Sabbath Tuesday: A Hymn

Stuck in my head from this Sunday. I had to include the notes–it is one of the most beautiful hymns I’ve ever heard.

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Refrain:

Seek the Lord whose willing presence

moves your heart to make appeal.

Turn from wickedness and evil;

God will pardon, cleanse, and heal. 

Reading for Rainy Spring Days

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It seems that some books are seasonal. It doesn’t feel right to pick up Macbeth in March, or A Christmas Carol in the summer, or Right Ho, Jeeves during finals week. So here are some suggestions for those rainy spring days (for us Houstonites, those days come pretty often).

A Novel

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. There’s something refreshing about Austen’s writing—maybe it’s her snarky social satire, her playful characters, or the fact that she writes comedies that end in a marriage. Her writing, in short, sounds like spring. I chose Mansfield Park because it’s a lesser-read but more mature novel of Austen’s. The 1999 film is also a classic!

Short Stories

Any Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be read on sunny days, so a rainy day is perfect to pick up these classic mystery stories. You may say that mysteries are best read in the fall, but spring is often reminiscent, and I remember reading Sherlock Holmes stories with my twin brother on lazy spring afternoons, when playing outside meant getting covered in pollen, so we picked the indoors instead.

Non-Fiction

Confessions by Augustine. If you haven’t read this yet, run to the bookstore. Confessions is the amazing story of Augustine’s spiritual journey. It is full of repentance and renewal—two spring themes, as spring corresponds with both the confession season of Lent and the renewal and re-birth at Easter. Reading Augustine’s story will give you insight, too, to your own spiritual health. Don’t ask me how it works—but Augustine’s straightforwardness is revitalizing.

Poetry

Wendell Berry. If you know me well, you probably knew this was coming. Berry’s This Day collection is grouped by year and then organized by date written within that year. So each year progresses from an early Sunday in the year, when spring is just emerging, to a late Sunday, when autumn comes in full force. His ability to describe nature is remarkable, and he still lives on his farm in Kentucky. I’ll leave you with a short excerpt:

At the woods’ edge, suddenly

the air around him was perfumed

with the scent of wild plum flowers.

The whitened trees were accompanied

by several redbuds also in bloom,

equally beautiful, and both

together more beautiful than either

alone. Nothing in the long winter

prepared him to imagine this, a moment

in a thousand years never old.

Wendell Berry, 2011

Sabbath Tuesday: Hunger

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Last week, Will and I started watching a new Netflix series called Chef’s Table. After the first episode about a famous Italian who created modern Italian cuisine, we were hooked. The second episode started out with the same promise of celebrity—the chef featured is a leader in the farm-to-table and sustainable food movements. But the close of his story ended on a dissonant note. Instead of seeing him in celebration with his family because of his success, he reflected on a feeling of emptiness that he has experienced his entire life, and explained that his workaholism is a way to fill the void. He connected this void to the death of his mother, but then added that he thought he could never rid himself of it.

As I’m thinking about and participating in Lent, I’m beginning to realize that much of Lent is about recognizing our voids and how we fill them. The most basic way is fasting from food—an experience that everyone can participate in. It reminds us of our frailty as humans. Another way people often observe Lent is partaking in times of silence that they would otherwise fill with noise, whether that be music or television or talking. This silence becomes a sort of void, and we easily recognize the habitual ways that we provide noise.

Lenten observances not only point out our voids, but magnify them. The ashes on Ash Wednesday remind us of death and our fear of it, the practice of fasting reminds us of our weakness, and the act of repentance reminds us of our moral culpability. One of the messages of the season is “You are not whole, you are not well.” And hopefully, this both convicts us that our current ways of dealing with emptiness may not be healthy, and that Christ provides grace enough.

The farm-to-table chef that is aching with a void spends his life considering what should be consumed by his guests in a way that will benefit not only them but the world around them. He looks for the healthiest and most sustainable crops to feed his customers. But his soul will never be satisfied by the workaholism that defines his career; he is constantly seeking for something that will satisfy like the wholesome plates of food he offers. I hope to develop his perspective on food, but even more than that, I hope to consume wholesome offerings that actually answer the ache of emptiness, to feast in Zion, to drink of the wine and eat of the bread, to taste the living water.

May we recognize our voids, and may we consume that which is life-giving.

