Advent Resources for Grownups

IMG_3227Every year, around Thanksgiving, Haley and I lament the fact that we don’t already have reviews written for ALL THE BOOKS, because sorting through and sharing the wealth of Advent and Christmas picture books is a daunting task that we should tackle in, say, July. (But really: who wants to read Christmas books in July? Probably the same people who have the self-discipline to make all those homemade decorations in the summer so that they can pull them out and pin/Instagram them the day after Thanksgiving. If you are one of those people, know that you simultaneously amaze and perplex me.)

It’s a good problem to have, though, because it just means there are so many good books for children to share this time of year. And we certainly will have some new reviews up in the coming days and weeks.

However: in the past two years or so, I’ve fallen into the same trap during Advent and Lent. I’ve gotten so focused on doing the season “well” with my children that I’ve barely inhabited the seasons myself, or let the days of preparation teach me. In the process, I’ve found that I become pretty untethered from what each season is all about — with the sorry result that my words about “getting ready” feel dry and disconnected. And my kids aren’t dumb. They can tell when Mom is trying to get them to eat something she won’t touch herself, rather sharing the source of her own nourishment.

So this year, I’m trying to spend part of each day (generally the early morning) sitting quietly with Scripture, reading poems and selections that someone else has chosen, and generally listening to see if and how God will speak. I’ve set aside, for now, the goal of a productive quiet time, of chasing after what I think I need to learn. So much of the Advent story is about having our own projects upended and waiting to see how God is going to fulfill his promises. Waiting to see how, and when, God will arrive.

Toward that end, then — to help us all in the waiting, and watching, and setting aside our agendas for God — here are a few Advent resources for grownups. I hope you’ll find something here to help you wait upon the Lord, and sharpen the bright hunger of hope.IMG_3225

7--portinari-triptych-detail_advent_thumbnailThe Advent Project, created by the Biola University Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts
Our small group is using this online resource together this year, and (like the previous spring’s Lent project) it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect meditatively, through word, art, and music, on Scripture that helps us understand this season. Short daily meditations for Advent through Epiphany are accompanied by musical selections and visual art. And I promise you: this isn’t flat or sentimental work. Introducing the project, Biola president Barry Corey writes, “It [Advent] is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.” You can visit the site daily, or subscribe to it via email.

Light Upon LightLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany, Sarah Arthur
This is the book I’m sitting with in my early mornings. It’s a simple but ingenious idea: for each week of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, daily Scripture readings and prayers are paired with complementary poems and excerpts from fiction. Authors like Dickens, Herbert, Donne and Eliot sit comfortably alongside newer voices, familiar and unfamiliar. It’s been an interesting and challenging book, one that has forced me out of my typical reading style (attempting to wring every bit of understanding out of every sentence) and into a more reflective, meditative approach. Which, as it happens, is perfect for Advent.

Sounding the SeasonsSounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian YearMalcolm Guite
Haley gave me this book a year ago, and it’s a lovely resource (or gift) for someone beginning to explore the church year, or who may not want an Advent devotional per se but still wants to approach the season mindfully. Or maybe you’d like to keep it on hand for bedside reading or preschool pick-up waiting?

Seeking God’s Face: PrayiSeeking God's Faceng with the Bible Through the Yeared. Philip Reinder

In a talk he gave at our church, Jamie Smith recommended this as a year-round daily devotional, and I ordered it right then and there. I’ve used it for about a year and a half now, and actually set it aside this Advent in favor of Light Upon Light, but it’s a wonderful book — and what better time than the beginning of the Christian year to start something new? For each day, there are Scripture readings as well as seasonally-appropriate prayers and suggested focus for free prayer. I love this book, and if I could, I’d stick it in all of your stockings.

Pray as You GoPray As You Go
Disclaimer: I haven’t used Pray As You Go myself, but I came across it awhile back while clicking through some of our church’s recommended Advent resources. I was particularly interested because it reminded me of Headspace, an app that some friends use and love. But, by my lights, Pray As You Go is much better: it offers a daily Scripture reading, music, and guided prayer in a short audio format. If you’re someone who has a daily commute, wishes for a personal spiritual director on call (why can’t I have my own church and curate on the property?) or is simply an auditory learner, this is a great site. In the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, they also offer a daily imaginative exercise and personal examen, both of which I have a very little experience with and would like to do more.

