Finding God in the Ordinary – Book Review

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I first heard about Finding God in the Ordinary by Pierce Taylor Hibbs while listening to the podcast Mortification of Spin. As the author spoke about his book, I knew that this was something I would love to read since looking for God in the small things is an activity I have long practiced.

My copy is a beautiful hard-bound book with a lovely cover and easily readable fonts. However, the treasure is in the words. Pierce Taylor Hibbs takes ordinary events like drinking coffee, shadows, dust, birds on a telephone wire, snow falling, wind, and light and shows the reader how to find God in these every day, ordinary events.

It’s not just that his prose is delightful, but his choice of words approaches poetry in many places within these essays. And his references to the Trinity, creation, language, God’s majesty and providence, and other theological subjects within his musings about “ordinary” events so enrich those events that I will never look at dust floating in the air or shadows on the grass the same again.

Let me share just a few quotes:

In the greatness of God, the smallest of things is given tremendous weight. p. 6

The beating heart of the Trinity is thumping underneath every human word, no matter how trivial or commonplace. p. 16

While darkness is an arena for the light of faith, it is the Lord of light himself that brings our feeble faith to fruition. pp. 26-27

Mistakes are not just markers of our depravity. They are more than that. They are the triune God’s spadework in the soil of the soul. They are opportunities for the great gardener to tend our lives and help us grow. p. 32

I highly recommend this book and plan to re-read these essays over and over again.

What Does Your Business Card Say?

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I’ve been making my way through the backlist of the Out of the Ordinary podcasts. After listening to Episode 6 last week, I created a “business” card to take with me to a writers’ conference I will attend this month.

In the podcast, Lisa-Jo Baker and Christie Purifoy discussed how we need to be careful about how we identify ourselves since our roles may change because of life’s circumstances. At the end of the podcast, they suggested that you write a “business” card for yourself, starting with your name and title, Beloved Child of God. Then you can add whatever roles you have underneath, remembering always that first you are God’s beloved child and that everything else flows from your identity in Christ.

When I thought about what to write on my new business card, I started with the idea that my life is hidden in Christ, I am His child, and He has given me all of the things I do each day. Then I wrote these words to describe my current roles outside of my full-time job:

Writer, Thinker, Researcher

What would you write on your “business” card?

Reading the Bible Fast and Slow

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A few weeks ago, I read this article on reading the Bible fast and slow. If you are like me, perhaps you have tried, and maybe succeeded, at reading through the Bible in a year. There is a satisfaction in reading through all of Scripture in one year. However, one thing that irked me was that while I did get a big picture idea of Scripture and how it all hangs together, I would miss many of the details. I would skim so fast that I wouldn’t think about applications, and I wouldn’t go deep.

Tired of skimming the surface of the Bible, I would then decide to focus on one book of the Bible, like the Psalms or Proverbs or Romans, or Genesis, during a year. That was great because I would go deeper, but then I missed that bigger scope.

This article piqued my interest because the author suggested that rather than choose one of these approaches, you can do both at the same time. Each type of reading complements the other.

So, I planned my Scripture reading for 2019, using this idea.  I chose to read through the New Testament over the year, using a plan by the Navigators. I’m also reading along with She Reads Truth, an online Bible reading group that covers several books of the Bible over the course of a year. Then I am slowly reading through the Psalms. I read only one Psalm or a portion of one each day plus I will study a Psalm in depth every week.

By the end of the 2019, I hope to have read several large chunks of the Bible and to have delved into 50 Psalms. I’m going to read fast and slow. What are your plans for reading God’s Word this year?

Reading Challenges for 2019

coffee-2390136_1920Last week I mentioned that I often have difficulty with decision paralysis on what to read next. The problem is never that I have nothing to read. Instead, it is always that I have too many great choices, an embarrassment of riches, in fact. When I rely on my feelings, I tend to waver back and forth over what to choose.

As a result, I’ve decided to follow a couple of reading plans this year. I want to choose at least some of the titles and have them at my house by the end of January. That way when I finish one book, whether a planned or spontaneous read, I can pick up one from the plan and read it without waffling.

I’ve chosen two plans for this year. The first is the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge. I have been reading the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog by Anne Bogel and listening to her podcast, What Should I Read Next, for several years now. Both are fun places to hear about books and book-related topics. I especially like her reading challenge this year.

