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11.21.2020

knowing and doing

In a tradition that has marked the pace of my writing in this space, I am recalling a season that now feels many many months ago because I learned so much that is still important.  I hope that returning to it means it is now more fully processed and clearer because of the time it has taken me to put it on the page.  Then again, time has felt like a wonky and unreliable narrator this year, so perhaps this is appropriate after all.

Early this summer, I read a book by Steven Garber, entitled Visions of Vocation.  I picked it up because I feel as though I am in that most critical position, hanging onto the last several weeks of my college career, looking at the next couple of years with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  Some part of me thinks that I should be more established by now in a path, with a plan that stretches beyond my purview.  And yet, perhaps that is not my place.  Perhaps my vantage point is limited to the next step in front of me for a reason, for the holy lesson of patience and slowness that is often so uncomfortable.

Speaking of holy lessons, what I learned about vocation was not was I was expecting to learn.  Garber's premise seems to be that vocation is not so much a career, a role, or a specific ministry, but a guiding passion, or rather a guiding grief that God places in your life or on your heart.  He writes about what it is like to observe the world and know it in such a way that what you know motivates what you do.  This is different for every person—what you know and what you do with what you know is personal and spiritual and wildly practical.  

My instinct is to observe and learn.  This summer, as waves of racial tension surged and the ugly undercurrent of racism broke through complacency, I learned.  I read.  Books and articles and opinions and perspectives and all of it.  That is easy for me.  When I do not understand and when I am faced with something messy and confusing, my first move is to study it.  As if the experiences of generations of people can be understood by objective research.  The premise of Garber's book—the theme of knowing and doing—is that you cannot stop with the knowing.  Jesus didn't.  The observing, the learning, the knowing, is only as useful as what results from it.  We shall be known by our fruit, not by how well we understand the workings of trees.  

This theme has worked itself out in other parts of my life this year.  At some point early this summer, fresh off the semester, conviction came and sat on my chest.  I was sitting still and doing nothing and clenching my hands trying to hang onto plans and hopes and dreams for a year that was clearly different than what I had expected.  I am good at seeing what I am missing; I am not so good at seeing what is right before me.  I started volunteering with a local ministry that serves refugees and seeks to foster cross-cultural relationships and discipleship.  This opportunity led me to a neighborhood about twenty minutes away from where I live.  Every Friday afternoon I show up along with a group of volunteers that only God could have assembled, and we spend time with sometimes dozens of Burmese Muslim children from the ages of three to fourteen or fifteen.  We blow bubbles and draw with sidewalk chalk, kick soccer balls, color, play games, and generally try to contain chaos.  We have learned names, met the families of the community, and we have learned how to pray for our neighbors.  We have seen how God takes little and multiplies it.  In a way, we're not surprised.  He has a history of doing that.  These afternoons are not grand and successful attempts to fix brokenness, we have no inflated suppositions about our ability to reconcile or heal or make right.  There is an acute sense that we simply show up and God does all the heavy lifting.  

Not only have I been overwhelmed over and over by how God draws people together for the purpose of his good work, but my eyes have been opened to needs and stories that I knew nothing about eight months ago.  In a bible study I am leading for middle school girls, we have been discussing the ways we reflect God's identity in our capacity to care for people.  The more I have spent time with these kids in this neighborhood and as I get my hands dirty week after week, what I have come to know about their stories has planted deep roots in my heart.  Now that I know, the doing is more and more a natural consequence.  I will never not know about this neighborhood, about the kids who have been forced to move houses again and again because they are broken into.  I will never not know their names and their faces and the constant juxtaposition of dark and light, joy and hardship that hangs in the air they breathe, that we all breathe.  This is knowing and doing.  

None of this comes naturally.  I am reluctant to get my hands messy.  I hesitate to put down roots and linger because I understand what it requires of me.  In my heart there is constant war between my selfish desire to resist attachment to anything and the holy urge not to leave until I have given all I can.  I suppose it is something I will be learning forever, going around and around with God until he's softened me into approaching all things with my hands open, giving and giving and giving out of his own abundance and love rather than my own lack.

