life steps in. With great compassion, He disrupts the status-quo. He offers an alternative to the slow, steady death of hope that accompanies self-protection and control. His gentle whisper extends an invitation. I have been given a choice. The cost – be willing to love, to hurt, to be inconvenienced, to set aside my own agenda. The gain – grace infused. The heart lives and loves and grows once more.

This Advent season, it happened again. The Giver of Good Gifts is changing the landscape of our family by changing the landscape of my heart. Only days after I had explained (yet again) why we wouldn’t be adding to our family, I found the words “I think it’s time” tumbling out of my mouth, landing squarely on my unsuspecting husband. Like a flipped light switch illuminates and drives out shadows of doubt, the decision brought an immediate flood of joy and strange relief. This is Love.

Many times in the past few weeks, I’ve watched my children anticipate Christmas and I’ve smiled. The Father has used our unexpected surprise to teach me much about Himself. Watching my children’s everyday struggles, frustrations, and disappointments, I’ve frequently found myself thinking, “If they only knew what was coming.” They anticipate, but their imaginations fall short of the greater reality that awaits them. A reality snuggled safely in a tiny basket under our tree.

Only my daughter dared to carry the torch of hope for a puppy. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, the standard reply was “A puppy. But I know we won’t get that, so a guinea pig. But we probably won’t get that, so I hope I at least I get a Beta Fish.” Hedging is safer than longing. Hope is a risky proposition.

This Christmas marks one of many small miracles in the story of our family. Much to my own great surprise, my heart has been broken wide open once again.

And I’m deeply, deeply grateful.

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Lucy – 2 weeks

 “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis

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Merry Christmas from our home to yours!

 

 

 



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Bookish Christmas Gifts

As you’re preparing for Christmas, consider gifts that will encourage the love of story. Here are a few ideas:

Homemade Book Mark
When my children were very young, they created marbled and homemade (recycled) paper in art class. The colors and textures were beautiful. I didn’t want to throw the papers away, so I cut the them into 2″ strips, had the children sign and date the backs, then laminated each strip. From just a few sheets of paper, we were able to make several gifts for teachers, family members, and close friends.

Another option is to create bookmarks from photos – of family (individual or group), places you’ve visited through the year, Christmas’s past, favorite quotes or verses, etc. Here’s one my husband (yep) made for me a few years ago:

homemade book mark

Personalized Book Plate
These make excellent baby gifts, Christmas gifts, and birthday gifts. We reserve the usage of book plates for special books – those received as presents, those marking special occasions, or those that become favorites of the child. Personalized book plates say, “This book is important. It is meaningful to me.” There are countless stores from which you can order book plates (including virtually any place that sells personalized stickers). Although not the least expensive option available, this online store has a beautiful selection. For many folks (sadly, not me), it would be easy to create bookplates using an online template. (Embossers are also nice to have, although not ideal for children. I stumbled upon a nice selection of embossers here.)

book plate

“A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” Charles Lamb

Subscription to Lamplighter Book Club
This would be an ideal present idea to suggest to grandparents. The Lamplighter Books are beautifully-bound treasures. More about Lamplighter here.

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“The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” Abraham Lincoln

Start a Collection
There’s something special about owning a “family” of books. One collection that we’ve enjoyed is the Illustrated Junior Library. Several of these beautifully illustrated books are easily found in bookstores. Older titles are out of print, yet still available at the occasional book sale or online. Whenever we find a used bookstore, my children keep an eye out for a member of the collection’s family. Searching a specific and easily recognizable book helps to keep those who are too young to hunt for specific authors (or are less-than-excited about book shopping) occupied. I hope to read through all of the titles in set before the youngest leaves home. Choose a collection that has beautiful illustrations and easy-to-read print (lots of white around the border of the text). Add a new book each Christmas.

