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I moved to this old farmhouse with dreams of a garden, but it wasn’t a flower garden. What an extravagant dream that would have been. I was a garden do-gooder. If you had asked me to place a spiritual value on a box of seed packets, tomatoes for canning and cucumbers for pickling would have risen right to the top. Morning glories were an indulgence.
Extravagance is something I have had to learn.
Jesus told us he came to give us life. But not just enough life to scrape by. Not a pinched and narrow life. Life to the full. Abundant life. Life like a cup overflowing.
Life like a garden bursting with flowers.
There is a ministry of flowers. I don’t think I can yet claim it as my own. If I practice it, it is only in small ways. A bouquet for a neighbor here. A flower photo on instagram there.
These days, the ministry of flowers is God’s ministry to me. The flowers that grow here at Maplehurst have become an emblem of God’s wild love and evidence of his generative presence on this earth. They are extravagant. Foolish in their ephemeral beauty. Profuse and profligate and anything but practical.
But this is a post about books.
And it is a post about the ministry of cake.
D. L. Mayfield is one of my favorite online writers. Her first book comes out today, and it is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and wise collection of personal essays.
Assimilate Or Go Home shows us how Mayfield’s own do-gooder dream deflated, not in the garden but on the mission field. In her own words:
The more I failed to communicate the love of God to my refugee friends, the more I experienced it for myself. The more overwhelmed I felt as I became involved in the myriads of problems facing my friends who experience poverty in America, the less pressure I felt to attain success or wealth or prestige. And the more my world started to expand at the edges of my periphery, the more it became clear that life was more beautiful and more terrible than I had been told.
There are so many reasons to read this book, but I especially recommend it for Mayfield’s final reflections on the ministry of cake. Cake, like flowers, seems like a nonessential. In a world rocked by wars and rumors of wars, in a world of unbearable sorrows and grief, a world where too many people lack even basic necessities, what is the point of cake? I am reminded of Marie Antoinette. If we celebrate flowers or cake, if we celebrate at all, are we hopelessly out of touch? Extravagant to the point of selfishness?
Sometimes we must receive something in order to understand that it is worth giving. Because God gave me flowers, I tend those flowers and I give them away knowing that they matter. Mayfield wanted to give her refugee friends everything: answers, solutions, even the love of God, but they gave her cake and that changed everything.
Her most of all.
Here are two more book recommendations (one for cake and one for flowers). Perhaps they might help you to receive the love of God in more beautiful and more delicious ways.
This is my new favorite cookbook. It’s a book of seasonal desserts inspired by homegrown produce and farmer’s market bounty. As soon as I opened it, I wanted to bake my way from first page to last.
The banana and summer squash cake is my children’s new favorite cake. Seriously. Also, there is a cake recipe inspired by those apple cider doughnuts so beloved at Amish farmstands and pick-your-own apple orchards. Need I say more?
This beautiful book was a birthday gift to me from my sister Kelli. It is pretty and inspiring, but it’s also informative and practical. I still have so much to learn about floral design (okay, I still have everything to learn), but I’ve already implemented a few good tips and ideas from this book. Because the bouquet we take to a neighbor, and the flowers we arrange for our own bedside table, matter more than we know.
Tell me, what books are on your nightstand?
I wrote these words exactly one year ago. Today, we will carve pumpkins, adjust costumes, and pull the old decorations from the basement. The boys made a scarecrow last week, but he still needs a pumpkin head.
The kids are so much taller, and Elsa is old enough now to refuse the costume we chose for her. But so much is the same. These words are still true.
My friend looks up toward the trees and says I had forgotten how graceful dying can sometimes be.
I follow her glance and know that she is right. I, too, have forgotten. I remember autumn through snapshots. Which means, I remember the brilliance of that one sugar maple down the road. Or, I remember the startling red of a Burning Bush shrub against a deep blue sky.
The snapshots help me to remember true moments, fiery moments, but they do not give an accurate picture of the whole.
Autumn, taken as a whole, does not look like clear, bright brilliance. Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, it is gentle. Faded. It is burnished gold and copper. It is gray clouds and wet pavement.
This autumn world does not rage against the dying of the light. It smolders, quietly.
Christians like to talk about Halloween on the internet. I have usually abstained from those “conversations.” So much depends upon context. Like the context of our own memories. Like the context of our own communities. Often, the internet is a conversation without a context.
Here is a bit of mine. In the church of my childhood, Halloween was ever-so-slightly taboo. We wore costumes, but we wore them to collect candy at our church’s “Harvest Fair.”
As new parents, we discovered the great adventure of escorting a temperamental two-year-old ladybug down city streets. We stole her candy when she wasn’t watching, and we hugged our neighbors. We tried to catch the eye of their over-tired Dorothy or Scarecrow. To tell each one we had no idea it was them.
