Ask anyone who knows me: I am obsessed with books. My dream house includes plans for a library with bookshelves tall enough to necessitate a sliding ladder. Belle was always my favorite princess because of her love of reading. Some of the world's most magnificent libraries have brought me to tears (Alexandria, Egypt to name one).
It's this love of the written word that made me want to be a writer to begin with. Maybe it's this love of words that drew me to study the stories people tell about God and get a degree in Religion. I have an abnormal love of learning and have said I would go to school forever if someone would pay for it (Anyone dying to fund my return to an incomplete seminary degree I started sixteen years ago? No?). If you ask any expert on writing what to do to become a better writer, the first thing they will say is, "read more."
So I set out this year with a goal to read 52 books. I read on my kindle and on my phone, listened to audiobooks, borrowed from the library, and supported author friends in launching their precious book babies into the world. By the beginning of December, I had busted my goal apart and read 59 books (and countless essays and articles online).
My head was swimming with all the beautiful, wonderful words. And I needed a break. My love of reading had become a duty as a writer. I needed to read more to grow my craft. I needed to support every author friend that was putting together a launch team. I needed to recommend the best books in my monthly newsletter to my reader (and articles and podcasts, and oh, so much noise in my mind!). My love of story had turned into a duty to take in more information at a breakneck pace. And I wasn't loving it anymore. Sometimes even the things we love can become burdensome. Sometimes we need to reevaluate our reasons.
So, I took December off of social media, reading, podcasts, news. I work in online communications so I couldn't log off completely. But outside of work, I let the only words I take into my mind during Advent be one short devotional and Scripture.
It was a relief to have some quiet for a time. But it is not sustainable as a writer or even as a lover of words. I long to be a learner but I also have limited time (and limited capacity in a middle-aged brain that is pulled in a million different directions). I want to be smarter in what I consume and I don't ever want it to just be more information. I want it to be part of transformation.
So, here's a look back on what I read in 2019 and my goals for the coming year. What about you—what do your bookshelves look like? Continue Reading
“We are homeless wanderers. On this side of glory, we will never be entirely at home. Like the desire to cut and run, the disappointment that God has not yet made all things new…point us homeward.” - Ashley Hales
I moved from trailer park to split-level house, from dorm rooms to efficiency apartments. I’ve lived in a garage apartment on the edge of a bayou and a basement apartment in the home of my childhood best friend. I have made my home in flats in three of the largest cities in the world. I’ve rented, owned my own home, and lived off the kindness of family and friends when my family has been between places to call home. I know well the impact of home, the comfort and the baggage that come with longing to stay and longing to go.
I’ve loved Ashley Hales’ work since she was one of my first editors at The Mudroom and was excited to read her first book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much. I don’t currently live in the American suburbs that I’ve called home for the longest chunks of my life, but the majority of my friends and family do. I thought this book would be for them. It is. But it is also for me.
I’ve been shaped by life in the suburbs and no matter how far I go from them; the hustle for the American dream and the work-harder attitude that is the hallmark of the suburbs remain part of who I am. It has shaped my spiritual life in ways I daily struggle to overcome and in ways that I am grateful for, too.
As I read Ashley Hales smart and honest book, I knew I needed to hear her words on contentment, gratitude, purpose, rest, and finding God wherever you are. Yes, her words are geared towards readers that have lived in the suburbs of America. But I also appreciated the way she likened the suburbs to our human tendency to isolate ourselves from our neighbors and to gather with those like us and her challenge to all of us to “offer our bodies, to see and to notice, and to move toward others in welcome.”
If you’re feeling a little itchy wherever you are (be it suburbs, city, America, or Asia) you’ll hear her words as an admonishment to find purpose where God has put you and find ways to live with hospitality and peacemaking with those around you. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with what you have compared to your neighbors, you’ll be offered gratitude instead. If you’re feeling too busy, worn out, or like you aren’t sure where God is in the hustle of life, Hales offers practical steps to help you slow down and listen:
“You can stop the worry and busyness, the shame and hiding. Belovedness doesn’t come from working harder to be more acceptable or more beautiful…In the suburbs, it is countercultural to live in the light of this deep-rooted belovedness because everything around us says we need a constant stream of more to belong…There is no house, home, suburb, city, or countryside that will finally offer us all that being God’s beloved can.”
As someone for whom the place I live has become one of the biggest definitions of my life for past few years, I heard Hales words loud and clear as a call to not be defined by my place but to live well in it. As I try to be content in a big city while missing my suburban home (but longed for the big city while living in my suburban home), I try to heed her words to “ be an offering day by day,” to “fight to stay present” when I want to flee.
So, wherever home happens to be for you at this point in your life, if you want to learn how to live more faithfully in it, I believe Ashley Hales book will be an encouragement and challenge to you.
We like programs, events. They have defined timelines and an expected outcome. We like to show up and give money or time to a cause. We want to help but we want boundaries too.
