Are You a Theologian?

My friends and I used to amuse ourselves by inventing cutesy, cringy names for women’s devotionals:

  • Coffee Time with God
  • Puppy Snuggles with God
  • Tea Cups and Promises

Our amusement came from what we saw as fluffy women’s devotionals that were packaged to make the content as winsome and inviting as possible, and we had no time for it.

I still don’t.

Observation 1: The devotional guides I’ve seen for women have disappointed me by being consumer-driven, comfy platitudes that try to make readers feel better. If you’re partial to a book or writer, and if you’ve found life in that content, I’m happy for you. There are some good writers out there but exceptional women’s devotional guides are rare.

Observation 2: Women need life-giving, rich input from God in order to fill their responsibilities well. I look at moms and the ways they see after their children, household, and neighbors with deep love, wisdom, and skills, and I think “How does she does she do it? She’s heroic!” Singles have other ways in which they give and feel depleted, but we all need so much more goodness and light than we can produce on our own.

This why I’m SO excited about the new Bible study guide, Kingdom of Priests! And until December 8, you can use a discount code to pre-order it: FRIENDS&FAMILY10. Run and get it for yourself and your friends, your small group, your neighbors. This is a meaty, serious, solid guide that you can take with you and be fed. A bonus for me is that my good friend Kristi wrote it, so I loved hearing her voice in it!

As a pilot tester, I got to do five of the ten lessons in the book. I loved the scope of the study, and how it explores the theme of priests from Genesis to Revelation. For years, I’ve been been thinking about the theme of temple—the places where we meet God—so studying priests fit perfectly into my line of interest.

The last few weeks, I began each day doing part of a lesson, and later, in the cracks of the day, my brain was pinging with ideas and words and concepts about priests and temples, the ways God shows His glory, the ways fallible humans represent God to their world. How does He trust us with so much! I kept thinking how much dignity and worth this calling of priesthood gives every person, how much responsibility women carry to represent God well regardless of their life calling.

In addition to probing the specific subject of priesthood, each chapter/lesson introduces a tool or a lens for exploring any Scripture passage. This give readers ways to study themes and passages of their interest, ways to teach Sunday school, and methods to study or lead Bible studies.

Probably the biggest weakness with women’s Bible studies is that we rush from the text to ourselves. We think “What’s in it for me? How does this speak to my situation?” I think that’s why those cutesy titles are wrong: they serve the reader who loves coffee or puppies instead of calling the reader to serve the text and its intentions.

Instead, we need to come to Scripture asking “Where is God here, and how is He revealing Himself? What is the author’s intent? How can I align my life with the ways God reveals His heart in His story?”

Imagine the results if women would sit in circles to explore these questions instead of talking about recipes and décor and gardening—all worthy topics in their places—but let’s not give ourselves a pass from studying Scripture, shrug, and say we’re not theologians or leaders. We ARE theologians—priests—in all the ways and places that we represent God to our world.

He doesn’t require us to be perfect, silver-tongued teachers, but shouldn’t we aim to be the best representatives of God we can be?

Why I Read Novels

Last Saturday night, my friends at The Curator asked me to roundtable a discussion on Why I Read Novels. It was a fun thing to think about and organize some of my scattered, simple thoughts about it. Here are some of the ideas I put out there.

Kafka said, “We ought to read only books that stab or wound us. A book must be an ax for the frozen sea within us.”

Well. I agree that books can uncover what’s inside us, but I don’t read books to be stabbed or wounded.

On the other hand, Flannery O’Connor said, “People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.”

I agree with Flannery. Hope is a rare treasure these days, and reading and writing can be acts of defying cynicism and despair, because words can declare truth and light beyond the present.

In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs writes, “It should be normal for us to read what we want to read, to read what we truly enjoy reading.” He expects, of course, that we want to read what is true, good, and beautiful.

