(Crossposted at sallyclarkson.com)
Can a guest post be a repost too? Sure it can (right, Mom?!), especially if what is posted afresh is still true with a quick, living, muscled strength. When I sat down this week to write this post, I knew that what I wanted to write about was the way that life lived well, life lived creatively, in love, in beauty, is just darn hard. In this gorgeous and broken world, wholeness and home and love must be fought for with grit and work and a total givenness of self. The good life is a great life, and a hard one too.
I wrote about this three years ago, and when I recently reread that post, I was struck by the way that I wouldn’t change one thing that I wrote then. Marriage, moving, Oxford, new joys, new griefs, they’ve all transpired in the past three years, but they’ve all happened in the same hard work, the same stubborn love, in which the whole of my history has been forged. This week, in the midst of papers, and a visit from my beloved Joy, and work and challenge I’ve lived afresh in the good, hard work I learned from childhood. May the story encourage you as well:
I write this from 35,000 feet up in the free blue air. A grey quilt of clouds obscures the earth below, but sometimes the cloud down frays and the earth winks up, a brown, wry face patterned with laughter lines and the rutted gullies of old tears. I never get tired of having the window seat on an airplane. My awe at technology is usually spoiled by my suspicion that it might be ruining my imagination, but I still have a tiny girl’s wonder at the fact that we humans can fly. Airplanes feel a little like magic to me. I could sit here, nose pressed against my window, reveling in my rare, eagle’s eye view for hours.
At the moment though, I’m also just glad to be sitting. I can feel the dark circles under my eyes. For the third time in four weeks, I have gotten up far too early to lug a half dozen suitcases and crates to various airplane counters. I have packed and unpacked, washed (and, well, “unwashed”) more loads of laundry in the past months than I care to mention, changed time zones, chased rental car shuttles, and stumbled up, hair awry and eyes slightly wild to quite a few hotel desks. I have a bag of cherry tomatoes in the bottom of my bag, because I couldn’t stand to throw out good produce one more time, but they sit next to a bar of chocolate because travel season wrecks my healthy intentions. My carryon is stuffed with the speech I haven’t yet gotten by heart, the insurance papers I haven’t figured out, and the manuscript I still haven’t edited though the deadline is this weekend. In order even to write this, I must ignore the ten, urgent, unanswered emails sitting on the next tab over.
I tell you all this because in this rare moment of (literally) suspended calm, I find myself contemplating the worth of doing hard things.
Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken.
Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.
Yet undeniably, unequivocally… good.
In the past months I have watched myself complete a manuscript I never thought I could manage, and impossible deadlines were the grace that helped me to do it. I finally managed to articulate my convictions about story because I was forced to spit them out in the last-minute, white heat of speech-writing the hour before I was due on stage. The countless vegetables I’ve chopped, and lettuce I’ve washed for daily salads has paid off in a health I haven’t known for years. The friendships found and renewed in these conference weekends have kindled my heart, deepened my conviction, set me on my feet to work for yet another year. Life burgeons around me, good work flourishes, the soil of my heart is rich with new ideas and I know that the endless work of writing, of health, of love to which I have given myself with freshened vigor this year is worth every bit of what it costs me.
The truth I find is that every good thing I know requires hard work. It requires, not just a dose of effort to get it started, but the grit to hold fast and keep on when the inspiration fails. Day in and day out, a life that is in any way good requires steady labor, something I don’t always factor in when I am dreaming about the lovely things I’ll make and the heroic deeds I’ll accomplish. The good life – here in a fallen world where what was meant to be good was broken – is a hard life. We fight fallenness in every atom of existence. But every bit of the goodness we we make proclaims the someday new heaven and earth. And somehow, brings the kingdom come, even amidst the shadows.
I write this to remind myself to endure, because my idealist self often lags in the midst of all the effort. When I’m tired, as I am today with the hum of the plane around me, I wonder if its all worth it. I write this to shore up my will to endure, to strengthen the conviction that grows feeble when all I really want to do is lounge in my chair and drink five cups of tea.
But I also write this because I’ve been thinking of late about one of the hardest but best creations I have ever experienced: my family.
In conference season, I am always made keenly aware that many people watch my family. The parenting ministry that my mom and dad carry out means that we Clarksons are somewhat in the public eye. We are a family marked by our ideals, and our ministry is, in large part, to hold those ideals forth to the world and challenge others to follow them as well. But I wonder sometimes if the strength with which we state our ideals leads people to the mistaken assumption that we live an ideal life. That goodness comes easily to us, and hard to others. That somehow we were born with harmonious hearts and quiet tempers and curious intellects.
By the time we show up at conferences, feet padding the plush carpet of yet another hotel, we strive to look grown up in our Sunday clothes and polite (if not well-rested) faces. We do, of course, try to have good things to say. We strive to articulate all we believe and present a gracious face to the world. But a whirlwind of hard work and sore shoulders, heartache and heart-searching lies behind us. Imperfect attitudes, impatient words, and discouragement are the shadow side of the inspiration that propels us forward. We struggle, we grapple, we cry. We also laugh and cook and sing. We wash a thousand dishes and cook a thousand good meals and light the candles every evening and play our classical music. Behind every conference we throw or speech we give are countless quiet days of hard work and hard choices. I’m not saying that we live differently than the ideals we hold forth. I’m saying that we fight like wild men to attain them and we have been fighting for as long as I can remember.