Perhaps that is what I will leave this year with.  My prayer, the theme I set for these twelve months so many days ago, innocently in January, never knowing what would come, was that God would give me open hands.  Open hands for whatever he would set before me or take away.  My hands are less tightly clenched now, I am pretty sure of it.  But I think I have learned more than anything else that the capacity for accepting and the capacity for giving are not mine at all, but God's, and it is only by the goodness of the Spirit that I can do either.  They may look like my hands still, but any ability they have is straight from God.  If this year has taught us anything, and we may never know how much, it has taught us how utterly feeble and helpless we are on our own.  It is our great joy to find that he is enough.

4.29.2020

like a tree

I am sitting here, late at night, dusting off this space to pour out some words in a strange time.  Upheaval and change make me want to process them through writing, so here I am.

In some ways, my life has not changed dramatically.  It feels familiar, even as it has come to take a different form.  I shed a few tears on the way home tonight because I met with my second language acquisition class for the last time over Zoom and it hit me all of a sudden that my last real semester is very close to finished.  At the end of every semester, I mourn, just a little, for the classes I'll never have again, for the friends I'll not see in the same ways or at the same times, and for the professors whom I'll never again get to hear in that particular context, teaching about that certain thing.  This time feels very different and final, and my emotions are complicated and contradictory.

I don't want to talk about school, though.  I want to talk about what I'm learning, what I'm seeing, how I'm trying to process all of this.  Today a song has been in my head and the chorus runs like this: plant me like a tree, by the streams of living water.  I've been thinking about this idea, about the tree, for a few weeks now.  Actually, it's been much longer than that.  A note on my closet door holds the faded verses from Jeremiah that describe the tree in the desert that is green and bears fruit though the rain does not fall.  That has long been an image that is powerful to me.  Maybe it means so much because I long to feel like that tree myself.  I long to feel as though nothing around me can shake me or cause me to wilt and drop fruit to the ground.  Perhaps this is borne out of my deep desire to be independent and self-sufficient, in the way of an enneagram five who fears never having or being enough.  And so this time has been instructive and has peeled away my pretense of having control, of being able to understand my way out of difficulty.  My utter dependence on God is written out all around me.  I am always conscious of how my circumstances affect me in ways that are not exactly praiseworthy on my part.  I constantly wonder when I am in a time of abundance, feel as though God is close enough to touch, or receive good news whether I would be quite so joyful if things were different, and it humbles me.  If I am to rejoice in all things, that means all things, right?

The other week it snowed a few inches here in Indiana.  I had mowed the yard for the first time just a few days before and my skin was still red from where I didn't use sunscreen.  This is the way of the midwest, and I shouldn't have been surprised.  On my way out to my car that morning, I noticed a brilliant violet, still blooming through the ice, and it made me stop.  Perhaps I'm sentimental and chalk too much up to what I observe, but I want to come out of all of this like that flower.  I want to be more aware of how needy I am, how much I need people and community and the grace of God (so much so much), but I want my circumstances to matter a little less when it's all said and done.  I want to brave the heat of the desert and the draught of the wilderness and the floods of spring with greater assurance and confidence—not in myself, but in God.  C.S. Lewis writes that we find God when we "consciously seek from him the right attitude toward all unpleasant things."  We find him faithful and sure and still present, though nothing seems the same.  I don't like change, don't like to see how much my plans and dreams mean to me when they suddenly seem less certain, and my response to all of it has not been consistently glorifying, I will admit.  And yet, I hold my hands out in front of me, open, in trust that God is always good, even if that good does not seem so good to me.  I ask to be taught and that I might allow myself to be taught, even by something as horrible as this virus.  To become more like a tree with deep roots fed by living water.
"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." Jeremiah 17: 7-8

7.25.2018

Reynosa Verano

This summer has gone by in a blur.  I have roughly two weeks left of my time in Reynosa and it is crazy to me that the time has gone by so quickly.  One thing I have had to learn about myself again and again every time I find myself in a new situation, up against new challenges and in the midst of completely different circumstances and relationships, is that I am, for whatever reason, a post-processor.  I attribute it to my personality and to the particular ways in which I react to things, but I normally do not have a lot of emotional response when I am still in the middle of something new and different.  When I return home, back to normal and pick up my life and my routines again, everything hits me like a bus and I find that God brings it all back and imbibes my experiences with new revelations and wonder.  For this reason, the adjustment period when I return home is always a little intense and exhausting but also beautiful and rewarding.

