Saturday, May 27, 2006

Christianity Today's 2006 Book Awards

The 2006 book awards were posted yesterday on . I always find good reading material on this list. It's usually posted around mid-year, and honors books in the previous publishing year. In their own words, they're looking for "titles that bring understanding to people, events, and ideas that shape evangelical life, thought, and mission." 37 publishers nominated 240 books, and 22 were chosen in several categories overall -- each category usually has one winner and then one or more "awards of merit."

Although I've only read one of the winners -- Alan Jacobs' The Narnian was aptly chosen as the winner in the history/biography category -- I was happy to see several of my favorite writers and thinkers turn up, including N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, Ron Sider, Debra Rienstra, Lauren Winner, and James Calvin Schaap.

I'm perhaps most intrigued by the title that won in the "Christianity and Culture" category, but then my husband's a youth pastor, which may explain (at least partly) my deep interest in the subject matter: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Christian Smith, Melinda Lundquist Denton, Oxford). The winner in the fiction category was also a new name to me, Nicole Mazzarella, whose novel This Heavy Silence was published by Paraclete Press. I find that intriguing because I think it's Paraclete that's been running the fiction contest in conjunction with Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing. I wonder if this novel got its start in that competition, or if good writers are just being attracted to Paraclete because of that connection?

And speaking of that wonderful festival held every two years in Michigan, I've never been able to attend, but have found so many good writers through its speaker lineup. In fact, that's how I found Schaap, an excellent short story writer. He's a novelist too, but I have really only read his shorter work. I actually have a slightly deeper connection with him as well, because six years ago, the Calvin Worship Institute ran a short fiction contest around the time of the Festival, and my short story "The Man in the Center" took second place. James Calvin Schaap was the judge and made some very kind and encouraging comments about my piece. His book Startling Joy: Seven Magical Stories of Christmas (Revell) took the award of merit in the fiction category, and is now on my wishlist for holiday reading a few months from now.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Rowan Williams, archbishop of Cantebury and thereby the pastoral head of the Anglican Communion of which I'm a part, also has a book on this list which I'd like to read: Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church (Eerdmans). Could be interesting reading in light of current dilemmas in the communion. Also might be good for me to read this summer as I prepare to teach another church history course for the seminary in the fall.

Debra Rienstra, author of one of my favorite books on motherhood, has picked up an award of merit in the apologetics/evangelism category for So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Jossey-Bass). Yes indeed, that wishlist is growing.

Oddly enough, I wasn't too excited by the descriptions of either of the books that won in the theology category -- odd because, of course, I did my grad. studies in theology. Perhaps the blurbs sounded too dry and academic, and perhaps it's just where I'm at in this particular season of my life.

Why don't they award the best children's books? They should!

At any rate, check out the list...definitely some writers worth reading, both old and new.

Friday, May 26, 2006

"Some Pig!"

We've been reading Charlotte's Web during family reading time. We started reading longer (older) books with the Booper as part of family reading when she was about two. Too much busyness with D's and my jobs and schedules, plus Boop's own sudden squirmy attention span during longer books this past winter, meant that we dropped the practice for awhile. I'm happy that we're reinstituting it now, with summer coming on. Thus far, we've mostly been reading on preschool mornings in the car on the way to school (partly to divert her attention from the stress she's been feeling about school) but soon we'll need to come up with a new time when we can all read together.

Anyway, she's really liking this lovely book by E.B. White -- a favorite from my own childhood. And I'm so glad! Earlier this afternoon, she was trundling around the house with her little painted wooden pig magnet (from a set of animal magnets Aunt Martha gave her last year) and delighted me by calling him Wilbur. She fed Wilbur a snack and even gave him a quick bath in the sink when she was supposed to be washing her hands. She likes to say "the pig's ears turned pink in the sun" which is an echo of a line we read the other day. And she's excitedly looking forward to the end of the book, when they go to a fair...I told her that was coming, knowing she'd be excited since we went to a fair just last weekend (where Booper got her first -- and second! -- pony ride!)