Still, decorating my home for Halloween always seemed like a step too far. Until we came here. Now we live in the farmhouse on the hill and how else can we entice our neighbors and their children to climb our hill, to receive our gift of love and candy, but with a few smiling ghosts and candle-lit pumpkins?
Context. It changes things. Changes us.
We live in a culture that largely ignores death.
Our children no longer walk to church through churchyards dotted with graves. Our own church is that rare thing with its own cemetery, but it is all the way around by the back door. My children often ask to walk that way, but I am in a hurry. Another time, I say, as I rush them through the front door.
I am sorry for this. And so, this year, I am grateful for Halloween. I am grateful for the space it opens up. I am less grateful for the gory zombie poster set at a child’s eye level at the local Wal Mart, but mostly I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about death. About dying. About our baptism and what it might mean that we have already died with Christ.
Which is, to say, we will have a conversation about living.
Soon, we will bring out the plywood grave markers my husband made last year. Our kids painted them gray with black crosses and the letters R I P. We will tuck them near the crumbling stone foundations of the old farm buildings, and we will drape them with twinkly lights.
As we outline a path for candy-seeking neighbors, my daughter will ask me again about those letters R I P. And as darkness settles, and the lights begin to flicker and gain strength, she will tell me, It’s beautiful.
Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.
Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert
A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).
This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.
This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.
How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton
Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.
We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.
Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.
What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.
God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children
I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.
The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.
It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..
This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.
This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.
It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.
To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman
“Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that
faith may take new forms.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
I remember the day I stopped believing.
I see that day now for what it was: a doorway. Nothing would ever be the same for me having passed that threshold.
I thank God every day for leading me to that place. I thank God every day for giving me the courage to do what I had never yet done. For the first time, I doubted him.
I am not a risk-taker. I am a play-it-safe, keep-within-the-lines, follow-the-rules kind of girl. Growing up, they told me God is Love, and I believed them. And then I followed the rules.
Church on Sunday.
Read your Bible daily.
Rules which added up in my mind to this: you’ve been bought for a price so now live like you can make it up to him.
But, of course, we can never do that.
Which is why he never asked us to.
I stood in church one Sunday and sang some song about God’s love. I was in pain, I saw no evidence that God had noticed, so I stopped singing the song. I no longer believed in a God equals Love. I no longer believed that this Love saw me.
Here is the thing about unbelief: it is like a fire. It burns away the truth, yes, but it also burns away the lies.
What is left is a heart like a dead, blackened field.
In other words, what is left is the perfect ground for new life.
I do not want to idolize unbelief, no more than I would want to idolize certainty. All I want is to say: Do not be afraid.
On the days when you believe, the days when God is near, do not be afraid. Do not imagine it is up to you to keep the feeling going, like a bicycle that might disappear the moment you become too exhausted to keep peddling.
And on the days when you cannot summon belief, on the days when God is a void, do not be afraid. These days are dark, they may be painful, but they, too, can be a gift.
Which came first, my love for God or his love for me? Before I stepped through the door of this day, I’m not sure I could have answered the question. My view of divine love was a mixed-up mess of lessons I’d been taught, songs I had sung, parents who loved well, and my own lonely efforts to be a good person.
Maybe that has been the greatest gift of unbelief. Embracing it, I let go of everything I thought made me lovable.
And then Love found me.
“We love because he first loved us.”
(I John 4:19)
I like to think of myself as an adventurous reader. A curious reader. A willing-to-give-it-a-go reader.
Truthfully, there are quite a few things that almost always trigger a “No, thanks,” from me. Almost always, that is. This Saturday, I bring you a few of those books I still don’t know why I read. But I’m so glad I did.
The descriptor ripped-from-the-headlines is a major stop sign for me. I can’t even watch Law and Order. I appreciate the headlines and the stories behind them (mostly via NPR). I love utterly fantastic, creative storytelling. I don’t like any mixing of the two.
In my view, the truth is generally more incredible than fantasy. Also, excellent fantasy is generally more truthful than reality.
Here’s the exception: Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue. Actually, this book also defies another of my stop signs: never read a book in which terrible things happen to a child.
I wish I could remember why I ever picked up this book, but, heavens, am I glad I did. This is the story of a little boy who has never known anything but a single, small room. He is the child of a young woman who was kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a backyard shed.
I know I’ve already lost a few of you, but I hope you’ll stick with me. Truly, this is one of the most incredible novels I have ever read.
