I began this Saturday series, this weekly glimpse of my over-stuffed bookshelves, because it seemed like fun. Just fun.
But now I’ve read House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home by Mark Richard, and the word fun doesn’t come close. To share a book like this is something far beyond fun. It is serious. It is sacred. It almost feels like worship, and what can I possibly say to convince you to read this book? I don’t know what to say, but I feel desperate to say it.
This is a writer’s memoir. It is the story of a life, of a boy sinned against and sinning, and it is the story of God’s grace for this broken world. It is a work of art.
Unlike almost every other memoir you will read, Richard never uses the first person singular, never writes the word I. He refers to himself as you, and that choice draws his reader in and propels us through the pages.
It is as if a drowning man has lured us into the chaos of deep water. With him we are nearly overcome by the Southern Gothic horrors of his childhood, the wandering waste of his young adulthood, and, with him, we are saved. We are pulled from the water just as his father once pulled him from a swirling stream, and we see God.
By the end of this book we, like Richard, have long stopped believing in coincidence. Instead, through the words of an artist we are able to see the work of that Artist who takes the broken pieces of our lives, our bodies, our stories and fits them perfectly together. The result is something beautiful.
Richard’s memoir reminds me of the memoir trilogy by the poet Mary Karr, a series that began with The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. These are not easy books to read. Karr’s story takes Richard’s horrific Southern Gothic childhood and kicks it up a few notches. However, like Richard’s, this is memoir as poetry. Both books make me think that maybe the surest path to God is to run as hard and fast as you can in the opposite direction. Just maybe.
Next to memoirs by writers, I most enjoy memoirs by midwives. Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent is the best I’ve found. Each birth story she shares could stand alone, but there’s an overarching narrative that will make you catch your breath. Organized with brief quotations from The Book of Common Prayer, Vincent’s story prompts me to believe there may be no work more holy than that of a midwife.
I only wish we had a memoir from those heroic Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah, women brave enough to deliver babies and tell tales to Pharaoh himself.
If books get written in heaven (and why not?), then no doubt we’ll read their stories someday. I, for one, can’t wait.
Find earlier book recommendations here, here, and here.
I often have a face in mind when I write out words in this space. To be honest, it’s usually my own. When most of me is stuck in boredom, doubt, or depression some small part of me still sees the truth. I write to remind myself how beautiful life is. How good God is. And how near he is.
Today I have a face in mind, but it isn’t my own. Technically, it’s not a face at all but a voice – the voice I heard on NPR yesterday morning. A young man spoke of how he found Christianity but eventually gave it up because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that those who reject Christ will be tortured for all eternity.
And my heart broke.
I wished I could put both hands on his shoulders, look him in the eyes and say, “You’re giving up Jesus because of a theological position not even all Christians accept? Oh, honey, don’t do that. Trust me. You don’t want to do that.”
I can still remember my shock as a young woman, sitting down to lunch at the Benedictine monastery where I worked, when I overheard the conversation of two visitors sitting a few seats away. “Won’t people be surprised when they get to heaven and see Hitler there, too,” one woman said.
Personally, I will be very surprised if it turns out she’s right, but, today, I am less shocked at the image of Hitler in heaven than I am awed by this woman’s embrace of God’s very big love.
I also remember my shock, that same year, when a fellow church-goer admitted he didn’t think babies who die automatically go to heaven.
Clearly, we Jesus-followers don’t always see eye to eye.
Usually, I’m okay with this. I tend to agree with Augustine that if the Bible leads its reader to be more loving then the Bible has done its job. Augustine isn’t saying that accurate interpretation doesn’t matter, only that it’s okay if we get a little lost on our journeys as long as we arrive at our destination.
As someone who feels at least a little lost, most of the time, I like this idea.
At least, I did, until my daughter stood at the bus stop surrounded by our neighbors and said this Out Loud: “I wonder if Dr. Seuss is in heaven or hell?”
It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, the kids were geared up for a celebration, but they also knew that Dr. Seuss was no longer among the living. I suppose one thought led to another, and suddenly my own daughter was broadcasting a question that didn’t reflect my own spiritual preoccupations at all.
I was mortified. Here I had imagined myself a Christian unconcerned with guarding the borders of who’s in and who’s out, but my own unconcern left a theological hole that my daughter filled in for herself.
So now, as hard as it is, and as comfortable as I remain with theological diversity, I know I owe my daughter a little more. I owe that young man on NPR a little more.
