A Nice Way to Wrap Up the Year

“Becoming one” is a way to describe this journey we’re all on toward wholeness. And part of that for me includes reading (as I’ve previously explained). Several months ago (maybe more than a year!) a friend of mine challenged me to come up with a list of the 10 most influential books I’ve read. When I finally sat down to think about it, it really didn’t take me that long to come up with a list. While I’ve read lots of books, I find that a few keep coming to the surface as books that I ponder, recommend, reread, and still cite as the basis for much of my way of thinking.

So here is the list of the top 10 books that have had the biggest impact on me in my life thus far, in no particular order:

1) “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken gave me hope for a good marriage and a life-long love, along with getting me to think. It includes not-elsewhere-published letters of C.S. Lewis. A truly amazing non-fiction story.

2) “The Giver” by Lois Lowry is a mature book dealing with adult themes, yet is appropriate enough to read to children. Somehow I missed this book in my childhood, but even coming to it as an adult, I find something new every time.

3) “Henry IV, Part 1” by Shakespeare wasn’t the first Shakespearean play I read, but it was the first one I REALLY read. It is such an engaging story, and Falstaff is one of the most clever comedic characters of all time. This play instilled in me a love for Shakespeare and I love for literature. It is a huge part of the reason I became an English major in college.

4) “The Bible Doesn’t Have to Be Hard to Read” by Michael David McGehee was the first book I read that opened my eyes to the nuances of reading scripture. It’s about 100 pages, but there is so much wisdom contained in these pages. Seriously, track down a copy and read it ASAP if you’re interested in learning how to better understand genres in the Bible.

5) “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien taught me about the beauty of a journey. It taught me what it means to enjoy those quiet moments in life. PLEASE don’t think if you’ve seen the movies you’ve read the book (and it IS one big book!); they are simply not the same! Tolkien paints a beautiful world, and I fell in love with Samwise Gamgee when reading this.

6) “The Prophetic Imagination” by Walter Brueggemann was the first deeply profound religious work I read in seminary, and maybe ever. I love Brueggemann’s simple description of a prophet as one who calls out the problems of this world, and then points to the hope of the world to come. So simple, yet so profound! And what a wonderful way to draw people to Jesus: “Let’s get to what’s really wrong with your life and this world. Now let’s see how Jesus provides the answer.”

7) “Sacred Companions” by David Benner was the first book to open my eyes to the beauty of spiritual direction and spiritual friendships. I knew in my head the importance of steeping myself in God’s love for me, but Benner’s description of how “trying harder” isn’t the answer to loving people better hit me at the precise moment I needed to hear it (which has including countless moments since then!). I still need this constant reminder to let myself be loved first and foremost; only then can I love others out of the overflow.

8) “The Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis has to be my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia series—at least the one that sticks with me the most. Unless like so many, I argue that this is the sixth book in the series, not the first. (e.g. Who cares about a tree’s wood if one doesn’t know that a certain wardrobe will bear significance later on?) Still, when Aslan cries with Diggory  over his mom’s sickness, there really isn’t a more beautiful picture of Jesus suffering with us in our pain. This image has comforted me much in various trials, and I’ve shared (and tried to embody!) it with countless friends as they’ve struggled.

9) “Harry Potter and the…” by J.K. Rowling—all seven have truly impacted me, but if I had to choose one it would be “… Order of the Phoenix.” It’s such a theological book! The whole discussion of the prophecy at the end of the book is a perfect picture of Wesleyanism vs. Calvinism. I know this is totally a theologian’s reading of it, but the truth here is profound. (Does prophecy come true because it’s predicted? Or because someone believes it and makes it true? Who really is in control of our destinies?) Plus, Harry’s wrestling with Sirius’ death still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

10) “The Wind in the Door” by Madeleine L’Engle is the most recent of these influential books I’ve read, but its impact is already lasting. The whole concept of “kything” and being one with God has had a great influence on me, as well as the idea of resting and being at peace rather than always needing change and activity. I could revisit this book 1,000 times and still have more to glean from it.