Why I Read Novels

  • For pleasure and whim, as Alan Jacob’s book encourages.
    • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
    • Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry
    • My Antonia, Willa Cather
  • For curiosity and vicarious experience. I read a lot of memoir and biography for the same reasons.
    • Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
    • We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
    • A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
    • A Father’s Tale, Michael O’Brien
    • The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
    • Still Alice, Lisa Genova
  • Because I like the author’s voice and skill with words
    • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
    • Island of the World, Michael O’Brien
    • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
    • Gilead, Lila, Home, Jack, a series by Marilyn Robinson
  • They help me understand the marginalized and characters I don’t usually cross paths with.
    • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
    • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
    • A Man Called Ove, Britt Marie was Here, both by Fredrik Backman
  • Novels give words for a common experience and understanding, such as eating the fruit in Perelandra or when the children shook snow off their boots and coats in the Narnian beavers’ house.
  • Novels give shape and color to important values and ways of living.
    • Strangers and Sojourners, Michael O’Brien
    • The Shepherd’s Castle, The Baronette’s Song, The Fisherman’s Lady, The Curate’s Awakening, George MacDonald
    • The Dean’s Watch, Green Dolphin Street, Elizabeth Goudge

How I Read Novels

Books are for seasons. I tried four times to read Gilead, and gave up. It moves very slowly, like all of Marilyn Robinson, and never suited me, until, in the right season, my mind slowed down enough to savor the message, and I could take it in and love it. To read the emotionally grueling but deeply impactful Island of the World, I need to be in the right season, which probably happens roughly once every ten years. (I also felt like I needed a support group as I read.) If everyone around me enjoys a novel but I don’t, this might not be the season for it. (Except for WWII novels, which have no viable season for me.)

My friend Marlene introduced me to the idea of  “cluster reading” which I aspire to, and have only briefly dabbled in, and would love to do more. Read several books around one theme or time period from various perspectives. Last year my cluster reading was:

  • A Gentleman in Moscow
  • Agent Sonya (a biography)
  • The Brothers Karamazov (which I didn’t finish–yet)

Another idea for cluster reading could be:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia
  • The Narnian (a biography)

How I Find Novels

Goodreads keeps my reading life organized, lets me see what friends are reading and what they’re saying about them. I write a review of most of the books I read, and friends can see what I put out there. I shelve books on To Be Read, Read, and Currently Reading. When someone recommends a book, I put it on my To Read list and don’t have to keep a mental list. I LOVE Goodreads! It’s an old app, loads slowly, and isn’t super user-friendly, but I still like it.

I get newsletters from my favorite contemporary Christian writers like Philip Yancey, Jen Pollock Michel, and Lore Ferguson Wilbert. Good writers are good readers, and when they recommend books that they’re reading, I listen up. I also watch what Christianity Today  says about the newest titles coming out.

I don’t know how many disclaimers I should make here. We all know there’s a lot of rubbish out there, and novels get a bad rap for being sensuous and escapist, because many are that. I try hard to not read any books I wouldn’t want to recommend to friends. There are too many good books out there to waste time on less than great stories.

Story is a powerful form of communication that can set a reader’s compass and turn them to a positive direction. Jesus must have thought so too. Reading a good novel is a way to engage in hope, declaring that today’s devastation is not the only reality and there good things to reach for. Truth, goodness, and beauty will always have the last word. Because of this, I believe good stories will change the world.

Advent Jewels

This gentle turning of the season into gray and cold and sometimes snow has been lightened now with words and music and berry trees. I want to share the wealth, be the town crier, tell you about the gems that sparkle for me. If they don’t shine for you, it’s ok. Words, and songs, like books, are for seasons that are not always now.

Poetry
These mornings, I’m paging through Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson: a book of blessings for the seasons of Advent, Lent, and Epiphany. I find the verses thoughtful, infused with Jan’s experience of deep grief and hope.

I come back again and again to this favorite from Malcolm Guite: “O Emmanuel.” Guite plays with words and allusions with holy playfulness. The layered meanings of each word and line slows me down and fills me with awe at his skill. My favorite line is the second line: O long-sought With-ness for a world without. I love hearing artists talk about their work, and this podcast on Spotify has the author reading all seven of his Advent poems and some of the backstory of each. Go to 30:00 to hear him read this one:

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Music
While I love all the carols of the season, (not the chintzy songs about chestnuts or holly!) Advent songs meet me right now like nothing else. I’d like to sing #121 in the Mennonite Hymnal every Sunday: “Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People.” For the glory of the Lord now on earth is shed abroad/And all flesh shall see the token that His word is never broken.

Two pieces on repeat these days:

  1. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” by Voces 8.
    LIsten to the long, plaintive first “O,” how the tenor voices shimmer throughout the song, and the strong, desperate quality of the voices calling.
  2. “O Radiant Dawn” by The Sixteen
    I heard this live twice last week, and each time, I couldn’t stop the tears. It’s raw, longs for light and justice, and calls COME because there’s nothing else to say.

