My Favorite Kind of Story

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Two years ago, I wrote the following review of a book written by a friend of mine named Shawn Smucker. I loved it then and even helped to kick-start his self-publishing journey. Now, a major publishing house has brought out a new edition, with a stunning new cover, but the same wondrous story. It’s a keeper and a repeater, friends, and I encourage you to order yourself a copy — and get one for a friend, while you’re at it!

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It all started with a tree, didn’t it? And that theme of trees winds its way throughout scripture and throughout our lives, unfolding in myriad ways — as metaphor, sustenance, shade, comfort, even horror. The tree.

Shawn Smucker has woven a fantastic and beautiful story about a particular tree, a re-imagining of the story of the tree of life. The story begins unpretentiously, maybe even a little slowly, but if you’ll settle in, let the beauty of his words flow in and around you, I will guarantee you that you’ll be hooked.

Hooked, I tell you!

This is masterful story-telling — intriguing idea, fascinating characters, great conflict and an empathetic look at how very difficult it is for us to lose someone we love. This is, in many ways, a story about death. But do not be deceived: the book is definitely not a downer. It’s a grab-you-by-the-throat, make-you-think-as-well-as-feel, turn-our-ordinary-ideas-on-their-heads kind of book and I highly recommend it to you. Highly.

Samuel is both an old man and a 12 year old boy in this story, an old man looking back at a pivotal summer in his life. A hot, drippy, menacing summer in the valley between two mountain ranges in central Pennsylvania. He has a good friend, a girl named Abra (which happens to be the name of one of Smucker’s daughters, as Samuel is the name of one of his sons). And there is a mysterious neighbor, an even more mysterious stranger, a grieving father, and the memories of a beautiful and loving mom. There is also a carnival, three very strange old women and an antique store, to say nothing of thunder and lightning and ancient, broken trees here and there.

And there is a search here, too, a search that reveals the true hero of this piece. There is also an epic battle between good and evil, and like all good fantasies, some dang good, nail-biting, cliff-hanging scenes sprinkled throughout.

I LOVED this book. And there is just a hint, at the very end, that there might be more of them in the future. Oh, glory!

Get thee to a bookstore or over to Amazon and order this one ASAP. And carve out some weekend time to devour it. Because I’m here to tell you – it’s a tough one to put down!

Some Fine Books on Marriage — a Book(s) Review

Three of them, to be exact — each one unique, each one valuable for different reasons. One is a daily devotional guide that provides thoughtful and humorous reflections on the realities of married life, one is a memoir about a difficult marriage, one that ultimately did not hold together, and one is a lovely apology for marriage and fidelity in an age when neither is of high value to the larger culture.

First up, “Love at First Fight,” by Dena and Carey Dyer. A disclaimer here — Dena is a dearly loved friend of mine and member of an ongoing Facebook small group that has prayed faithfully for one another for over four years, so I am a tad prejudiced. She and her husband are both talented singers, entertainers and writers and their book displays that talent beautifully (except for the singing – though a search of YouTube yields golden examples of that, as well!). Designed to be read by couples, this is a thoughtful and well-written daily guide to the ins and outs of living side-by-side with another human person, one to whom you’ve spoken words of commitment in a public setting and who then proceeds to drive you absolutely crazy on a regular basis. Humor is sprinkled heavily throughout this little book along with some pretty solid advice. They gently tackle topics like family of origin differences, personal quirks, differing energy levels, disagreements about everything from raising kids to who does what when. Both Dena and Carey are honest, sincere, funny and ultimately, kind to the core. And that is a rare gift in this crazy world of ours.

The second book was a best seller before it was released, “Love Warrior,” by Glennon Melton. I am grateful for Glennon’s presence on the web, impressed by her good works and huge readership, a group of thousands which has become a generous sister warrior community. She is outspoken, intelligent, and a clear voice for those who are marginalized and suffering. She is also a recovering alcoholic, someone who has known her share of personal sorrow and struggle. This book takes an honest look at a marriage that was troubled from the beginning and walks the reader through her husband’s infidelity and how they made their way back to some kind of wholeness in the aftermath. Just before the book’s release, however, she announced that they are now living separately (on the same street) and will soon be divorced. The writing is raw, and sometimes hard to read, but most of those who are fans will undoubtedly love every bit of it. I did not. That is a highly personal response and does not mean much, to tell you the truth. Oprah loved it, however, so what do I know??