Mysteries, Monasticism, and Podcasts 3.17.17

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  1. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Great vacation reading, right? This is one of Dickens’s longest works, and one of the first mystery novels. Before Sherlock Holmes, there was Inspector Bucket. Dickens’s skill in characterization is perhaps at its height in this novel, and his descriptions of London are some of the most memorable in English literature. He begins the story by describing fog in London: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping…Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.” And you, the reader, will remain in a fog for much of the text, as this story of mystery unfolds slowly with episodes of mad women, ghosts, a boy from the slums, and a woman from the richest family in England. If you like mysteries and social satire, this is worth the read.
  1. Q podcasts. Q usually produces some thoughtful podcasts, and I wasn’t disappointed by the two I listened to this week. “Activism,” released on February 9, is a refreshing look at the value and pitfalls of social activism, especially in light of recent events. “Transgenderism,” released on January 12, is a topic that needs to be thought about by the church. This podcast is a helpful introduction to transgenderism and possible responses of Christians.
  1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish. I would love to say that I had the time to re-read this entire book, but I didn’t. The first time I read Conrad, I went to my professor and asked him, “Why has no one made me read this before?” But this mention is not about the book itself—it’s about a recent version that came out with artwork that goes with EVERY PAGE. Matt Kish, who has also illustrated Moby Dick, wrote a foreword to the version that includes his illustration, and it’s this that I read and that has been on my mind ever since.The artwork isn’t even my favorite style–but the thought process behind each piece is astounding. If you like Heart of Darkness, or have never read it, you might consider this version (artwork not recommended for under age 17, as the book itself has some gory descriptions that are sometimes reproduced).
  1. This article by James K.A. Smith. I’ve been following the discussion surrounding Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which was recently published. I have yet to read it, but this article is an interesting criticism of Dreher. I’ll be seeing both authors speak this summer at the Society for Classical Learning (panel discussion, please??), so I’m following the back story as much as possible. Even if you’re not familiar with Smith or Dreher, this article asks some valuable questions about the role of the church in today’s society.

Sabbath Tuesday: Confessions about Lent

 

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Lent is a period of 40 days before the Easter celebration, in which the church traditionally fasts in remembrance and reflection of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The central images of the season are the desert, dust, and ashes, as Christians remember their mortality, sinful nature, and dependence on God. Though it is a darker season than Advent, it is a journey that has a bright destination: the Easter feast that celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and humanity’s salvation from death and sin. 

I’ve never understood fasting. I easily get light-headed from hunger, I see food as an important factor in relationships, and not eating means not dancing, so fasting doesn’t add up in most cases. But Lent is just that: a season of fasting, created for the act of fasting. And suddenly I’m thrust into a practice of the church that humbles me and challenges me, and Lent becomes a season of change.

Over the past few years, as my interest in the church calendar has increased, I have dabbled in Lenten practices—praying the divine hours three times a day, fasting from a particular habit, contemplating pieces of art—but I’ve failed a full commitment to the season. There are many resources that can help you define goals for Lent, but those will only take you so far. Here’s what I’ve learned in my few years of thinking about—and attempting—Lent.

Lent is meant to be practiced in community.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to my liturgically-drawn soul to be in a church community this year that is digging deep into Lent. I’m already anticipating the altered sanctuary as the colors change from green to purple, the focus on lamentation and confession, and the imposition of ashes that will take place tomorrow night.

Even if you’re not in a church that practices the season of Lent, find fellow believers that share in your desire to walk through this time of fasting and confession with you. Not only do you need people to be praying for you and encouraging you on your journey, but you need a community of believers to discover together both the darkness and the beauty of this season. I tried doing it alone in the past, and regret it.

Lent requires a plan.

And “not eating any chocolate” isn’t it. I’ve realized through trial and error that if my Lenten sacrifices are merely a dieting plan to lose those last five pounds, then I’ve made it into a season that supports my own desires, rather than one that recognizes the power of self-denial.

The Book of Common Prayer invites believers into the three common practices of Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Health is the goal of Lent, but not a shallow health that is merely concerned with the physical—a spiritual health, which is closely connected to our physical state, is the aim.

Lent is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

The early church practiced a fast a few days before Easter to mourn the crucifixion of Christ before celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, this extended to a forty day fast—an obvious reflection on other forty day fasts in the Bible, but particularly a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. If you think about Christ’s own fasting and temptation in the desert, and the challenges he faced there, Lent is a way for the church to participate in that. This wilderness of the soul, of facing our own demons, of discovering our inability to overcome and Christ’s power—these are the underlying assumptions of the season.

Have you ever wondered why fasting is particularly related to food? Because it is a common human need. Physical fasting is not to say that the body is not important, but fasting does reflect our spiritual need for God, just as we have a physical need for nutrition. More to come on this later, but as you consider how you might participate in this season, realize that the long-standing tradition in Scripture and the church of fasting from food has a particular value.