Art
A friend gave me this card, a painting by Liz Hess, because she knew I’d like it. I keep it on my desk because so much love how the kings of the earth are bringing their glory to the lion and the lamb at the manger.

Last year pastor John showed me what he was making for his daughters and I was cheeky enough to say I’d love one too. Soon one morning, I found this on my desk and of course I cried. I love its simplicity and these days, Mary’s arms are empty.

Blog post
Every year about this time, I reread and share this blog post by Lanier Ivester. I found it years ago during an especially dark season, and it gave me hope and light and a giant shift in perspective.

The sorrow had just never been so tangible, so odiously unavoidable. And my thorn had such an ugly name: Barrenness. It takes a good, stout Old Testament word to express the arid disgrace of it: the Bible is painfully good at looking things in the eye and calling them what they are, and those first faithful ones certainly knew a desert when they saw one.

The blog post also introduced me to the beautiful words attributed to Fra Giovanni in 1513: There is glory and beauty in the darkness, could we but see! And to see, we have only to look.

Advent is a season of waiting, watching, preparing. We light pink and purple and white Advent candles every week, and we wait for many things but I often think we know nothing of waiting like the Jews did for their Messiah and deliverance, or like refugees wait for their papers. But we still wait. The whole earth waits, weeping for justice and goodness and beauty.

This year, more than I could last year, I can enter into the season of hope in waiting. I’m ready for light to seep up from the horizon, ready for smiles to grow strong and confident, ready for faith to become sight. Ready.

Life is for Living

I was always going to write a book, but this one wasn’t in the plans. I thought I was going to write about an American Mennonite’s experience of living in Ireland, but I don’t think that one’s going to ever make it, which is very ok.

I remember hearing about a girl who was planning her wedding but her sisters (older and younger than her) could hardly be civil to her, consumed with their losses and desire to be brides. I felt sad for them, knowing some of their pain, but I felt strongly that they weren’t on Earth to be bitter about what they didn’t have.

What IS our greatest purpose? What ARE we here for?

If it’s to be happy brides and wives, some of us have failed our purpose.

If it’s to love and worship God, that option is open to anyone, anyone.

That was my driving motivation in writing the book: what were we created for, and how can we enter into it now, without a romance story? I wrote out of my experience and my hope. I wrote about what I knew and dreamed of. Looking back now, I think it was kinda audacious of me to start writing a book at age 30, and parts of it seem chirpier than I am now, but the premise hasn’t changed.

We were created for a vast, endless, creative love, and there’s no limit to entering into it and letting it transform our lives.

I wrote for singles ages 20-30 because that’s what I knew and had experienced. But often moms and pastors’ wives come up to me to say how the book meets them. I’m deeply honored that they read it, and am learning not to be surprised that it connects with them because we are, all of us, living in Plan B. None of is now where we thought ten years ago we’d be, are we? Unless you’re sitting at the same place you were, eating PopTarts™ slathered with marshmallow creme.

It seems that living well means figuring out how to thrive in Plan B. I’m still learning, steadily by jerks.

Singles don’t have a monopoly on disappointment, ambiguous grief, or unrequited love. We don’t suffer more than others, but we do live with a specific loss that deserves some attention sometimes.

You’ve probably heard a talkative mother say she was never going to marry, but here she is, with a house and family because some man came out of nowhere and swept her off her feet. She’s grinning as she says it, and people chuckle. She’s allowed to joke about her Plan B.

But a single lady isn’t allowed to say she was never going to be single at 26 or 46, but here she is, all dressed up with no date. Her Plan B is real, but not one people chuckle about.

We’re ALL in Plan B and for some it’s socially acceptable to talk/groan/chuckle about it, and for others of us, it’s not something we bring up at a fellowship dinner table.

I hope my book provides a safe, understanding place to name the Plan Bs readers find themselves in, and that it gives them ways to look at themselves, the future, and God–our generous, wise, gentle, lavish Creator. The book is a practical, realistic invitation to the love and worship we were all created for. My premise is that we thrive when we enter into that love and worship.

Gearing up for Cyber Monday, you can buy a digital copy of the book on  Amazon or hard copy here at Christian Learning Resources.  Under the banner of my blogsite’s home page, click on the book title and find the drop-down list of each chapter and you can read the first page of each. After you read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

Words When There are None

Screenshot from Every Moment Holy website

I don’t know why, but I usually have more words than one person needs. However, the supply comes and goes. At both tips of the deep lows and soaring highs that my personality tends toward, I have no words. Only tears or gasps, like last night on my walk when I saw the enormous orange moon slipping up from the horizon. Or in times of confusion and anger and sorrow. Or when I don’t know how to pray.

