Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why Can I Be Vulnerable?

Sometimes I feel brave, ready to engage with people, to serve others, to take risks, to try new things, to speak up.

But sometimes I feel tired of being brave.  I feel hurt from trying, and I want to curl up in a fetal position in a dark room and tell everyone to go away.

Sometimes I would rather hide the light.  Not trying is safe, because it’s impossible to fail.

Sometimes I don’t want to be vulnerable.

For us as Christians, what is the why behind our vulnerability?  Here are some thoughts I’ve been working through.

I can be vulnerable …

  • … because I am always loved by God.

  • … because I can trust I will only be hurt if God allows it, and if He allows hurt, He is going to work it into my story for my ultimate good.

  • … because I know I can meet God in the hurt, experience His presence in a deeper way, and trust Him to be near me when I am brokenhearted and to bind up my wounds.

  • … because life is short and I would rather spend it shining bright than hiding under a bushel.

  • … because I want to grow and learn beyond where I am today.  I know pain can be a platform where I can see where I may have gone wrong and how I should live and think differently.

  • … because I no longer need others’ approval, or look to them to fill my gaps.  I am approved of in Christ.  As Tim Keller would say in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, my ego is not in the courtroom anymore, waiting to hear someone else’s (or even my own) verdict.  I am declared righteous and Christ is making me more like Himself.

  • … because I want to operate from the perspective of abundance (“I have more to give”) instead of from scarcity (“hunker down and keep what I have left”).  I’m connected to a God who gives me ample supply of what I need and calls me to live abundantly.

  • … because to live is Christ and to die is gain—I can reframe my circumstances to become a win-win situation.

For me, being vulnerable means (among other things) keeping on blogging, reaching out to friends and family, and being willing to foster again in the future.

What does it mean to you?  Moving to a new town?  Going on a date?  Initiating a conversation?  Leading a Bible study?

What would you add to my ideas?  Why can you be vulnerable?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Five Things I’m Loving This Week

I started this series last week, and I’m going to try to keep it up to help myself focus on all the positives in my life and all there is to love every week.  I hope it helps you think on those things in your life, too.

It was actually kind of fun this week to plan what things I was loving (and then to try to narrow it down to only five things!).  Here goes:

 Thursday at Nana’s

I work every Thursday afternoon teaching a writing and literature class to home school students, and one of our questions as we plan the schedule each year is where the kids will be when I’m working.  I don’t want to work unless it’s a good fit for our whole family, and I know our kids are in the best care while I’m away.

Well, this year they get to be with their Nana, and it has made Thursday a highlight of the week for them.  Every Wednesday evening they get excited about “Nana’s house tomorrow!”  David does a “Brain Book” activity there, filled with the mazes and puzzle activities he loves.  He also gets his weekly piano lesson from Nana.  Elanor likes to do sewing cards, matching games, dress-up, and general rambunctiousness.  (Last week my mom said that with every stitch in the sewing card, she was trying to do a forward roll on the couch.)  Even though Brennan is breastfeeding and sometimes refuses bottles, and being away from him for a few hours was my primary concern going into this school year, he has done really well getting to know his Nana and adapting to a routine there.

And, I get a fresh cup of coffee before I teach, and conversation over dessert when I get back (it turns out Thursday was a great choice of a workday since my mom almost always has leftover dessert from her small group the night before).   I’ll admit I’ve thought about that upcoming piece of cheesecake more than once while in a difficult classroom moment!

Thursdays are busy days.  I won’t lie; it’s not easy to have three young children and to work part-time.  Sometimes in the middle of the crazy schedule I forget how blessed I am to visit with my mom every week, and to work a part-time job that uses my skills while the kids are soaking up their Nana time.  I am definitely grateful to my mom for investing that time in us each week, and it is definitely something I love this week and every week!

 These Pretzels

These hardly need explanation.  Elanor and I saw them at Costco, and it was like an immediate magnetic pull between them and our cart.  Love them, love them, love them.  Trying not to eat too many and to actually savor them.  The combination of sweet and salty has always been amazing to me.  And I love mint.  And these make me excited about the holidays.  Okay, enough said.