Because Donoghue tells her story from the little boy’s perspective, our overwhelming impression is one of wonder, never horror. The skill with which this child and his world are depicted simply boggles my mind. In fact, writing this, I am itching to read this one again. Just so I can figure out how she did it. Because what she has done is amazing.
This is a beautiful story. It will leave you in awe of the power of a mother’s love. It has an exciting, page-turning plot (will these two incredible people escape their imprisonment??). Finally, it has an emotionally satisfying ending.
Room breaks all my rules and does it beautifully.
Stories are a different kind of true. – Emma Donoghue in Room
Another of my rules? I don’t do literary adaptations. The sequal to Peter Pan? An update on Hamlet? Noooo! They can never equal the original, and they strike me as creatively lazy. Derivative. Come up with your own characters, why don’t you!
But, then I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel (P.S.) by Margot Livesey. You could call this a retelling of Jane Eyre. Like me, you are probably thinking, “Why not just read Jane Eyre?” And, yes, if you haven’t, you should.
But thanks to Livesey, I think I now see the point of retellings, adaptations, and imaginative sequals and prequals. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It creates echoes and other artists, in other places and other times, respond to those echoes. It is as if The Flight of Gemma Hardy is in conversation with Jane Eyre. It helps us to see the old classic with new eyes, and it is, in itself, a beautiful work of art.
Running, I soon realized, was the best way to stay ahead of fear. – Margot Livesey in The Flight of Gemma Hardy
One final no-go: gimmicks. I don’t like them. Also, anything that seems needlessly disrespectful towards the things I hold most dear. So, why I ever read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs is beyond me.
First, this book is hilarious and slightly gimmicky, but it is written with earnestness and humility. Jacobs really does want to understand the Bible and the many ways people profess to live it out, and he shares his growing wisdom with us.
In the end, this memoir is funny but it’s no joke. With curiosity and empathy, Jacobs encounters Biblical literalists from the Amish in Pennsylvania to Samaritans in Israel all while trying (and failing) to live the Bible as literally as possible. At the end of his experiment, Jacobs is humbler and wiser.
And so are we.
I’m still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance. – A. J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically
Find previous book recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, and week six.
We married young and hit the road. All we wanted was Texas dust in the rearview mirror. The rumble of the El was our siren song.
We weren’t afraid because we carried this around like a turtle shell: Church.
Baptist, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Church of Christ … ours was a messy family stew that had finally deposited us both in a non-denominational box.
The box was what we knew. The box felt safe.
But boxes, it turns out, don’t travel well, and we were wanderers now. D.C., Chicago, Jacksonville, now this little country corner of the Philadelphia burbs.
Church has been a constant, but it’s been anything but safe. Anything but predictable. Not really a turtle shell, after all.
We thought there was one right way to do church. One right way to be the church. The way we were raised, of course.
But God kept us moving, and he kept our ideas about church moving, too. What had been small and safe became big and wild. Beautiful but unpredictable.
I’ve been thinking about those first Christians. They were “scattered” by persection, made wanderers for God’s own purposes. They wandered, and the church grew.
As we wandered, our understanding of church grew, too. Always bigger, always better than we knew.
I’ve sat in a Catholic mass and realized that the Eucharist might be more than the sum of its parts. Much more than the saltines and grape juice of my childhood.
I’ve stood in a gathering of Vineyard women when the doors of our meeting-place burst open with a loud wind. I watched that wind sweep around the room but I knew those doors didn’t open to the outside. What I saw and felt was no earthly wind but Pentacost miracle.
I’ve sat in an Easter morning service when the procession of colorful vestments and golden cross was so beautiful, so celebratory, I could have wept.
I once sat in an old wooden pew. A choir lifted its voice, and I suddenly knew what heaven sounds like.
I’ve seen adults baptized in Lake Michigan.
I’ve seen babies baptized with a cupful of water.
All of it so good.
Recently, we’ve taken to driving a long, long way to get to church. It’s something I’ve always said I’d never do. Join the imperfect neighborhood church, don’t go chasing “perfect” miles away. Perfect doesn’t exist.
But I don’t think I’m chasing perfect. I think I’m searching for home. The place where this wanderer can find rest.
Maybe this will be my church for a season. Maybe for a long, long time. Only my second Sunday there, and I was fretting about it instead of worshipping. I could hardly hear the music because I was listening to thoughts like these: Is this the place? Are we right to come so far? Will we make friends here? Or wil we set off searching, again?
The music finally broke through, and I realized what we were singing: Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.
I have been given so much more than one day. I’ve been given a lifetime of Sundays. A lifetime of small groups and youth groups. Of church retreats and coffee hours.
We pile the kids in the car and drive and drive. We do it because we need that soft brown bread. We need that sweet red wine.
We do it because one day in His courts really is that good.