Looking Back with Thanksgiving…

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Last night, my husband made our Thanksgiving Tree.  It is looking a little bare at the moment, but as this Thanksgiving week progresses, it will be filled with reminders of those things we are thankful for.   Psalm 107 tells us repeatedly to “…thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man.”  I love that the Thanksgiving holiday calls us to slow down and consider the goodness of God in the past.  I also love that right after Thanksgiving comes the season of Advent, in which we look ahead with expectation and hope for the good that God will do in the future.  It’s rather fitting, isn’t it?

A few of the ways that I have experienced the steadfast love of the Lord in this past year:

  • After many years as nomads, God has given us a place to set down roots.
  • For opportunities for growth in each member of our family – individually and together.
  • All three of my children have now been baptized, and we share in His grace together.
  • Amazing women – those who are part of my local ‘real life’ and those who live in my phone because they live too far away – who I call my friends.   They make my life better.
  • Music, and the opportunity to make it with others.
  • The change of seasons.
  • The little things that just make life a little sweeter: a new book in the mail, a lit candle, the first sip of coffee in the morning, tea on a brisk afternoon, a glass of wine in the company of good friends.  And chocolate.  Always chocolate.
  • For a church family that loves us like real family.
  • The opportunity to receive Communion every. single. Sunday.  Grace upon Grace.

Happiest of Thanksgivings, my friends.

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The Bookstack: Thanksgiving Break Edition

After an (at times) frantically busy fall, Thanskgiving break is finally upon us.   We are not planning to travel, nor are we hosting any company this year…so we are looking forward to a quiet, low-key, relaxing week.  Which means some reading time for Mama.  Here’s what I’m hoping to dip into in the coming week:

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On the bottom of the stack is a brand new release from James KA Smith, Awaiting the King.  Smith has a unique way of viewing the habits of our lives and culture as ‘liturgies’ that form us for good or ill.  In this volume, he applies that idea to the public arena, drawing largely on ideas from Augustine’s City of God… or so I gather from the blurbs and reviews that prompted me to add it to my Amazon cart. I have not cracked into it yet, but am excited that it happened to turn up on my doorstep just before the beginning of a break week when I may actually have time to do so.

Next up is Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions.  This is a lovely book of essays reflecting on art and beauty and faith in a broken world.  Beautiful and thought-provoking.

And on the top?  Yeah, a couple of Agatha Christie mysteries from the library.  Just for fun.  Because Sometimes Mama’s Brain Needs a Little Rest.

Are you hoping to slip in any reading over your Thanksgiving Break?  Drop me a comment and share!

Ivan D.

This year has been the year that I *finally* dipped my feet into some Russian literature. I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to read a Russian novel, but I’ve always been just a wee bit scared to actually do it. I’ve played it safe with some of the shorter ones thus far, although Anna Karenina is waiting on my shelf for the next time I’m ready to tackle an epic. I’m so glad to have finally taken the plunge.

Given that I’ve read all of two very short Russian novels, I don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination.   However, based on my limited experience, I get why Russian novels get the reputation of being depressing. The first one I read was about the slow death of the main character from a mysterious disease, and the realization of how he has wasted his life. (That was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich.) The second was about life in a Soviet prison camp (Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Hardly cheery topics. And yet…there is something about these that got under my skin, that stuck with me in a way that a feel-good novel wouldn’t.   I’ve been thinking about why that is.

One theory struck me while I was reading Ivan Denisovich.   The whole novel (about 160 pages or so) pretty much lives up to the title: it describes one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, inmate in a Soviet prison camp. It begins in the morning when he and his company awaken to be inspected by guards before a meager breakfast and long day’s work in the freezing cold and ends once they have been rounded up, counted and re-counted, fed a meager supper, and collapse into bed in exhaustion. Every aspect of their lives is controlled – there is no moment truly their own. You see the inner-workings of the camp – the little connivings here and there to get an extra bit of bread or smuggle in a bit of razor blade to use as a knife. You are cold with them. You are hungry with them. You experience a bit of their despair.   This is a descriptive novel, not a particularly action-packed, plot-driven one. And those descriptions: that’s where the power lies. This novel is a masterful example of the use of the concrete particular in order to convey the abstract. And *that* – using the concrete to convey the abstract? That is the essence of good storytelling.