These thoughts all began two nights ago when my Mom and I strode out to walk off our adrenaline in a purple and windy dusk. Our talk was of family, that hardest and best of works, and my talk was of the struggle I find to love. We spoke of old frustrations and the grief they still cause. Of quirks and personalities that tax and bless us all at once. We spoke of the arduous decisions required by faith, the tough endurance required by real love, the never-ending forgiveness it demands and the ever-fresh friendship it brings. And when I had finally spit all the struggle out of my mouth in a torrent of irritation, I took a deep breath and listened to my mother teach me once again to love. To open my hands. To open my heart. To endure. And to do it all over again the next time.
As we pounded the last road home, I realized that we Clarksons are who we are – idealistic, fiercely loyal, writers, musicians, tied to each other at the hip and convinced we can help to bring God’s kingdom to bear on earth – because we stayed in the fight when the fight got hard.
Our fantastic relationships were formed in part by fantastic fights and spectacular disagreements, but we endured them all, rode the high, hard winds of strife into the safe harbor of affection. We did not turn back and we did not let go. We did not withdraw from loving when loving got hard, but neither did we let hard things make a large and silent wedge between us. We took issues head on whatever they were and argued them out until they were gone. Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet that “she who is forgiven much, loves much.” And I think that principle is part of what forms the fellowship and ideals of my family. They who fight much, who endure each other’s quirks, who ride out the tempests of difficult circumstances and personalities, who laugh and weep and watch each other’s creation know a comradeship that can only come from the brotherhood of battle. The victory we have, the love that knits us close was only to be forged in struggle.
The truth is that we have wrestled with God over and over again, every one of us, just like Jacob in the wilderness grappling with sin and pain and the strange presence of the Almighty. In striving to create new things, to live our ideals, to keep communion, we wrestled with God in our hearts and we wrestled with God in each other. Every inch of ground we gained in love came with years of hard battle. But we fought forward, knowing that to fight was to hope and even to love, because it was a kind of journey. We were fighting our way back to each other and not away. We were grappling toward beauty and we wrestled until we were blessed. We strove until we overcame.
That, I suppose, it at heart of what I am striving to understand, to tell myself here and as I do, tell you too. If love is to be formed, if families are to stay close, if stories or songs are to be made, if ideals are ever to be kept, hard work is the high and never-ending cost. In a fallen world, where the good that was meant to be was broken, we have to wrestle every day to love God, to do justice, to love mercy, to make beauty. But God wrestles with us. His Spirit incites us to the fight with visions of the good that was meant to be. His Son joins us in the battle, brother and lover who suffers so that we may overcome. And the Father waits at the end of our battle, the “great rewarder of those who seek Him.” In him we live and move and have our being, and in him we fight the great fight, and in him we trust that the good we make here is just the beginning of the kingdom come and a beauty that will never end.
So courage, dear hearts, as Aslan whispered to Lucy. Courage, I whisper to myself as the plane dips its nose under the quilt of clouds and the earth reaches up to grasp me once more. The work is about to begin again, good and hard. I’m ready.
Reading: Daily snippets of Madeleine L’Engle’s Genesis Trilogy. She restores my tired wonder at the lovely world.
Listening: Have you heard the soundtrack to The King’s Speech? It’s lovely and mellow and expressive. It’s been my atmospheric music for the week.
Making: A Sour Cream Coffee Cake that was, apparently, a great success with the men of Thomas’ small group. It was also very easy.
The first engagement gift I received was a basket. A deep oval basket with a sturdy, warm brown weave and a strong, arched handle. ‘Do you go to a weekly market in Oxford?’ asked Phyllis, the giver of the gift. When I said that I did, heading down on Wednesdays to the open air market near my home to cart home paper bags crammed with vivid stacks of fresh fruit and ‘veg’ (as they like to call vegetables here), she smiled in happy satisfaction and leaned toward me, putting her aged, gentle hand over mine.
‘This was my market basket through all the years we lived in Europe. I brought all sorts of good things home in it, fed friends and family. I’m so glad it will go to you. I hope you use it to do the same.’
I worked hard to get that basket tucked in amidst the sweaters and scarves of the boxes I packed for England. It survived the trip beautifully intact, a sturdy, weathered, finely aged gift that sits by the door in my new house. I have indeed used it to cart home apples for warm, spiced desserts, greens for autumn salads, potatoes and carrots for Sunday roasts. It has borne the sweet load of hospitality with me, and companioned my work as I’ve prepared for guests and opened our home to friends.