Elanor spends one or two days a week at preschool.  Last week between Veteran’s Day and a teacher work day, she didn’t go at all, and we all missed it.  This week it was nice to get back to a normal routine, and she went on Wednesday and Friday.  She comes back full of songs, stories, and crafts that she did.  Her boundless energy and need for interaction works well in a preschool setting.  And I get a quiet day to prioritize writing, catching up on deskwork, and home schooling David (who is gone on Monday, which is my special day with Elanor).

I’m grateful for a preschool arrangement that is working for our family and is a win-win for everyone right now!

 Philippians Bible Study

This fall I volunteered to help with the youth discipleship program our church has.  I haven’t really done this kind of thing since college, and sometimes these days, to be honest, I feel like the un-cool mom with baby brain and nothing to offer.  (Ever felt that way, mom friends?  Be honest.)  But I wanted to be brave, and our church has given me so much that I wanted to give back.

I’m grateful to be paired with a senior high school student who has such a heart for the Lord, for His Word, and for others, that she is an inspiration to me.  Together we are studying the book of Philippians, and knowing we will meet together keeps me accountable to do the work every week.

The focus this week was chapter 2, about prioritizing the interests of Christ Jesus and of others, and I was challenged by how self-focused I can be.  That’s my default mode—to be preoccupied with self, often with a fear of other people’s rejection and a desire to earn their approval—basically to have gaps that I am looking for other people to try to fill.  I can see how God has grown me in this over the past decade, and I want to become the kind of person who is so fulfilled in Christ, and so focused on the work I have to do, the people I have to serve, and the message I have to deliver, that I am confidently humble and don’t have any room left for self-preoccupied fear.

Lauren Daigle’s song "Loyal"

I love the deep quality of Lauren Daigle’s voice, and a few weeks ago I was really liking (and constantly replaying) her song “First.” This week, though, it was “Loyal” over and over again.  Especially when beginning my morning with a few yoga exercises.

Our pastor mentioned in his sermon this morning that the Hebrew word chesed which we often interpret “lovingkindness” encompasses the ideas of both love and loyalty.  I am so grateful for worship songs and how they help me to focus on and internalize truth, even in the middle of the everyday.
So that was my week.  What are you loving this week?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Why It Hurts Everyone When Women Don’t Use Their Gifts

I was talking yesterday with someone who asked me how I would define patriarchy, and I didn’t have a definition ready.  This movement overshadowed much of my childhood and teen years because of organizations like the Advanced Training Institute and others.  Yet patriarchy as a term can be so casually thrown around, and it can be a spectrum with fuzzy edges.  What is it really?

Here is a working definition I came up with to help me: patriarchy is any system in which women are considered (either explicitly or implicitly) to have value and purpose only in relation to men, and are governed accordingly.

In other words, in a patriarchal system, a woman is valued in her relationships to men, as a daughter first, maybe a sister, and then as a wife, and hopefully afterwards as a mother.  These roles in her life are what give her value and purpose, and these roles come with guidelines of what she can and cannot do.

Some systems are blatantly patriarchal, and the rules are explicit.  The more insidious, though, are those where ideas like “women get their value from men” would never be directly stated because they might be immediately rejected as falsehood.  Instead patriarchal ideas and rules are implied and assumed, in systems where you might know something is wrong but it can be hard at first to put a finger on what.

I don’t think patriarchy is Biblical at all, though historically it has often been present alongside Christianity (as well as with other religions).  But the last few decades in America have seen a Christian movement toward patriarchy, I think in a pendulum-swing reaction against the radical feminism of the 60s and 70s.  When the culture seems filled with gender confusion, and when parents pursue careers at the expense of their families, it can be very tempting to swing away from that chaos toward a patriarchal system with clearly defined roles and expectations.

And a Christian patriarchal movement can easily jerk Bible verses out of context to support itself.  For instance, I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s good for a wife to show respect to her husband (and vice versa).  I certainly hope to respect my husband, and I try to apologize and make it right when I’m demeaning.  But the concept of respect can be stretched to become a lifestyle of silent subservience, with the understanding that a woman’s purpose in life or basis for value is in being a respectful wife, and that is the sum of who she is.

Patriarchy can take Biblical principles, and stretch them and add to them, until what God intended for freedom becomes chains in a system of bondage.