The third book is a gem. “Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity,” by Katherine Willis Pershey is rich with personal story-telling, a case study or two, and some lovely thinking about why marriage matters and what covenant keeping looks like. Katherine is a fellow former writer for Deeper Story, a website which I miss to this day, so we have had some internet connection over the years. I also loved her first memoir, “Any Day A Beautiful Change” — a favorite read several years ago. This second book does not disappoint.

No less a figure than Eugene Peterson — my absolute favorite pastor-who-also-writes (also — Barbara Brown Taylor, so maybe not absolutely absolute!) — has this to say about the book: “. . . without question, the very best book on marriage I have ever read — and I have read many.” He also writes the forward for this book — that alone is reason enough to purchase and read it, at least in my opinion.

I need to tell you that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review, but I would happily buy it — and I will. It will be a pleasure to give it as a gift for anyone I know who is either planning on getting married or struggling to decide if their marriage is worth salvaging. There is a winsomeness to Katherine’s writing — she is honest, admits their areas of struggle, is strongly in favor of good marital counseling, and doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of the marriage journey. But throughout every page of this book is a strong, almost palpable sense of joy and gratitude, a thread that pulls the reader along on a gentle wave of gladness. That is a gift, one that I appreciate and celebrate. I am ‘very married’ myself — for 51 years on the 18th of December this  year, and I found myself nodding with recognition all along the way. For a long list of reasons, this sweet book comes with a high personal recommendation — it is definitely worth reading.

Putting That Horse BEFORE the Cart . . .

When I began to seriously explore the internet in the months leading up to and following my retirement from parish ministry at the end of 2010, I was stunned to discover an enormous array of opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and stories — oh, my, the stories! They ran the gamut from ultra-conservative to out-there-liberal (to use outdated terminology . . . maybe fundamentalist to progressive is more current?).

One of the voices that most intrigued me was that of a young, Methodist pastor in the south named Morgan Guyton. Morgan addressed ‘big’ issues, wondering aloud about theological positions that have been espoused by wide swaths of the Christian community for the last few hundred years. He engaged serious conversations about atonement theory, environmental and justice issues, always asking insightful questions and encouraging honest feedback.

Now, he has a book! I am working my way through this little gem, one chapter at a time, digesting, noting questions in the margins, nodding my head, or scratching it, ALL of which I love when I do serious reading and thinking.

Today, I am joining a blog tour for this book, looking especially at chapter four — “Empty, Not Clean: How We Gain Pure Hearts.” This is the fourth of 12 provocative contrasts that form the spine of this volume, which is called: How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. I highly recommend  this book to you and encourage you to engage with it and see where you land on each issue in turn. It’s a very good thing for the church to re-examine what we say we believe and why. Morgan Guyton invites us to do exactly that.

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“The problem is that the modern American church often makes Christianity into a completely rational, purposeful, experience instead of a spiritual, intuitive encounter. We seek to know about God rather than to know God, and we worship our knowledge of God instead of God himself.”

Can I get a LOUD amen? I cannot even begin to verbalize how exhausted I feel by argument, by theological nitpicking, by endless and circular conversations about fine points of dogma. Even Jesus himself told us that words are far less important than deeds (see John 10:25), that ‘right belief’ is revealed only in right relationship, that abiding is what is needed. Being with, listening, stilling the noise, living in love . . . these are the things that make for pure hearts, that help us become who we were meant to be.

The line of distinction that Morgan draws in this chapter is the one between trying to stay clean and trying to get empty. That last phrase is one that would have made me more than a little bit nervous about a dozen years ago. Empty? Whaddya mean, empty? Sounds new-agey to me. 

I have since come to appreciate the fine difference between empty and open . . . so I might have chosen the latter word here. But what he means by ’empty’ is pretty much what I mean by ‘open,’ so I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page!

For far too long, religious folk (I’m talking almost all religions here, not just the Christian one) have chosen a bifurcated view of the world, making it (and the flesh, which Morgan discusses in a later chapter) the enemy of our souls. The result is too often a growing list of do’s and don’t’s and a shrinking view of all that is good and beautiful in what God has designed and given. Others of Morgan’s generation have written moving memoirs noting this phenomenon – Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, among many others – sometimes describing the debilitating after-effects of a steady diet of fear-based restrictiveness. The entire purity sub-culture is an extreme example of this ill-fated attempt to ‘keep our young people pure.’