As I’ve gone, feeling the smoothed wicker of the handle in my palm, I’ve also felt Phyllis’ loved and gentle hand over mine. I’ve walked the cobbles home with the beam of her smile in my mind, her presence around me as I set the table, write a note, cook, arts in which she has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend. The gift of her basket wasn’t merely the gift of a household tool, it was the gift of her own history as a missionary and hostess, her own crafted legacy. That basket was her gift of heritage to me, a token by which I was woven into the fine companionship of hospitable, home-loving women. By giving me that symbol of her long work, she rooted my work in her own story and gave me fresh courage and help in making my own tale of house and hospitality, of meals served as acts of love, of tea poured to balm both soul and bone.
One of the dearest parts of my wedding were gifts like these. My own sweet mom gave me (among countless other gifts of hand and heart) her mother’s set of blue Lenox china, the one with the fruit baskets that so fascinated me as a child, and a silver teapot with a dark wooden handle that sat on the sideboard of my father’s mother throughout my childhood. These gifts of heritage and memory, linking my new home to my childhood memories of Thanksgiving tables and teatimes with Mama, are a tangible history, living gifts that are more than mere things. Every time I reach for that teapot or pour something hot into a Lenox cup, I can hear my mom’s voice saying: ‘drink the cup the Lord has given you, pour out your life for others…’ Her gifts, like Phyllis’ basket, will shape the story my home will tell.
For home is a place of history. Home is a lived narrative, one we receive as well as create. Home is never an isolated outpost in a human story, it is always linked to those before us, the place where we live out the spiritual and physical inheritance of those whose words, actions, and gifts have formed us. Home is also, always, something we give as well, the story we offer to the guests, children, and beloveds who dwell with us. One of Phyllis’ maxims is that hospitality communicates something to a guest about their worth. Every aspect of home is an ongoing narrative about what we believe, who God is, and how we see the people who visit us.
In beginning my marriage and first home, I have realised afresh the extent to which the way I see life and the way I make home are legacies I received from the wise and generous women in my life. Their wedding gifts are tools placed in my hands, but I must now choose wisely how to use them as they must have also chosen in beginning their marriages and homes. I must now plan, work, and dream. In the companionship, then, of these wedding gifts, I am driven to sit down and evaluate : what do I want the heritage of my life and home to be? What gift of legacy will I someday give a new bride? If I have a daughter, what kind of story do I want my home to tell? These are the questions that every maker of home must ask.
Breathe In :: What’s your story?
If you could choose an object, an image, or gift to symbolise the story you were given, what would it be? How have you been taught to see the world? How have you been taught to think about home and the people who dwell there?
One of my final year courses at Wycliffe is a paper on pastoral care in which we are examining what it means to be human, what it means to develop spiritually and emotionally throughout the different phases of life, and what it means to care. One of the first things we learned was that the relational successes, or conversely, the failures, of every phase carry over into the next, affecting our capacity to love, give, and be known. Of course, I recognise the grace of heritage in this reality, but what also deeply struck me was that if the broken and failed parts of our stories are not named and faced, they bear a brooding power to undermine our confidence, discourage us from effort, and destroy our attempts to love.
Not all stories are beautiful. Not all legacies are good. And in speaking of home as a golden gift to be received, I also want to acknowledge that in a fallen world, no gift comes free of pain or imperfection. There are profoundly difficult legacies in my family as well as beautiful. The bright is woven inextricably with the dark and painful. And for many others, I know that there is little brightness at all. For some, there was no story of home, no gifts to offer hope or beauty, no vision of life or personal worth. There is only absence. Or darkness. But that is not the end of the story.
What the Incarnation means is that God is now with us, and where our legacy is of pain or our story is one of absence, he comes with the creative power that spoke all things into being in the first place. The whole concept of home begins with the reality of a Creator God who made humans beings to be placed, relational, and known. In Christ, our stories are always beginning afresh, and if you have no history of home, then ‘do not be afraid’ as the angels were so often saying at the coming of Christ. The Holy Spirit, whispering within your heart and imagination will be the one to form your legacy.
One of my favorite stories is a short one by Wendell Berry called ‘A Jonquil for Mary Penn’ (in Fidelity). Mary is a young farm wife who has absolutely no experience in her new strenuous life of farm work, one close to poverty. Early in her marriage, she wakes up sick one day. Her husband sees this, and quietly leaves for his work, but he manages to tell one old matron in the area. Throughout the day, and the story, Mary is then visited by a bevy of generous, laughing, motherly women who help her with chores, cook, tease, clean, and put her to bed. In the void of her discouragement and inexperience, the love of others comes to create, renew, and begin her story afresh. I loves this story because it is an image of the way that God, in his life and in the love of others, begins our story afresh in a way we could not have made on our own.
To love Christ is to be caught in the forward motion of his incarnate life. There is nothing static, dead, stagnant, or lost in him. As you name the gifts and shape of your legacy, whether bright or dark, the first thing to remember is that we, in the lilting words of Andrew Peterson’s song, are called to ‘look into the darkness and speak’. The story can always begin again.
Breathe Out :: In the beginning…
Let there be light. Let there be love. Let there be music. Those are the concluding lines to the chorus of Andrew’s lovely song, and they are a perfect soundtrack to what we are called to do in creating home. If there is a redemptive, freeing power in naming what is dark or hard in our heritage, there’s wildly creative one when we sit down in the space of life, spirit, and home to bring form, color, growth, and beauty.