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“The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil.” William Gladstone

Book Lover’s Journal
A book journal is great place to record books that have been read, favorite quotes, and insights gained. It’s a literary diary of sorts, not only documenting data about books that have been read, but also drawing the heart of the reader out to capture responses on paper. I wish that I’d started one of these years ago.

book lover's journal

Stories on CD
As much as I love reading aloud with my family, I’ve grown increasingly grateful for good audiobooks. When my children were very young, CDs by Jim Weiss (Greathall Productions), Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre, and Lamplighter Theater were staples at rest time and on family trips. Audiobooks are a great introduction to books that may be a bit out of reach for children to alone, and they foster a growing love of story. We recently invested in a family membership to Audible, which has already more than paid for itself.

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Hardback of favorite book (children’s book for teenagers/adults)
Don’t feel like you can’t buy a book for someone because they’ve already read it. Quite the opposite. Receiving a hardback book is an affirmation of its importance and an invitation to read it again (and again). Our eldest son had read Lord of the Rings several times in his teenage years, but had never owned a hardback copy. That situation was remedied in he early adulthood when we gave him a boxed set. If you’re looking for a hard-to-find book that is not longer in print, try addall.com.

lord of the rings

 “Some day, you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.” C.S. Lewis

Christmas Books
I shared some of our favorite Christmas books here (2011) and here (2012).

A few more I’ve added since last year:

On that Night by Elizabeth Yates

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The Conscience Pudding by Edith Nesbit

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The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeline L’Engle

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A Walk One Winter Night by Al Andrews

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Do you have any bookish gift ideas you’d be willing to share? 



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Mini-Me

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It’s a strange phenomenon – to have a child who bears your resemblance. My son looks just like his dad. He walks with the same posture and cadence. Their childhood photographs are virtually indistinguishable. The origin of my daughter’s knack for messiness and love of all things creative and comfortable isn’t a mystery. There’s a certain fulfillment that comes with seeing a smaller version of ourselves forging new territory in the world. In it’s purest form, the fulfillment reflects the heart of our Maker, who created His children in His own image. It was very good.

But as the story unfolds, the simple enjoyment of our children’s image-bearing has a dark side. One that creeps up in slight shadows, every-so-stealthily eclipsing the light. These smaller humans are trained to reflect our political postures, our preferences in literature, music, sports teams and social causes. We’re proud of our “Mini-Me”s. They’ve turned out well, of course, if they’ve turned out like us.

Having been thoroughly indoctrinated since birth, my children choose Starbucks as their favored supplier of refreshment. They prefer signed, hardback books to the lesser mass-produced paperback versions. Their artistic, movie-going, and musical palates are being refined daily. While listening to the (repeating) stream of popular songs on the radio, one of my children posed the (reasonable) question, “Why isn’t Ben Shive’s music played on our radio station?” To which his brother promptly responded, “The difference between Ben Shive and a lot of the music on the radio is like the difference between Tolkien and Percy Jackson.” They paused for a moment of somber reflection – perhaps for those starved souls who don’t know the difference. My children are becoming increasingly insightful – and opinionated. I’m grateful. I’m proud. Mission succeeded. Until I reconsider the mission. Until I return to the original mandate.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

~ Even creators of mediocre books and cheesy teen-angst music?

~ Even politicians who view things from a radically different viewpoint from my own?

~ Even pop-culture icons who make millions from our lust for celebrity?

~ Even friends who make radically different choices in how they parent, spend their money, deal with disappointment, and (fill your soap opera box of choice in here)?

“In humility, value others above yourselves.”

Am I modeling humility for my children? Are they learning to look for the dignity in others, regardless of their differences of opinions? Are their hearts being trained toward compassion and curiosity rather than judgment and pride?

Too often, my parenting is reflective of my own image rather than the image of the Father. My family becomes an unintentional empire through which I propagate my cause. The task seems insurmountable – to lead young ones toward the light, when my own sight is so skewed.

Yet the perfect parent steps in. He reminds us that He will complete the good works He has begun. That He will gently lead those who have young. That He will redeem my arrogant heart, my selfish motives, and my distorted view of myself.

It is in my brokenness that He does his best work.