Patriarchy gives women a mold to fit into that demands she sacrifice huge parts of herself.  The parts of her life that are daughter, wife, and mother are allowed.  But that is all.

When I was a teenager in these organizations, the mold was that I was a daughter learning how to someday become a good wife and mother.  That was true about me, and it was important, but it was not all.  I also wanted to be a good student and a good writer.  But those didn’t fit the mold.

Today a patriarchal system would look at me and begin to nod and smile—I’m a wife in a happy marriage, and I have three children, one of whom is bouncing on my knee as I write this.  But wait … I also want to be a teacher?  A writer?  Someday a counselor?  Patriarchy doesn’t have space for these other dreams that women have.

There is much we learn about God from the Bible, and also much we can learn about God simply by looking at creation.  For instance, anyone who thought that God didn’t like bright colors could simply look at the varieties of flowers and fish that suggest otherwise.  With women’s gifts, it’s just the same.  If God wanted us to only exist as a daughter, wife, and mother, He would not have created us with so many more capacities and gifts.  But He did create women with leadership abilities, academic skills, desires for all kinds of work, and big dreams.  Why would He have given us these if He didn’t want us to use them?

I remember in college, realizing that I loved philosophy.  I genuinely enjoyed reading Plato or Aristotle or Nietzsche (I’m crazy, I know).  And in Metaphysics, I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon, looking out into wonder.  It made my brain hurt, and I loved it.  I remember thinking, I would never have realized I liked philosophy if I hadn’t been to college.  I have a mind to understand and enjoy it.  But throughout history, how many women would have potentially excelled in philosophy and were gifted in that direction, but never got the educational opportunity that I did, to find out?  Is that why most of the philosophers are men?  Wouldn’t the world be a richer place if these women had been given a voice to contribute to it?

Because here’s the thing—when a patriarchal system comes up to me and says, “We allow you to be a wife and mom, but not a student and writer,” it’s like they are cutting off one arm and one leg to squeeze me into a mold.  And it doesn’t just hurt me.  It hurts everyone.

In my recent Bible study, I was struck by 1 Peter 4:10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.”  This is how I paraphrased it since I’m all about Bible paraphrasing these days (I blame Jen Wilkin): “Since each of you has received a gift from God, put your gifts to work for the purpose of serving each other, knowing that the gift belongs to God and you are a steward to manage it well, and it is a gift of His favor and His variety, different for each person.”

Women must steward their gifts by developing them and putting them to work to serve others.  When half the world leaves many of their gifts unused, everyone suffers.

I think of when God looked at Adam and said it was not good that man was alone.  I don’t think He meant at all that it was wrong to be single, since we see from the Apostle Paul and so many others that you can lead a fulfilled life unmarried.  I wonder if God meant that it is not good for men to try to do it all by themselves, and that they need the voices and gifts and perspectives of women alongside them to succeed.  It is not good for men to be alone, gardening in Eden, or shaping and ruling and writing about and working in the world, without women alongside them contributing.

It is not good when men alone use their gifts, and there is no space for women to do so.  It is necessarily incomplete.

It is not good when women are reduced to fit a patriarchal mold and denied the gifts God has given them.  It’s not good for women, it’s not good for men, it’s not good for anyone.

What do you think?
(This is my older sister and I in New York City I think twelve years ago, when she had just started a new job and I was about to start college, and we were trying to figure out our purpose in life and our futures.  We’ve both learned and grown a lot since then … and, there’s no way I would fit into that shirt anymore.)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Five Things I’m Loving This Week

I’m trying to blog more often—mainly for my own practice, but if you like it, too, I’m honored! And I’m trying to be more thankful and focused on the positives in my life. To help both of those, I’m shamelessly borrowing this idea from Crystal Paine with Money Saving Mom, to write a weekly blog post on five things I’m loving each week. So here goes.

1) A New Purse

I’m not a shopper (especially when it comes to clothes), but I realized I needed a new purse this week when looking at the mirror at church I noticed all the loose threads from my purse strap hanging over my shoulder—that and my purse is distinctly a summer purse because it has a flip-flop decoration. Style is so not my thing, maybe partially because shopping can make me feel like hyperventilating with all the different choices and sensory stimulus, but on Monday morning I decided to give it a try, with Elanor along to “help.”