Runners-up: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Dostoevsky (not really a book, but easily my favorite long-form short story of all time); “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” by Lewis (a powerful pondering on prayer); “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe (the first non-Western work of literature I really devoured, again part of why I majored in English); anything by Henri Nouwen or N.T. Wright.

What books have had an impact on you? How have they shaped your life and your way of thinking? Please share!

Journeying with you toward becoming ONE,

April

A Peaceful Mess

circus-juggler-500488I don’t do well with messes.  If trash gets left in my car or a kid spills on my carpet, I get upset. Probably disproportionately so. Like I said, I DON’T do well with messes. (Unless they’re of my own making, then I make an exception. :P)

A Juggling Feat

But life is messy, as many people have noted, and it’s not usually very easy to clean up. A picture I’ve always loved is the person trying to juggle multiple balls at once, keeping all of them in the air without dropping any. I used to think I was great at this kind of thing: working and being a student and dating someone and maintaining several deep friends and staying in touch with my family. And maybe I was.

But for whatever reason, this has been really difficult lately. It’s getting harder to keep all the balls in the air. Not that I’m about to fail at anything, but my brain is usually running in a million different directions and it’s harder to sit down and FOCUS on one thing. Multitasking seems less fruitful.

Take today for example: even as I’m typing these words, I’m thinking about the Bible study I need to complete for my small group tonight. I’m also wondering what Jared and I are going to have for dinner and when I need to get that started. I got distracted earlier by looking up some products on Amazon, paying a bill for the Dream Center, and texting and emailing some family and friends. I’ve been trying to get this Bible study done for the last three hours, and I only got one page read, and that’s only because I did it while I was going to the bathroom! Phew! Even just writing all that makes me exhausted and anxious!

At times like this, I feel less like the juggler with a few balls in the air, and more like the clown above: I’m also trying to balance on something else… and I probably also have another ball on my nose and a fly constantly buzzing by my left ear which I’m trying to swat away.

Simply put, I’m trying to do too much at once.

A Needed Rest

I think what I’m realizing through all this is that it is possible for your brain to go too many directions at once. Recent research has shown multitasking not to be as productive as most of us would like to think it is. I felt bummed about this, until I realized how much stress I was feeling simply by trying to get 20 things done simultaneously.

Sure, peace is something God-given, but aren’t there things we can do to allow room for this in our lives? And things that could prevent it as well?

With this in mind, I took a break in the middle of writing this blog, got away from my computer and my phone, and just sat down and did my Bible study. What a refreshing experience to only have one thing on my mind!

A Call to Peace

Too often we lead frantic, frazzled lives.  We so want to feel accomplished that we forget about feeling peaceful in the midst of all we’re doing.

I love crossing things off my to-do list as much as the next person (and probably more than some!), but I don’t want that to be where my peace derives from. I have peace first and foremost because I am a precious child of God. A daughter he loves so much that he can’t take his eyes off me. Only out of that space can I then begin to get things done. But not because my identity is somehow based on how much I do.

Let’s sit together and find our peace and rest in Christ. My mornings usually feel rushed, but I want to start taking a few minutes (even if that’s all I have!) to meditate and focus on God’s great love for me. Because “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

We can go through 5 to-do lists a day and accomplish so many great things–even great things for God!–but these will not result in HIS loving us more. So let’s rest together. We are loved right where we are… even if the balls fall scattered all over the floor.

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Let’s fall on his grace and into his peace!

What Defines You?

I want you to try an exercise with me. Really. Get out a piece of paper.