 

Here are some questions to reflect on as we begin this season:

  • Do I have a community, large or small, that will walk through this season with me?
  • Is there a fast that I can commit to in order to deepen my experience?
    • (a day of fasting a week? a particular type of food? a certain meal?)
  • Is there a habit that leads me away from Christ instead of towards, and needs to be broken?
    • (this is where “fasting” from other items—social media, shopping, etc. comes in)
  • In what ways can I deepen my prayer life during this season to practice self-examination and grow closer to God?

 

 

How to Practice Examen

One of the most fruitful times in my teaching career was practicing daily examen during Lent in 2015. The day would end (and that could be anywhere from 3:40 to 6:00), and to my habit—or obsession—of cleaning off my desk before going home, I added the habit of reflecting on my day at school.

Examen is a practice found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you Google it, or talk to those who practice it, you’ll find countless variations—but it all comes down to this one simple act: reviewing your day in prayerful reflection. Some practice it weekly or monthly, others practice it daily, and others pray through Examen during particular seasons, like Lent.

I’ve found examen particularly helpful in terms of vocation. In addition to the general reflection of God’s presence in your day, I like to ask questions that address my own roles: Was the Holy Spirit welcome in my classroom today? Did I take opportunities that were placed in front of me to participate in God’s work? Did I treat my students as children of God?

Setting aside this much time at the end of long day can be daunting, but even doing this once a week is helpful. However, practicing examen daily  can be a great way to re-focus your spiritual life during a particular liturgical season—like Lent, which begins in week!

Click the links below for three ways to practice examen: a general examen, an examen specifically for teachers, and another specifically for students. Examen should be done at the end of the day, and for teachers, I think it is most helpful to practice it at the end of the work day while still in your classroom.

examen for everyone                  examen for students                examen for teachers

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Memory, the Great Books, and Lady Gaga 2.17.17

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  1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I read this once in high school, but revisiting it as an adult has proven to be rewarding. One of my graduate courses is a seminar on Dickens and his work, so we’re getting acquainted. I fell in love with his comedic Pickwick Papers, and this later work has some of the same charm but with more depth. If you’re interested in the act of memory, and how it shapes our future, then this is a good read. Or if you want to laugh, but still explore themes such as death, innocence, and memory, pick this up! It’s long, but it will keep your interest.

  1. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

My other graduate course is called Structures of Poetry, and we’re slowly working through this text. I appreciate my professor’s idea of “living” with a text over a long period of time (a semester), and I’m slowly warming up to Wordsworth’s autobiographical account. The best part is reading David Copperfield at the same time, as both texts are experiments in memory. Wordsworth writes about “spots of time,” or moments of epiphany in his past, as he catches glimpses of beauty and the sublime in nature.

  1. The Gospel According to Lady Gaga by Richard Beck

There are several reasons I am interested in this post: 1) the SuperBowl was in Houston!; 2) Lady Gaga came to my church on SuperBowl Sunday—and no, I didn’t see her, because she was at the early early service, and no, most people didn’t recognize her, and no, I’m not familiar with her current faith status; and 3) the author is a professor from my alma mater. Those may not be YOUR reasons for reading this article, but I highly recommend taking a few moments to look at it! This is an insightful and provocative look into Lady Gaga’s career and fans.

  1. What To Say When Your Students Hate a Classic Book by Joshua Gibbs

Obviously a great post to read if you are a teacher or student, and Josh Gibbs does a delightful job of defending the idea of Great Books. But this post also encourages other questions to be asked—for those of you who care about education—that are just as important: is education about entertaining students? Should we make them read challenging texts? What is valuable about an education in literature? If you are a teacher, or student, or parent, or human being (I think that covers everyone),  these underlying questions of education are important to consider.

 

 

Sabbath Tuesday: A Reflection on Marriage [and some punny valentines]

I obviously have to follow the Valentine’s Day trend and say something about love. Actually, Will and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day, as it makes Will angry that so many are “manipulated by Hallmark to further participate in our consumerist culture,” according to him (I generally agree). And he’s too hipster to buy me flowers on the day you’re supposed to buy people flowers, so he surprises me on random days instead.

We celebrated our fourth anniversary about six weeks ago with a bike ride on the Galveston beach in freezing 45-degree weather, where our relationship was defined in the simple act of me trying to ride through the McDonald’s drive thru on my bike, but being unable to because I didn’t have my wallet with me, and Will refusing to condescend to such a level (“It’s illegal!!”).

There’s a line in an Andrew Peterson song that has deepened my views on marriage this past year. In “My One Safe Place,” Peterson sings:

I know that you’re broken, too,

But you are a sacrament that God has spoken through.