As I listen to my children echo my opinions and preferences, my hope is that I will experience less satisfaction and more conviction. There, in the messiness of my own heart, the Potter molds and shapes me toward the image of His Son. Oddly, it is often through my inadequacy, rather than my competency, that my children catch a glimpse of their Father and an understanding of His goodness. It is at the pivotal point of humility and dependence that we begin to see ourselves in correct relationship with our Maker.

And it is very good.

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“Mini-Me”s in training.

 



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The Art of Darkness

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Look at the picture.

What do you see?

My eye is drawn first to the two profiles facing each other.

I could stop there and would be correct in my description. Partially.

But if I’m willing to take a step back, look away, and view the picture with fresh eyes, I’ll gain a different perspective. I’ll see more. While the darkness reveals the profiles, the negative space reveals an urn. The darkness exposes the white paper that had always been there.

~ Rembrandt used darkness to draw the viewer’s eye to the light.
~ Haydn used bold dynamics in  Symphony 94 (his “big surprise”) to capture the listener’s attention for the rest of the (much quieter) piece.
~ And the darkness found movies can give us a new perspective on the light that is, and always has been, present in the world.

Sometimes looking into the darkness can help us see the light.

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Welcome to our discussion of Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet. Feel free to join in the discussion, even if you’re not reading along. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Week 4 – Art of Darkness
Movie of the Week – Apocalypse Now

I’m grateful for the experience of Taxi Driver, as disturbing as it is. It reminds me of what others are experiencing outside of my daily routine. For many of these individuals, a kind word, a conversation, or a gift could come as a bright and guiding light in a time of crisis. – p. 246

1. How can some movies, which are disturbing and hard to watch, result in the viewer having a softened heart? Have you ever had that experience?

 

They’re (people pedaling various modes of escapism) after us like paparazzi to celebrities – salespeople eager to sell us redemption at a reasonable price. In seeking satisfaction along these misguided paths, we ensure that we, as a culture, remain dissatisfied. Pursuing happiness, we try to steer clear of anything difficult or inconvenient, convinced that there are shortcuts to joy. As a result, we end up unhappy, disconnected, weak, and lonely – p. 254

Clearly, the heart is the problem. Both Apocalypse Now and Titanic show ambitious human endeavors that lead to catastrophic failure. – p.286

When Bruce’s  (from Bruce Almighty) definition of love is self-referential – seizing the freedom to do what pleases him – he is not capable of finding or receiving love. Some freedoms are only accessible through the denial of ego, along the humbling path of service. Freedom to follow one’s baser appetites is not freedom of all, but slavery. – p.290

2. Many movies focus on characters who live beyond boundaries, who have achieved “the American dream”, and who indulge in their hearts’ desires. At first glance, these films could seem dangerous, drawing us deeper into worldliness and depravity. How could they, like the black and white picture above, result in our seeing the light more clearly?

 

I suspect that these films (Alien, The Thing, The Shining) resonate not merely because they’re outrageous but also because we know they are illustrations of the truth. Evil does exist as a force outside of us, seeking to lure us into error. That leaves us to determine if we are ultimately helpless, or if there might be a power greater than evil seeking to help us escape the monsters. – p.273

Code Unknown (and other similar movies) could be, for some viewers, nothing more than an 118-minute downer. But the watchful may find glimmers of hope. And perhaps we can find understanding by noting what is absent from these confused lives. – p.264

If a heart opens to reveal ugliness and corruption and we respond by recoiling and turning away, we also turn away from the possibility of redemption. – p.267

3. What do you make of Overstreet’s thoughts on the depiction of evil in movies, and of the possible resulting redemption?

 

4. When you think of darkness in movies (in a character’s heart, a society, situation, etc.), what movie comes to mind? What redemption could come from watching that particular film?

 

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If you’d like to join us or to catch up on the conversation:
Introduction/Schedule
Week 1 – How We Watch
Week 2 – Saving the World
Week 3 – Fools and Jokers
Intermission – Raising Arizona: An Appreciation

 

 

 



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