All of that to say, while I can't write a long post about fifteen times I was moved to tears within the last few weeks, or about thrilling revelations God has splashed across the sky late at night for me to see (though there have been a couple), I can write about some things I have learned so far.  Earlier this summer, when we took a team retreat to Real de Catorce, I sat down one morning and made a list of everything God had taught me so far.  I want to share outtakes of that list today and add to it from the last couple weeks.

1.  Reynosa is a border town, and at this particular cultural moment in America, when the conversation about immigration and legal status and citizenship and the separation of families is so constantly and deafeningly a part of the national conversation (too nice a word to describe something that is usually not civil or coherent), it is a fascinating and heartbreaking place to be.  In the first couple of weeks we were here, the issue of family separation was at its peak, and it was the subject of many discussions with the missionaries here, and while I believed that the immigration system was deeply flawed and dehumanizing before I even came, that belief has been reinforced by seeing it with my own eyes.  The day I arrived, we drove across the border into Mexico, and there was a group of about thirty asylum seekers camped out on the Mexican side of the bridge, waiting to be processed.  They had no access to toilets, they were sleeping on blankets that they had been donated to them, and they had young children and babies.  As an American, one can believe whatever s/he wants about immigration laws.  One can think that all the illegal immigrants should be thrown out, but there is rarely any kind of true understanding or awareness about what that actually looks like.  It is so important to recognize that there is deep lack in our perspective, even if we consider ourselves to be well-informed.  It is an entirely different thing to see human beings stacked up along a bridge, denied entry into a country we call our own, denied basic dignity because they lack a few papers.  One couple we talked to had been forced out of their home in Eritrea because of persecution and war and because they escaped, had no form of identification from their own country and therefore could not enter the U.S.  They were asylum seekers, and yet they were not allowed in, even though that qualification was designed with their circumstances in mind.  Beyond the legality of it all, however, it was shocking to see how dehumanizing the whole process is – to actually see how immigrants and asylum seekers are treated.  They are denied basic necessities like access to bathrooms.  They are so closely guarded by border police who look as if they are attending prisoners.  They are treated like criminals, for simply seeking a better life.  I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to have witnessed all of that with my own eyes this summer.

2.  I have gained a greater respect for all that it means and what it looks like to shine the light of Christ wherever I am.  It doesn't always look like bubbly, happy friendliness or extroverted talkativeness, though sometimes it does. It doesn't always mean long, serious conversations about hard and complicated points of theology and stages of life that confuse us, but sometimes it does.  What I do think it means, all the time, in every way, is allowing, encouraging, at times even forcing that deep well of joy filled by an awareness of Christ's love and sacrifice to bubble into every interaction, conversation, and action.  It looks like living in the freedom of Christ and loving really well and really hard and being fearless and confident because I am loved fiercely by the greatest love of history.  We are all between the paws of the true Aslan, and that grace holds us secure, safe enough to chase his Father heart and pour out his love wherever we are.  

3.  I have learned what it is like to travel to another country and be thrown into a community of people I barely knew and be accepted and loved like family almost immediately.  This place, this ministry, this family of missionaries and friends feels like home.  I have been given the sweet gift of belonging this summer and I am so grateful.  Leaving is going to be rough, let me tell you.

4.  In the same way, and for this reason, I have learned how to be more deeply relational this summer – how to love and be loved by new friends, all the time, even when we're tired and frustrated and hard to like.  It hasn't always been easy or come easily, but it's less about trying and more about just doing.  We love because we were first loved and because we are family, bound together by grace and the love of Jesus.

5.  I have learned a little more about what missions looks like from within: what is looks like to be missionaries from within a community of them.  I came this summer, in part to see what that looks like and my prayer is and has been that God would use all that I have seen and experienced to direct my path and open my eyes as I pursue what I believe he has laid out for me.  

6.  I have gained a deeper love for deep, abiding friendships both since I've been here and before I left.  God has done good, hard work in me over the last couple years regarding the way I think about and appreciate friendships and relationships and the way they have supported me this summer, both before I left and while I have been here has been beautiful to watch and experience.  I am so grateful God has worked in my heart and opened me up to new people and new friends, for his faithfulness in providing through loss and hurt, and his grace in giving me what seems like the best in the friends department.  I've seen it here too: these girls I've been interning with have become such good friends and I'm so thankful we were thrown together this summer and have gotten so close so quickly.   I have been taught by them and loved so well by them, and I am just so stinkin' grateful for them.