The question now becomes… just what do you want to create? This too must be named, must be recognised and chosen because nothing in this world just happens effort free. I’m pretty sure that every good thing I’ve ever done was teeth-grittingly hard (and yes, that includes the countless dishes I learned to wash at the end of Clarkson parties) and wouldn’t have happened if not chosen with iron will and conscious foresight.
What legacy do you want to leave? What story do you want your guests to enter? What is the heritage of your one place on earth? What is the gift you’d give to the bride if you could? I’m just beginning to answer these questions myself. (I’m pretty sure I’d give a set of novels if I could! – Books are definitely one of my legacies.) Thomas and I are just forming the shape of our story. But something I have loved in beginning this task is sitting down to make myself answer these questions of identity and purpose because the answers to those questions will begin to form the story of my home. And I want it to be a good one.
Reading this week: A ‘Brother Cadfael’ mystery by Ellis Peters called The Devil’s Novice. I always keep a story of some sort going even amidst academics, and these mysteries are lively stories with well-crafted prose by an author whose historical fiction and masterful narrative I adored in The Heaventree Trilogy.
Listening this week: Bach’s Requiem. Courtesy of my sister who is a source of all wondrous things.
(If you’re interested in more in the Incarnational theology and how it relates to home, its in Chapter Two of The Lifegiving Home.)
Cross posted at my mom’s blog sallyclarkson.com
Friends, my goal for these Theological Thursdays was to provide you with thoughts and quotes and summary of all I’m learning here in Oxford. I just want so much to share! I find that the learning itself, however, demands an amount of time that keeps me from the long, theological discussions I wish I could post. They’re coming; my deep desire and goal after these 3 years of study is to take the academic theology I’ve learned and tell it afresh in all sorts of imaginative ways.
For now, though, how about a Thursday of quotes culled from the best of my each week’s reading? Comments and discussion are so welcome, perhaps it can become a conversation. (Eventually, I can post bits of my papers here too.) And at the very least I can share a few of the gems I find through the week, the paragraphs that make me look up from reading in a coffee shop or library with eyes that suddenly feel they can see all the way to eternity…
Irenaeus in his treatise ‘Against the Heresies’ where he takes on Gnostic doctrines: In his immeasurable love, He (Christ) became what we are in order to make us what He is.
Michael Lloyd (college principal) on the Gnostic heresy (Gnosticism posits that physical/material reality is ‘bad’, spirit is ‘good’): Orthodox Christian belief insists on the essential goodness of creation – it is a good world that has gone wrong, not a bad world…we respond to the Gnostic challenge theologically by developing a theology that self-consciously insists on the goodness of creation, the Redeemer God as being the Creator God, grace rather than knowledge as saving us, Christ as fully human and fully divine, and a holistic eschatology that insists on the redemption of the cosmos.
Margaret Whipp one of my tutors, explaining the different phases of spiritual growth in human development talked about ‘conjunctive faith’, when a youngish believer moves into a phase of faith (often through suffering or doubt) where he or she must hold things in tension, and learn to live faith in paradox. I find these words so true, and am reminded again that it is often in pain, doubt, discouragement or struggle that we come to maturity: Conjunctive faith describes a move to deeper complexity…a more paradoxical understanding of faith which seeming opposites are held together in loving tension and patient humility. The individual who worked so hard to achieve clarity and autonomy now face up to his limitations, personally and intellectually. Sometimes through bitter experience, the individual must embrace the sacrament of defeat, learning a new receptivity to the goodness and truth of others and a deeper reliance on the mysterious grace of God.
George MacDonald – the long essay I’m doing is on his portrayal and understanding of God’s role in our suffering and how that developed throughout his (very sorrow-filled) life. God’s role, and presence in our suffering is something I’m very keen to study and I love MacDonald because he so powerfully presents God as Father:
If we will but let our God and Father work His will with us, there can be no limit to His enlargement of our existence.
No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in the wilderness. Most of the Epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have “learned in suffering what they taught in song.” In bonds Bunyan lived the allegory that he afterwards wrote, and we may thank Bedford Jail for the Pilgrim’s Progress. Take comfort, afflicted Christian! When God is about to make pre-eminent use of a person, He put them in the fire.
Oh, I believe that there is no away; that no love, no life, goes ever from us; it goes as He went, that it may come again, deeper and closer and surer, and be with us always, even to the end of the world.
That’s all for now, friends. I’m mulling all of these thoughts. Let me know if they startle any insights alive in your hearts as well.
Autumn greetings lovely friends. This is a quick note from a grey, cold morning in England to say: here’s the cross post of the Friday essay I have over at my mom’s blog. Also, my ceiling is fixed (glory!), the house is in order, and I’m back on a writing schedule. I’ll finally be getting back to posting a bit of theological discovery on Thursdays and exploring a few more themes I’ve treasured up over the summer. I love the order and fire and brand new potential of autumn days. For now though…
Tea & Avonlea
In Oxford you never have to be alone. But then, you might never be known either. Oxford can be a profoundly lonely place. This is a river-fast, rush to talk and write and do a thousand things city. Night or morning, there is always a talk or a group to be attended, a debate to be had, a dinner to savor, a person to be seen, a task to be done. What is harder to come by is that safe place of friendship where the hurry fades, that quiet space where the worries can emerge, or grief be shared, or where you can simply be tired and seen for the bundle of hopes and fears and delights that human beings always are.