I’m wondering too if this idea of the concrete particular being more powerful than the abstract in writing and storytelling somehow expands into real life too. It’s easy to jump on board with a big-picture cause…an abstract cause. Say, for example, feeding the hungry.   But what matters more? What makes a difference? Is it throwing your all behind the abstract cause of feeding the hungry? Donating money to the cause? Advocating for it on Facebook? Or is it actually doing something? Actually, physically, tangibly offering a meal to someone in need? A neighbor? A child? Madeleine L’Engle says this in her essay “Whispers”:

“…if I cannot see the hungry people I pass each day, if I do not smile at the dour man, if I do not feed the stranger who comes to my door, or give a glass of cool water to the thirsty child, then I cannot see the starvation of people in India or South America. Perhaps if I see pictures on the news or in the papers of victims of earthquake, flood, drought, I will write a small check for the cause of world hunger, and I may even refrain from meat on Wednesdays; but as long as I am responding to a cause it will not affect my entire life, my very breathing. It is only when I see hunger or thirst in one human being, it is only when I see discrimination and injustice in all its horrendous particularity as I walk along Broadway, that my very life can be changed.” (The Irrational Season, p. 139).

The latter is harder in some ways, and certainly less glamourous.   Especially if the hungry person in front of you is a screaming toddler.   And yet…it is in that act, small as it may be that change happens – both in the circumstance of the hungry person, and in the heart of the person who takes action.

Life doesn’t happen in the abstract, it happens in the concrete moments.   In Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn gives us the straight-up, concrete details of life in a Soviet prison camp. And in so doing, he takes us there, and touches our hearts…and maybe, just maybe moves us to action.

Leaving the Nest

Two years ago, I spent the summer staring at our apartment wall and making regular visits to a counselor’s office. Much the weariness I was experiencing at that time stemmed from fear: fear of opening up my heart and getting hurt yet again, fear of failure, fear of what people would think if I didn’t share their opinions or meet their expectations – and perhaps most of all fear of God’s anger and disappointment if I didn’t meet His expectations.   That fear colored nearly all of my thoughts and all of my choices and had forced me to retreat into a dark little corner – figuratively most of the time, but on occasion literally too.

One day, my counselor gave me a word picture – one that has stuck with me ever since.   “You’re like a little baby bird, peering over the edge of the nest….maybe being brave enough to hop up on the edge, but then retreating again. You’re too afraid to leave the nest and actually fly.”

She was right.   Very right.

Thanks be to God, I’ve made some forays out of the nest since that time.   It’s hard to continue to live in fear of God’s anger and disappointment when every single week one receives a tangible experience of His grace at the Communion Table.   As my heart has softened to His grace, I’ve been able to let go of some of those other fears.   The more confident I’ve become in who I am in Christ, the less concerned I’ve been with what others think of me and the more willing I’ve been to open my heart to others even though that carries with it the risk of pain.   I’ve come a long way in these past two years.

It’s tempting to think that just because I’ve come a long way, that I’ve somehow arrived.   This summer, I realized that I haven’t really.   In the space of only a week, I was told by three different people about three completely different things that “They could see that I had what it took to do ____” but that “I lacked confidence.”   By the time I heard those words for the third time, I realized that I was the trembling baby bird back in the nest again.   The fears are different this time, but the theme is the same.

I could let those fears stop me from acting on some of the opportunities that have come my way this fall.   I have a very long past history of talking myself out of doing things that I am afraid to do with very logical, reasonable-sounding reasons.   I’m pretty good at it, actually, after all the practice I’ve had over the years.   The nest is mighty comfortable, ya know?

I may be a little baby bird, trembling as I peer over the edge of nest.   But here’s the thing. I need not be afraid to leave the nest because I don’t leave it alone. The Grace that has been sufficient to bring me this far will go with me again as I step over the edge.

Call and Response

I read Psalm 42 the other day, for no other reason than it was the suggested reading in my devotional that morning.   It’s such a familiar Psalm – “As the deer panteth for the water…” – you’ve heard it, read it, sung it many times too, I’m sure.

It’s so easy to gloss over those things that are over-familiar.

And yet, even though this Psalm is so very familiar, something new jumped off the page to me this time.

It’s a call-and-response.   The Psalmist calls out to God:

IMG_20170715_153756444My tears are my food…

Why are you cast down, oh my soul?

Why have you forgotten me?

Why do I go mourning?