7.  I have come to appreciate the closeness of my family even more deeply this summer.  I have the best siblings, the best parents, not just because they are mine but because they are just the coolest people in their own right.  My siblings are my best friends, and as much as I have loved this time on my own, I have missed their faces a whole lot.  I am grateful to be going home with a fresh perspective on my place in my family, my church, my life, and with my friends. 

8.  I have learned to be more flexible this summer. I've learned to trust God and his faithfulness and his promise that he will never leave us with too much handle. When the people we work with changes week-to-week with new teams from the states and dynamics have changed and then changed again, my routine-loving heart has felt stretched and pulled and pushed and softened into obedience and trust.  In that, though, I have seen God's care in the small details – I have seen his mercy in new friends, in new jobs, and in new mornings and late nights. One of these new jobs was tiling walls in the new bathroom that has been one of our many projects this summer.  I kept a few of the spacers we used to remind me of this.  God's grace sometimes looks like small mercies on long, hot days.

I am thankful, thankful for these two months: for everything I've learned, for all the people I've come to think of as friends, and for the gift of living in this place and see God's work and his Spirit all around me.  This has been the best summer.

6.06.2018

Women's Agency in Jane Austen

A few weeks ago, fresh out of the spring semester, I picked up Mansfield Park by Jane Austen.  To me, Austen's writing has become something of literary comfort food–something I want to read when I need something familiar that I know I will enjoy.  For some reason, I gravitate toward her in the summer.  Her writing always takes me a little longer to read and I like to have a more time to take it slow.  Anyway, I finished Mansfield Park recently, and I was totally surprised by how much I loved it.  For some reason, I had lower expectations for it, just because it doesn't seem to be the most popular of her novels.  Persuasion is still my favorite, but Mansfield Park is a close second.

Today, I want to write about a fascinating thing I noticed with this book in particular, but which applies to all of Austen's work.  I'm sure the argument has been made that Austen is not a feminist writer, that because she portrays a series of women who fall in love and get married seemingly inevitably, that she is not pro-women, or doesn't believe that women have a choice, or agency, in the genteel Victorian society that was so governed by a patriarchal system where women were incomplete unless married.  Of course, this was a feature of the society at the time, and because of various rules, women could not usually inherit from their fathers and were forced to marry well in order to be supported financially.  All of that to say, Austen is sometimes thought of negatively because her novels did nothing subversive–the girl always ends up married and secure with her husband.  However, there are also plenty of arguments that suggest Austen was doing something different and perhaps more subtle in her books that was pointedly counter-cultural for her time.

I've always had the inkling as well that Austen was not just a romance writer – one only has to read Persuasion to see that she has much to say about her society and she is a sharp critic and satirist of the world she occupied.  I never noticed this more than in Mansfield Park.  She is much more overt in that novel than she is in her other books about the choice women had, even in her structured society and even within marriage plots that seem so formulaic and constraining.  Today I want to write about women's agency as portrayed in Jane Austen's body of work–the ability of women to make choices that matter, both to them and the people around them.  A line from another classic novel came to mind when I was reading Mansfield Park and helps describe what I mean when I say agency.  The quote is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and is spoken by the main character, Jane: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will."  What I've come to realize about Austen's stories and her heroines is that they exert their will even in a society strictly ordered by structures like obligatory marriage and the like.  A key feature that is present in all of Austen's novels I've read so far is some character, normally the mother, who advocates marriage at any price, even if the gentleman is not, in fact, a gentleman.  So often, the heroine's heroic moments are those when she makes the choice to turn the prospective suitor down for her own reasons.