When you sign up, she sends you a set of worksheets to help you decide what you want to add to your list. Interestingly, for herself, Anne chose three selections for each of her categories, which I thought was a great idea. I may even do the same. Then I will still have some choice based on availability and desire but will have some guidelines, too. The best of both worlds.

A few of the categories the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2019 Reading Challenge are:

  • A book you’ve been meaning to read: The title that immediately came to mind is Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I have been meaning to read that book for years, but it’s such a commitment at 1000+ pages that I keep putting it off. 2019 is the year! Another option: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (I won it in a contest and am dying to start it!)
  • A book you chose for the cover: One possibility is I’ll be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos. It has such a pretty cover. I need to peruse my shelves and the library for other options for this category. I tend to choose books based on what I’ve heard or read about them, not their covers, so this may be the one serendipitous category.
  • A book in translation: I think I may choose The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. It’s one of my book group reads for this year, and it’s one I’ve been wanting to read for a while.
  • A book outside your (genre) comfort zone:  This category will be covered at some point this year at work. We are challenged to read a book a month and the genres change each month. This month’s genre is memoir, which is a favorite of mine, but I’m sure that at least one of the genres this year will be outside my comfort zone. Or I can reattempt The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which I started last year but didn’t finish. Horror is definitely outside my comfort zone. Another option would be to read a graphic novel. One title that sounds interesting is Spinning by Tillie Walden.
  • A book published before you were born:  I found a really fun site with lists of best-sellers from every year in the 20th century here. A few titles I found that would fill this category are: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn, or A Passage to India by E. M. Forster.

The second reading challenge I plan to complete this year is the one at challies.com. Although it is tempting to choose something other than the light reader category, I need to keep room in my reading life for book group reads, work reads, research reads, comfort reads, rereads, and “just because it’s fun” reads. So I”m choosing the light reader category which is just twelve titles. Categories from this challenge include:

  • A biography: I love biographies so the hard part will be choosing which title to read. Some of my options are: A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Rockness,  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxes, Thomas Cromwell by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Luther by Eric Metaxas, or Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M. Marsden. I will probably read the Thomas Cromwell biography. I have been intrigued by him and his influence on the English Reformation since reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It is 700+ pages, but none of these are small books so that will likely be my choice. A Passion for the Impossible is the runner up, I think.
    A book about Christian living: I have several books on my shelves that will fit this category. I just need to decide between them.
    A book with at least 400 pages: This should not be difficult to attain. For some reason, the books that most attract me are the big, huge ones. I could count Kristin Lavransdatter for this category and choose something else for the “I have been meaning to read” category. Although, at 1000+ pages, it should count for more than one reading challenge don’t you think?
    A book by or about a missionary: I have Helen Roseveare’s Give Me This Mountain, which I want to read for a couple of reasons. First, I heard her speak many years ago at the Urbana missions conference, and I have never forgotten her talk. Also, after reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver last year, I have wanted to know more about the Belgian Congo during that time period. Helen Roseveare lived through the same events as Kingsolver covers in her book so I am looking forward to it.
    A book from a “Best of 2018” list: This is an easy category because I’ve just started The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which fits this category. I’ve had so many people I know rave about this book that I want to see if I think it’s as great as everyone else does. I loved her book The Nightingale, but this one is very different so we shall see. I am also reading Educated by Tara Westover, which would also count for this category.

One other guideline for my reading this year is to read 25% nonfiction. It’s not that I don’t read nonfiction, but my tendency is to read just bits and pieces and not finish nonfiction books. Since I don’t count unfinished books in my completed books list, I don’t have many nonfiction titles. So I will aim to finish at least 20-30 nonfiction books this year. That would give me the 25% (depending on whether I read my goal of 80 or go over like I did in 2018). Also, I would use my time more wisely by reading entire books rather than dipping into multiple books that I don’t finish. I don’t count books that I’m using for research since I rarely read those books cover to cover.

If you are interested in choosing one or more reading challenges for yourself this year, you will find links to more challenges in my article here.

Are you planning your reading this year? Please let me know in the comments.

Stand and Stare

October 18, 2018 at 0807AM - God_s majesty in today_s sunrise. I marveled all the way to work.