If you've never read Lauren Winner's lovely tribute to the genius of Charlotte's Web, you can check it out here at It not only includes fascinating biographical information about E.B. White and the many drafts he went through before coming up with that wonderful opening line "Where's Papa going with that ax?" but some very thoughtful stuff on the importance of community in writing, loving and living.

On my own, I've also been reading some James Herriot stories again -- for the first time in many years. I picked up a beautiful hardback copy of his Animal Stories several months ago at a used book sale. It looked like it had never been read, and his stories are so worth reading. Just opening the covers and moving back into the rural world of the beloved Yorkshire vet gave me a deep feeling of satisfaction, returning to a place I'd always enjoyed visiting but hadn't been to in a long time. Some of my most pleasurable reading moments as an adolescent were spent in Herriot's company; he writes beautiful prose out of years of keen observations of people and animals. If you know a child who loves animals but is ready to move on from Charlotte's Web (although of course CW is a book the child will go back to again and again!) then Herriot just might be an author to recommend.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dandelion and Rain Puddle

It's been raining and raining lately...seems like most of the past month! Today was a beautifully clear, blue-sky day, but I thought I'd go on and post one of our rainy day pictures from a few weeks ago.

My sweet girl has a fascination with puddles, as you can see. She loves to jump in them (much to her Mommy's secret delight and her Daddy's chagrin). She also loves dandelions!

Lately we've been reading a lot of stories about rain. Some of our favorites include Splish! Splash! A Book About Rain (where we learned all about the water cycle), Amy Loves the Rain, and Rabbits and Raindrops.

"...Like Putting on Clothes in the Morning"

Life's been very busy -- too busy, probably. Between work, parenting and writing (the three biggies in my life right now) I hardly ever seem to have a spare moment. This week I need very much to do some housecleaning and organizing, respond to a young friend who has asked for feedback on a short story he wrote, and also work on pulling together my fall syllabus for the online class I'll be teaching again for the seminary. I've also got plenty of other things on my plate, both big and small.

I need to remember to keep first things first, or to "major in the majors" as I heard someone say the other day.

It helps to keep reading words that put me back in that place, the position of listening for God's voice, the openness to receive and to be shaped.

A few days ago I read this, from Charlie Peacock's book New Way to Be Human (Shaw Books, 2004):

"...praying is like putting on clothes in the morning. It covers my nakedness and answers the Edenic question, "Where are you....?" My prayers announce my location and my status -- "Here I am, God!" -- dissolving any pretence that I am anything other than a small and needy man. This is the kind of effect Jesus has on people. It's all a part of his plan. He moves us from being the kind of people who use his creation to hide from him to being the kind of people who eagerly seek an authetic God-human conversation."

Or perhaps it would be even better to say that he moves us/changes us into the kinds of people who eagerly seek to respond to God's invitation to talk with him. We don't have to fear the "where are you?" question if our answer is "Here I am...I need you and love you! Come find me, God, and help me rest in your presence."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The All-Consuming Nature of Consuming

I've been reading some of the essays in Rodney Clapp's Border Crossings. Clapp works at Brazos Press; the subtitle of this collection (published byBrazos in 2000) is "Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs." Lots of interesting things here, but one of the most interesting is the essay I'm working through at the moment, entitled "The Theology of Consumption and the Consumption of Theology."

Early in the essay, Clapp shares a fascinating and troubling anecdote. The story was told to him by a Christian historian who had written a dissertation on consumerism. The historian told him about an experience he'd had with some college age folks at a Christian camp. The gathering included people from a number of different countries, and during the ice-breaker time, the groups were divided up according to their nationalities and asked to discuss and agree on a song that they could perform for the rest of the gathering -- a song that all felt represented their culture. According to this man, most of the groups had relatively little trouble agreeing on a song -- within a few minutes, they'd chosen and rehearsed it -- and nearly all of them chose what he termed "indigenous folk songs."