Such is the case in Mansfield Park.  The protagonist, Fanny Price, plays the role of the stereotypical poor cousin who is shipped off to grow up with wealthy relatives.  Within her adopted family, she has a single ally, her cousin Edmund, who she loves and admires, and often supplies with advice.  He is mostly a good guy.  Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Fanny draws the attention of a Mr. Crawford, whose courtship is thought to be the highest honor because of his status and wealth.  When Fanny refuses him, and continues to avoid his advances everyone around her is shocked and dismayed that she would pass up such a fortunate opportunity when there is seemingly so little chance she will get such an offer again.  For her part, Fanny refuses Mr. Crawford because she doubts his character and morals – she simply has reason to believe he is not a wholly good man.  Over and over, her motives are questioned by the men and women in her life, but she stands her ground.  She cannot voice her convictions about his morals to her uncle, in particular, because Crawford's wrongdoings also involve her uncle's own daughters, and so he doubts her every reason for refusing such a suitor.  At one point, he tells Fanny, when he first hears of her decision, that:
"I had thought you peculiarly free from willfulness of temper, self-conceit, and every tendency to that independence of spirit, which prevails so much in modern days, even in young women, and which in young women is offensive and disgusting beyond all common offense.  But you have now shown me that you can be willful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you–without even asking their advice.  You have shown yourself very, very different from any thing that I had imagined" (Austen 327).
He goes on to say, a little later that, "And [you] are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honorably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again" (327).  Fanny will continually be asked by numerous men, whether she really knows her own mind, for she cannot possibly be rational in refusing such a fine match.  Ultimately, every conviction Fanny had about Mr. Crawford will be confirmed by his future actions and her refusal will be acquitted, but not before Austen makes her point.  Women in her novels have choice, they have a degree of agency that may appear subtle because of the world they inhabit, but is no less powerful or consequential.  In the end, it is Fanny, Fanny who knows her own mind and her convictions, not her uncle nor her aunt, who is correct about the character of the man who pursues her.

In the same way, the protagonists of Austen's other novels make important choices, too.  So much of the plots of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Mansfield Park hinge not on whether the guy will ask the woman to marry him, but on her own choice(s).  In Pride and Prejudice, it is not Mr. Darcy's attempts at winning Lizzie Bennett's hand that form the crux of the novel, but Lizzie's own struggle to come to terms with her deeply-held convictions about Darcy's character.  In Persuasion, it is not Wentworth's proposal that turns the plot–though it is the most perfect, most glorious proposal in the history of proposals–but Anne Elliot's transformation into a woman who knows her own mind and who makes important choices for herself and by herself.  Emma is a more complicated case, as the plot hinges on the decisions she makes for other people, and it takes a good portion of the novel for her to realize she must eventually decide about her own marriage, but it is still the consequences of her ability to choose that drive the plot.

I love what Austen does in her novels.  I love the subtlety with which she makes her point about women's ability to choose–their agency in directing their own lives.  Fanny Price is a warm, fully-developed character who is both independent and deeply connected to those around her.  She is determined, strong-willed, and unafraid of opposition.  I came to the end of the novel with a deep respect for her.

I don't write all of this to say that I don't like the romantic nature of Austen's novels, because I love it a lot.  I simply think that beyond that, Austen writes compelling stories about women's agency within a society that seems to hinder it.  Jane Austen is the best; that is all.
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5.16.2018

On College and Change and Deep Roots

I have no idea how to preface this post, or even what exactly to title it.  I've been thinking a lot about seasons and change and the constant tension between looking to the future and running toward it while longing for things to stay the same.  Recently, I realized that I've not done any kind of writing on here about college and my experience so far and my thoughts now, halfway through, and so today I wanted to write about that, my complicated feelings about summer, and also talk about how different it all feels compared to this time last year.  Blame my intensely-analytical personality, but any kind of big changes or shifts lead to my doing a lot of processing, or whatever you want to call it – basically trying to sort out how I feel about those changes and understand how God may be working through them and in them.  Unsurprisingly, this usually involves quite a bit of writing, and I thought today I'd share some revelations and general observations that have surfaced during the last couple weeks.

I just finished my sophomore year of college.  Before I started, people always told me that "oh you'll learn so much about yourself in college."  I certainly have – and not all of it has been good – but beyond that, I have learned so much about God.  Without fail, I have come to the end of every semester brain-fried, nearly dead, and in deep awe of the provision of God.  It hasn't been anything miraculous or mind-blowing or even terribly obvious; in fact, God has shown me his love in the smallest things.  So often, it is simply in the abundance of grace he continues to give me when I look up and realize how far I've wandered, how much I've become distracted.  Because for me, I've found that being in college tends to make my focus small.  Of course, being focused is good and helpful, but sometimes my focus narrows so much that I only see the next deadline, the next day, or the next week, and everything else becomes blurred and eventually ignored.  I've been humbled to realize how often my vision of God and his purpose goes the same way.  It has only taken two years for me to figure out that keeping this balanced requires work and intentionality, and while I've noticed improvement, I think this is something I will have to constantly work at.

