Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

51+5EHbLWwL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_ I chose to go through this book with my Bible study group. I enjoy Tim Keller and this was a subject I needed to delve into.

I came to this book in some desperation. I believe a number of things that are not evidenced by my daily life. We all feel this to some extent. For me, prayer is the area of my life that least resembles what I believe. Insofar as I am able, I’ve had to ask myself Is it really belief? Part of me thinks and feels in black and white. We believe something, we act in accordance. If the action is not there it is because true belief hasn’t taken place- doubt is in the mix. The other part of me knows all too well that the spirit can be willing and the flesh still weak. This is the murky condition in which I opened this book to read and to work out these inconsistencies alongside some others. If you are one of those others, thank you for the patience, the honesty, and the safe place you have been each Tuesday night this past semester. I know some weeks I came ready to fight and at other times, clearly indifferent.

If I was hoping to get some clear answers, this was not the book. Luckily, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tend to find wanting the man or woman who has all the answers. I was looking for help- a space and a people and a guide to help me wrestle. This book was the guide, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you really want to dive deep, I would recommend reading this with at least another person to robustly discuss it with. Within some bounds, Keller is open to several different methods of prayer and gives the reader a multitude of different tools. This widened my natural understanding of prayer and gave me the freedom to pray differently than I have historically.

One of the early questions we discussed as a group was How did you learn to pray? Did your parents teach you, did you only hear prayer from the pulpit, or was it at school? We all had widely varying answers, coming from a multitude of different backgrounds religiously, but the bottom line was we weren’t taught. Prayer is not something usually taught. It is something you watch and try to copy, but not directly instructed. I can understand some reasons for this, but overall, it seemed to have negatively affected many of us in the room to have never had any instruction. In that way, this book was helpful without being too narrow on how one should pray.

If you enjoy Luther, Calvin, or Augustine, then you will particularly appreciate some of the history of thought surrounding Christian prayer. It was a bit long, and toward the end, I was just ready to be done with it. My biggest critique of the book was that it took 300 pages to give instructions for how to pray, how not to pray, and extensive examples of prayer that would take significant amounts of time (some of the referenced theologians had the habit of praying for three hours a day). This seemed in stark contrast to the Lord’s Prayer, which was Jesus’ answer to the plea teach us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer: a simple, short, direct, thoughtful, unsophisticated prayer. To Keller’s credit, not all of the methods required an hour or more, he encouraged the reader to start small, and raised up the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate example. Even still, one could come away from such reading overwhelmed and a bit disheartened. This does not, for me anyway, override the amount of helpfulness the book contained. And based on our group’s reflection on never having been taught how to pray, its existence is absolutely necessary.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan I bought this to read to my five-year-old. She is creative and loves story. She is, herself, a storyteller. She has the ability to be moved without losing it. Because of this, I’m able to read to her things that I would otherwise wait on until she’s a bit older, things I still haven’t read to my seven-year-old because she’s so sensitive she wouldn’t handle it well.

Again, there are no chapters. This one is written like snapshots in the daily life of Ivan. Some are a few sentences. Some go on for a few pages. He is a gorilla, after all. It took me some time to get Ivan’s voice right (since I was reading it aloud). I probably should have read further ahead of time to get a better feel for Ivan, who seems at first, rather aloof. But as the story progresses, the many pieces of Ivan begin to come together, and it is beautiful and touching. I will warn you though, that there are many sad parts, like when Ivan’s family is killed by humans, or when his best friend dies. It does, however, have a happy (but not too-happy) ending. Judge the appropriateness of these subjects for your children- you will know best. Penny Mae loved it, as did I.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway I began this book in a study of point of view, specifically when an author has several POV characters. There are rules for this, and though Virginia Woolf breaks most of them, she is heralded for it. Artful prose, like poetry, is that balance between following form, and knowing when to break with the form. Being consistent enough with your reader that they can follow where you are leading them, but making exceptions at some points to allow you to take them by surprise. We readers want this too. We bore of the books that do exactly what we predict, and even those that do what we want.