David is in a homeschool coop that meets on Monday mornings, and though I love it, it gives a different dynamic to our week—Monday morning is ironically my slowest morning of the week with David gone and no home school routine to follow. So on the way home from dropping him off, Elanor and I stopped in at Kohls, and considering it was me shopping (and her) it went fabulous. I found this purse within a few minutes, with a price tag for $69, but on sale for $18. Elanor wanted me to get a bright purple one, but I’m happy with this one and it will match with most of my clothes. Yay for successful shopping!

2) Hot Chocolate

I’m hoping to complain about the weather less this winter (remind me of this in February) and to enjoy wintertime experiences like playing in the snow, curling up at home under blankets reading, and of course drinking hot chocolate (which I think in Elanor’s mind is the reason winter exists at all).

I came up with an easy homemade hot chocolate recipe to get away from the artificial ingredients in some of the mixes. I pour however much milk I want into a saucepan over medium heat on the stove, and then spoon in unsweetened cocoa (about one spoonful per cup of milk). I also add any other flavorings I want—I’ve done cinnamon before, a sprinkle of salt, or vanilla, and this week’s discovery was a drop of peppermint oil. So yummy.

Then I use my immersion blender (which I love) to blend it all together while I pour in maple syrup or honey to taste. I’ve had the burner on this whole time, so by the time it’s mixed up, it’s usually just the right temperate for the kids, and a few more minutes makes it perfect for Ben and me. Homemade hot chocolate in about five minutes. We’ve done this twice this week. I don’t know that that bodes well for our chocolate consumption this winter :P.

3) Samaritan’s Purse Shoeboxes

Back when I taught at private school, we collected Samaritan’s Purse shoeboxes, and classrooms competed to see who could collect the most. Our students were from wealthy and generous families, and many children were bringing in about seven shoeboxes each. It was amazing.

So when I saw the shoebox opportunity at church, I decided to give it a try with David and Elanor this year. We’ve been so busy that it wasn’t until Friday morning that we got to it, and I showed them a few You Tube clips to explain what we were doing. I expected that we would have to go to the Dollar Store or Walmart and buy everything for the shoeboxes, like I did when I was single, and ended up spending about $30. But after watching the You Tube videos, David and Elanor got so excited about giving Christmas presents to poor children that we started filling the shoeboxes right then and there with small gently used toys that we had.

Small gently used toys basically breed in our home. The amount we have is amazing. So David and Elanor had no trouble picking out tiny stuffed animals, a small soccer ball, little cars, little princesses, and other tiny toys. We also had new toothbrushes on hand. So when all was said and done, all we needed to purchase was two bars of soap.

It made me so happy to watch my kids excitedly gathering their own toys to give away to others. I told them that they didn’t have to give anything, and that they shouldn’t give anything if they felt sad about giving it, because we had just learned the Bible verse put to music, “God loves a cheerful giver.” I only wanted them to give what they were truly happy and wanting to give.

Elanor especially was running around singing, “God loves a cheerful giver, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” to the song, and piling up things for the shoebox. She filled up her entire shoebox and a plastic bag besides (that she wanted to carry all the way to the shoebox destination to give as its accompaniment). She even wanted to give up her brand new Rapunzel and Pascal dolls. David was so concerned she would miss them later that he felt badly for her, but she was adamant that she wanted to give them up. The combination of Elanor’s passionate generosity and David’s sensitivity is sweet, even if it does take a some time to negotiate!

Sometimes I can feel so discouraged as a parent with how my children are doing, but this was one of those moments when I was so proud of them both that I thought my heart could burst. And so glad we did this.

4) Starbucks Buy 1 Get 1 Free

One of the reasons I follow Money Saving Mom is so that I can find out about deals that would make fun outings for our kids—like free doughnuts on National Doughnut Day, for instance. So that’s how I found out that right now Starbucks holiday drinks are B1G1 free in the afternoon. I stopped by with David and Elanor as an award for their good work on shoeboxes. Then at Starbucks they made a mistake with our order and gave us an extra drink, so it was B1G2 free for us. Fortunately they were all decaf! I love going on fun outings with my kids.