I want them both to know that whether you are blinded by God’s love or by his justice you are welcome in God’s family. I want them both to know that I’ve wandered to a spot somewhere in the middle. I think when Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 God would destroy both body and soul in hell that destroy means what it sounds like it means. Not eternal torment but destruction. An end. Justice.
In other words, I believe in this good news about hell: there is a place where evil will be confined and where it will be destroyed.
And the really good news? God’s love is big. Very, very big. I may doubt we’ll meet Hitler in heaven, but I’m sure we’ll be surprised at the size of the gathering. Because God’s love? Well, it chases us down. It pursues us. And frankly, where most of us are concerned, my money’s on God.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
Ephesians 3: 17,18
I began to love stories when I was tiny (my father told a serial tale about a little girl and her many exotic pets). That love has only grown. It makes perfect sense to me that I would want to measure my days with the Story. Walking through a year with the liturgical calendar is, essentially, living the story of my faith from its beginning to its triumphant end.
Epiphany has past, and we are headed into the season of Ordinary Time. As has happened to me before (and likely always will, for this seems to me the point of living the story), my own spiritual life is mirroring the spiritual life of the larger church, at least as it is expressed in the calendar.
To put it plainly: my days are ordinary.
Ordinary Time seems somehow outside of story. There is no drama, no central narrative. It isn’t Advent, Lent, or Easter. The meaningful intensity of those periods is lacking. Though time passes, it doesn’t feel as if we are on any kind of journey. The days simply are.
I find it easy to wish these days away. I like the excitement of storytelling. I like to know that I am quickly moving from point A to point B, from introduction to conclusion. I like that in books, I like that in church. I like that in life.
I suppose I could make an argument that we are never, truly, outside of the story. We never actually pause in our journeys, as humans, as communities. However, it doesn’t feel right to me to push these days into the narrative mold. It’s dishonest, I think, to dress these days up as more meaningful and significant than they are.
Perhaps they aren’t significant in terms of the story. But could it be this lack of significance that makes them so amazing?
They are gloriously excessive. They are like the galaxies, the uncounted stars and planets that have been created yet remain unseen by our eyes. What are they for? Why did God make them, anyway? For the joy of it?
These ordinary days don’t matter all that much, but they’ve been given to us. God gives the extraordinary – the birthdays, the graduation days, the holidays, the days spent on the mountaintop, and the days endured deep in a valley. As if these weren’t enough, God gives us more. He gives us the ordinary.
The blue-sky day in a month of blue skies. The hand-holding day in a decade of holding that child’s hand. The sunrise and the sunset, always and again. My husband in the kitchen making breakfast for all of us, not because it’s Mother’s Day, but because it’s morning.
revised and reposted from the archives
I grew up hearing Christians say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Maybe you did too?
It’s a sentiment that makes sense to me. Plenty of not-so-great things (and some down-right awful) probably fall under the heading religion. Yet, in the days since Easter Sunday I’ve been thinking how grateful I am for relationship and religion.
Because Jesus came to us, we can see and know God. This is true not only because he died and defeated death, but because he lived. He lived. And now we know what life was always meant to be. Through Jesus we can relate to a God who is vast, beyond comprehension, and yet personal in his love for his creation. Now we live, not by bread only, but by relationship with the Word.
What good is religion, then? Isn’t it merely the false, the superficial, the man-made?
It is also the form so many souls have given (and will give) to their worship. It is an often intangible relationship made material: in bread and wine, the washing of dirty feet, the standing, the kneeling, the hands reaching out in praise and in prayer.
It is candlelight. It is incense. It is light glinting on a gold cross. It is a crescendo of voices. It is one voice reading Scripture aloud for an entire hushed crowd.
It is astonishing and creative.
It is beautiful and traditional.
Of course, it can also be awkward and frustrating. The uncomfortable pew. The piano in need of tuning. My five-year-old deciding he must visit the bathroom just as our row is ushered forward for the Eucharist.
Sometimes we do religion well. Sometimes not so well. And it sure takes a whole lot of effort. The musicians spend hours practicing. The tech-savvy come in early, stay late, and shrug off the irritated looks when the sound system malfunctions through no fault of their own. A dedicated teacher takes the two-year-olds outside for an egg hunt, and some important but often unseen person lingers behind to turn off lights and lock doors.
Is it worthwhile?
Jesus showed us the value in celebration, in gathering, and in breaking bread together. He read Scripture aloud, and he taught. He often prayed alone, but he also begged his friends to pray with him. And in his eagerness to eat a Passover meal with his disciples (Luke 22:15), Jesus promised that our rituals and God-given traditions will one day find their fulfillment – their perfection – in the kingdom of God.