It does not work. Anything based on fear is doomed to failure. Anything. And fear is what lies behind so much of the ‘staying clean’ mentality. What is desperately needed is an invitational mentality — we need to invite our children (and ourselves) into the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s creative genius, and the beauty of unending, unquenchable, ever-widening Love. 

There is a gem of a paragraph on page 39 that I am finding to be deeply true in my own spiritual journey just now:

“Before the rational modern era in which we live, Christian prayer looked very different. In the rational, modern approach to life, which tends to be all mind and no heart, the purpose of prayer is simply to make requests of God, and say appropriate things about God. But for most of Christian history, prayer has involved repeating the same words over and over again every day, according to a fixed schedule in a sacred language that isn’t your mother tongue, not in order to tell God what he already knows or ask him for what he already knows you need, but to “order {your} steps in {his} word.” (Ps. 119:133)

Courtesy of a blogpost by Sarah Bessey early in Lent this year, I have been using some lovely prayer beads, assembled and sent to me by Episcopalian nuns in the midwest somewhere. With the beads, came four different suggested prayer rotations to use while fingering them. I chose the Celtic version and have been using both beads and words every day since. Now this language is English, but the vocabulary is definitely not my own and I am hear to tell you that using these aids has changed my prayer experience in ways that are only positive. There is a movement from the left side of my brain to the right as I softly whisper the words that are now my own, cemented in my memory by frequency, something which a dear spiritual director earnestly desired for me to experience several years ago! (He sent me to the ocean for long episodes of staring and waiting, which is also a wonderful aid to this process.)

As the beads slip past my fingers, and the words enter the atmosphere around me (through sighs and yawns!), I find the presence of a Loving God to be real and near in ways that using my own chosen words too often do not. Yes, I still offer names and faces to the Throne, I still say thank you with almost every  breath of my day, I still offer, “Help,” and “Glory!” regularly. But the openness that comes with ritual has stunned and moved me.

Mike McHargue (“The Science Guy” for those who listen to The Liturgists podcasts) reminded us recently that we are creatures who possess a human brain that is wrapped around a simian brain that is wrapped around a lizard brain, etc. And it is the noise from those parts of ourselves that we so often need to silence. And what is the single most helpful aid for silencing them? Repetition, liturgy, learned prayer. YES! For Morgan, this is a critical step on the road to ’empty.’ For me, it’s part of becoming increasingly more ‘open’ to the presence of God.

He finishes this chapter with some reflection on a topic I have addressed, both here on the blog and in the ebook that is available to my newsletter subscribers. And we come to different conclusions, he and I. I take issue with the “more of Jesus, less of me” mentality, preferring instead to say, “more of Jesus, MORE of me.” I say this because I deeply believe that God does not desire us to so much become Jesus but to resemble him, in our own unique and irreplaceable selfhood. We are, after all, invited into a partnership with God in the building of the Kingdom in this place. God chooses to use very frail human vessels to do God’s work in the world. Jesus is our guide, our template, our savior and our friend. And we are invited into relationship with the Triune God through the selfless giving of this dear Incarnate Friend.

Hopefully, as we release the lists, as we say good-bye to the do’s and don’ts and the ‘stay clean’ entanglements, we will, indeed, ever more closely resemble our crucified, risen Lord. But . . . we will still be ourselves. Because WE are the reason Jesus came, we are the reason he lived and walked among us, telling those stories, teaching those lessons, dying on that cross and rising from that tomb. God loved who we are enough to join us, to celebrate us, to welcome us, to change us.

And that is the wonder of it all, is it not?

I’ll keep working through this book and hopefully, engage other chapters here on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, why don’t you get yourself a copy and let’s dialog about it, okay??

 

Dearest Addie . . . (a letter, a book review and a synchroblog)

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Do you remember this lovely box, exploding with sunshine?

I surely do. It arrived on my doorstep in the earliest days of my recovery from nasty foot surgery, in mid-June, 2014. I’d injured myself and then discovered there was a whole lot more goin’ on in that dang foot than what I’d done to it. I was facing into a long recovery (much longer than we knew back then) and I was feeling L O W.

And then a lot of my internet friends did some remarkable things, and YOU were among the first. YOU sent me this box of yellow love. Every bright and lovely piece of this glory broke right through my sadness, my loneliness, my pain (both physical and emotional), and helped me to hang on during a long and difficult time in my life.