It is beautifully written, and reflected the inner life of the mind well. I valued hearing the inner monologue and its relationship to the outward actions of each of these characters. It would often bring up a memory or a thought such as, “Yes, I’ve done that before,” or “Yes, I have felt that same way.” It allowed me to connect with the characters, especially those of which, if one hadn’t heard their inner monologue, one would have guessed they had nothing in common, or even made up their own simple reasons for why that character did what they did. It is equal parts novel and study in human nature.

The difficulty I had with it was the lack of structure. At first I was baffled. There are no chapters. It begins and does not stop until it ends. I knew, before reading, that it would only cover one day of time, but dozens of pages in and only 15 minutes into the day, having jumped from the thoughts in Clarissa’s head to (anyone!) the florist, the couple passing by on the sidewalk, then back to Clarissa- I was bewildered. It jumped, and it jumped, and it jumped again with no warning, no transition. Once, about 10% of the way in (I read it on a Kindle) I realized this is what the whole book would be like, and I was able to let go of every assumption and drift along the current of her thought. Some people would take to this style of writing better than others- it may be too scattered for some. I did find it hard to keep up with all of the characters- some she returned to over and over again, while others you would hear from for a few pages and then never again. You never knew if this person, whose thoughts you were hearing, would be a significant part of the story or not.

All in all, it is truly different from most books and beautifully written. And if you are nervous because you’ve seen the movie The Hours, fear not! It was barely resembled.

The Art that Pours In

Everyone gets asked the question: What is your favorite album of all time? And we always want to set some parameters- am I stranded on a desert island? Is it all I can listen to for the rest of my life? Because even the best can get old.

But I recently listened to an album the other day- my answer to the question- and realized that unlike most music I was obsessed with in my teenage years, this one has lasted through decades. I think, in fact, that if I had come across this music at any point in my life, I would have loved it, because it touches somewhere deep inside. This one doesn’t just connect me to one time in my life: it transcends people, place, and circumstance to continue to speak to me where I am. It spoke to me then; it speaks more to me now. The words are poetry. I learn something new every time I sing, and when it’s over, I’ve been seen and felt and understood. I have experienced connection, the foundational goal of art.

As a writer, I believe beauty has to be discovered before it can be created. We are not God. We don’t create something out of nothing. We discover something, and create something else. We require inspiration. This is why writers are readers. This album, along with countless others, but this album in particular, inspires me to create. I fill in the gaps of each song with a story, and then another, and another, because they give me the freedom to. The lyrics paint pictures enticing me to paint more:

When I think of heaven
deliver me in a black-winged bird
I think of dying
Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
Render up my body into the burning heart of God
in the belly of a black-winged bird

And this particular album is a two-disc live album in which the songs that are repeated vary significantly from one disc to the other. Our art is always shifting, and I am reminded when I hear these double versions, that my writing is never dead. I have watched, this semester in particular, the evolution of my work, and taken joy in its different facets. Revision can be a burden, but it is also freeing to know that there is no final destination in which the words cease to grow. We are, my words and me, never arriving. That is a humble and good place to be.

This album encourages the artist in me and the humanity. It sings me Beauty….enjoy.

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(Click the album to hear it for free on Spotify.)

The Kitchen Table Collective

I am flirting with the idea of going back to school. I love being a student and plan to be one for the rest of my life. There are so many things we take for granted while in college, because we’re too young to appreciate them: living in a well manicured garden, the library, the time to dive deep. But the greatest thing I took for granted was having professors. No matter where I live, however beautiful my surroundings or substantial the archives, I will not come into daily contact with experts in their field who are committed to teaching me what I do not know. And for the next few decades, I will not have the time I once had to sink into the material.

I make up for it in books, as best as I can. So when my friend Sarah approached me about  creating self-directed assignments and having checkpoints we could keep each other accountable with, I got really excited. We create two assignments for ourselves, one centering on something we are currently passionate about. Creativity can take you off on tangents, and we want to go with it when it does. The second assignment centers on something that is challenging to us. The third assignment we create for each other. It centers on an area of conviction. We know one another well and can spot things that are a bit off or that could be really fantastic if considered. This is a kind way for us to sharpen one another by saying, “Here is something I see. Dig in and get to the bottom of it. I am rooting for you.”