5) Mom’s Night Out

This week I had two not-normally-scheduled evenings when I got to go out and visit with friends. I’m an introvert and I love my quiet time, and I love being home with my family, but I also love going out with friends and having conversation that is food for my soul. I’m grateful that I have opportunities for that in my community, and I’m grateful that Ben is willing to tag-team parent with me and take over to give me a few hours off!

So those are the highlights of my week! What are you loving this week?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Books I Read in October

In this blog post a couple weeks ago I thought through the reasons I read—most importantly for relaxation, development, and empathy (in a season of life when I might otherwise be inclined to stress, stagnation, and I can’t find that third word I’m looking for that means the opposite of empathy, jumping to superficial judgments about people and situations that I don’t really know, and above all that starts with st for this great alliterative sentence I’m writing).

Anyway, moving on.  In October I read two nonfiction books that really stimulated my thinking.  I also read four novels—one of which I liked, and the other three somewhat less so.  Remember the main reason I read novels is that I’m looking for true-to-life stories that help me develop empathy and broaden my perspective, so I evaluate novels through that lens.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

I’ve read two other books by Kristin Hannah, Home Front, which I felt gave a sensitive depiction of how deployment and PTSD affect a family, and Magic Hour, which gave an intriguing look at child psychology and foster care—I liked this one up until the happy ending, which I found slightly unrealistic maybe because of my own experience.

Firefly Lane I didn’t like as much.  It tells the story of two women and their friendship over the decades.  In a way it is almost a historical novel, describing how much American culture has changed from the 70s until now.  Ultimately I felt this book could have been so much more, exploring the different regrets two women feel, one of whom pursues home and family, and the other a career.

But I felt instead that the plot was rather superficial and contrived.  The friendship between the two women seemed troubled to me from the first, since one character had difficulty attaching, and the other seemed desperate to please.  Kristin Hannah has somewhat of an emotive, descriptive style, which sometimes works really well, and other times feels unauthentic.  I felt kind of “meh” at the end of this book—it has a sequel which I don’t plan on reading, and I’m not sure if I’ll read other books by this author.

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

I really like Marisa de los Santos’s style.  She seems to have a real grasp of characterization, her descriptions are beautiful, and she winds tons of literary allusions into her books, maybe because she has a PhD in Literature and is also a poet.  I’ve read a few novels by her, and just now got to this one, the first she wrote.  It’s also, in my opinion, the worst.  (Warning: a few spoilers in the next paragraph as I vent.)

It had so much going for it—a female protagonist somewhat at a loss with life, who finds herself and her purpose by helping a troubled child, realizing that her ideal man isn’t who she really wants, and falling in love with a good friend.  Okay, so this could have been a delightful story, but instead it’s an improbable string of events.  The book really lost me when it killed off one character whose existence suddenly became inconvenient.  I felt like jumping into the pages and yelling, “You can’t just do that!  People don’t just die when they become inconvenient for us; we need to deal with them!”  So that was slightly annoying, as was the fact that the love interest turned out being her sister’s husband (I think this was so he would seem a complete non-option at the beginning, but in my opinion he should have stayed a non-option for that reason.)  The author did all kinds of plot contortions to make their relationship seem acceptable, but it still didn’t fly for me.  Thumbs down.  I will keep reading this author, though, because I do love her style, and her other books were better.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

So this was the novel I liked this month!  I read Still Alice and felt that it was such a thoughtful look at what Alzheimer’s feels like from the inside, how it develops, and how it affects family relationships.  This was another awesome book, this time exploring a brain condition called left neglect, which I had known nothing about before reading this story.  It helped me empathize more with people who are handicapped and suddenly find that it’s completely impossible to do normal things, such as getting something out of the fridge.

I also loved this story because it explored how we as women sometimes try to do it all, be the best at everything, and just end up in a stressful, hurried existence where we are short-changing our relationships.  This is really a hopeful story that explores what is really important in life, and how we sometimes only find that through loss.

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

I am liking the Inspector Gamache murder mystery series—this is the fourth book.  For one thing, the main character is more than a detective—he’s a model of emotional health who could just as well serve as a counselor, and whose insights into motives and reactions to behavior are truly thought-provoking.  This was not my favorite book in the series.  It deals with some really troubling family relationships, and I found reading the mean-spirited dialogue to be slightly discouraging more than redemptive.  But it was an interesting book, I did not figure out the mystery on my own, and I will be continuing this series.