  1. Begin to list everything or every “title” that defines you. For example, “wife/husband to_______,” “parent of _______,” “engineer” or “doctor” or “teacher,” “Christian” or “Muslim” or “atheist,” “volleyball/football/soccer player,” and the list goes on. Or maybe some particular event in your past or something you’re looking forward to in your future defines you. Any or all of these things may be key pieces to your identity.
  2. Now, can you rank them? Which of these titles is more central or key to your identity? Which do you try on for a couple days like a hat and then get rid of?
  3. Finally, try to give each a percentage. If I met you today and wanted to get to know the real you, how vital is this piece of information? Sure, I can find out your name, but maybe the fact that you’re going to be the world’s next Top Chef is vital to who you are and how you perceive yourself today. So try to assign percentages to each of these characteristics, remembering that you can’t go above 100%. 😛

This is a challenging exercise–and I have yet to do it successfully myself!–but it certainly gets you thinking, doesn’t it? As I newly married woman, I can’t figure out if being “Jared’s wife” makes up 20% or 40% of my identity, or somewhere in between. How much of my identity do I give to “stay-at-home wife” versus “part-time Dream Center pastor”? Do I identify more as a cook or the person in charge of our family finances? And honestly, many of these roles fluctuate in importance from day to day!

Of all the things that define me today, there is one thing from my past that will forever define me. No longer is the full 100% of my identity malleable to whatever new opportunities or relationships present themselves. And I’m wondering if you have something like this in your life, too…

A Defining Moment

Just over 7 years ago, when I was 25, my mom passed away from recurrent ovarian cancer. She’d been battling it for 8 1/2 years total, and it finally got the best of her. It was a long, hard struggle, and the end was particularly difficult for our whole family.  At the time I had no idea how difficult it could be to lose someone you love, or how rough the next few years of my life would be as I learned to live for the first time in a world without my mom.

The last picture of me and my mom, taken less than 3 months before she died

The last picture of me and my mom, taken less than 3 months before she died

“Time Heals All Wounds”

It has been said that “time heals all wounds.” While this could certainly be debated, I don’t want to focus here on the healing of the pain. Rather, what I have been struck by recently is the issue of identity.

How Do I Define Myself?

Immediately after my mom died, I moved 2,000 miles across country to go to graduate school in Kentucky. At that point, in a new environment and less than a month after my mom died, I defined myself as “the girl who just lost her mom.” If you didn’t know my mom had just died, you might as well not know my name. If I were to give it a percentage, my mom’s death probably made up 90% of my identity.

But time has lessened this. Each year–even each month at the beginning–the percentage of my identity wrapped up in my mom’s death decreased. Today if you asked me to define myself, most days I wouldn’t give this piece of myself more than 5%. But it’s still there. From here on out, it will always be there.

It Never Goes Away…

I guess what I’m learning these days is that when something has been such a big part of your identity for so long (including being “the daughter of Judy” for my whole life), it never fully goes away. In this season of my life–living in a new place, working at a new church, and figuring out how to be married–for whatever reason, the longing to identify myself as “the girl whose mom died” is creeping up again. Not as a cry for attention. It’s really a cry to be known. With so many new people around me all the time, I long to be known for who I really am–and pleasant or not, my mom’s death has had a profound impact on my life.

What Defines You?

Some of you reading are friends of mine who have walked this journey with me and know this piece of my story. Others of you are coming to this blog and I’m merely words on a page and a face in a few touched-up photos. Whoever you are, I hope today you will think about your story. Think about those things that have comprised your identity along the way. Do any of them still make up some piece of you? What things are defining you that are currently a part of your life?

We all need to be known for who we truly are. Maybe today, like I did a few days ago, you need to find someone to share some part of your story with. Maybe it’s a piece you haven’t shared in years because it’s so far back it hardly seems relevant. Perhaps it’s something you’ve never shared with anyone because it was too scary or vulnerable. Today, let’s strive to be known by and to know someone else. As we share our stories, we may find that we allow someone else to open up too. Being real is a beautiful gift we can give each other.

When Fantasy Becomes Fantasizing

I love a good book. I love being swept up in another world, getting to see things through someone else’s eyes. But can doing so ever be detrimental? Can an escape from the real world ever cause more of a problem than serve as a help? When does reading a fiction or fantasy book turn into something more?