Except, of course, for the group from the United States. They couldn't agree. They discussed for an hour, rejecting various suggestions of rock and country songs. And then, as Clapp reports: "At last they settled -- on Coca-Cola's 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing.' The jingle ringing in his ears, Lendol {the historian} realized that commercial culture was what finally and ultimately bound these Americans -- these American Christians -- together."

I've been thinking about why this troubles me so much. There are several layers to my response, and I won't try to unpack all of them here. But at least a couple of things feel worth noting.

One is that we no longer seem to have a shared story in our culture. No real news there -- the enlightenment souned a death knell for an emphasis on "meta-narrative" in the West. But what I think I mean is that our national culture is so divided and subdivided that there doesn't even really seem to be one overarching cultural narrative anymore, if there ever was. You might be able to have people from a certain region or state come to some agreement about a song that expressed regional cultural attitudes and values, but trying to get a large group of US Americans to agree on something that represents our country to others sounds nigh unto impossible. Maybe that's not so unsettling -- maybe it's all part and parcel of our stubborn, rugged individualism (ugh) but what DOES seem troubling is when you move from the nationalist level to the community of faith level. What does it mean when American Christians (and I repeat Clapp's emphasis) find their deepest connections not in the overarching Christian Story, or not even in cultural songs that allude to some deeply cherished communal values, but in an advetising jingle that was designed in the first place to get us to buy something we didn't need that wasn't even good for us!?

Maybe it's because the narratives we all know are the small narratives told through t.v., movies, and advertising...they're the ones we hear over and over again, the ones we hold in common with lots of other people. Think about how many advertising jingles and t.v. theme songs you can sing. My own head is stuffed full of them, especially from childhood and adolescence. I have clear memories of sitting in a dorm lounge in college and singing through these kinds of things with friends. Thankfully, I also have memories of at least one "hymn-sing" in college, but that was an exceptionally unusual evening, even on the campus of the small Christian college I attended my freshman year (where the hymn-sing occurred). As for "indigenous folk songs" -- which ones did we all know? Maybe a few peans to primarily civil religion like "America the Beautiful" or "My Country Tis' of Thee" or possibly a few folk songs we'd all learned in school such as "This Land Was Made for You and Me."

If you and I were in a room full of other Christians from the U.S. today, what songs would we likely come up with to suggest who we are and what we value? What stories, themes, ideas shape us? Are we more shaped by what we buy, own and use than by the truly greatest Story ever told and known?

I need to think more about the dangers of consumerism, especially, as Clapp says, " an ethos, a character-cultivating way of life that seduces and insinuates and acclimates. This, too often, is consumption that militates against all sorts of Christian virtues, such as patience and contentedness and self-denial, but almost always with a velvet glove rather than an iron fist. It speaks in tones sweet and sexy rather than dictatorial, and it conquers by promises rather than by threats."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Another Bird

I frequently quote (sometimes out loud, sometimes inwardly) the wonderful stanza from Emily Dickinson that begins: "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul..." I've always loved that little poem.

Just recently found yet another bird stanza that speaks (or sings?!) volumes to my heart. Here is it, from Victor Hugo:

Be like the bird
Who, pausing in her flight
On limb too slight,
Feels it give way beneath her
Yet sings,
Knowing she hath wings.

That's the kind of singing I think I understand best right now.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"What Keeps Us From Praying?"

I've been reading Richard Foster for the first time in a long while, doing some re-reading of chapters in his excellent book Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home and also reading (for the first time) his small devotional book Seeking the Kingdom. Foster's long been a favorite of mine, but that doesn't mean his books make me comfortable. In fact, they often push me to reflect on my life in ways that reveal a lot of uncomfortable truths and areas that need the loving work of the Holy Spirit to change and heal.