For now it takes effort, whether we gather in a home, a school gymnasium, or an art-filled, stained-glass space. The bread must be baked. The invitations delivered. The space cleaned before and after. But, together, we are creating an outward expression of an inner joy.
We are saying “thank you” and “please come” to all that has been promised.
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before
the Lord our Maker.”
I spent most of this Labor Day weekend sitting by the pool and feeling the spray of splash after splash after splash. My children don’t swim so much as hurl themselves repeatedly into the water. Even the two-year-old, with a grip on his inner tube that looks entirely too casual to me, gets in on the action. Run . . . jump . . . Splash! Repeat.
I tried it once or twice myself, but even that small drop from side of pool to bottom of pool makes my stomach flutter. Once upon a time, I could jump from the 7 meter diving platform for fun after swim practice. Once upon a time, I pretended to like the free-fall rides at the amusement park.
I have nothing left to prove. I would rather avoid stomach flutters. And so I generally ease my body into the pool one concrete step at a time.
But if a bodily free fall is something I now avoid, I find myself pursuing spiritual free falls with much more regularity. They don’t make my stomach flutter – only my heart.
I don’t think you will find the phrase “free fall” in the Bible, but it seems to me the best way to describe the experience of following God into unknown terrain. To hear His voice calling, to move in His direction . . . well, it often feels like falling.
There we are – in midair – and it is not at all clear that we will be caught, that we have in fact heard rightly, that we will not fall all the way to the bottom of an empty post-Labor Day swimming pool.
I could tell you that He never lets us hit bottom. That our free fall of faith is rewarded every time. But I’m not sure if it always looks like that. Or if it always feels like that.
Sometimes we might just find ourselves at the bottom of the pool, picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of it all. Asking, “Was I wrong to jump?”
Occasionally, we are tested like Abraham, and we are privileged to see, without a doubt, that we have aced the test. Abraham knew that he would have sacrificed his son. God knew it too. Abraham passed the test and was rewarded with God’s provision and with a faith that had been refined by fire.
Abraham made the leap. He landed with both feet on the ground and eyes that had witnessed God’s goodness and glory.
Yes, God tests us, we have read, in order to know what is in our hearts (Deuteronomy 8:2). But even if we find ourselves heart-bruised at the bottom of the pool, we are given this good thing: we have seen our own souls in flight.
Whether we call it falling or flying, it is good to know what we are made of. It is good to know that even the least thrill-seeking among us are capable of leaping after Him.
“. . . acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you . . .” (I Chronicles 28:9).
I hope my kids keep jumping. It isn’t safe, but I’m convinced that it’s the only way to live.
I’ve been listening to Mat Kearney’s new album. These words from the song “Hawthorne” keep running through my head: “the Jesus of prostitutes is chasing my soul.”
Those words seem so wonderful and comforting, but it takes me a few days before I stop to consider why. Why does it feel right and good to sing about “the Jesus of prostitutes”? Wouldn’t I rather sing about the Jesus of overly-educated-suburban-mothers-of-young-children? You know, the Jesus-of-me?
No, I really wouldn’t.
I am not actually a follower of the Jesus-of-me (though, some days, I act as if I am). I am a follower of the Jesus who loves the least, the powerless, the set aside, the unseen. I am a follower of the One Who Sees (Genesis 16:13).
Pain. Injustice. Small, seemingly insignificant people. We may look away or keep our eyes closed, but He never does.
You would think that prostitutes would no longer be among the unseen. Not in our hyper-sexed, anything-goes culture, right? But, of course, they are.
I am reminded of this when my friend tells me about a group of locals organizing together to show love in practical ways to the prostitutes who work a particular street. I hadn’t realized there were prostitutes on that street.
Ironically, God shows us throughout his Word that one reason he loves prostitutes – one reason he is their God – is because they see.
Pushed to the edges of her community, Rahab saw the truth. She knew whose side she wanted to be on. The woman with the expensive perfume? She was the only one who truly saw the Beauty-Deserving-of-Worship in that room.
I strive to have the clarity of vision those women had. I accept that one reason they had it was because they were not among their community’s successful, powerful elite.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
This is Kingdom-of-God logic, and it turns the Kingdom-of-the-world logic on its head.
It isn’t telling us to close our eyes, to accept injustice. Rather, it says to us: “Take heart! The Kingdom of God has come. And all around you, and even through you, the tables of this world are being turned. The moneychangers are kicked to the curb, and all is being set right.”
The One who Sees, the One Who is Making All Right: He is a lion, He is a lamb. He is the Jesus of prostitutes.