In my flurry of listening to audiobooks (which I mentioned in my last post), I decided to look up a list of the 100 greatest books of all time. (There are many such lists, but this is the one I referenced.) Years ago, in high school, I read the first few pages of Pride and Prejudice, but when I realized it seemed very similar to the BBC 6-hour miniseries, I decided to quit. But it is on the list mentioned above, so I thought it might be worth a try.

Recently, a friend encouraged me to read it anyway, claiming that Jane Austen’s wit as a writer simply could not be imitated in any film adaptation. So, I gave it the amount of effort I had at the time: I listened to the audiobook.

A Shift in Media

At first it still seemed similar to the miniseries, but I began almost immediately to notice Austen’s skill as a writer peeking through in ways I hadn’t noticed in the film version. I was so hooked within the first several chapters that I decided I wanted to “soak” in it more than the audiobook would allow. I quickly downloaded a Kindle version and began reading that at night in bed after Jared was asleep. That way I wouldn’t disturb him, but I could still get my fix. 😛 Soon after, I found a nice hardcover copy from the library. This made my reading complete. There is still something so satisfactory about holding a real, solid book in your hands and letting it just wash over you. I was finally ready to hunker down and dive deep.

Jane Austen’s Skill

I am now enamored with Jane Austen. Her wit, charm, and skill are evident on every page! Her descriptions of characters and scenery are phenomenal. She pays so much attention to detail, but not in a way that bores or distracts from the plot. (Although I love J. R. R. Tolkien, he has sometimes been accused of this very thing.)

Her other skill is the point of view she writes from. Although she uses the third person narrator, her perspective is not limited (only seeing inside one character’s head) or omniscient (knowing what everyone is thinking). Rather, she is primarily inside the head/emotions of Elizabeth (the main character), but she occasionally “dips” into other characters’ perspectives: Jane, Charlotte, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner being the main ones. The effect is incredible. We know just enough to make us more interested in finding out what will happen next. But the mystery of the perspectives we don’t know proves equally engaging. For example, we know that Mr. & Mrs. Gardiner are convinced of Mr. Darcy’s love for Elizabeth (keeping us interested in how this relationship will resolve itself), but we don’t know Mr. Darcy’s perspective (making us anxious to hear his feelings from his own lips). What a masterful use of point of view!

Is There Benefit to Fantasy?

I said (mostly jokingly) earlier that I had to get my “fix” every night, but at times it really seemed like this. One night I stayed up over two hours past my normal bedtime just to keep reading. I truly enjoy getting into a good book, one that “takes you away” from everyday life so that you’re “swept up” in the world it presents. But is this really a desirable trait?

How many of us feel like life isn’t what we always wanted or hoped it would be? Maybe (like me) you thought you’d be married a lot sooner than you were. Or you wish you had a different job. Maybe you wanted more kids, or just wish yours were better behaved. Or had a bigger house. Or a nicer car. Or any or all of the above. Whatever it is you *wish* your life had been, I’m sure you could go find it in a book (or movie or game or other form of media) and live vicariously through the characters you find there.

But is it really worth it? Is this healthy or even beneficial? We all at times need to get away from the worries of everyday life, but I don’t think escape is the way to do it.

Please hear me: there is nothing wrong with reading a good fiction novel! There is nothing wrong with being excited to see what happens next in the characters’ lives! But when it serves as a form of escape–as a way of getting away from our current reality–then, we have a serious problem. Then it has gone from fiction or fantasy to fantasizing, and those are worlds apart.

Whether we like it or not, the life we are currently living is reality. Sure, there are things we can affect and change–and some of these we probably should!–but until they’re changed, this is our life.

As long as we keep wishing and hoping–fantasizing–for something different, we will never be content with where we are.