This is our first semester, and I am already seeing such fruit from this work. My assignments involve Theodore Roosevelt, letter writing from different voices and periods of time, assembling a group of people to critique selected poems and revising them accordingly, and journaling several times as I write a poem about a theology I believe with great difficulty. Both my challenge and conviction assignments have me well outside of comfort: asking people for help, deep vulnerability as I wrestle with a belief, and receiving good criticism of my work and pushing myself to make it better. My passion assignment rightly has me obsessed, curious, and imaginative. I am learning with each one and enjoying every moment of it.

My kitchen table is one of the few pieces of furniture in the house that I got just as I wanted it. A custom order- round, gray, simple yet varied. It is a place I gather with others, a place I find nourishment, a place where I’m pushed to my limit. It’s a place where ideas are begun, questions are asked, a place where people process their lives together. So Sarah’s name for our little enterprise, “The Kitchen Table Collective,” fit perfectly. If you live here in Fort Worth, send me a message and join us next semester. If you don’t and you want something like this, sit down at your own kitchen table, gather your people, and start a collective of your own. There are no professors here (I wish there were!), but we make the most of it. A mind is always better with another.

A New Endeavor

In my last post, I wrote about how I have started writing again. No one was more surprised than myself to find poetry coming out. It was utterly unexpected, and brought with it joy unprecedented. I don’t always have the time to devote to a long piece of writing. Poetry has offered me a chance to work on a piece and actually finish it; to hold in my hands a completion- an accomplishment of a kind, no matter how small.

Writing can be such a lonely endeavor, but in the sharing of it, it becomes less so. I have found such encouragement from friends; those in my physical life, and those of you who have followed this blog. Thank you! I hope you have been able to connect to something in the poems I share.

My family and I celebrated this weekend the publication of two of my poems: Grandpa George, written about my favorite farmer, a man so connected in my mind to the earth and its fruits, that every time I see open fields he is found in them. And a different version of There’s No Hiding In a Closet, though I like the version here on the blog better- proof that I am learning the process of revision. All my thanks to Sleeping Panther Press for publishing these pieces in the 2017 Panther City Review.

I am learning as I go and trying to get better. For that reason, I have taken down some of my poems due to submission guidelines. In the future, I won’t be posting any poetry until it has reached publication or been sufficiently rejected. Either way, I can’t wait to share with you more. I am still writing, sometimes more slowly than I would like, but there is still joy in the process and rest in the room it creates inside. Thank you for being in it with me.

 

 

The Silent Years

I have always needed and loved to write. The process of a tiny thought ruminating, growing, and then hungering for expression. Taking up space in me until the floodgate opens and words gush like water. And then I had a baby. Some of the thoughts changed but they still underwent the process. And then I had another….and another. Over the course of five years, I stopped writing despite my best efforts. Whether the thoughts stopped or I no longer had the ability to process them, or I lacked the time to express them- likely some combination of the three- I’m not sure why it happened. But those years, my time of silence, was a season. And just as I had stopped writing despite my effort to keep at it, I also started writing again despite an effort to suppress.

We knew Eloise would be our last baby. She turned two, and I reflected that if our schedule had continued, I would be preparing to bring home another one- but I wasn’t. I was done. I had three beautiful girls. My oldest had just entered Kindergarten and my youngest was growing in independence- two going on 20. Third children…they grow up so much faster. My life began to ease, and I found myself with some time. Enough anyway to read- something, anything!- other than children’s books on repeat.

You readers, you know. You begin to read, your mind is being filled and yet there is always more space for response. And the better you read, the better the thoughts are that fill the space created. Once that happened, the thoughts did what they do: they grew, they hungered, they demanded to be released. Against every effort, against my defiance, they persisted. In December I succumbed. The need to write overpowered the need to rest, in fact it became a kind of rest. I created this blog, needing to break away in format and content from my old one. I needed it to be a place where I was a person- a whole person- and not just a mom. Where thought could exist outside my home.

Why did I resist? That thought is still soaking. It’s not ready to be wrung out. No doubt fear lurks in the water. Some thoughts you don’t want to grow; you are afraid to express. Some day, when I’m braver, when I understand it more myself, those thoughts can find their way out. Because after all, thoughts are just thoughts. They are not truth. But when you let them out into the light of day, you can see them for what they are. The truth or the lies they contain become discernible to you- and to everyone else.