My culture came away from rote prayers, prayer books, and liturgy, ostensibly because we valued direct connection with the Holy Spirit, and I’m glad for that. I don’t like to be tied to a form that becomes hollow.

But in the cascading sorrows of this season, as well as the shimmering beauty that lingers, I found a place that has words when I have none. I don’t use the book every day, but I go again and again to the first volume of Every Moment Holy, and I sit with the words that remind me of simple truth, enduring safety, and the anchor of God’s sovereignty. You too? You forget too that something bigger is going on here, and God is still in charge of the world? Yeah, me too. That’s why I love this prayer book so much.

Sometimes I call it a prayer book for millennials, because it has a prayer for drinking coffee, a prayer when reading too much news, a prayer when seeing someone beautiful, a prayer when camping, a prayer before going on stage. One of my favorites alludes to a Narnian story: it’s a prayer when feasting with friends, and reminds us that eating together is an act of war. Yes! Count me in to fight the dark side by feasting together!

Screen shot of the Every Moment Holy, partial list of contents, vol. 1

Jesus countered the proud, public prayers of His day by telling us to pray secretly, and He modeled that in His solitary nights of prayer. For all of us individually, secret times of connection with the Father shape our character and anchor our public service. If we crowd out these secret moments, we lose way more than we can know.

Other places in the New Testament show God’s people praying together and collectively pushing back the dark powers around them. Humans are finite and limited and near-sighted enough that we forget the spiritual reality that shimmers beyond our sight. If we would see and hear what happens in the spiritual world around us, it would take our breath away.

I hold enormous comfort knowing the Spirit prays for me when I have no words. I also love using this prayer book, but I dream of these prayers printed and handed around small groups and church benches and Sunday schools all over the globe. The second volume is prayers about death, grief, and hope, which I don’t have yet, but seems appropriate and necessary these days.

Liturgy for a Time of Widespread Suffering

Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow

In collective prayer, we hear each other say the words we can’t string together, reminding ourselves of what is enduring, verbally expressing hope and joy and sorrow, and audibly saying words we know to be true even though we don’t feel their reality. We often do this unconsciously in songs. What if we would intentionally speak words together in prayer—words and phrases and silences we don’t have but someone else wrote for times like this?

These two volumes make lovely gifts. Here’s a short list of PDFs from volume two, but you probably should buy copies of both volumes for yourself and your friends.

Instead of God’s people being known for their suspicion and outrage, I long for God’s people to be known for their love and worship. To have child-like faith. To keep our faces turned toward the God who will one day right all the wrongs that rain around us. To instinctively reach for someone’s hand and pray for them or with them when we don’t know what to say.

Imagine if neighbors would say “Have you heard about their prayer meetings? Do you see how crazily they love those who disagree with them? They look like they have a shining secret! I wonder what makes them so gentle and beautiful?”

Imagine if prayers would be the words we’re remembered for.

A Dream of a Feast

Some years back, a friend took me to Gallery Row in Lancaster and I was delighted to find the galleries of Liz Hess and Freiman Stoltzfus next door to each other. Fun, fun!

Liz Hess is an artist who incorporates a red umbrella in many of her paintings. Her style is whimsical, fanciful, and worshipful and I like it a lot.

Frieman Stoltfus tends toward abstractions based on classical music, European architecture, Lancaster landscapes, and his Amish heritage. I love the emotions in his abstract paintings and the grounded, thoughtful, pointed ideas in his realistic work.

In that first visit, I saw a small print of his The Last Supper and I told myself that someday I want that in my house. I started following the gallery on Facebook, and loved all I saw, but never forgot The Last Supper. Several years later, it was August 2020 and somehow I knew that now is the time. I perused the website but couldn’t find the painting, so I contacted the gallery’s Facebook page to ask about it.

Bethanie, the gallery manager, answered quickly and said she can get it printed for me. Which size would I like? Plus, all the prints were 20% off that month!  It came soon in the mail, and I carried it around campus to show people what I was so happy about. I love it so much.

It would seem that its title is an allusion to Leonardo da Vinci’s i but I always want to call it the Wedding Feast or The Marriage Supper of the Lamb because that’s what it is to me.