I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day and got downright tickled at the suppressed but obvious need of every person there to be seen, to smile, to know. The chill of the day had driven a dozen of us to the blue-walled, richly scented refuge of that little café where we hunched over books and pretended to be deaf to all distraction. None of us really needed to be there – the plethora of free libraries in Oxford means no one ever needs to study in a coffee shop and I knew very well that I was there because I was feeling lonely, with Thomas at orientations all week and my old friends mostly moved away and that feeling of there being no one to call. I found myself wanting desperately to strike up a conversation with the girl next to me, or the English lit. student across the table. But the hush was self-conscious and stubborn.
Until the door opened and a new girl arrived, a sturdy pile of books in her arms. I scanned the titles and found them surprisingly familiar and without thinking, glanced at her face. She smiled and my eye was caught and I gave her what was, I’m sure, a shy, sheepish grin. Unaware of the unspoken law of shy silence, she sat with noisy ease of movement, complimented the barista on her necklace, plopped her book on the table, and apologized to her seatmate for jostling his chair. He looked up and, wonder of wonders, smiled too. And I watched that whole room crackle and thrill with friendliness. People loosened their muscles, smiled, jostled their books, even laughed. It was remarkable. That one girl, in her ease and joy allowed the rest of us to look up, out of our loneliness, to smile, to see and be seen in a remarkably powerful way. The atmosphere changed because of her presence.
My favorite blue-walled nook of a coffee shop.
That’s exactly the kind of warm, heart-quickening, life-renewing atmosphere I want my little house here in Oxford to have. Something I have learned quickly here, something I have also remembered afresh from many years of struggle is that it takes only one person to break the silence of loneliness. We live in such a hurried, impersonal world, in which isolation increases by the day. That most people are on the deep side of lonely, that they yearn to be seen and heartily known is a fact I am convinced of from top to toe. I think most people are waiting, even if they barely know it, for someone to ask them a question about their life or hope or struggles or need, a fact which makes me a little bolder every day in reaching out. It takes only a word, a smile, the offer of a cup of tea together to invite another soul into the circle of shelter in which one can be known and loved.
Home is the place where we are seen. Home – be it student flat, cottage, bungalow, closet, or mansion – is meant to be a place where people come to be deeply known, to rest, to belong. Whatever small space you possess, it is the kingdom in which your love can create an air that is the oxygen of peace for those who enter it. By the meals you craft, by the candles you light (I do love my candles), by the words you speak, and the door you open, you are the maker of a world in which friendship becomes possible. In this new season, as I revel in my own first home, I’m challenging myself to reach out, to move beyond my loneliness at old friends being gone and to use this space of mine as a place where friendships can grow, where strangers come to be companions, where bosom friendships (as Anne of Green Gables would say) begin.
Breathe In: Companionship of Words
I suppose, having talked about opening your home, it’s a bit counter-intuitive to start by talking about the companionship, not of people, but of minds and words. But good books, and the souls behind them, have companioned and nourished my heart through many seasons. And I think when we speak of loneliness, and of overcoming isolation, a first step to take can be into the communion of other active, loving minds whose life and excitement make you ready to share your own.
Novels accomplish this for me. In my moments of crisis, when the landscape of my own mind and soul were fogged and dim with confusion or loneliness, there have been several stories that stepped into my imagination as friends. The worlds they had made and the people they presented were a refuge to me. Wendell Berry’s Port William and his warm-hearted Hannah Coulter. The Eliot family and their home of Damerosehay in Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The artistic grit of Thea in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. Nouwen’s story of God’s mercy traced through his contemplations on Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal returned.
They sheltered me. When I was blinded by doubt, I journeyed on by the vibrant light of their created worlds. As I struggled toward courage, as I worked toward new hope in times of exhaustion, those stories were my refuge. I was nourished by the power of what they presented as possible, be that friendship, artistry, or just plain endurance. I sheltered within their scenes, stood beside their characters, then stood back on my own two feet to reclaim my own vision and walk the long road required to bring it to life. Friendship, companionship, community; these were some of the most vivid realities those stories helped me to grasp afresh and begin to create once more in my own life.
Breathe Out: The Tea & Avonlea Club
I keep these on hand for impromptu visits…
Anne of Avonlea was also one of those books. I grew up reading the Anne books and watching the ‘Anne of Green Gables/Anne of Avonlea’ miniseries once a year. It was tradition. Come fall, come the first turning of the leaves, we kids would help my mom peel apples for applesauce, or we girls would sip a fresh-made cup of hot chocolate and watch the charming tale of Anne – her friendships, her wonder at the world – all over again. In England now, far from my family, I ache for those old traditions and stories to shape my days, I yearn for the friendship reflected in the innocence and wonder of the Anne books.