I love reading about Elizabeth & Darcy’s love story–and in the midst of living out my own, it’s fun to hear about someone else’s. But my story is reality, even when it’s hard, and it’s the reality I have to live with.

As you travel through this next week, begin to think about the ways you attempt to “escape” the reality you find yourself in. Do you daydream about a different life? Do you read or watch movies to get away? Or is there a sin you’ve entered into (perhaps an addiction) in order to escape your real life?

Whatever your escape is, in this moment, choose the real. This is where you are. This is your life. This is where God has you, even if just for now. Let’s begin to embrace this. Then, we can embrace whatever He has waiting for us next.

Journeying together,

April

No Easy Way Out

In my estimation, reading good literature is a part of becoming “one,” a more whole person. I find that in books I can meet people I might never encounter in the real world. I can get inside their heads and figure out what makes them “tick.” I can empathize with situations I’ve never had to go through. It’s truly a profound experience, and the reason I was an English major in college.

But… finding hours to sit on the couch and “do nothing” (though reading hardly counts as nothing!) is not a luxury I feel I can afford most days what with all that’s involved in moving, setting up and maintaining a house, looking for paying work, and being involved in ministry.

My solution? Audiobooks!

Audiobooks are my latest obsession. I have been devouring them lately. I go through at least a book a week, often more. Mostly I listen to them when I’m alone–while I’m driving or working around the house. But I started listening to one recently that was so intriguing that I wanted Jared to listen to it with me. So we did! The book, you may ask?

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451

(Don’t ask me how I missed this one in high school!)

I was almost 2 hours into this 4-hour novel when I decided Jared should join in. I gave him a brief summary of the premise, and he quickly saw the appeal. So we started back at the beginning and proceeded together. (Just because of the irony, here‘s a link to the Wikipedia article and summary of the book.)

We were both captivated by the idea of a society that has deteriorated because of people’s disdain for quiet and peace and their desire to constantly be entertained and placated. Sound similar to the world we live in? I certainly was convicted by the fact that I’m so attached to my iPhone and love to have the TV on in the background when I’m doing stuff around the house. I definitely need to create more space and quiet in my life, whether to reflect, process, or simply be with God. (More on this in future blog posts!)

Feeling Dissatisfied

But what most struck me was the simplicity of the novel. In earnest, I wanted more. About a third of the way into the book, when Montague and Faber “joke” about planting books in firemen’s houses all over the country to bring the whole system down, I wanted to see this happen! I wanted to see a large-scale upheaval of the system they were a part of, resulting in massive changes to the whole society.

For those of you who have read Fahrenheit 451, you know this isn’t where the book goes. And for those of you who haven’t read it, I won’t ruin it. But I was most interested by my own reaction to the book. I wanted conspiracy; I wanted mutiny toward a broken system; I wanted action.

But all of these desires in me came about from consuming today’s media. Movies today have to be bigger, flashier, and louder. You literally get “more bang for your buck.” But often times the content is missing. Rarely do these same movies have profound things to say about our world.

Don’t get me wrong: I love action movies–sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for what might jump out at me next. But that’s not reality. Too often we live in a broken society and the solution isn’t that simple. Two people can’t plot to overthrow “the system” and succeed. If Bradbury had gone there, honestly he would have been taking the flashy, but easy, way out.

So What Can I Do?

All I can do is what Guy Montague is stuck with at the end of the book. He’s left with a fragments of two books in his head and a hope that that knowledge will come in handy when the world needs it. All I can do is persevere. I can hope to make my corner of the world a little more like the new heaven and new earth will be. I can try to stand against the system, while realizing that I can’t overthrow it by myself.

And probably most importantly, I can rely on God to make me ONE–one with God, one with my husband, and one with the way God intended the world to be. Our world has gotten pretty far off track, but I hope to faithfully soak in God’s word and wade through the mess to live a more faith-filled and obedient life.