It’s framed now, and in our kitchen. I love to have people look at it and I ask what they see. They always mention the diversity of skin colors, ages, and cultures. They see the cathedral effect in the background, the record player, and the abstract yellows. There’s both definition and mystery.

I love the Japanese lanterns in the trees, the way the people are leaning toward each other in open body language, the groom’s hands are inviting someone outside the picture, and the empty chairs say there’s room for more. And it’s a party! There’s music and cake, wine and candles, and the night is still young. The celebration is going to go on for a long time.

                   

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get a little peek at this in real life, where there’s laughter, conversation, lights at dusk, diversity, music, and food. I have a palette of memories like this to treasure, a painting in my kitchen, and a great hope to live in.

Doodling Toward Wholeness

In 2015, I wrote a post about my favorite therapy. In it, I wrote about what helps to keep me less twitchy. I’ve kept the therapy because it’s cheap and cheerful and who needs Hallmark if you can doodle?

I made this for my sister-in-law who kept it on her fridge.

I’ve kept adding designs to my Pinterest board and whenever I’m at loose ends or bored–and let’s face it, that’s rare–I go to this board to get me unstuck. All I need is paper and a black gel pen.

Once I was in church and trying to stay awake, so I doodled on the notebook paper in my Bible, inspired by the design on a dress I saw.

It’s worn and tattered, but I don’t feel like throwing it away.

I doodle when I’m in an orientation meeting that I’ve heard before. I doodle when I’m trying to stay awake in church, which is rare. I doodle when I’m at an art party, and sometimes the doodles progress to color.

A wedding card

This happy pile emerged from an art party at Christmas time.

This stiletto is way too fun to make!

Remnants found in my Bible on the backs of church bulletins. The color comes from markers borrowed from the child beside me.

I scribbled this during a members meeting at church.

Now I do simple sketching and watercolors on cards. I make a bunch of the same kind of design because it’s easy but I try to keep updating and improving the designs so that not everyone in my world gets this design for the next three years.

Making cards gives me a viable outlet because I need to go somewhere with what I make, and I can’t coat my walls with all of it. And anyone loves receiving a handmade, unique card, don’t they?

Anyone can do this, and that’s the beauty of it. Buy a pack of cards and envelopes from Joann Fabrics or Michaels with a coupon and a pack of 8 gel pens from Dollar Tree and you’re set. You can supplement with watercolor or colored gel pens or sequin stickers, but less is more, and extras aren’t essential. Turn on a classical music playlist and doodle for thirty minutes and the process will significantly improve your week. If it doesn’t help, talk to me!

In these crazy, chaotic times, creating beauty in whatever form you choose is a decisive, active way to defy the chaos and declare that hate and tragedy and death aren’t the deepest realities. Maybe you don’t doodle but you bake a cake or make soup. Or tend a flowerbed. Or do woodburning. Or shine your windows. Or pot plants and give them away. I don’t care what the medium or mode is, but be sure you create regularly.

Creating is a means to an end: aligning the whole person with what is true, good, and beautiful, and sharing it. The world–and your soul–is starving for beauty. What will you create and share?

 

That Good Night: a Review

I’ve blogged about the day I went book shopping with friends and found a favorite book. This is the story of another book that day.

I usually shop with a strict budget I’ve set for myself, not so much set in dollar amount but whether I’ll use the item or not, or whether it was something I was looking for. But I went into that day knowing that somewhere, I’d allow myself a treat. I didn’t know what it would be, and I was on the prowl for several titles, but I would know the surprise treat when I saw it.

I was looking for a copy of Les Miserables that’s easy to hold in my hand, not chunky, and has space for notes in the margins and isn’t super expensive. At the idyllic Loganberry Books, I found one that could have worked but was still too pricey, so I put it back on the rack. I’m still looking for a winner for that wish list.

On my way past the counter, ready to leave without buying anything, I brushed past a table full of newly-published books, and That Good Night caught my eye. I flipped open the dust jacket flaps and skimmed them. The author was an American-born daughter of immigrants from India. She was about my age. She was a palliative care doctor and this was her story. It checked all my boxes, and I knew this was my treat for the day.

I’ve rarely been so thrilled with an impulse purchase. I’ve read the book twice in less than two years because I love it so much.

In her last months of medical school, Sunita did an elective in palliative care and suddenly started grappling with questions about what did it mean to live well, and how was dying different from death, and how to treat the person instead of the disease? She writes with mastery and gentleness about her experience of starting to unlearn the things she’d learned in medical school.