Sunrise over the Rappahannock River

Life is so busy, isn’t it? We run here and there—work, home, school, children, errands, entertainment, church. There is always something that needs attention. Or we need to catch up with our friends and followers on social media. Or catch the latest movie. Or make sure to tidy the garden before the first frost. Or the million other things we need or want to do.

So many times I run like a hamster on a wheel to do everything required. Between my responsibilities at work and home, there is little or no breathing space left in the schedule. Mail and newspapers alone can get out of control quickly. I need to cut back plants and weed the garden, as well as run errands and help my husband with needed paperwork.  Then there are the untidy closets and drawers, beckoning for me to come and sort things out, to donate and discard, and to tidy them so that we don’t wasting precious minutes, wading through junk.

I want time to read for fun or edification so I try to carve out time for reading every day. Creating a new blog post or working on a book I’m trying to write also take time. I’d like to get back to knitting and sewing and make curtains for the bare windows in my book room.

I spend precious time in the kitchen, cooking meals for the family, baking food for them and others in need, and endless cleaning up after those many meals and snacks.

If I do everything I need to do, never mind want to do, I notice I’m running myself ragged, like a piece of rope, frayed until worn to only the merest thread holding it together. I feel like that piece of rope all too often, and I know why I do. It’s because, in all of my to-do lists and musts, I have forgotten to stand and stare.

Have you read Leisure by William Henry Davies?  I don’t remember when I first read it, but it resonated so strongly that I have never forgotten it.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Do we make time to stand and stare? Do we make time to:

  • look at the beauty of a sunrise or sunset instead of fleetingly glancing out our car windows as we rush off to the next appointment
  •  pause by a rose bush and touch the pale pink petals while inhaling the sweet scent of a newly opened bud
  • walk through the dew-drenched grass in the early morning and listen to the birdsong echoing all around us, praising the God who made the world
  •  sit on the porch during a thunderstorm and watch the lightning and streaming rain from a place of safety, but open to the wind and sound
  • look at the sunlight streaming in the windows over a table with a stack of books and a teacup, full of hot tea, waiting for us to stop and take a sip, then another and another while inhaling the steam and cradling the warm bowl of the cup in our hands
  • sit quietly in the evening with a glass of wine or water, meditating on the past day and thinking about all the little things for which we are grateful
  •  spend a few moments every day in thanksgiving for the simple pleasures, which are all around us and so easy to find if we choose to look

Do you take time to stand and stare?  Or do you, like I, forget that life is so much more than busyness and obligations and duties and shoulds and oughts? How many times do we forget that sometimes it is our business is to be quiet, to wait, to wonder, to meditate, and to think great thoughts? Let’s not spend this precious life merely racing from day to day without standing and staring and noticing our surroundings.

How do we make the time though? With so many people needing us and tasks set before us, how do we turn away from the neediness of our worlds?

I don’t have all the answers but I think that if we want to meet the needs of those around us, we will do it better if we have a regular time to stand, to think, to plan, to wonder, to understand the whys of what we do rather than just throw ourselves headlong, to meditate on the truths of what we believe so that we can more fully follow through on those beliefs.

It is easier, for sure, to rush through life without thinking. But join me in rebelling against that hamster-wheel type existence. Stand. Stare. Look. Think. Enjoy.

Life will be richer and more full of joy and wonder if you and I take the time each day, if only for a moment or two, to stand and stare.

A Room of My Own

For many years, my bedroom was the room where I did much of my study, reading, writing, and thinking. Morning is when I read, meditate, pray, reflect, and work on my current study project. With children in the house and a busy schedule, there was no other time and place to work on my own studies and cultivate my devotional life.

Now that my children are grown and mostly gone, I am working every day outside the home so I still don’t have a lot of time. However I still write and read in the morning, and I now have a place for my studies. When we moved into our house, my husband decided that since I was the only woman in a house full of men, it would be a good thing for me to have a room I could call my own. He had our contractor take the back porch and turn it into a room off the back of the house.

It’s a jewel of a room. The pale green walls reflect the sunlight that pours in like liquid gold throughout the day. The dark wood floor is covered with an oriental carpet with rich, deep colors, which my father gave me. Family heirlooms dot the room and the wingback chairs are both elegant and comfortable. And, of course, there is a full wall of bookshelves, covered in books of all kinds, so that I have novels to sink into and bits of information right at my fingertips.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, that for a woman to write fiction, [she] must have money and a room of her own…. She did not just mean a physical place, but also that one must have leisure as well as mental and emotional space in order to pour out her thoughts onto a page.