 I’ve heard over and over again the comparison between marriage and Christ and the church, but that line made me realize that is exactly what we’ve been experiencing in our own marriage over the past four years: each other’s brokenness, love, sacrifice, and faithfulness. Will and I loved each other when we walked down that aisle together in celebration four years ago, but I’m not sure I understood the depth of love that two human beings could experience together.

Marriage is a microcosm of the triune love, a small way for us to experience just how deep Christ’s love for us can be, for us to know the power of forgiveness and faithfulness and sacrifice. I’ve credited the renewal in my spiritual life to many things—praying daily prayers, reading Hopkins, teaching high school students… but the gift of marriage is one of the many reasons I have a better understanding of God today.

I’m forcing Will to celebrate with me this year, because I surprised him with movie tickets to Lego Batman, so suddenly he sees Valentine’s Day as a valid excuse for a date night. Here’s to love, Hallmark holidays, and the joys of marriage.

 

MY FAVORITES THIS YEAR
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Suggested Tales for Reading Together 1.27.16

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grateful to Annie Lamb for capturing this moment! 

One of my favorite things about marriage is having someone to read with (or to, depending on how you look at it). Experiencing stories with loved ones is delightful, and though we’ve attempted to read heavier fiction together (like Dosteovsky), I’ve found that lighter, usually humorous, stories work best. Obviously, you can read anything aloud… but I’ve compiled a short list that might help you get started. Here are a few of my top suggestions for reading together, as a couple or with kids!

  1. The Pickwick Papers. What happens when you put four English gentlemen together—a sportsman, a poet, a ladies’ man, and their fearless leader, an “observer of human nature”? And when Charles Dickens is writing the story? This comedic magic. Though the short chapters are connected by characters, The Pickwick Papers is more of a collection of episodes than a novel, which makes it perfect for reading together even if you’re not consistent about it. This is the work that made Dickens famous, and for good reason. A great way to develop your sense of humor! Very!
  1. The Hobbit. Obviously a classic, this shorter tale from Tolkein is a great way to explore heroism, friendship, and courage. And if you’ve seen the recent movies? Not even close to the charm of the book. If you want to read together as a family, but don’t like reading aloud, this is one of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to, and worthy of a long road-trip.
  1. Any of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories. I sing his praises often. Will and I were in tears over The Code of the Woosters this summer. I’ve read Wodehouse with my brother, my students, my husband, recommended him to friends, and given his short stories as a wedding gift. If you need a laugh, he’s your best bet!
  1. Watership Down by Richard Adams. A friend recently recommended this to me, and Will offered to read it together. It’s delightful so far, and the short chapters make it the perfect read if you don’t have much time daily to devote to reading aloud.It is, simply, a story about talking rabbits fleeing from danger and establishing a new homeland. Especially known for appealing to all ages, this will become a family favorite!
  1. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Studying O’Connor with my high school students is one of my favorite memories. Not only is she witty, but she has a profound understanding of the South, fiction, and religion. If you want to laugh and encourage conversation about heavier topics (race, relationships, religion), this one is for you.
  1. Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe. A perfect companion for a dark and story night, these are psychological suspense tales that forever changed the short story form. Oh, and each story has to be read in one sitting—Poe wouldn’t have it any other way.

7. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Need I say more?

I hope this list has inspired you to read with your family. Let me know which books you’re reading together!

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Sabbath Tuesday: Work and Rest

fullsizeoutput_701As you may know, the idea of Sabbath Tuesdays began in the classroom– a quick weekly break during our AP classes every Tuesday afternoon before we began new lessons every Wednesday.

Today, I am remembering the power of those Sabbath moments. The beauty of taking that deep breath, of resting, only occurred to us because we needed to breathe, and we were tired. So we rested, and were renewed.

Sabbath is full of grace because the rest of the week is full of work. Over break, I had difficulty thinking in terms of Sabbath. But today, I’m rejoicing in the beauty of work, as it is something we were all created for. Each day we have the privilege of being sub-creators, producers, participators in this grand scheme of redemption. And it is only after ordering our lives in this pattern of work and rest that we experience the Sabbath grace in its fullness.

During our Sabbath Tuesdays at school, we would read a Wendell Berry poem. I’ll leave you with one to consider today as you contemplate the joy of work.

Whatever is foreseen in joy

Must be lived out from day to day,

Vision held open in the dark

By our ten thousand days of work.

Harvest will fill the barn; for that

The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

 

And yet no leaf or grain is filled

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

 

When we work well, a Sabbath mood

Rests on our day, and finds it good.

-Wendell Berry, from This Day collection