The Circle of Days

The Circle of DaysThe Circle of Days
Reeve Lindbergh & Cathie Felstead
Candlewick Press, 1998

One of my favorite questions to ask of kids’ books is: “what sort of world does this book help children imagine? Does it simply confirm the world they already experience, or does it offer a glimpse of a wider, more varied, more beautiful universe out there and invite them in?” After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read? For that “enlargement of our being” that can only come in the encounter with the creations of other minds?

It’s a hard feeling to articulate, but my favorite books as a child did precisely that: they created worlds I wanted to live in, and helped me to look for (or imagine!) the same wonder and delight in my own little corner of existence. The Circle of Days, by Reeve Lindbergh and Cathie Felstead is just one such book.

Like Brother Sun, Sister MoonThe Circle of Days is an illustrated setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun. The text is simple, sparse, and rich: perfect read-aloud fare with little ones, and good for a quiet, meditative read with elementary-aged children. St. Francis’ song is a litany of thanksgiving for the small miracles that order our days: sun, moon, water, wind, sleep, fruit, flower, fellow-creatures. The beauty of the prayer, to me, is the way it awakens wonder for the things I take most for granted. In addition to the words of the prayer, the bright watercolor collage on each full page spread invites us to gratefully notice all of the wondrous variety and beauty in the quotidian.

In other words, this book is a testament to the joy and renewal that happens in the circle of our days. The words of the Preacher may feel more true, alas, especially to us grownups: “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say…What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:7-9). But paging through this book with my four-year-old, recounting the mercies that are daily renewed, I find myself echoing the prayer of St Francis:

For all your gifts, of every kind,
We offer praise with quiet mind.
Be with us Lord, and guide our ways
Around the circle of our days.

**Note: this book is currently out of print — I ran across it at a used bookshop — but is available used, and inexpensively at that, on Amazon.

Me, in Books (the Sarah version)

Like Haley, I’ve been doing a little poking around and updating (including my About page, in which my then-unborn son makes nary an appearance). And like Haley, I decided to try and compose a “me-in-books” stack. One of my favorite ways to talk about books is as friends: some we live with closely, some stay close to us although we only encounter them every few years or so, and with some we simply share a short but rich acquaintance. The books in this shot are some of those I’d have a hard time understanding myself without.

But alas, some other of my literary best friends are still packed away in a storage space in Minnesota. (My husband’s advice to me, when we were originally packing for the move: only bring books you KNOW you will want to read in the next two years. We’ll bring the rest later. And here we are, almost four years in, and I feel a little hollow knowing that my house has exactly zero novels by Dostoevsky on its shelves.)

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My lovely, not so photogenic sewing room. That framed postcard makes me happy every time I walk in.

Looking at the photo, I realized it was thin on fiction: any account of my life in books is incomplete without The Brothers Karamazov, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Angle of Reposeand Jayber Crow. I loaned my copy of Kristin Lavransdatter to a friend, and need to just buy another copy for myself: it feels a little like I’ve loaned out the literary equivalent of my son’s beloved elephant, Saggy Baggy. And after taking the photo I realized I had accidentally left both What Are People For? and the collected poems of Denise Levertov on my living room shelf. Oh well.

The incomparable, irreplaceable Saggy Baggy

The incomparable, irreplaceable Saggy Baggy

In a perfect world, all seven volumes of Harry Potter are represented. The Great Divorce and Hamlet and some old books of feminist theory from college jostle for space. And, crucially, the whole Lord Peter Wimsey series and a bunch of John LeCarre, because I dearly love good spy and mystery novels. But then I’d need a bigger cutting table to capture it all.

 

More book sale loot, from the other end of the continent

This must be the season for used-book sales, because last week I spent the better part of a day at the Friends of the SF Public Library Big Book Sale, out at Fort Mason. Picking through thousands of books with coffee in hand and the bay splashing against the pier? Yes, please! Oh, and nothing priced over $3? I’m there.

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My favorite part of sales like this is happening across the books that you’re never going to see in a bricks-and-mortar store. I love Rumer Godden’s children’s books (especially The Story of Holly & Ivy, which we read every year at Christmas), so how could I pass up this handsome edition of In This House of BredeThe Icon and the Axe is a history of Russia that was recommended to me by a professor of Russian history at a Wheaton theology conference a few years back – I find Russia utterly fascinating – and I’ve had my eye half open for it every time I walk into Books Inc. A copy for $1? Beautiful.  And ever since Alan Jacobs assigned Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in my modern English-lit course, I have admired Rebecca West immensely. So of course I was delighted to find an anthology that includes her biography of Augustine; and the history/political philosophy geek in me may have squealed a little upon grabbing a handsome copy of The New Meaning of Treason.