More than anything, though, college has revealed to me God's goodness, or at least, I have become more aware of it.  Especially during the last year, which was a difficult one for reasons I won't go into, he consistently showed me, in little ways, how much he cares for me.  And I know that he loves me, but the fact that he chose to show me over and over again just how much, was a gift I did not deserve.  Last fall, I showed up to one of my classes on the first day to find one of my good friends was in the same class.  Now she's a best friend and I am so grateful for that semester we had together.  Last semester, God gave me unexpected friends and unexpected gifts and unexpected encouragement on hard days.  The thing is, I've found that the more we are pressed, the more we see God and come to know him – his love and grace and goodness – as we see our own weakness revealed. 

This sort of segues into my thoughts about this summer and the transition from school.  Last year, the transition was not an easy one.  There were stressful things that came up after I no longer had piles of homework to distract me, several hard, unexpected things happened, and I felt unsettled, like I couldn't find my footing.  God used last summer and all of the difficult things to do some crazy things in my heart, but it was a difficult and painful process.  Part of the reason it was a hard season, though, was because it became clear to me how much of my security and reliance was placed in my circumstances.  I think this is easier to do than we'd like to admit – and it has been especially easy for me to do because I so enjoy being in college.  And so, last summer, when I began to be hit with changes and disappointment and unexpected stress, I became overwhelmed with a sense of being unmoored.  God felt distant and silent and I struggled to understand what he was doing.  By his grace, I chose to grow through disappointment and seek him even while he felt far away, and by the end of the summer, I recognized a deep longing for a sense of stability that was rooted in God, rather than in my circumstances or feelings.  At one point, I read Jeremiah 17:7-8 and realized how much I wanted what the prophet describes: "But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit."  That revelation – that I was not as deeply rooted in God as I longed to be – prompted me to make it a goal for 2018 to become increasingly rooted in Christ.  My goals tend to be more like themes, but practically this has led to more consistency in my spiritual life.

On an unrelated note, this picture was taken
in Japan and I just really miss being there.
All of that to say (gosh, this is already long), my heart is at a very different place this year.  This change is still hard.  I like rhythms and deadlines and studying and I will miss friends, but I have come to understand that as much as change is uncomfortable and I would love it if good things stayed the same, God allows change and discomfort for a purpose.  Sidenote: that's another thing I've learned about God – he always always always has a purpose for everything.  Because honestly, when my circumstances change, and I'm suddenly out of school and not drowning in essays, or when I'm flying to another country for two months, I can no longer rely on what I know around me.  I have to depend on God and his constancy and faithfulness.  He uses change to change me, to challenge me, to draw me back to him, to chip away at my self-reliance and my stubborn independence.  He has a purpose here, in the in-between, in the days of working and mowing and reading and spending more time with my family.  He is moving and teaching and loving in the quiet.  He is revealing my sin now that I am forced to look it in the face (oof) and he is reminding me that he is the stream that never runs dry, the stream that will nourish my roots and make green my tree and bring forth fruit.

For now, for today at least, I can say that I am content here in the tension between.  My roots are going deeper.  My heart is quieter and has found a place to rest.  I am so grateful for last semester: for the gifts of God that surprised my weary heart, for his faithfulness, for him stretching me and teaching me, and loving me into understanding and trust.  I am thankful for what he is doing today and I am excited for the next few months.  Friends, he is never not good.

3.08.2018

Recently Read - January + February

It seems that one could accurately deduce the breaks in my semester by paying attention to my otherwise unpredictably-timed blog posts.  I am on spring break this week (glory be) and I wanted to bang out a post about some really amazing books I have read recently.  So far, I have surprised even myself by the number of books I have managed to read (or listen to) during the first hectic months of the year, and I can only hope that I maintain such a pace.  But without further waffling, let's talk about the books.  That's what we're here for, right?