Now for the nonfiction!

The Measure of Success by Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank

A friend lent me this book, and I loved it.  Intelligent Christian women grappling with serious topics from a Biblical perspective—I ate it up.  The style of this book speaks almost as loudly as its theme—it is well-written, not overly academic but well-researched, with a straightforward, logical, and unapologetic style.  I would love to read more of Carolyn McCulley, as this is the first book I’ve read of hers.

I really appreciated her discussion of ambition, and how in the life of a Christian, ambition is not a bad thing but a good thing—a desire for growth and fruit.  I appreciated her discussions of work and how a woman balances her work with her family and home and different seasons of life.  This is not a sexist book saying that women who work and pursue their ambitions are selfish, and all you should ever want is to complete your husband and raise your children.  It’s also not a radical feminist book saying you should ditch your family in pursuit of your dreams.  It deals with real life in the middle of these two extremes, and was just really helpful for me to read.  I highly recommend.

The Best Yes by Lysa Terkeurst

I read this book immediately afterward, and perhaps in contrast, its style felt a little weak and convoluted to me.  She writes sentences like, “We need to put the faith back in our faith” when I think, “Say what?  Just say what you really mean here.”  So for me at least, it took some time getting through her paragraphs and examples to get to the meat of what she was really saying.

I would still highly recommend this book, though, because it deals well with an important topic that has been a challenge in my own life—when to say no, when to say yes, and why.  My natural tendency is to be a “yes” person and then find myself so over-committed and stressed that I become resentful and lose my own sense of purpose trying to make everyone happy.  This book speaks directly to what she calls the “disease to please,” and she explores how we need to learn to say no so that we can find our best yes—those things that we were created for, that we should be saying yes to.

My favorite analogy of this book describes how she visited a friend shortly after a freak snowstorm in the fall, when the trees sustained considerable damage because they were still covered with fall leaves and then had to bear the added weight of an early snow.  Her takeaway was this—we cannot bear the burden of two seasons at once.  We need to let one season go before we can take on another.  If we try to do two seasons simultaneously, just like those trees were damaged, we break at our core.

This spoke powerfully to me, because sometimes I feel frustrated in my current season as a mother to young children.  I am ambitious, and there is so much I want to be and do, and my tendency is to say “yes” to it all now, at the same time as I am trying to say “yes” to my young children.  Which simply means I break at my core, trying to do everything and instead succumbing to anxiety and really doing nothing well.  I need to find what is the “best yes” for this season of my life, knowing that some things are going to wait for another decade in my life, and that’s okay.

A lot of my reading I do while I’m breastfeeding, so I was looking down at Brennan and thinking, “You are my best yes right now.”  Needing to breastfeed every three hours means that there sure is a lot I have to say no to.  But this season of having an infant is so short, and right now it is my “best yes” and I want to treasure it.

As November begins, I’m hoping to read another Louise Penny mystery, a novel by JoJo Moyes, and Rising Strong by Brene Brown.  Give me some more recommendations!

Monday, November 2, 2015

My Cup Overflows

Sometimes I need to explain something to my children before I understand it.

It’s like truth needs to get on a preschool level in order to get past the cynical defenses of my mind.

We’re memorizing Psalm 23 for Awana and we get to the phrase, “My cup overflows.”  There we are the three of us, David, Elanor, and me, around the island in our kitchen, finishing breakfast, each with our cups.  Brennan is watching from his baby swing.

And David wonders what the phrase, “My cup overflows,” is doing in the psalm.

“Imagine you tell God you are thirsty and ask Him for a drink of water,” I say.  “Do you think He’s going to say, ‘Well, okay, I guess so, but only one drop?’”  And I exaggerate a very stingy sprinkle in our cups.

“No…” David and Elanor say doubtfully.

“No!  He’s going to say, ‘I have lots of love and kindness to give you.  Here, have some more.  And have some more!  I have even more to give you.  Look, it’s overflowing!’”

I’m just pantomiming this.  I don’t get so excited about Bible class as to make a mess in my kitchen.