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And of course there are loads of books that I mark as “want-to-read” when they come out, or I read a review, but gradually slip out of my awareness until I see them for $3 on a used book table. What are used book sales for if not restoring some of my forgotten good intentions?

We’re awash in picture books lately, and the selection wasn’t great at this sale, so I spent most of my kidlit time over at the chapter book tables. Remember the old Apple classics? And those Dell paperbacks with the slightly pulpy illustrations on the covers? Welcome to my childhood, people. It felt very necessary to give my daughter the same edition of Little Women, sappy cover and all, that I read to bits. And my favorite find? A collection of Norse tales compiled by Sigrid Undset. My daughter might not be ready for Kristin Lavransdatter for awhile yet, but we can have fun now immersing ourselves in the imaginative universe that shaped Norse culture (and my own child’s Viking forbears).

Do you have a favorite used book sale? Mention it in the comments, and maybe we can link up to different annual sales across the country for everyone to find! And what’s your strategy? Do you go with a list of titles to seek out, or show up hoping for a dose of serendipity? I’d love to hear about your favorite finds!

Fiction as a Means of Grace

For the last six months or so, I’ve been in a dry spell with novels. I can’t tell you why, but I’ve had trouble picking up and sustaining a good novel. (The exception has been the John Russell series by David Downing: even when I can’t read fiction, I’m always up for a good spy story.) Recently it’s been a season of history and physics, the New Yorker and Food & Wine and the Slurve. We all have seasons in our reading lives, and sometimes the spiritual attention that a good novel requires just isn’t available; at others, we just have more pressing interests and concerns. So I haven’t been terribly alarmed. But yesterday I came across something I wrote several years ago for a class on faith and fiction at Luther Seminary, and had the funny experience of being instructed by my past self:

“There is a discipleship component to [reading fiction] as well. Like the Truth by whom we were all created and in whom the universe lives and moves and has its being, its [fiction’s] means of communication is bodily human life. Watching Ivan Karamazov crouch on his father’s stairs as he listens to him breathing down below , knowing that he is abandoning his father to death the next day, is a treatise itself on original sin; moreover, it is a treatise that involves us, makes us complicit, and sends us away grappling with the dark desires in our own hearts. This is reason enough that the discipline of reading fiction seriously and openheartedly is a practice that ought to be encouraged in church alongside other means of discipleship.”

It was just the encouragement I needed to return to the fiction shelves, not as escape but with serious spiritual intent. Fiction has (if this isn’t too bold a claim) been a means of grace to me, and has required the same sort of engagement on my part as other more traditional means — prayer, fasting, fellowship. I feel more relaxed about taking a break from fiction than I do from the other biblically mandated avenues, but was thankful nonetheless to receive my own encouragement on this one.

Since it’s that delicious season where we find ourselves still in the midst of summer reading as well as planning the upcoming fall, here’s what’s at the top of my fiction list right now. Once I’ve finished Stones from the River and am home for the fall, these will be the books I’m hunting down at Books Inc or ordering from Hearts and Minds:

What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha
Things Invisible to See, Nancy Willard
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
The Bird in the Tree, Elizabeth Goudge
Souls Raised from the Dead, Doris Betts

How about you? Has fiction been a means of grace for you? How so? I’d love to know which books, and what you’re planning on reading in the upcoming months!

On the Road Again…

I grew up listening to Willie Nelson: in my dad’s truck, on family road trips, in the background because my parents dug 70s and 80s country music. When I heard him on an old Prairie Home Companion rerun yesterday, it was with a heavy hit of nostalgia. For some people my age, it’s Family Ties (oh, Alex P. Keaton) or Full House (oh, Uncle Jesse)  that takes them straight back to childhood. For me, it’s The Highwaymen. Thanks, Mom & Dad.