The first book I want to talk about today is an essay collection by Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books.  I read this collection in January during the last of my Christmas break and I totally loved it.  Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors I've always wanted to read, and while she is most well-known for her fiction, she is admired as an essayist as well.  This collection was her first, and it includes pieces on theology, culture, and the social and political climate of America.  I was blown away by her incisive commentary and the intellectual rigor she brings to these essays.  She pulls zero punches, and her writing is sharp and smart.  This essay collection was beautiful and piercing and deeply insightful.  I plan on reading everything Robinson has ever written.  One of my favorite essays from the collection was one entitled "Wondrous Love," and this is perhaps my favorite passage: 
"If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents' lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these [Biblical] stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children's. What gives them their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold — by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren't any songs about him."  
 The next book I have to talk about is one I read for one of the history classes I'm taking this semester.  The book is The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and it is a moving story about a Kenyan tribe during the mid-20th century as it wrestles with the implications and consequences of British colonialism.  I did not expect to appreciate this book as much as I did.  First of all, I had never heard of the author, which for me is a little rare, and, while I enjoy reading books for class, there is always a suspicion about assigned reading that somehow it is less promising because it's assigned.  All of that to say, I was rather floored by this book.  This book is barely 150 pages long, and it is written over several of years as it traces the life of Waiyaki, a character who is sandwiched between a passion for the education that the English have brought and which he longs to use for the enlightenment of his tribe, and the insistent conviction that the British are tearing the tribe apart and quietly, insidiously destroying the land.  One faction of the tribe has, under the leadership of the esteemed Joshua, converted to the white man's religion and turned away from the tribe's culture and traditions.  The other faction has set itself firmly against the British and is allied in hopes to get out from under imperialism.  Waiyaki is uncertain of where he stands and he vacillates between his own convictions and fears.  While I believe colonization and decolonization are processes far too consequential and heavy to simply take an interest in, they are deeply important and the outcomes are often heartbreaking.  I have become more aware of and interested in stories of de/colonization in various classes I've taken and as a white American, I believe I have a responsibility to understand them to the best of my ability.  Beyond that, however, I think that we have a responsibility as Christians to understand colonization and how it happens because throughout history evangelism and missions have gotten tangled up with colonization in ways that are not only antithetical to the Gospel of Christ, but do serious, lasting damage to the people for whom the message is intended.  I may do an entire post at some point discussing various historical examples, but here I will simply share a passage from the book that is so profound and eye-opening I still think about it all the time.  
“For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad.  Even his religion was not essentially bad.  Some good, some truth shone through it.  But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal.  And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.  A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight.  That way lay disintegration.  Such a tribe would have no roots, for a people’s roots were in their traditions going back to the past, the very beginning, Gikuyu and Mumbi.  A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless.  It would not satisfy.  It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality.  It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost.  Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua.  He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white.  He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe" (141). 
This book is brilliant for so many reasons, and since reading it, I have made it an unofficial goal to read more books by classic African authors this year.  I want to read other things by Ngũgĩ, but next on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which I have embarrassingly never read.

The final book I want to talk about is a nonfiction book called The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.  I listened to the audiobook on a whim and I was immediately hooked.  Moore's book tells the stories of a number of women who were employed during the early 20th century as dial painters.  They painted the dials of watches and aeronautical instruments with a type of innovational paint that contained small amounts of radium.  Because of the nature of radium, this made the numbers of the dials glow in the dark, making such items invaluable during the first world war.  During this time, radium was considered to be completely safe and even beneficial.  It was marketed as a sort of magical cure-all and was used in hundreds of new products.  The dial painters painted the small watch faces and instruments with tiny brushes, which they placed in their mouths to try and make the point as tiny as possible in order to produce the precise detail their job required.  This method was called lip-pointing and it was used in several factories by hundreds of young women.  The jobs paid well and the girls were assured the practice was completely safe and they could even benefit from investing radium.  Suddenly, however, a couple years after the dial painters began, women started to get sick.  Dentists were confounded by strange cases of women complaining of toothaches.  When the dentists started removing teeth and performing surgery, the women's mouths refused to heal and instead continued to disintegrate.  The unknown disease spread to other areas of the women's bodies, in a seemingly random pattern that completely stumped every medical professional they consulted.  Moore's book documents every part of the women's journey as they began to protest their mistreatment by the corporations that employed them and the country came face to face with the shocking and horrifying radium poisoning hundreds of women experienced as a direct result of working with radium.  This book was so stinking good.  I had no idea about these discoveries or events and my mouth was wide open at numerous instances while listening to this book.  I am passionate about hidden or unknown stories of women in history and that's exactly what this book was.  Moore's research is breathtaking and the way she humanizes the women's experiences and makes them come alive is remarkable.  She portrays these women as the heroes they are: brave, courageous, determined to do what is right, and fearless in the face of the worst odds.  I was by turns moved, inspired, angered, and stunned by this book, and I highly recommend it.  If you are doing Women's History Month-inspired reading in March, put this book on your list.