Now, sweetheart — look again at that date up there, okay? 2 0 1 4. Just a few short months after the journey you took with your boys, that long trek to Florida and back, the one you’ve written about so magnificently well in this new book of yours:

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I had no idea you had struggled so earlier in that year. But somehow, it seemed important, as I write this strange epistle/review/blog post, it seemed important for me to remind you of how good, kind, thoughtful, insightful, intuitive and gifted you are even when you’re in the middle of a long, dark season in your own spiritual journey.

BTW, that cover? One of the best depictions of what’s actually inside the book that I’ve about ever seen. Genius! Not all of this tender journal was easy to read. I hate that you do battle with depression, that you sometimes have such a low view of your own, wonderful self. So some of this was painful to read. 

But all of it was so good to read. Because what you come to, where you arrive, as you drive through the cold and the dark, as you deal with two pre-schoolers caged inside a small space for hours at a time, as you read your first book aloud in small town libraries and book stores and church basements, as you stay with friends and family, as you struggle to get those boys to sleep, as you eat at way too many MacDonald’s, and do a little bit (a very little bit) of sight-seeing — what you come to, in the end, is yourself. 

And that, my dear, is the point. The goal. The reward. In this second book, you continue to do the good work started in “When We Were on Fire,” the good work of jettisoning the crap gathered in way too many rah-rah, emotion-heavy, guilt-inducing, misguided youth events. And you begin to see the light. The LIGHT. The truth that the Jesus walk is not so much about ‘re-discovering’ the emotional highs of adolescence, but about the steady, day-by-day commitment to putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s about seeing the light in small things, like the sun shining on your son’s hair, or smelling the first real cup of coffee after too many cups of tea, (or, if you’re a tea-drinker like I am, savoring the spicy scent of chai after too many stale coffee-breath greetings from friends!). It’s about accepting the truth that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are pretty much meaningless terms when we’re talking about real life. It’s about letting go of the lists — you know the lists! Those things we’re ‘supposed’ to do to be ‘good’ Christians, the things we’re supposed to feel, or even believe, in order to pass muster.

It’s about letting go of all of that, and leaning hard into the truth of grace. It’s about learning to trust that there is not one thing we can do or not do that will make God love us any less or any more than God already does. It’s about breathing in and breathing out and saying the name of Jesus when we do. It’s about seeing and being seen. It’s about really, really, living. Not ‘living it up,’ not living on an emotional high forever, not even ‘living for Jesus,’ whatever the heck that means.

It’s about living real. Because I’m here to tell  you, there is NOTHING more real than God, even when God seems absent, even when you’re driving in the dark of night, even when you’re struggling hard to re-create old experiences that simply are no longer possible or even desirable. You put it beautifully on page 225 (and a lot of other places, too, but this one’s the shortest:

“It’s not up to me to flip on the lights. the Light is already here.”

YES, Addie!! Yes, yes, yes. The Light is already here.

Thank you for writing this searingly honest book, for owning your own weaknesses, for showing us the shadow side. And here’s why I thank  you — because with  your exceptional writing grace, your skill, you illustrate this powerful truth: the shadow side is our teacher. Yes, there are parts of the shadow that we need to shine a bright, harsh light on, that we need to clean up and clear out. BUT . . . those shadow parts of us are also primary avenues through which God can show us more about grace, more about love, more about the human condition, more about truth than anywhere else. Like Barbara Brown Taylor (another one of my FAVES) in “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” you have shown us more about the light than any 1000 titles about sunshine-theology. 

So, I thank you. I thank you for the box of sunshine at a dark time in my own journey. And I thank you for this beautiful book. May you be blessed beyond measure by the way people respond to it.

Much, much love,

Diana

Oh! Before I go, I wanted to share with  you a couple of quotes that landed in my inbox today from a journal I subscribed to for many years, one that I used frequently in sermon prep and for devotional reading. It’s called “Weavings,” and if you don’t know it, I highly recommend it. These were in a monthly devo kinda thing, but each of them spoke to some of what “Night Driving” deals with, so I thought maybe you might enjoy them:

As people of faith, we need to remember that the resurrection tosses out all standard expectations and measurements of failure and success. Neither failure nor success is good or evil; both can result in growth, stagnation, or regression. In our struggle with failure and success, we may find a hidden strength as we commend our spirits to our Creator and seek to yield our lives to love. Our challenge is to have faith—in failure, in success, in whatever life brings. The unexpected turns, the painful endings, the precarious beginnings are all part of the path of faith, where we are reminded with each step that the resurrection did not happen only once long ago—it happens each day of our lives.  — Jean M. Blomquist, “Weavings”