While I believe that anyone can write in the middle of a busy, crowded room, if necessary, as journalists and other professional writers have learned to do, I also can see what Woolf was implying. In order to write, you must create a mental space to take in information through reading, watching, observing, and then meditate on those things long enough to turn them into your own thoughts. Once those thoughts are formed, they must then be written down in some way. All of this takes time and space and energy, much of which is lacking in busy family life, especially when the children are small.

Of course, a mother must make time for her children. Interruptions must be allowed. Attention must be turned from her work to her child’s needs. Reeve Lindbergh discussed this in her memoir, Under a Wing:

…if I knocked at my mother’s door, she always answered, and if I entered the room, she never seemed to mind. She would put down her pen immediately, and smile gently, and ask what I wanted.

However, since my children have grown and moved out into the world to embrace their lives as adults, it has been easier for me to go deeper and further in my thinking and writing. The empty nest has allowed me to acquire the mental and physical space I need work. Having a room with doors that can be closed signals to others that I am in working mode: please do not disturb. I can now fall into what I call the “black hole of research” without being concerned for hungry tummies and skinned knees.

It doesn’t mean that the men in my house always pay attention to that closed door (which is why I still get up before everyone else in the mornings), but it does help me to feel less conflicted and less likely to be interrupted, which allows me to more freely pour out what I want to communicate. Long stretches of time are still scant, but with careful planning, I can often find corners of time and sometimes even a few hours to gaze out the window, read beautiful prose, chase down my myriad of thoughts, and write what’s in my heart.

A room of one’s own—what a luxury and a comfort to have this place of beauty in which to work and think and ponder the important things of life. This room, this jewel, is in the top ten of things for which I am thankful every day.

Favorite Authors: Madeleine L’Engle

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Last week I finished A Circle of Quiet, the first in the Crosswicks books, by Madeleine L’Engle. It has been on my “to be read” list for years. However, I had never found the right time or been in the right mood for it until now. What a lovely book! L’Engle talks about the writing life, family, community, God, and many other things. It’s a memoir of sorts but so much more. Listening to her voice, I heard echoes of ideas I have pondered, events I have meditated upon, and values I also hold dear. It gave me hope that my writing is not in vain and that I must continue to pursue it as long as I am called to put words on paper.

This is not the first time that L’Engle has written something that filtered into my mind as sunlight filters through the branches of a stand of trees. In my early teens, I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. The protagonist, Meg, was so like me—nerdy, misunderstood, thoughtful, awkward. I had braces but no glasses at that point in my life. Instead, I had wild, curly hair in a time when everyone had straight hair, “feathered back”.  My nose was stuck in a book every possible moment, I spent hours writing in journals, and I was still fond of my dolls, although I’d never dream of letting anyone at school find out.

I loved Meg and her search for her father, the quirky Mrs. Whatsit and the adventure. When Meg found a friend in Calvin, who seemed out of her reach, I realized that I might not always be weird and misunderstood. Her little brother Charles Wallace, her mother’s lab at the house, and making spaghetti sauce while doing research charmed me.

The sequel, A Wind in the Door, was another favorite. Looking back, I suspect it had something to do with my love of biology in high school and choice of a major in biochemistry. I spent many hours in the library after finishing A Wind in the Door, reading about mitochondria and wishing that farandolae existed so I could discover them.

Both of the books helped form my thinking as a teenager. I learned that being odd was okay, that big thoughts were allowable, and that someday my outer and inner lives would reach an equilibrium of some sort.

I read many of L’Engle’s adult fiction years later including one of my favorite books, A Small Rain, and its sequel, A Severed Wasp. As I read these two books I realized how L’Engle incorporated her belief about God throughout her books, which caused me to view her writing in a new light.

Five years ago, I first picked up one of her nonfiction books, The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. I marked so many of the thoughts, it’s almost a solid underline. I did the same with Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art a couple years later.

I plan to read the rest of the Crosswicks quartet soon and someday finish the Austin books (I’ve only read the first). I know that Madeleine L’Engle’s books have much more to say to me as a writer, as a human being, and as a Christian. It is a delight to know there are so many of her works I have yet to read for the first time. I look forward to learning much from them as well as enjoying her prose and sampling her poetry.