I have managed to read some great books so far this year, and these are only a few highlights.  I hope my glowing recommendations will move you to give them a try, and as always, thanks for reading.
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1.02.2018

My Year in Books – Reflections and Goals


Happy New Year!  2018, I am not ready for you, but hello anyway.  In the time-honored tradition of end-of-the-year reflections and goal-setting and the rest, I am here a little late to talk about my last year in reading: what I thought of it, the books that stood out from all the rest, and what I plan to do in 2018 when it comes to books.

First, a few thoughts on this past year of reading.  I don't believe in the importance of numbers when it comes to this sort of thing, but it seems significant this year.  In 2017, I read 55 books, though I finished the year halfway through about five others.  In 2016, I read under 30 books, so the fact that this year that number nearly doubled feels exciting.  I also ended up with a list of firm favorites at the end of the year as I looked back and evaluated.  My reading goal last year was simply to read more and read better, after I ended up rather discouraged with my amount, and I have fulfilled that goal.  Overall, I am really pleased with my reading this year: the number, the range of authors and subjects, and the quality of what I read.  

Second, I want to share a list of my favorite books from the year.  I have eleven favorites, which seems so random, but this list naturally made itself and I decided not to push it.  I posted a whole thread about these books on Twitter last week, giving more detail about them/why I loved them, and you can find that here.  Also, if I wrote about the following books at any point on the blog last year, click the titles to be directed to the corresponding post.  In this list, the books are numbered in order of preference:
  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  5. Holy Is The Day by Carolyn Weber
  6. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
  7. Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich
  8. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  9. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
  10. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
  11. A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Given the fact that I was pleased with my reading in 2017, I don't have any specific reading goals or changes to make this year.  I want to continue to be open to books outside of my comfort zone, or rather, books I would not normally pick up.  Americanah was one such book I read last year and it became a favorite in the end.  While I wouldn't change anything in 2018, I have a few specific books I want to read and I thought I would briefly share those.

First, I have thoroughly enjoyed my unofficial project of reading a long-ish piece of Russian literature each year.  A couple years ago it was War and Peace, this year it was Crime and Punishment, and in 2018 I want to read Anna Karenina.  I loved loved loved War and Peace and Leo Tolstoy’s writing, and after a year of reading Dostoyevsky, I am eager to return to Tolstoy.  Second, and regarding another unofficial reading project, I want to read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  In an effort to read the whole of Lewis’s body of work, I have a very loose goal of reading at least one new (to me) book by Lewis each year.  Last year I managed to squeeze in The Abolition of Man as well as re-read three old favorites.  This year I want to read Till We Have Faces, a re-telling of Cupid and Psyche which I've heard many people describe as their favorite Lewis.  The third book I want to read in 2018 is Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses Grant.  I loved his biographies of both Hamilton and Washington, and I am thrilled he has chosen a lesser-known, less celebrated president.  With the page count at over one thousand pages, I will probably choose to listen to the audiobook if I hope to finish it within the year, but I am excited nonetheless.  The fourth book on my list, East of Eden by John Steinbeck is one I’ll try to get to in the summer.  I’ve read Steinbeck before and I have heard from lots of people on the internet that East of Eden is incredible.  Last but not least, I want to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a choice inspired by Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons, which I talked about in the last post.  In that book she mentioned reading Roy’s novel and being struck by a character who clearly paralleled Jesus, even though the author herself is not religious.  The way Andrea wrote about the book made me want to pick it up and I am always on the lookout for characters who point to the person of Jesus through fiction.  

And that's it.  Nothing wildly ambitious or creative, just more of the same reading plans and habits that made reading in 2017 so great.  Reading in college, outside of what's required, is definitely a challenge, but I love lugging a book with me to class and reading if I get there early.  This past year it became a habit that created space throughout otherwise full and stressful semesters.  And as a bonus it allowed me to have conversations with fellow students about reading.  Besides all this, though, prioritizing reading through school has helped me keep a bigger perspective about the world and my place in it, as well as simply maintaining my sanity as an introvert.  

As always, thanks for reading and may your reading in 2018 be the best ever.