So it’s fitting, of course, that every summer I spend a lot of my time humming “On the Road Again” under my breath as I pack, unpack, do laundry, fold, pack, unpack, do more laundry, repack again, and so on until mid-August. We have the extraordinary blessing of parents who are young and energetic enough to want lots of time with us and our kids (mostly our kids, really) AND who live in perfect places for the fogged-in San Francisco family to seasonally relocate. So far we’ve been in St Louis (family reunion), Florida (my parents), Dallas (a wedding), with our next stop at the lake in Western Minnesota —  with sun, food, and grandparents all the way through.

I hope you can understand, then, why reviews might be few and far between this summer. I have several chapter books I’m working through with the seven year old, but this takes time. In the meantime, may I share some of what we’re reading and eating? Just for fun, of course? Because I hope that many of you are on vacation, or heading that way, as well!

Reading Aloud with the 7-year-old

The Story of the World; the Middle Ages, Susan Wise Bauer
Favorite Medieval Tales, Mary Pope Osborne
Monks and Mystics: Chronicles of the Medieval Church, Mindy & Brandon Withnow
Famous Men of the Middle Ages, Rob Shearer

We just finished Voyage of the Dawn Treader and are planning to start Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this weekend. One of those parenting moments I’ve been looking forward to for seven years: hooray!

Reading Aloud with the 4-year-old

The Jamie and Angus Stories, Anne Fine & Penny Dale (thank you, Haley!)
We Are Best Friends, Aliki
Why: The Best Ever Question and Answer Book about Nature, Science, and the World Around You, Catherine Ripley
Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever! Richard Scarry
The Big Alfie Out of Doors Storybook, Shirley Hughes

His best friend moved away at the beginning of the summer, hence the Aliki pick. We’ve also been doing lots of Jamie & Angus, and one Alfie story in particular (“Bonting”) because he too has a beloved stuffed friend: Saggy Baggy, the elephant who accompanies us everywhere. If we lose Saggy Baggy, please pray for us!

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

With his best friend and the one and only Saggy Baggy

My Sumer Reading

Potsdam Station, David Downing
(plus the whole series of John Russell thrillers. A British-American journalist with a German girlfriend and German son trying to navigate the various intelligence services at work during the Second World War? Yes, please!)

Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Non-Scientists, Fred A. Wolf
Because daily reality is much more complicated than I ever imagined, and I want to (at least slightly) grasp why.

Stones from the River, Ursula Helgi
My mother-in-law gave me this book, and I’ve been waiting to start it until I could give it proper, sustained attention. And that attention has been repaid. I haven’t finished yet, but so far it’s a fascinating story about an outsider (a young woman marked by dwarfism) inhabiting a very specific space in time and seeing how history makes everyone an outsider in one way or another — to our families, our countries, our belief systems, or basic civility itself. It’s the sort of book I wish I were reading with a larger book group, because there is so much conversation to be had!

Books and Culture, because I am always behind on issues and always hungry to catch up. The best of their content is reserved for subscribers (and may I encourage you, vigorously, to subscribe?), but two essays I’ve particularly enjoyed are available on their site. Let’s just say my ever-burgeoning “to-read” list keeps growing:

Redefining Religious Fiction, D.G. Myers
The Rood and the Torc,  John Wilson

And the Food:

Between family reunions, time at my parents’ house, and a weekend in Napa with friends, we have eaten well this summer. A few of the best things so far:

Grilled Herb Shrimp
Red Curry Chicken Kebabs with Yogurt Sauce
Pie. All kinds of pie.
Especially this pie:
BBQ Pork Steaks (with LOTS of information for those who aren’t from St Louis)
Israeli Couscous Salad with Cherry Tomatoes

I hope your summer is full of delicious food and wonderful books, whether you’re traveling or happily ensconced in your own backyard. What are you eating and reading during these long and wonderful days?

St George and the Dragon

St George and the DragonSt George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti & Jennifer Soriano
CreateSpace, 2014

Recently another parent at our church asked me if I knew of any really good middle-grade Christian novels. I gave my standard answer: well, The Bronze Bow is wonderful, if not explicitly “Christian,” and, well…I was on the lookout for more.

St George and the Dragon isn’t precisely a middle-grade novel, or even precisely a novel for that matter: it’s one possible telling of a saint’s life, and has more theological and historical heft than much middle-grade fare. What it is, precisely, is an absolutely lovely book that I can’t wait to read aloud to my daughter and that I’m so pleased to share with you, our readers.**

By way of introduction, Michael Lotti writes, “This is a story of St. George. I say a story and not the story, for no one knows much about St George…I have taken what is guessed at and added many of my own guesses to create a story about a great Christian man.” We’re not wholly in the realm of Christian history, not really in a novel — rather, it’s that delightful space that has existed for centuries in the church: holy legend.  It’s a form that has flourished in some corners of the church more than others, and one rich in its power to enlarge our theological imaginations.