And the response is remembrance of God’s past faithfulness and rock solid hope that what He has done before He will do again:

These things I remember: the throng of procession, glad shouts, songs of praise, multitudes keeping festival…

Hope in God – I will again praise Him – My salvation and My God

Therefore, I remember You…The Lord commands His steadfast love…

I say to God my rock…

I love that the Psalms show us how to mourn and lament. It is okay to cry out to God – to wail and to question and to mourn. It isn’t necessarily more spiritual to just stuff those questions and feelings.

Why do people I love have to move away?

Why is it that fathers and mothers of young children die in horrible tragedies like cancer or car accidents?

Why do some pregnancies go according to plan, and others end in miscarriages or extended NICU stays or other complications?

Why one natural disaster after another after another?

The thing is, though, that you can’t stop there. You can ask the questions…but then you need to listen to the answers.

These things I remember: You placed our feet in a broad room, You provide faithfully for all that we need and then a little more, You poured Your grace abundantly in the darkest night of my soul.

I Hope in You – I praise You – I remember You…

You are my salvation and my God.

And once you’ve remembered, You move forward, trusting that He CAN and WILL do again what He has done before:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him; my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:11, ESV).

The Unexpected Grace of Chicken Pox

On Pentecost Sunday, our pastor preached on the topic of God being a God of surprises. At Pentecost, He did the last thing anyone expected.   But that’s just how He operates – back in those early days of the church and now in our twenty-first century lives.   He left us with the challenge: are we willing to be surprised by the Spirit?

On Monday, my son broke out in a rash.   Chicken pox.

So long, first week of summer break plans. No trip to the science museum. No afternoons at the pool. No birthday party with friends.

Granted, the kids took this in better stride than I did. We were cooped up for the week, but I was nice and let them watch more TV than their usual almost-none, so they were happy.   I, on the other hand, spent the week feeling resentful and sorry for myself.   I was jealous of all the people ‘out there’ who were doing all the lovely and fun things that we couldn’t be doing that week while we were under quarantine.

This spring, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve ever read a Flannery O’Connor story, you know that they tend to take unexpected, sometimes violent, twists along the way – but in those moments, Truth is revealed.   The same principle holds true in life: the truth of who a person really is revealed in extreme circumstances. Just when you think you have life all figured out, something happens and the mask falls away: actually, you don’t.   Sometimes, it’s hard to realize the truth.   But alongside the truth, comes an opportunity for grace – unexpectedly, in the moment you least expected to find it.

I like that idea in the abstract. But in reality? Where is the grace in chicken pox over summer break? I couldn’t see any kind of silver lining there. But maybe that’s because grace isn’t always happy, warm, and fuzzy. (It pretty much never is in an O’Connor story!) Sometimes grace is dark and violent.

The unexpected grace of chicken pox was realizing that I have not arrived – indeed, I am far from it. There is a lot of ugliness hiding in the corners of my heart: anger, selfishness, jealousy. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to stay hidden there. Chicken pox brought that ugliness to light so that I could repent and be forgiven.

If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

The Bookstack: I’m Tentatively Hopeful Fall Has Arrived Edition

It doesn’t take long for anyone to realize that I am a Book Person.   And I always love finding out what others are reading. And Literature *is* one of the taglines for this space.

 Given all of that…. I thought it would be fun to have a semi-regular feature in which I share what is currently on *my* bookstack….and in return I’d love for you to leave me a comment and share what is on *your* bookstack.

Here’s what I’ve got on this (finally) cool-ish, fall-ish weekend:

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Those top two books, AW Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy and NT Wright’s Acts for Everyone are both books I am reading with groups at church. We are going through the Tozer book in our adult Sunday School class and Acts in our women’s Bible Study. Both have been very insightful and have inspired good thoughts and discussions.

Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, in the middle of the stack, is my current fiction pick. It was a little slow getting started, but is picking up now. I am enjoying it, but don’t know that I’d classify it as a must read.

Those bottom two are my deep, rich, slow-simmer books….and I am nearing the end of both of them.   Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is pretty much as it sounds – it is basically an introductory survey of some of the key streams of Christian thought as developed by the church fathers in the early years of Christian history. It is highly readable and absolutely fascinating.   One of the most fascinating things about it is how well it plays with the bottom book on that pile: David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility. Norms is pretty much the standard book on Classical Education. It is not-so-easy to read and I have been reading it in fits and starts since last December.   What does classical education have to do with early church history, you might ask? Just about everything, it turns out. I just got to the part in Norms where Hicks points out that the pagan classical ideal of the Greeks and Romans can only be fully realized when we look to Christ as our source and end and strength – that we cannot truly develop wisdom and virtue apart from Him. Wilken, in his chapter on the development of Christian ethics said almost exactly the same thing. This is only the most recent of many parallels noted between the ideas in these two books. I love it so much when I read about ideas that resonate with me, and then see those very same ideas jump out at me in unexpected places.