There’s No Easy Way Out

We all want quick, easy solutions to systemic problems, and that’s what makes so much of today’s entertainment so satisfying. But we are stuck in the real world. We are stuck with the problems of expensive health care, a minimum wage that’s below the poverty line, predatory lending practices, perverted media, and so much more. And there’s no easy way out.

However, if we are willing to walk with God, he will show us what it means to be faithful in the midst of this chaos. Even if it never changes. Crises will happen–personally, nationally, and globally. WE must be willing to stand strong and hold fast to God.

Although it seems that Ray Bradbury wasn’t a Christian, he lived in the reality that there is no easy way out. Let’s embrace the reality of our broken world AND the fact that solutions are complicated. Wishing things were other than they are isn’t going to help. After all, isn’t escaping into a world of fantasy exactly what Bradbury is warning us against?

A Humbling Experience

Almost a month ago now, I decided to restart my blog. I was feeling the “itch” to write again. Then…

I got sick.

I mean, really sick.

For 6 days straight, I could do little but lay on the couch, watch TV, sleep, and occasionally eat.  It was just a head/chest cold, but it was honestly the sickest I’ve been in a long time.

When I relaunched my blog, I planned to post about twice a week. But clearly that hasn’t happened. That first week it was being sick that prevented it, and since then life has somehow gotten busier and that’s gotten in my way.

This is not my trying to make excuses. Instead, this is my laying out the path to humility the Lord has been bringing me on. In the past, as I lived out of unhealthy perfectionist ways, I would have been too embarrassed missing a month of writing to ever return. I would have simply given up my blog entirely, but that would be such a loss to my own sense of well-being and purpose! So here I am, returning with a “better late than never” attitude. I do want to continue to aim for 1-2 posts per week, but I don’t want to stop writing altogether just because I mess up occasionally.

The other part of this path to humility was the sickness itself. The Lord has been teaching me not to try so hard, that I fret a lot without any good result to myself or my surroundings. Being sick was an incredibly humbling experience. I actually couldn’t do anything! In fact, the one thing I did do that week (attend a book study led by a dear friend) resulted in my getting sicker because the excursion out of the house was more than I could handle! I had to rely on the Lord and my husband to do a lot for me that week, basically heal me and anything that required standing, respectively. 😉

I’ve never liked being sick. I’m sure no one ever does. But somehow, this sickness brought healing. I know this sounds odd, but it is really beginning to prove true. Something has been different in my life the last three weeks since I was sick. Ministry with the Dream Center has picked up, so I’ve been busier, but something has changed inside me. I feel more at peace (though there is still more to grow!). I don’t mind so much being home alone a lot of days–and for an extrovert this is a big deal! I feel a new sense of direction and purpose, even on the days when I have less to do.

Somehow, having to truly rely on Jesus in my sickness has extended to my relying on him even now. And, by God’s grace, this sacred dependency will continue to grow.

May we together learn to rely on God’s grace.

More to come soon,

April

How Many in “One”?

Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling the “itch” return–the itch to get back into the discipline of writing. As I contemplated relaunching my blog, I decided it needed to be renamed. “April into the New Year” summed up where I was two years ago, but I’m in a completely different season of life today. Of course the biggest thing in my life these days is being newly married. On June 14th of this year, I married my best friend and the best man I’ve ever known, Jared. So “one” is made up of two: me and him, figuring out how to be “one flesh” as the Bible talks about, a profound calling indeed.

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Marrying my best friend!

But in getting married I also realized that I will never be whole and complete if I simply rely on Jared to fulfill all of my needs. There’s another aspect to becoming “one”: finding my true center in God, the great “Three-in-One.” So maybe “one” is really made up of four: me and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or is “one” really five: me, Jared, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The math of the Trinity is confusing enough, let alone adding other things into the mix! However you count it, I’m on a quest to being “one”: a whole person, relying on God for my everyday existence, and in unison and unity with my incredible husband. I certainly won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can promise to be honest along the way. My prayer is that you can discover something new about yourself as we journey together.

From one stumbling journeyer to the next,

April