And what a legend it is. In this telling, George is born Marcellus, a Roman tribune who hails from a noble estate in modern-day Turkey. He is rapidly advancing through the Roman army, engaged to be married to a beautiful and wealthy girl, and proud of his empire and the virtues it embodies. That is, until he discovers that a dragon has taken up residence in the region of his father’s estate, and he must choose between sacrificing to it and a different, more difficult refusal.

I had always half-imagined St George as the Christian knight, prancing in on his white horse to kill an evil dragon and probably leaving some swooning ladies in his wake. Not the most terribly interesting story. But this telling includes high drama, Roman history, a conversion, friendship and grief, told compellingly and with theological sophistication. In the dragon, Marcellus (who takes George as his baptismal name) encounters the true face of what he has worshiped and served — the Empire — and finds himself alternately seduced and repelled. Unable to make sense of or resist the dragon’s pull on his old loyalties, he stumbles across a group of Christians worshipping on his father’s estate. Although initially shocked by their alien ways (men and women worshiping together! Slaves and freedmen embracing as brothers! Worship at a funeral and hope in death!) Marcellus finds them, and the hope they promise, strangely compelling. St George and the Dragon is nothing less than the story of a soul’s death to life in Christ, the putting off the old man in a violently liberating way.

The experience of the early Christians, and the radical upending of human empires and institutions (slavery, ancestor-worship, even marriage and friendship) that the gospel entails: it’s all here, in a story that will capture children’s imaginations as well as their parents’. This book would make a lovely family read-aloud, and offer excellent fodder for longer conversations with older children and teens. I heartily commend St George and the Dragon to you and hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

**Full disclosure: Michael Lotti is a former teaching colleague of mine, but that only adds to my pleasure. What’s better than passing along a superb book? Why, when said book is written by someone you like and respect!

Of families and pie

We’re traveling this week, and I’m almost done with a really good book that I can’t wait to share with you all, so all matters theological kid-lit will have to wait just a bit longer. (But good news for those of you who have been looking for longer chapter books for your older children! It’s an area of books we’ve long wanted to stretch out into, and now I sort of have to, since I have a voraciously reading 7 1/2-year old. And I just have a few chapters to go…)

Our travels this week took us to a family reunion in southwestern Illinois, where there was (oh glory of glories) a pie-safe AND a pie refrigerator AND we ran out of space for ALL THE PIE in both. I grew up — and still am — pretty geographically distant from most of my extended family, and since I don’t use Facebook I’m not always as closely connected as I’d like. But as soon as folks started arriving with the desserts, I knew: these are my people.

Strawberry, lemon meringue, apple, banana cream, cherry, rhubarb, pecan, Kentucky Derby, and key lime pies all made an appearance, plus blackberry cobbler, snickerdoodles, Aunt Ruby’s banana cake, M&M cookies, cheesecake and more I can’t even remember: it was a feast. Oh, right, and there were also barbecued pork steaks (cooked on a massive smoker that you need a truck to haul, by my cousin’s husband and my uncle, who have also tried their hand at competition barbecue: I told you these were my people!), coleslaw, potato salad, and beans. You know, if you wanted something other than pie.

The fourth of July is coming up later this week, and I hope it will find you with friends, family and pie. For families (and pie), I am mightily grateful. And during the summer — so often a time of reconnecting with family — may we also remember those who aren’t in families, or have lost a loved one. Summer can be lonely. Let’s try to remember to reach out: maybe invite somebody into our gatherings, or even take them a pie.

Need a recipe? Here’s my mom’s apple pie recipe, with my own modifications on the crust (just because I like the taste of butter in pretty much every situation: although yes, you are right, Mom, Crisco makes for a better texture).

She's right, you know.

She’s right, you know.