Your turn now! I’d love to know what books you are reading and ideas you are contemplating this weekend. Please drop me a comment and let me know.

Faithfully Ordinary

Have you read George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch?   It traces the life of an idealistic young woman named Dorothea who wants to do something ‘big’ to leave a mark on the world. All her misguided attempts to do so are thwarted. (Also, given that she is a young woman in 1820’s small town England, her options are fairly limited.)   But along the way, she chooses to learn and grow from her experiences, and Eliot concludes the novel with these words:

“Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Dorothea’s greatest impact came through the small, almost imperceptible acts of an ordinary life, lived faithfully and well.

I was annoyed with Dorothea’s character in the early chapters of the book, and really wasn’t sure I wanted to spend nearly 800 pages with a goody-two-shoes. But she grew on me as we went along. By the time I reached the conclusion, I realized why I had such an aversion to Dorothea-at-the-beginning.

Change the details of the setting, and the younger Dorothea could have been a younger me.

Once upon a time, I had great aspirations to doing something Big and Visible and Good in the world, and I set out to do so, accompanied by a Pride that looked down on those around me doing less Spiritual and Important things. I saw myself in young Dorothea, and it made me squirm.

But just as Dorothea learns and grows, albeit the hard way, so have I. For me, that involved a pretty hard crash-and-burn experience, but on the other side of that crash was grace – grace that perhaps I would not have been ready to receive under more positive circumstances.   George Eliot penned the conclusion to her novel nearly 150 years ago, but she may as well have written it for me.

Sometimes the greatest leap of faith can be as simple as getting up in the morning, speaking kindly to the child who just made a mess of milk and cereal all over the kitchen, not yelling up the stairs to *just stop it already* to the child playing their original ‘composition’ on the piano for the thirty-seventh time and saying yes to the little one begging for just one more read-aloud story. I may never see the impact of those small acts. But is that the point? In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul tells us that “[he] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

It is not up to me to bring the growth. It is my job to plant and to water.

It is not my responsibility to change the world.   But what I can do is faithfully attend to each task that God places before me, no matter how small, and trust that He can use even the most ordinary of lives for His purposes.

And So…It Begins

Apparently, I can’t quit blogging.

Even when I try.

So. Here we are, again.

Although this time, we are starting with something Completely New.

For a number of years, I blogged fairly regularly at Snowfall Academy. That began as a record of our homeschooling journey way back when and developed into a homeschooling advice blog, with some ponderings on literature and educational philosophy thrown in.   In recent years, I sort of petered out….and then quit completely. This past year, I came close to some pretty serious homeschooling burnout. The last thing I wanted to do when I had a spare moment was sit down and write about homeschooling. So, I didn’t.

Instead – I read. And not just books we were planning to use for school.   I read literature that I’ve always wanted to read – finally, a Russian novel! And Flannery O’ Connor! And Middlemarch! I read Harry Potter and fluff books that I checked out from the library. I asked my pastor for a list of recommended theological reading, and have been working through that list. I spent time with old friends and made a couple new ones.   I went to women’s Bible study and met with a prayer partner.  I got my nose pierced. (Really! ) I took an extra-long summer break and made a point to try and enjoy my children and remind myself that they are people and not projects. I planted a garden. I took a writing class that stretched me beyond my comfort zone. I got brave and asked our music pastor about singing with the worship team at church: I have not sung in public since I was in college. I’m not going to tell you how old I am, but I am old enough that college was a long time ago.

And all of a sudden…I found myself wanting to write again.   But not about homeschooling.

And so, here we are in this fresh and clean space.   And in this fresh space, I hope to write from the overflow of what I am thinking, reading, and living – a mish-mash of liturgy and theology and literature and whatever else has caught my fancy at the moment and how all of those things intersect with a busy life of Mothering and Teaching and Homemaking and Wife-ing (is that a word?) and Friend-ing and Serving.   I want to write about the things that are encouraging me or fascinating me or challenging me. I want to write the things that I want to read – the things that will send me back into my real-life refreshed and with a clear perspective on the work God has given me to do.

And I am inviting you to join me.   Whether you are a homeschooling Mama like me or whether your daily vocation is something completely different, I hope you will find some food for thought or a bit of encouragement here.

Are you coming?