Reading Shawn Smucker’s new memoir Once We Were Strangers, I was reminded of the time my “event” of helping a refugee family from Afghanistan as they resettled in their new home in America. We felt accomplished when we helped set up their apartment. We felt less accomplished when we spent hours sitting with the family of 10 talking and letting the kids play. But we found something we didn’t expect, that this family needed less help and more friendship. "Help" wasn’t definable or simple. It required more than we imagined we could give.
Smucker unfolds the story of his growing relationship with Mohammad, a refugee from Syria, with the same ease and grace of a leisurely afternoon having coffee with a friend. In this beautiful true story, we get to be the witnesses of a life slowing down, a perspective changing, and a conviction to love deepening.
“What would my life look like if I made friendship a priority?” asks Smucker who met Mohammad with the intention of helping him write the story of his flight from Syria. But the two find something much more than they expected in a friendship that unites their families.
I received an advance copy of this book to read with excitement on so many levels. I believe Shawn Smucker is one of the best storyteller’s of our day (and have highly recommended his novels to you). I have a passion for seeing the stories of refugees elevated and think this couldn’t be a timelier story, as there are more refugees in the world than ever before as my own country is turning it’s back on them. I currently live in a country housing the second largest refugee population in the world after the Syrian refugee community and work for an NGO that seeks to serve this people without a country. My own life has been changed by friendship with people outside my own faith tradition and I think those in the Western Church need constant reminders to get outside our own culture and faith communities. There is so much beauty to gain from cross-cultural friendships.
Smucker delivered on every hope I had for Once We Were Strangers.
It is a vivid and inspiring story of embracing the diversity that challenges our biases:
“Every time I leave Mohammad and his family, I feel I’ve been given so much. Every time I leave them, I feel they have given me a small gift of peace, a kind of shalom absent from so much of our culture these days. It’s good to have friends who life quiet, peaceful lives. It seems strange to me that of all the families I know, most of whom are Christian, Mohammad’s family lives the most quiet, peaceful life of all.”
It is a gentle battle cry for Americans to wake up to the needs of others (from an author who admits this very friendship was both diagnosis and beginning of the cure of his own prejudices):
“There are days I wonder if this world can continue to exist under the current load of hate and misunderstanding and evil, when I wonder if the hearts of all people can somehow find a vaccination from racism and virulent nationalism and a concern only for ourselves.”
“We have to pull out all the stops in welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, in getting to know those who live around us, in showing love to our neighbors. We can’t afford to isolate people anymore. We can’t afford to push people to the fringes of our society. This world we’ve created is a product of isolationism and fear, distrust and anger.”
And it was a surprising challenge to me to open myself up beyond programs and my ideas of what “help” looks like. It is a call to slow down and see others, to love:
“Our desire to help is often an arms length. People actually need a friend.”
Grab a copy of Once We Were Strangers, be inspired, and then get out there and meet someone different than you. Experience the life-changing power of community.
I spent the better part of the first six months of our international move neglecting to care for myself in any consistent way. My attempts were sporadic and felt selfish. I knew I needed time on my mat each day as my muscles ached with the need to stretch after hours of sedentary language study. But in March I was still working through the 30-days of yoga series I started in January. I was tired all the time dealing with culture shock and a new...well, everything. But there was homework to finish and children's homework to finish and so many more things to do than I had hours in the day.
I knew I was heading towards burnout fast and some of the ways to avoid it, but I let it happen anyway. Anxiety and depression hit hard. And then I had nothing good left to give anyone. I spent the better part of the next few months just trying to function and heal. Self-care didn't seem selfish anymore. At the encouragement of a coach/counselor, my husband, and my boss to name a few—I realized I couldn't do it all without taking some time to care for my self. And that didn't mean sporadically working out or praying when the work was done. In the state I found myself, I couldn't hear God and I couldn't be what anyone around me needed.
“We're not actually responsible for everything in the world or even in our own lives, so we don't need to act as if we are.” - April Yamasaki
I know my tendencies to want to take the reigns instead of letting God be in control, my desire for perfection and thinking I can work my way to it. But when a counselor told me that my desire even to want to protect everyone and meet everyone's else's needs was also pride and control, I was stunned. Here I thought I was serving people and taking care of my family but I was trying to be God for them. I needed to step out of the way and make space for Him to work in my life and in the lives of others.
It was about that time that I was able to read April Yamasaki's new book Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. Her words echoed the warnings against pride and the need to take care of my self to better care for others. Hers were the words I needed to hear.
“In our day a high interest in self-care seems to move in the opposite direction toward disengagement, withdrawal, and focusing on one's self to the exlusion of larger social concerns...What concerns do you have for social and structural change in our world and in your own life? In what ways does self-care empower you to engage these?” - April Yamasaki
If you're anything like me "self-care" can feel selfish because popular culture has turned self-care into ideas of pampering and taking time out for yourself, solitude or vacations, and things that don't seem to fit into everyday life. I see people on social media talking about self-care and think, "yeah, that would be nice if we all had time off or disposable income." I like a good day to myself as much as the next mom and do make time for it every now and then. But this kind of self-care wasn't what I was looking for and it wasn't going to be what healed me. I needed to find ways to care for my whole self on a daily basis. I also wanted to find ways to be whole so that I could engage with the needs around me.