Her elective experience moved her so profoundly that she chose to make palliative care her career. What kept my attention even more than the medical accounts was the way Sunita talked about how she needed to learn a different way of listening and speaking. She says the biggest shift in her new responsibilities was her new relationship with language. She still used and prescribed drugs and treatments, but she used words as her primary way to probe, diagnose, and find a good way forward–even if that way meant patients dying and not getting healthy again.

Maybe I found the story so riveting because I don’t ad lib well, and when I’m put on the spot, I often regret what I said. Here, Sunita recounts hyper-fraught meetings with super-stressed patients and their family members. Every conversation was a mine field, but she had good mentors, and she practiced words and phrases in front of a mirror and learned how to find her way through unpredictable, volatile conversations. It makes me think that maybe, maybe I could learn to listen better and use words better too, even on the fly when I don’t have the luxury of time to craft them.

I’ve loaned the book out several times to friends, and they say they enjoy my notes in the margins, but none of them gushes about the book, or were as taken in as I was. Fair enough. But I loved being immersed in those emotionally-charged conversations where, by listening well and using non-inflammatory language, she found a logical, level-headed solution that let everyone feel heard and helped. I love the idea that using words well is a way toward healing and peace that replaces chaos and fear.

Sunita writes from a Buddhist perspective, which adds a fascinating layer to her story. It’s not healthy to agree everything you read, and I loved the exercise of sifting through what I admired and what I didn’t agree with. The glimpses of Indian culture and worldview makes it a rich read.

Please let me know when you read the book, because I’d love to hear how you experienced it!

Songs Stay On

It was a year, as everyone has already noted.

I don’t have words yet to talk well about it, and there are still clouds and questions with no answers. I am hopeful but not glib about 2021. Not chirpy, as my personality tends to be.

This not the place to list last year’s losses. That would take too long and be too depressing. But one immense loss has been choir, choir concerts, and formal and informal singing groups. I feel incredulous that last January, just before the year started unravelling, I went with friends to a packed auditorium in Cleveland to hear the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Dr. Anton Armstrong. I still listen to some of the songs I heard that night. I’m not a gifted singer, but listening to songs and singing with people feeds me like nothing else does and I miss it terribly.

In the darkest, hardest parts of the year, when I couldn’t sing, I listened to others sing. Often it was “Jesus Strong and Kind.” Or “Sure on This Shining Night.”

When everything inside me feels scrambled, I listen to choral music. When I want to rest my soul, I turn on my favorites, this curated list of chorale gems. The voices, harmonies, and chord progressions soothe something deep in me. I start breathing deeper and my focus shifts from troubles around me to the shimmering melodies or words. This list has multiple arrangements and languages of the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23. Wonder how that happened.

This list are all my favorites depending on the moment, but indulge me while I share my exceptional choices:

  • Pieces from Stellenbosch Choir. From South Africa, they have a rare, winning blend of Dutch harmonies and African rhythms. I dream of hearing this group in person some day.
  • The first time I heard the stunning soprano lines in Arvo Part’s “And I Heard a Voice,” it took my breath away. Then I read the backstory to the song, and how he composed it in his native Estonian, and now I like it even more.
  • Sometimes I wake up with lines from Forrest’s “Come to Me” or Mealor’s “The Beautitudes” in my head, and it makes the whole day better.
  • Whenever I hear “Indodana,” I see the silhouettes of the women at Jesus’ cross, weeping with no words. I can’t listen to the song without some emotional fortitude because it’s so sad. But it gives voice to what was the most wrecked night of their lives.

I often think CCM has more honest lament than classical and sacred music does, so I find some CCM lyrics cathartic and healing, but I don’t find most CCM beautiful aesthetically. And beauty is what I need when I’m fragile or sad. Beauty (very loud or very soft) or silence.

Toward the end of last year, I got to sit in on the dress rehearsal for this recorded Christmas concert. The only thing that’s better than singing in choir is listening to your friends sing. While they practiced, I sat on the floor in the back of the gym in the dark and cried because it was so beautiful. Earlier in the year, some of them were also in on this virtual choir and I’m so proud of them.