But I’m suddenly struck by how I hold up the cup of my life to God, expecting Him to be stingy, hoping that if I can perform well enough, I will earn a drop or two of grace.  My mind knows that it doesn’t work that way, but I can be so performance-based that it’s hard for my heart to get it.  Overflowing love and kindness, into my life?

“If your cup overflowed with water it would make a big mess,” I said.  “Do you think it makes a big mess when your life overflows with God’s kindness?”

“No,” David says.  “Because it would overflow out of me and hit Elanor.  And hit Brennan.”

“That’s how we be kind to each other,” I say.  “We have so much of God’s kindness pouring into our lives that it can’t help but overflow out and splash the people around us.”

And I think about this.  How my heart perspective of a stingy God who gives me a drop of grace here and there, like a dry orange I’m squeezing hoping for a little more juice, results in a grace-less life, where I’m reluctant to give grace to others because I have so little myself.  Or do I see myself as receiving an overflow that can’t help but splash around in my family?

Grace is and maybe always will be hard for me to get, at a deep gut level.  But word pictures, overflowing cups, and imaginative children help.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why I Read

I am hoping to post on this blog a little more often, and one of my ideas is to write a monthly post about the books I’ve been reading.

Last year I joined Goodreads online, and I’ve enjoyed that opportunity to share book recommendations with friends and write and read reviews.  But I want to blog about my reading, too, because it is an important part of my life.
Why do I read?  I was thinking through the reasons, and honestly, all the reasons I read are the same reasons that I teach Literature to my students, and that I want to inspire a love of reading in my children.  It would be disingenuous for me to teach them to prioritize reading if I didn’t prioritize it in own my life.

The reasons I read are the same reasons I want a six-year-old or thirteen-year-old to read.  The reasons don’t change as you grow older; they may just look a little different.


I have had bouts of insomnia in my life, the worst of which was a few years ago when Elanor was a baby.

I had always been a high achiever, driven to perform and to gain approval, and the concept of self-care or even of rest was not really on my radar for a long time.  As a young mom, there was so much I wanted to do for God, for my family, and for others.  It was as if I felt the world couldn’t keep turning without my effort to make it happen, and I disguised this pride under the label of sacrificial love and how I was pouring myself out for everyone in my life.

Until God gave me the wake-up call (literally) of insomnia.  For me, insomnia is a clear cause-effect reaction in my life.  If I have a stressful day when I’m pushing myself and running on adrenaline, I’m more likely to have insomnia that night.  And though I can handle one bad night, after several in a row, I’m no good to anyone.  I began to realize that I couldn’t just keep pushing myself and raising my stress levels—I was dragging myself around exhausted all day, and then lying awake heart pounding in the night.

So in the last few years I’ve learned about self-care in its many forms and made relaxation more of a priority in my life.  I still have insomnia on occasion.  One day last week I had a dentist appointment in the morning, through gargantuan effort still managed to get a full home school morning in with the kids, then crunched hard through early afternoon quiet time to get a blog post written, went to Costco in the late afternoon, made dinner, and then attended a church class that night.  Rush—rush—rush—must get it all done—success!  Or is it success?  After sleeping a few hours, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back asleep, as if my body was saying, “See?  Don’t do that!”

Anyway, this blog post is supposed to be about reading, isn’t it?  One of my favorite ways to relax is with a book—sometime in the middle of the day, when I am nursing Brennan or when there is a quiet moment, and also at the end of the day, with a glass of red wine and pillows and blankets and a quiet few minutes after the kids are asleep.  For a moment I am not running around.  I’m not accomplishing anything.

And since I’m an introvert, I am recharging in the quiet.  My soul is restoring.  My heart rate and breathing are slowing (unless it’s a gripping page of a novel).  I’m pulling back from my busy life so that when I lean back in, I’m ready.


I like to think of my reading as a way of pressing “continue” on my education, even in these busy years of being a mom to young children.  The books I read continually mold my perspective.

Good reading feeds good thinking, which would be enough in itself, but good thinking in turn feeds good writing for those of us who like to express ourselves that way.  (Good thinking feeds good speaking, too, whether it’s conversations with friends or an actual speaking career someone might have.)  It’s like inhaling and exhaling—reading in, thinking to process, writing/speaking out.  Trying to do it without the reading is like exhaling only.