My Mom’s Apple Pie, Mostly

makes 1 double-crust pie

Fruit filling
5-6 cups (depending on how deep your pie pan is) firm, tart apples, such as Granny
Smith, Braeburn, Pink Lady, or Haralson. Mom likes Golden Delicious. We part company here.
3/4 – 1 cup sugar, depending on how tart your apples and how sweet you like your pie
2 T flour
1 t cinnamon
1 t vanilla (the vanilla is key, people)
cold butter, for dotting

Preheat oven to 375.
Mix apples with sugar, flour, cinnamon, and vanilla in a large bowl. Pour into prepared pie pan, lined with one pie crust. Dot with cubes of cold butter – about 1-2 T total.

Cover the fruit with the second crust, trim extra, fold the edges under, and crimp. Slice 4-6 vents in the top and sprinkle sugar all over. (Cinnamon, too, if you’re feeling fancy, but plain sugar is best.) Bake at 375 for 45-50 minutes, or until crust is browned and filling is bubbling.

Double crust for a 9-inch pie
2 1/2 cups flour
1 t salt
2 T sugar
8 T (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces, plus
12 T (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6-8 T ice water

In a food processor, mix flour, salt, and sugar until combined (or mix in a large bowl). Add 8 T butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse sand (or cut in by hand with a pastry cutter). Scatter the remaining 12 T butter over the flour mixture; pulse until the mixture is pale yellow and has the consistency of coarse crumbs (or cut by hand with a pastry cutter). Turn into a large bowl.

Sprinkle ice water over the dough, 1 T at a time, tossing with a fork to evenly distribute. After 6 t, press down with a rubber spatula until the dough sticks together. If dough won’t hold together, add 1-2 more T (too much water will make the dough tough, so be careful). Pat the dough together and divide into two balls.

Flatten each ball into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour or put it in the freezer for 15 minutes before rolling.

Turn one disk out on a clean, well-floured surface. Sprinkle the top with a little flour. Starting in the center, roll out in each direction to form a 9 to 10-inch circle, checking to make sure it’s not sticking on the bottom. Using a bench scraper or spatula, gently fold circle in half and lift into pie pan, unfolding to cover the bottom.

Repeat for the top crust, and cover the fruit. Fold edges over, trim excess, tuck it under, and crimp using your fingers or a fork.

One little thing can revive a guy...

One little thing can revive a guy…

“Earth’s crammed with heaven…”

A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”

I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?

Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.

“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”

Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)

Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?

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I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.

To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it.  But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.

Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History

Trial and Triumph Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History
Richard Hannula
Canon Press, 1999

I love church history. As a young adult, learning that this faith I professed in the late 20th century was something received and that had a living past, that we weren’t just making it up, was incredibly helpful as I wrestled into a more grown-up belief. And ever since, reading church history has been like an exercise in genealogy for me: I love getting a better understanding of the family history, including the crazy, woolly, and sometimes downright broken parts. It’s enormously humbling and enormously encouraging at the same time, seeing God’s Spirit and his people work this whole being-the-church thing out through history.

Richard Hannula’s Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History is a wonderful and nuanced introduction to this story for children. Originally conceived as a series of sketches for his own children, to teach them about our Christian forbears:

“The Psalmist calls us to praise the Lord and ‘tell of his works with songs of joy.’ God’s greatest works are not the creation of the mountains and seas but His acts of saving love, which transform sinners into children of God. These stories were not written to exalt great Christian men and women. They were written to exalt the Lord who made them great.”

And that is precisely the function of these stories, ranging from the earliest church fathers to the middle of the 20th century: to show how God has never abandoned his church, but has instead worked in the hearts and lives of redeemed sinners to be his presence in the world. There are martyrs, kings, bishops, popes, abbots, missionaries, men, women, and one (of course) Oxford don. Hannula treats each with honesty, fairness, and genuine historical faithfulness: each subject speaks in his or her own words (no corny made up dialogue!), and complicated figures like Charlemagne and Constantine aren’t whitewashed. But neither are they neglected because they were complicated: both men played pivotal roles in church history, for good and ill, and I appreciated the care with which Hannula presents them.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is in its breadth: how many books for children contain, between their covers, Athanasius and Hudson Taylor, Elizabeth of Hungary and David Brainerd, King Alfred and Francis of Assisi? While Hannula’s theology is decidedly Reformed — Gregory the Great is called out for his teachings on purgatory and the veneration of saints — his biographical accounts are generous and faithful to the history of the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

My oldest is seven, and we are going to begin reading through it together this summer; this book would also be a wonderful addition to a Sunday School classroom for read-alouds, or as a gift for a middle-school child who is interested in learning more broadly about the history of her faith. I commend it to you joyfully!