Clearly, this is the era of virtual choirs. Even though it goes against most of what is true and enjoyable about choir, virtual choirs offer something better than silence and isolation. Last summer, I heard about Eric Whitaker’s “Sing Gently” virtual choir about two days before the tracks were due in. I downloaded the sheet music and the practice tracks, but didn’t have time to finish. That close, I would’ve joined over 17,000 singers to debut that sweet song, and it would’ve been a nice way to remember the year. Maybe another song, another time.

Hope wears thin these days, but in brighter moments, I believe that some day we’ll pack into auditoriums and sing again. I dream of attending a concert like this of Brahm’s “Requiem.” The European elegance, red and black formal wear, the singers surrounding the audience–I would be be in raptures.

Singing aligns all the parts of a person with beauty and goodness, which is one reason it’s so healing for me. In this fragmented, splintered, fraught era, we need more singing. We need songs everywhere. We need truth and beauty and goodness flung around in music and voices and community. We could never have too much.

Stir: A Book Review

I was thrilled last year when a friend organized a day over Easter break to prowl around bookstores in Cleveland. Three of us met at Loganberry Books, a sprawling old bookstore that wound round and round and in and out of rooms and even had a resident cat. I found a treasure there that I’ll review here soon.

It was a delicious day all told, in books and food, because my friends introduced me to Choolah for lunch, an Indian barbeque place that I fell in love with–the hospitality, the decor, the light-hearted quips on the wall about elephants and waiting lines.

Then we drove to Chagrin Falls, just outside Cleveland, and when I passed the popcorn shop and crossed the bridge and came into the town square with a gazebo in it, I thought I’d landed in Ireland. Fireside Books is on the square, and the kind of shop that goes deeper in and higher up than you expect at the front door. I picked up several books and put them back down, and at the last minute, grabbed one that was a little overpriced for being a used book. Its subtitle convinced me that it would go home with me despite the price: My broken brain and the meals that brought me home.

I care a lot about what it means to walk from brokenness to wholeness and I knew this would expand my understanding. It did.

Jessica was 28, a super-focused, energetic Harvard graduate preparing for her doctorate exams in Jewish literature in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During a routine morning jog, she suffered a brain aneurism that sent her to an emergency room and emergency surgery. That would have been traumatic enough, but the staggering complications coming from that incident spread out over the next two years and shattered Jessica’s life, her frenetic routine, and her sense of safety and self.

Who was she if she couldn’t study and teach and produce papers? Who was she if she couldn’t cook and host and buzz effortlessly around the kitchen to serve her husband and friends every weekend and every holiday? How could she know this meteor in her brain wouldn’t hit her again?

The book recounts Jessica’s quest for normality and joy during a season when nothing was right and her body didn’t obey her. Stir is a beautiful read, sparkly, and wholesome. I love how Jessica lets us in on some of the Jewish holidays and customs that create the fabric of her life. I love how fond she is of her husband Eli. I love her easy use of colorful words like “glop” and “lacy scatter of sesame seeds.” She is reflective, self-aware, and philosophical by turns. She writes about her medical issues without making that the whole story, and the stories always involve food and friends and family.

The recipes at the end of most chapters are straight-forward and thorough. Some are super simple and make me want to make it right now. Others are fun to read, but I know I’ll never follow four pages of instructions for a strawberry custard cake.

One of my friends read the book and started making the chocolate chip cookies with their magical simple ingredient that wows us every time. Another friend brought me a slice of the butter almond cake that she made after she borrowed the book. Clearly, this is the best book to loan out because I get food in return. Anyone else wanting to borrow it soon? Just say when!

I tried her challah recipe during the stay at home order this spring. The beauty of working at home was that I could see after its five fold-and-turn instructions, and I can’t do that when I’m at the office. I tweaked the challah with a bit of whole wheat flour and oatmeal, as if I knew what I was doing, and it was a smashing success. I want to make the sesame noodles soon, and I wonder if I could make cherry clafoutis with another fruit, say, raspberries or blueberries?

Part of Jessica’s recovery included starting a food blog, which she named Sweet Amandine, but which now seems defunct. Apparently Jessica has returned to living a less public life with her family, because I’ve not been able to find more information about her except to find her on Instagram. There are some interviews on YouTube soon after the book came out (2015). It always feels like a bonus to hear an author’s voice after I’ve read their words. I liked hearing how she pronounces her husband’s name: both vowels are short, not long, as I would have expected. I like hearing that she strings words together as easily and beautifully when she speaks as when she writes.

If you need a treat of a read, I recommend Stir! I love this story of resilience and healing coming from a place of comfort and creativity in her kitchen and dining room.