I actually haven't been able to get past the very first devotional in Seeking the Kingdom, because there's so much to chew on in just those few pages. I'm still working on it, and letting it work on me. He asks the seemingly simple question: "What Keeps Us From Praying?" and suggests that it's not the outwardly obvious answer -- not enough time, too busy -- that's the most important answer. He points out that we don't let lack of time or busyness stop us from doing other necessary and important things, like eating or sleeping or making love (and let's be honest, most of us don't let lack of time and too much to do stop us from doing less essential things like watching t.v. or blogging, for instance!).

So: what keeps us from praying? Is there a lack of confidence that God is listening? A lack of trust or hope? A feeling that we're not "doing it right" or need to become better people with purer motives before we can approach God?

This has been a rich but sometimes painful question for me to grapple with, because I've been realizing that I have some real fears lurking right now -- about the call we're trying to discern, and our shaky life situation -- and that I sometimes act as though God is someone other than I know him to be, as though I'm afraid he is a hard taskmaster, one who's just out to ask me to be or do something that I don't want to be. I know better than this, from my own life with God in Christ and from the witness of the Scriptures. So why would I assume that God would only call me to something hard, or painful, or (and here's a big one) why would I assume that if God did call me to something difficult that he would not lovingly prepare and equip me to answer the call? Yes, he does sometimes call us to things we could never imagine for ourselves, and he sometimes calls us to give up even good things, but I know he is trustworthy and GOOD. I also know that he understands my human frailty and exhaustion, and that he knows my real deep needs for rest and refreshment. When the hard things come, they come with his permission and they come in the context of my relationship with Him. He uses them to shape me and in order to shape his Kingdom. That's the bottomline. And while I do know it with my head and with my heart, I've been realizing I am not always putting my trust into active practice...hence my prayers (their faintheartedness, their lack).

Foster is very helpful not only because he asks hard questions, but he gently suggests ways to begin to work through them. In this case, he suggests that we make a list of all the reasons that we don't pray, and then take that list to God. And what he doesn't say, but what you begin to realize as you follow the instructions of this spiritual exercise, is that by taking this honest list to God, by admitting your lacks and fears and hopes and everything else and laying those things at God's feet, you are indeed praying.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sycamores in springtime

I love spring. I've always been grateful I was born at the beginning of the spring season. One of the things I miss most, living in a small city with relatively few trees, is the sheer volume of green I remember from earlier springs in other places. But even here, I remind myself, there's so much to see and rejoice in -- including the eight sycamores across the road. I took this photo a couple of weeks ago, when the leaves were still tender and new. They're already starting to take on a fuller, summery look now, but I think I like them best in this tiny, unfurling stage. They remind me to hope.

My daughter loves the sycamores too. She likes to find small branches and twigs that have broken off them, which we call "syacmore wands." That's because she likes to play "sycamore fairy" and dance over to the tiny scrubby pine trees bordering the nearby parking lot (some small cedars and firs she's absolutely fascinated with, and has begun hugging each day). She takes her sycamore wand and gently touches the little trees in a gesture of beautiful benediction.

I really do love spring. My sprit's been feeling winter-weary for such a long time, in so many ways (and my body too). Thank God for new seasons, new growth, new life.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Pause for Poetry

"There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom."

~Li-Young Lee, "From Blossoms"

I read this lovely poem this morning, and thought this stanza especially apt right now -- both during the heady, blossoming days of spring, and just for the juicy kernel of truth at the heart of these lines. We do all have days, I think, even in the midst of hardship, suffering, heartache, where we forget for a moment the hold that death has on our world, and we enter into interludes of joy that are so tangible and real that they cause heartache of another kind ("What a beautiful piece of heartache/this has all turned out to be" to quote Over the Rhine). I think it's in those moments of moving from "joy to joy," "wing to wing," and "blossom to...sweet impossible blossom" that we live in a heightened knowledge of the reality that death and decay do NOT, praise God, have the final world in our lives and in the created world. Perhaps it is when we are most attuned to the in-breaking Kingdom that the world becomes lit up with a kind of holy light that enables us to see and rejoice rightly, whatever our outward circumstances.

At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. :-)