This applies to nonfiction and fiction both.  True stories written with beautiful style are soul-feeding.  They build imagination.  They might teach me all kinds of important facts and themes, and most importantly of all, they teach me empathy.


If there is one quality that is lacking in our culture, I would say it is empathy—the ability to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes and thereby to sympathize with them and to respond to them appropriately, instead of misunderstanding or attacking them.

I see the violence in our culture, whether it’s video games or movies or school shootings.  I see the combative tone of our online exchanges, the prevalence of abuse of all kinds, and the destructive games our politics have become.  I see the us vs. them lines drawn in nearly every debate.  And it doesn’t seem at all like the way of Jesus.

Empathy doesn’t contradict truth—it springs from truth, because it grows from understanding.  Empathy is a quality I desperately want my children to have.  But how do I teach it to them?  It’s not a subject like math or science or music that we can complete, test, and check off our list.  It’s certainly not guaranteed by growing up in a religious home or by attending church (some people would argue the opposite, and not without good reason, unfortunately).  But without empathy, everything else can become meaningless.  How can we cultivate this in our children and in our own lives?

I believe one of the most important ways to develop empathy is to read, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, stories from the perspective of other people.  It brings me for a moment out of my own perspective and opinions and life experience, and gives me a chance to be someone else for a moment.  What is it like growing up in Nazi Germany (All the Light We Cannot See)?  Or growing up in Afghanistan before the Taliban (Kite Runner)?  What is it like to have cancer or Alzheimer’s (Still Alice)?  To be a widow (Sarah Agnes Prine)?  Through reading I can imagine and better empathize with those who have had experiences I have not.

Maybe one of the best kinds of novels for developing empathy are those written from two or three perspectives.  It’s kind of a new thing, to have a first person voice, but a viewpoint that changes with each chapter.  I find it so enlightening.

I remember reading one novel about three mothers of kindergarten students in contemporary Australia (I think it was Big Little Lies).  The book was written alternately from the viewpoint of all three.  I don’t remember the exact details of one minor scene, but it smacked me right between the eyes, as if the book had said, “Gotcha!”  I was reading from the perspective of one mother, driving her child to school on the first day, grabbing a pair of heels from the closet, wondering if they looked ridiculous, wearing them anyway, and carrying her insecurities and anxieties along with her as if she drove to school.  Then I shifted to another character’s viewpoint, seeing this mother from the outside, and thinking, “What absurd heels.”

Which is exactly what I would have thought, since I struggle with style and I don’t do heels and I can mask my envy of effortlessly fashionable people under judgment.

But in this case I couldn’t, because I had just been in the perspective of that heel-wearing mom and I knew how she was really feeling.  So I recognized that assessment of her appearance as what it was—superficial.  And I wondered how many superficial judgments I make of other people, when underneath we are all just really human and struggling in our own ways.

So reading has grown me in empathy, in less judgment and more understanding, less fear and more confidence.  So many novels are brain candy (or worse), and I try to evaluate what I read through this focus of developing empathy.  The main quality I look for in stories is, are they true—not meaning necessarily nonfiction, but true to life, reality, human experience.  This means a few things:

  • The characters are real, well-rounded, and nuanced.
  • The motives and decisions of these characters drive the plot (instead of the plot feeling contrived or coincidental).
  • The theme naturally grows from the plot (instead of seeming like a slapped-on moral that doesn’t belong.  This is why I get annoyed sometimes by fiction with a “Christian” label that tries to engineer a conversion or add a religious theme superfluous to the story).
  •  Any sex, violence, or language belongs as necessary to the story (instead of being gratuitous and added in at every opportunity to make the story more titillating because maybe it couldn’t stand on its own otherwise).
  • A delightful writing style and well-described setting is definitely a plus!

If the story fits these criteria, chances are I will enjoy it and learn from it no matter what the genre.

So those are my reasons for reading, and why if you check in on me around 9:00 at night when my kids are finally all asleep (please don’t, by the way) you will probably find me not trying to get a few more things done, but instead relaxing with a book.  Trying to learn, grow, rest, and enjoy a good story.  So hopefully I’ll blog more about what I’m reading and that will be one more reason to keep reading!