Pure faith hears the full silence of God, and believes—for the absence of God touches one’s thirst more than the presence of everything else. “In the desert we go on serving the God whom we do not see, loving [the God] whom we do not feel, adoring [the God] whom we do not understand, and thanking [the God] who has taken from us everything but [God’s self]” (Charles Cummings,Spirituality and Desert Experience). In time, the search becomes the goal, the longing becomes sufficient unto itself, and the perseverance transforms the meaning of success. Then some quiet evening, perhaps by full moon, it becomes strangely self-evident that we would not be searching had we not already been found. And the desert blooms when we find ourselves willing to be last—not because the last may become first, but because the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.” — W. Paul Turner, “Weavings.” 

And the Winner Is . . .

 

 

So there were a goodly number of names to put into the ol’ hat . . .

 

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But there was only ONE name that came out of that ol’ thing!

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So, congratulations, Anna! I’ll be emailing you very, very soon!!

Eyes to See — A Book Review . . . and a Giveaway!!

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This book is a beautiful and deeply true gift to the world. It is a book to be savored, read over time, with pen in hand and fingertips at the ready — ready to bend down corners of page after page after page . . .

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Christie Purifoy invites us into her life, one year in her life, to be exact. Moving through the seasons from autumn through summer, from late pregnancy to early toddlerhood, from the wilderness of Florida to the welcoming joys of a very old house on a hilltop in Pennsylvania, she lets us see life through her eyes.

And what beauty-seeking eyes she has! Her reflections on the life she lives are deep, rich, honest and gloriously articulate and thoughtful. Maplehurst is an old, brick farmhouse, now surrounded by a brand-new neighborhood of tract homes, a place far from family, yet a place that becomes home in every way you can think of.

Along the way, she reflects on things like post-partum depression, sleep deprivation, gardening (oh my, gardening!!!), the liturgical year, life, death, joy, sorrow. She reflects on this life we live, all of us, but she does it in a way too few of us take the time to — and with a skill very few of us enjoy. 

I’ve pulled out some sloppy photos of a few favorite passages, but believe me when I tell you this — there are too many to count. 

On what following in the steps of the Magi might really be about:

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On caring for the dying of things as well as the living of things:

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On enjoying beauty — the beauty that is easy to spot and the beauty that we must earnestly seek, each and every day.

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I am delighted to offer a brand new copy of this remarkable book. If you are interested in having your name dropped in the hat, please say so in the comments. I’ll select a winner one week from today and post your name on the blog and on Facebook. I can’t think of a better gift to offer you, my friends. Truly.

And the Winner Is . . .

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Today was the day!

The Big Drawing for a copy of Jessica N. Turner’s fabulous new book, “The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You.”

It has been delightful to read through the comments on the original post and to have the opportunity to help out one young mom with a free copy of this good book. Our commenters ranged from not-yet moms all the way to grandmothers-wanting-to-help-granddaughters. 

And I am DELIGHTED to tell you that a longtime reader here — and another grandmother, one who has grandkids even more grown up than mine – is the winner.

Please congratulate CAROL J. GARVIN!! I’m so happy to send you this book, Carol. Please give your grandgirl my very best wishes when you give it to her.

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And the Winner Is . . .

This week, the drawing was for Laura Boggess’s fine new book, “Playdates with God.” Twenty-five friends asked to be included in the hat but only one could win . . .

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And her name is:

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Congratulations, Stephanie! I’ll ship your brand new book to you tomorrow morning, book rate, so it will take about a week to arrive!

My thanks to all who have entered the Giveaways the past two weeks – it’s been fun to have the chance to share these fine new books with you all.

And the Winner Is . . .

 

 

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My sincere thanks to all 17 of you who left nice comments last week and asked to be entered into the drawing for Preston Yancey’s new book, “Tables in the Wilderness.”

And yes, I did put them all on paper and toss them into my favorite beach hat and about midday today, I drew out the name of the winner. And it is . . .

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Congratulations, Hannah! Your new book will be winging its way to you very soon now!

And to all the rest of you who entered, please check today’s 31 Day Challenge post, because there is YET ANOTHER GIVEAWAY in that one. Laura Boggess’s lovely new book, “Playdates with God.” Be sure to leave me a comment, and I’ll put you in the hat for next week’s drawing!!