So, I’m going to start a ‘Tea and Avonlea’ Club. It will consist of simply a baked autumnal treat, a pot of tea, an hour of reminiscent movie-watching, and time for conversation after. I’m inviting my new women friends as I find them, hoping to create a place where we can relax and enjoy, savouring the friendship of Anne and Diana (if you don’t know this story, get thee forth and read!) and letting it inspire us to our own camaraderie. It’s a small step, a light-hearted opening of possibility, but it’s the first on the road to new friendship.
Will deeper things come? I hope so. I hope that this open door of good food and fellowship will become the ground for longer conversations, for small disasters shared, for meals offered, for prayers said, for new traditions formed. What I do know is that if I don’t begin, none of it will happen. If I sit behind my closed doors, looking out my windows with lonely eyes, life will never grow. But if I bake a cake and open the door instead… that first step is the tilled ground of friendship. I’ll open my door, sweeten the deal with tea and Avonlea, and see what good things grow…
This week’s treat? A Caramel Apple Upside-Down Cake. It was delicious. And so incredibly easy. It went so fast I didn’t even get a picture…
Reading: Well, I’m currently up to my eyeballs in academic preparation, which includes a good biography of George MacDonald (by William Raeper), the author whose imaginative novel Phantastes ‘baptised’ the imagination of C.S. Lewis. With his deep, deep grasp of the fatherly love of God, and his belief in beauty as a force of God’s goodness, MacDonald has become a beloved voice in my spiritual formation. His At the Back of the North Wind, andLillith are strange and wondrous favorite tales.
Listening: A friend recently sent me the album Ghost of a King by The Grey Havens, and I am so enjoying the redemptive lyrics and hopeful, golden, acoustically-toned music.
I’m having what is charmingly known here in England as a ‘duvet day’ which generally means conducting life from the comforting shelter of one’s bed. After a crammed weekend of good work (pictures are up and books on the shelves), friends (there’s nothing like seeing an old friend in a new home), and festivities (a barn dance for the harvest celebrations at church and a BBQ to mark the opening of term at our college) I find myself tuckered and thankful for a morning with coffee, my new blue duvet, and a stack of books. And a moment to say hello here.
First, thanks from the bottom of my heart for the comments and input and encouragement regarding my new book idea. Your input has spiced up my own brew of possibilities and I now have an outline simmering on the back burner of my mind. We’ll see what good things emerge in the week to come. Thank you.
Second: if I’d had my act together I’d have posted this last Friday, but there were bookshelves to be arranged and I forgot. So here it is instead: I’m currently a weekly guest on my mom’s lovely blog at sallyclarkson.com. Every Friday for the next couple of months, I’ll be posting there with reflections centred on home and all the ways it waits to be crafted to delight and shelter the heart as the year draws down to winter. Go HERE for last Friday’s post and this week I’ll try not to let the bookshelves distract me …
And now. The winds of autumn have swept into Oxford. There’s a chill in the air, and a quickening in my heart as the winds both of earth and spirit blow a bit faster. I find myself negotiating so much change as I survey the altered horizons of my future, my goals, myself. Thomas begins three years of theological and ministry training this week, I’m finishing my final year of theology, and both of us are settling in for three more years in England, rooting ourselves in church and neighbourhood and community.
Beyond that, in a much deeper shifting of the earth of mind and heart, we have embarked on this gigantic thing called marriage in which the very borders of self we’ve always known are renegotiated, in which the vision and goals of our lives are merged and we decide what ‘we’ will be. There is a keen drive in us to do this well and as I’ve reflected on it all this morning I find myself wanting to draw in all my resources once more, to begin this time in devotion and givenness to Christ. This is our chance, our first months in which we will form what we, together, will be, how we will walk with God, live his love and mercy, bring his life in the smallest moments and biggest decisions.
Last night, we attended our usual evening service at a church we love and heard a simple Gospel message. I think this is probably a yearly tradition with churches in Oxford as I witnessed a similar service in my first week in Oxford two years ago. As freshers (first-year students) arrive, minds hungry, hearts open, bombarded with a thousand philosophies and ideas, the churches here reach out their hands with a Love greater than anything else that has ever been taught, theorised, or discovered. The sermon last night was a straightforward description of that love, drawn from the Luke parables describing God’s rejoicing over the repentant. The pastor described Christ’s refusal to see people by the label of their background or social stance, but rather to encounter them as the beloved, known, and desired children of the Father. He invited us, who know the Father’s love, to join Christ in that work of invitation, reaching into this polarized and aching world with love.
And for Thomas and me both, it was a summons to a wholehearted givenness of life, to hearts and minds laid open to Christ. In this season, we are beginning so much, embarking on such an adventure. But let all the learning and study, the deepening of our love, the forming of our home, the making of our rhythms be in service to Christ’s love as it reaches out to heal and renew the world. There are moments of clarity, when the many facets of your experience and work come into focus via the lens of one great idea. For us, it is Christ’s love. It is the Gospel, the first, single, best news of the world and this is the wind in which we want to travel throughout the work of the coming years.