In that, I’m learning to let go of needing to be right all the time. There is a journey in discovering what is true. We never start there. We are bent, all of us, to believe lies. And once discovered, Truth is no shallow pool. We wade in, slowly, pushing under, until we’re fathoms below, if we ever get that far. Maria Popova, on my favorite blog wrote this about Amiri Baraka, and it brought me so much freedom to speak- to speak even what I doubt, even what I fear, even what I struggle with:

Any human being who is fully alive and awake to the world has a duty to be continually changing her or his opinions, always evolving, like the universe itself, toward greater complexity. To judge who a person “Is” on the basis of their views at a particular point in time is to deny them the dignity of continual being, for at any given moment we are only ever seeing a static slice of the person’s dynamic becoming, which stretches across the evolving context of an entire lifetime.

While I probably don’t believe this in the same way Maria does, I do believe we are all moving in a direction. We are never stagnant; we are never still. We live in a current. For me to be able to write something not as Truth, but as Thought or Battle or Attempt, gives me the freedom to be wrong, and the courage to be humble.

A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor

31XnCDjYnqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A friend lent this to me. I have been interested in Flannery O’Connor. I have always journaled struggled with journaling and am trying to find a way to journal that is more doable, more profitable, and more satisfying both now and as I look back. So I have loaded my bookshelves with published journals by some of the greats. This was my first one to read. Like I said, I did’t know Flannery yet- this was our introduction. I had heard so much about this book, as well as her other stories, so truly they have had profound effects on people. But it did not leave a lasting impression with me. I wonder if this was not the place to begin with her. Who immediately jumps into your personal diary upon first meeting, anyway?? Had she been somewhat familiar, I may have read her words differently. I got stuck in the simplicity, and truthfully, the Catholicism. There was also an undercurrent of self-deprecation that didn’t seem helpful. (Compare to John Steinbeck’s use of, what I would call, productive modesty.) The last entry, though it spoke so truthfully, left me extremely disheartened. However, I am not done with her. I plan to read some of her short stories and see if that adds some perspective to her words. I’ll let you know if it does!

The Vanishing American Adult

51etAA6pA1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_My husband and I listened to this at the urging of a good friend as we drove to Colorado this summer. I was really interested in the topic: the cultural development of unending adolescence. I was nervous it would be too political- I don’t have the patience for that. What I was not expecting was the history and philosophy that would be entwined throughout the book. Had I been reading it and not listening to the audiobook, had I not been listening to Ben’s own voice, I could have forgotten he was a senator. He wrote as a historian, as a Christian parent, as a former university president. Those were the perspectives he wrote from, and I found so much of what he had to say as valid and absolutely necessary. As we drove, this book was fuel for a lot of engaging- and sometimes robust- dialogue between me and Hubs in the car.

It’s greatest downfall (besides the hypothetical commencement speech by Theodore Roosevelt) was the practical application of his points. I loved hearing the stories of how his family was instilling work ethic and raising their kids to be full functioning citizens benefitting the world around them. But his situation is different from most, and a lot of what he said wasn’t transferable from his life to mine. My kids aren’t homeschooled. I can’t pull them from school for a few months to send them to a cattle ranch. My husband has a Monday – Friday job he has to be at. We don’t live it multiple locations nor do we have the opportunity to do most of the things his family has the opportunity to do.

So it was one of those books that sets you ablaze, winding you up so that you can spring into action, but once you close the back cover and start thinking about how you are going to shake things up…a bit of frustration and disappointment sets in. Ben, we are working on it. Already, we are doing things differently and our kids are responding, and we are thrilled. And we will keep working on it- you gave us the holistic picture we needed, both of the grim result if we don’t, and the thriving end if we do.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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I wanted to like this because people I love and admire really liked it. Maybe I went into it with too high expectations. It was sharp and funny, but I had a love/hate relationship with Bernadette. I liked her, but she was selfish, and her selfishness was devastating to others, but it read like you were supposed to forgive her for that because it was just her mysterious way. I couldn’t. I saw in her my tendency toward selfishness and the devastation that can have on those around me and I was angry with her, with me. Her excuses were not good enough. (No, neither are mine.) It was an entertaining read, but I hoped for much more at the conclusion.