That is why April Yamasaki's words were so refreshing. She writes in a practical and relatable way about holistic care for your mind, your body, spirit, and soul, and how to do so in a way that sets healthy rhythms for your daily life so you can care for others with a full and equipped heart.
Yamasaki talks about ways to care for your heart (like boundaries and community), your soul (Sabbath, lament, and self-discipline), your mind (focus, your digital world, mental health, renewing your mind), and your strength (sleep, food, health). I have never thought about some of these areas as self-care before and certainly never considered the ramifications on my ability to connect with God and others as a result of my own well-being.
“If we are to love God, we need to listen. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to listen. As far as great commandments go, listening ranks right up there with loving. Listening and loving go together." - April Yamasaki
I talk a lot about listening to God, about wanting to hear His voice. I know there are things in my life I need to keep attuned to be able to listen. But Four Gifts also reminded me that to listen to and love our neighbor well we need this attunement as well. So whether you need a little tune-up or a complete overhaul of your self-care, I hope Four Gifts can bring you closer to listening and loving well.
Listening with you,
Utterly alone, you don’t believe anyone could understand the way you feel. Lost, you don’t know how you’ll ever find your way back. And then…a friend calls at just the right time. A song says the words you needed to hear. You read a line in a book that might have been taken out of your very journal. Suddenly, you know there is hope. You aren’t alone. If someone else has felt this way and found their way forward, so can you.
Liz Ditty’s book God’s Many Voices: Learning to Listen, Expectant to Hear was my friend calling to console me, the song to my heart, the “me too” moment that spoke hope into my weary soul. Though I’ve had the joy of meeting Liz, fellow Redbud Writer’s Guild member, in real life it was through the words of her book that I realized just how valuable her voice is to anyone longing to see God more clearly.
I was thrilled to support a fellow author in her book launch and get an early peek at her new book. But I mostly wanted to read it hoping it would meet me in the way I so desperately needed. I knew Liz to be dynamic speaker and spiritual director and I so longed to hear from someone like her that would walk with me to the Father I felt like I had lost touch with.
“It’s possible to seek God’s voice but not seek God. We won’t find Him if we are moving toward our own goals and desires and trying to see Him there. God is who He is, and if we want to hear Him, we have to come to Him in our own broken desire to love Him. Listening should be an act of love, not a grasp for certainty. We have to move only toward Him and His love, not toward His wisdom or blessing or direction.” - Liz Ditty
My early life of faith was lived out in an evangelical tradition that places a heavy emphasis on hearing God through Scripture. I am so grateful for a tradition that instilled a hunger for God’s Word in me. But over the years I’ve been exposed to many other traditions—from the Episcopal church of my college years to the Coptic Church of my time in Egypt, the traditional church of South Asia to the Benedectine Monastery where I discovered the daily office, and the contemplative prayer of fellow authors and friends. I’ve learned that we have many ways of attempting to hear God and I feel like I’ve dipped my toes in the water of many disciplines but never gotten very far in actually listening through any.
In the wilderness I have found myself in after our international move, I knew God hadn’t stopped speaking and I was trying to listen. I just wasn’t hearing anything. I kept going back to the ways of my youth – read more, study more, try harder. Nothing. For nine months now a still voice has been whispering, “Listen. Just be still.”
As I read God’s Many Voices all those How is Liz in my head? moments showed me this: In all my movement and all my attempts to know the answers of why I was drowning in depression, how to get out, and what should come next—I was looking for answers, for a fix. But not for God.
The book gives you opportunities to sit with what you’ve learned and practice it in various sections, reminding you that God’s voice doesn’t just speak through Scripture. Liz focuses on God’s voice as He speaks through Scripture – yes. But also through Prayer, Community, Our Daily Lives, Coincidences and Interruptions, in Beauty All Around Us, and in Desire, Waiting, and Silence.
“If you are wandering in the meantime of waiting, God is with you. He has something tender to say to you here and a profound purpose for what may seem like wasted time. The promised land will be sweet, but God is not withholding good things from you now. He has good things for you, and He is doing good things in you, right there in the wilderness of waiting.” - Liz Ditty
Maybe you are in a season where God is speaking to you more through nature or through a community. Maybe you are growing and hearing from God or perhaps you too feel a bit lost. And reading Liz’s book has reminded me that all of those places are okay. We all have seasons of listening well, of not really hearing, of silence, and of hearing God’s voice differently. It’s the ebb and flow of life and growth and, I believe, also the creativity and diversity of our God. Right now I am in am a wilderness wanderer, telling myself daily that God is with me in it and holding onto words of people like Liz who tell me He is working even when I don’t see it.
Wherever you find yourself, I know you could use a helping hand to guide you. I encourage you to pick up God’s Many Voices and keep listening. Because I believe if you do, you can expect to hear. I look forward to hearing what God has to say to you.
Listening with you,