This is the wind I want daily to sing in my own heart. On this indrawing of a duvet day, it is my prayer, one helped by a little postcard I picked up during our honeymoon. While we were in France, Thomas and I took a brief trip to Taizé, an ecumenical community in France. In the Taizé chapel, there are a series of stained glass windows, worked by one of the brothers. One in particular captivated me. In warm, vivid tones, the meeting of Mary and Elisabeth is depicted, as are the tiny babies within them, all radiant with joy. I love it as a daily devotional image, one I keep in my Bible, because these two women said a radiant ‘yes’ to the the good news of the world. They recognised the story to which they were called, they lived with eyes opened to God work in the world. In my own season of new beginnings, Mary has been a companion and mentor to me because she is the first one who, when confronted with the coming of Christ said ‘let it be done to me according to Thy word‘.
In this swift and exciting new season, my prayer is daily the same.
I’m sitting at my new kitchen table, with a wash of pale, pearly sunlight over my hands. Autumn has come in a rainy rush the past few days, but the air this morning is crisp, clearing, and that sense of a new season tingles in my skin and begins to burn in the leaves outside. I always feel quickened in autumn, with new ideas, with freshly gripped ideals that must be well begun before winter sets in, and this year I burn with all I want to create; a new home, new books, new friendships and traditions…
Our first Sunday breakfast… with the mountain of boxes in the back ground.
My hearty dose of reality this morning is a mountain of empty IKEA boxes to my left (which, if you don’t have a car, become suddenly difficult to dispose of) and a room crammed with all of the downstairs furnishings as the (very old) ceiling in our front room decided it was time to crash down, evidenced by a large and sinister crack in the plaster. We managed to delay this by propping wood under it, and the builder comes this week, but for the moment the settling and ordering of this new little house is on pause, so I am turning my autumn-freshened energy to the next thing that burns in my heart: writing.
I have three notebooks open on the table, all with scribbled lists of what I want to write. Oh, there is so much I want to tell and explore, so many stories, so many truths I’ve gathered in the last year of study, of love, of watching God’s grace thread through my life, weaving so much hope. There’s much I will write on the blog here– daily wonders, theological discoveries, favorite books, the usual. But the time has also come when I am ready to begin another book, and I think I know what it will be.
Here’s the thing, I want to ask you about it first.
As many of you know, much of my writing in the past years has focused on children and reading; why reading is important, how it shapes the soul and self, and why a strong imagination is so vital to the development of mind and soul. I only grow more passionate about these ideas, but as I have studied theology and spiritual formation, I’ve been startled to realize how many of the things I learned about how children develop and grow are still just as vital for adults.
We equally need to cultivate a capacity to wonder, a love for learning, a strong imagination. We equally must read because all of this is central to the way we see ourselves, the story we create, the faith we hold in the midst of grief, the beauty we bring to a hopeless culture.
I’ve spent the last year asking the same questions of myself that I asked for children: How can I cultivate wonder in myself (something I think is necessary to worship)? How do I nourish my own imagination? How do I strengthen my faith, broaden my own ideas, educate my mind so that I have roots in truth and the capacity to interact wisely with the world around me?
As I have asked and answered these for myself, I’ve begun to realize that a new book is beginning to out shout for creation in my mind. And it’s this:
What if there was a ‘book on books’ for women? A book to be a companion as you learn to fill up your own soul, learn afresh, strengthen your own imagination. What if there was a book with favorite booklists, resources, essays, and suggestions for habits that met women in the midst of their ordinary lives, which is, after all, where most of our learning takes place. A book on development of mind and soul that also focused on imagination and reading, but was written to adults. Not an academic book, or a college course, but one that explores, creatively, personally, and with practical application, what it looks like to educate, nourish, and fill the rooms of your heart and mind and soul, wherever you live, whatever your story.
This would be a book of personal stories and ideas, of book recommendations and suggestions for how to begin, of favorite resources and chapters focusing on education, reading, devotion, culture, community, a book meant to encourage you to learn, to grow, to nourish the inmost rooms of heart and mind so that you can be strong and creative, and better equipped to flourish in whatever work God has given you to do.
So here’s my question (really, a series of questions), but it boils down to: would you be interested in that kind of a book, and if so, what would you want it to provide?
Would you want an all out ‘book on books’ with reading research and book lists and reviews written specifically to you?
Or one that included books but was focused on a more holistic vision for becoming self-educated, how to go about it, how to think about it, how to create a community to do it?
Would you want vision or pragmatism? Stories to fill your imagination, or practical lists to help you begin, or both?
Would you want to hear from other women writers or thinkers? Would you want the book to be a handbook with stories or a memoir with lists?
In short – I’d love to hear your ideas, would be delighted to know your own desires in this whole area of self-education and soul development. I’ve already begun work on this book, putting together lists of beloved books, talking to mentors and friends about the habits they’ve practiced to fill soul and heart with beauty. My heart and mind flare to life at thought of women reading, learning, growing afresh together.
So, tell me what you think. I’ll be so grateful. (And it will distract me from the IKEA boxes.)
A beautiful day to all you beautiful people.
O come, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
(Psalm 34:3 – our wedding verse)
I got married.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
(More soon. I have so much I want to write about! And a cottage I’m settling and all sorts of thoughts about it. And a question I look really forward to asking you…)
Since just about my first day at Wycliffe, I’ve wanted to find a good format for passing along some of the theological treasure I discover all the time in my studies here. I spend most of my days intensively reading theologians of every stripe, many of whose words invest my study here with an aura not only academic, but profoundly devotional and often wildly adventurous in nature.
Whether its Luther thundering down the centuries about grace, or Hans urs von Balthasar casting his splendid vision of a theology founded on beauty, I almost daily stumble over words that seem to reset my understanding of, oh, everything, or grip me with a challenge to faith, or simply refresh my eyes so that I perceive Christ at play in the world in countless ways.
I rarely have the time to write a full post about these gems. I’m too busy turning in research papers on them instead. But the need to share their soul-shaping splendor endures.
Thus, I welcome you to a new series of weekly(ish) posts: Theological Thursdays.
They won’t be long or involved, but each will feature a theologian I’m loving (or wrestling with, or perhaps even questioning) with a few brief facts, a snippet or two of my own thoughts, and the main fare: my favorite quotes culled from the reading of that week.
In this way, I hope to begin to give out a little of the richness I have been so generously offered here. You know, when I came to Wycliffe, I didn’t intend to stay more than a year. But within two weeks of delving into the core ideas of my own faith, I realized that theology changes everything. In studying the creeds, I realized how easy it is to embrace half heresies without even knowing it. In studying Incarnation, I felt as if I had come to faith all over again as I realized the all-encompassing redemption of Christ invading every aspect of human existence. (This is the book I want to write next!) In reading Rowan Williams on theology and language, I encountered a realm of study in which mystery met imagination, reason tangoed with revelation, all of it expressed through the artistry and diligence of people who gave their whole lives to learning about God, I was hooked. I was revived. I felt called afresh to Christ. I just can’t keep that splendor to myself.
So welcome to Theological Thursday. (And let me just say I’d be tickled if the posts spark conversation. Your comments and thoughts and favorite theologians will be most welcome in return. Just sayin’.)
We’ll begin with the subject of my essay this week: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, writer, and martyr. He is best known for his book The Cost of Discipleship in which he condemns the ‘cheap grace’ of churches that define grace as justification for sin, rather than total renewal and transformation ‘of the sinner’. Bonhoeffer looked at the Sermon on the Mount and saw Christ’s commands as a ‘call’ that every single person is required to encounter in the individuality of their own soul. That call provokes decision; we obey or we turn away, and if we obey, we are called into a moment by moment encounter of Christ who calls us afresh to action, to love, to work in every moment of our lives.
I must be honest and confess that when I first read Discipleship I didn’t love it. I found it convicting, immediate, but somewhat blunt, sere, hard. I recognized its power, and knew it was the passionate plea of a pastor resisting the coming darkness of the Nazi regime, but I felt a bit intimidated by this ‘tyrannical’ (Bonhoeffer’s own word to describe himself) German. Until I started this research paper and delved into the letters and papers Bonhoeffer wrote while in a Nazi prison, condemned to death for a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (I’m afraid I don’t have time to get into the ethics of a pastor plotting murder- but read Discipleship or his Ethics and you’ll have somewhere to begin in understanding his thought). The Bonhoeffer I encountered there was a profoundly sensitive, insightful, compassionate man whose deep passion for Christ and determination to act rightly drove him to radical and ultimate conclusions.
In prison, Bonhoeffer questioned everything he knew, not in a despairing way, but in such a way as to test every idea he’d held about Christ before. He made his prison cell into a monastic cell, keeping prayer times daily, reading constantly, writing to those he loved, caring for other prisoners. Even as he wrote a poem in which he questioned who he was – the doubter who feared loss or the man whom everyone saw as strong and full of faith – he was described by a fellow prisoner almost as seeming to have ‘a halo of light round his head – his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison’ (S. Payne Best).
I think this was because in the waiting, yearning, and grey confines of his prison cell he came to a profound understanding of the way in which Christ makes himself weak in order to save us. He saw, in an even more immediate way, that the call to discipleship by Christ is a summons to share in that profound reversal of worldly values that we see at the Cross. It is to join Christ in his suffering, and in his love for the world. As Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge said:
The belief in the power of weakness was one of Bonhoeffer’s most basic insights, and he was to hold to it throughout his theological life. In the interpretation of the weak Word we are close to the profoundest thought ever expressed by Bonhoeffer: discipleship as participation in Christ’s sufferings for others, as communion with the Crucified.
What this meant to Bonhoeffer is summed up in his words here:
…blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying ‘despite everything you belong to God’. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise, or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: may God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you belong to your Creator and Redeemer.’
I may just have teared up in a coffee shop while reading those words. I hope you feel a bit of their beauty as well.
Books to begin:
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (written regarding the community he founded at Finkenwalde)
Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen