Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Secrets of Leaven, a book review

I tell stories sometimes, right? Little anecdotes about my kid or my adventures in marriage… They’re just snippets, though. Tiny pictures of real life that are more point than plot. That is, they direct the reader to some kind of  POINT I’m trying to make about something about life or theology or God or something.

Anyway, THIS I can do. What I have NOT done successfully is write fiction. To be honest, I haven’t really tried… mostly because it seems so daunting. I mean, I wouldn’t want to write “chick lit,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.”

I admit that as a modern woman, I do have issues, and I do often write in a humorous and lighthearted fashion. So… this might not be a stretch for me… That said, I don’t think chick-lit is my thing because… well, I’d rather write for the whole human race than just gals. Plus I’d want to SAY something… to address deeper issues. I’d want to entertain people, but I also want to bring them nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven… because that’s the deepest thing of all. And when I put it this way… that’s when the task becomes daunting.

What I do here … telling you stuff, weaving together real life, pop culture and scripture in an expository fashion… is not hard for me. To tell a story, though – one that speaks to greater themes and resonates with the reader’s soul – well, that would be crazy hard.

That’s why I am pretty impressed by this book I just read: The Secrets of Leaven by Todd Wynward. It’s a novel, yes, about a guy in seminary – Thomas Widman. And you sort of get to know him, to feel for him as he moves through his days… but the story grows… shooting off into several different directions… And we stumble along with him as he struggles with his life and faith. He unearths secrets about his family – which includes the leader of an early 19th century end-times cult. And he discovers the existence of a secret brotherhood that pulls enfolds him and renews his joy in following Jesus.

Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!! It’s a modern man tale a la Nick Hornby, but it plunges into the grimy depths of the dude’s belief and disbelief. Sure it has mysterious sects and archaeological discoveries reminiscent of, say, The DaVinci Code. But it also addresses big things like, what is the essence of following Jesus? Is it to be like current Christian stereotypes (embodied here by Thomas’ uncle, a grouchy, controlling evangelical preacher)? Or is it to live a life of sacrifice and social justice (personified by the members of the sect, called Leaven)?

The name “leaven” comes from this quote from the Bible:
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) 
He’s talking about the spread of the gospel through out the world… it’s a tiny thing – a grain of yeast – and each tiny, mundane activity we perform aids in its spread throughout the dough… um, world.

It’s mysterious and lovely, this subtle thing… like putting reflections on the gospel in an entertaining work of fiction – a ripping good story with an engaging mystery. I mean, anybody can just flat-out tell you about it… I do it all the time. Todd Wynward, though, has worked it into a delicious loaf of bread. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More

Bob refused to work on
Maggie's Farm and so do I!
Sunday, I came clean in this story in our local newspaper about my struggles with weight, and in the telling, I think I accidentally made it sound like my life is great and I never look at myself and think, “What’s with the jiggle?”

The truth is, though, I do sometimes look down and wonder what the hell I could be carrying in my saddlebags (duh… fries!), and whether I might actually be wearing a bustle rather than just having a butt that would put Kim Kardashian's to shame.

Here’s something that actually happened: the day that the article came out, Tom and I went over to Raleigh to the warehouse sale at Raleigh Denim. This is a place in, yes, Raleigh, where they make by hand each pair of jeans on vintage sewing machines out of locally produced denim. Since it’s one of those new hip things – going all Williamsburg on everyday products – the sale was full of young hipsters. Skinny hipsters. I wasn’t rattled, though... I mean, I’m hip – right? Well I HAVE hips, anyway... But then I stepped into the communal dressing room. ACK.
Kim K's butt's got
nothin' on mine!

This crowded house was also full of lithe and beautifully tanned, extremely young hipster gals and fashionistas in varying states of undress and thong-age… shimmying into the ultra-skinny-legged jeans, buttoning them under their taut, tanned bellies… And there I was – 51, 5’1” and flabby. You better believe I changed in and out of that cute little dress as quickly as possible!

When I rejoined my husband, I had to make myself pause and notice his obvious fondness and acceptance, and aggressively remember how unhappy I was when I was skinny… The kind of body that can wear skinny jeans is a NOT realistic goal for me. It would take the kind of dedication that would most assuredly become an obsession… and I really, really LIKE not thinking about it. It’s truly a wonderful life.

And really, my article was not about being comfortable with my body… but having a comfortable mind…. Which I will choose any day of any week. Yeah, if skinny-ness is Maggie’s Farm then it’s safe to say that I ain’t gonna work there no more.

The scene of my wavering
Anyway, here’s the point of my conveying to you this particular vignette: It shows me clearly that comparing myself to others is a really quick route to unhappiness. Because either I’m not going to measure up, or I’m going to start feeling superior… which is sort of funny, when I think about it. Although… because of the sort of flippant way I write, I wonder if I seem like I think I’m superior because I don’t wrestle with food anymore… when this is true only by the sheer grace of God. I feel deeply for any woman – or man – who faces these kind of struggles, and I wanted them to know that there is another way.

Similarly, the blogpost before… where I spoke of my failings as a housekeeper… I was certainly comparing myself to an ideal – Martha Stewart and other people who are prone to do that stuff and are really good at it. Or, maybe it came across as mocky? I hope not. I’m really jealous of them!
I'm not gonna
trade my hard-won 

sanity for the 
kind of body
that can wear
Raleigh Denim.

And that’s the thing – comparing is about coveting isn’t it? I covet the body of that girl in the Raleigh Denim changing room. I covet the cooking and decorating abilities of my younger sister. I’m not, as Paul would say, “content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

This seems to be an advanced spiritual state that I also covet. And in terms of spiritual growth, it doesn’t hurt to have role models and learn from the writings of others, but I’m pretty sure coveting their growth is pretty much going backwards.

Once I started to ponder this, a BUNCH of stuff in the Bible began to pop into my mind… I’m thinking this whole thing may go all the way back to the fall when Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they coveted God’s wisdom. Then Cain killed Abel after they engaged in a spiritual competition – which sacrifice would God accept??? (Read the book to find out!)

The prodigal son's older brother coveted the welcome home party the dad threw for his wasted brother, comparing it to the goat he never got to celebrate with his friends... Conversely, the proud praying pharisee compared himself to the humble publican who invented the sinner's prayer...

Stuff like that is threaded all through the narrative of the Bible. Fortunately, it’s a human dilemma that the Bible also addresses. For example, there’s a part in John 21 where Jesus is saying to Peter, “Follow me.” Then Peter looks at John… 
When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:21-22)  
Bill chose this pic of Cain and Abel.
When I read this at first I think, so… I just need to worry about my own self and not look or worry about others, which makes sense. But what I really think is happening here is that Peter is being told to look at JESUS rather than himself. “Follow ME,” Jesus says.

Then Paul has this part in his letter to the Philippian church:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:4-11)
I'm gonna keep
trying to look at
this Guy. I've heard
that His yoke is easy
 and His burden is light.
So… that’s our whole thing. We don’t look at the other guy… and we don’t look at ourselves… we look at JESUS… who is PERFECT, and is OUR perfection… our righteousness. (As Paul also said, “…Christ Jesus…has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (I Corinthians 1:30))* And every time I try to be my own righteousness – or self-worth – or compare my righteousness – or my worth – with someone else’s, I am essentially working on Maggie’s farm, as it were… and you know my feelings about that!

Maybe it was an accident, maybe it wasn’t – that along with these heavy ponderings, I had this song running through my head all day: In Christ Alone. I looked and looked for a version that was not oversweet and synthesizery, and here is this one – not exactly what I was looking for, but pretty good. This lovely modern hymn really puts it out there, as I hope to every time I write.

*yes, i pulled this out of a longer sentence, but I don't think I changed the meaning any!

Monday, July 15, 2013


Martha is a marvel.
I'm nothing like her.
As a wife and mom I consider myself sort of the anti Martha Stewart. I run my own business, I have cooking and house stuff to do, and I have a nine-year-old kid, so doing the extras like making beautiful decorations and fancy foods a la Martha is just NOT going to happen. NOT that there's anything wrong with expressing yourself creatively through crafts and cooking and colorful centerpieces. In fact, I kind of marvel at people who are good at that stuff... while I'm just trying to keep my head above water. 

Of course, with, everyone is Martha now, showing off the “good things” they find on the internet. Me? I can’t even manage to get the hang of the Pinterest web site. I mean, I feel like when I pin something, it's like I'm saying, "I just might try this!" And I just can't make that kind of commitment. You might say I’m a “Pinterest Fail”… which IS a real thing.

Unless you mean THIS Martha!
So I might as well just skip and go right to On this site, the contributors post a photo of the beautiful idea they found on Pinterest, followed by a photo of their disastrous results when they attempted to replicate it. MY version of pinterest fails would have sort of... reverse advice. Simplification rather than complication. It wouldn’t have great homemade baby food recipes, or crafts to do with your overachieving kids, or home-sewn Halloween costumes…  you know, ways to make things HARDER… It would instead have a few tips to help someone who is desperately trying to hang on to their sanity. 

Okay, I just described myself. Anyway... here are some sample tips from my “PinFail” board:
Sleep is king part 1: In the Baby Sale ads (to which my husband always acts shocked, “They shouldn’t sell babies!”) they always have those attractive comfy nursery rockers so mom can nurse baby in comfort, her feet up, gliding gently. Don’t bother with that. Just lie down on your side in the bed with the baby facing you. Pop a breast into his mouth. Honestly – why sit up when you can lie down? If you’re lucky, one or both of you will fall asleep. Oh – it’s daytime? So what! Sleep is king. 
Before I learned about sleep-nursing.
Sleep is king part 2: If your child has terrible posture in his high chair at dinner time, he probably just needs to go to sleep. Strike while the iron is hot and just put him to bed. 
Sleep is king part 3: If your kid won’t go to sleep because it’s thundering and he’s scared, tell him it’s the old lady who lives next door bowling in her back yard. It may quiet him in the short term and later he’ll think it’s hilarious. 
Potty solutions part 1: If you had a baby shower, chances are you are the proud owner of anywhere from 7 to 57 adorable little onesies. BUT… you might want to get over to Target and buy some tiny little t-shirts… because onesies suck. My kid relieved himself fecally on every onesie I ever snapped over his chubby little diapered behind. (Diapers proved no hindrance to my little sh*tting machine!)
Strike while the iron is hot!
Put this sleepy child to bed!
Potty solutions part 2: If your child manages to relieve himself fecally (or otherwise) on every onesie he owns, try a different brand of diapers. We went through many brands – Huggies, Luvs, store brands – until we found out that Pampers were the only ones that could contain his massive BMs.
Potty solutions part 3: Every child is different when it comes to potty training. Read all the books and articles you like, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hit on the right method for your child. Or just make it up as you go along, We couldn’t get Bill to do ANYTHING outside of a diaper for the longest time so we went with the much easier Plan B: I told him that on his fourth birthday he would begin wearing underwear. And he did it... He jumped right into those Spiderman undies and never looked back. I’m not sure why it worked… the grace of God? 
The onesie... an accident waiting to happen!
On sanity maintenance: Perfect your “smile and nod” technique. If your kid is like mine, he will talk your ear off about any and everything that catches his fancy. Sure, some things you definitely need to hear, but if he’s just going on about the bugs in the backyard having a war… well… this is where smiling and nodding come in handy.
Fancy art preservation system: When in doubt, throw it out. How does this old chestnut from Journalism school apply to kids? Well, lots of parents wonder, “How do I preserve all the art projects and scribbles my child brings home?” And at first, I saved EVERYTHING! Just recently, I found a stack of sheets from Bill’s daycare that outlined his daily activities in terms of how many ounces of milk he’d had at various times, how much waste matter he’d excreted, how long and how often he’d slept, and what activities he’d participated in (“laid on pillows and stared at a mobile”) You know what I did with those babies? I threw them out. Because you just have to. Save a couple of best things – frame them and display them or give them to grandparents. Stick one or two of the sweet things from Sunday school in your Bible maybe… and throw the rest away. I mean, unless you have unlimited storage space... then by all means, store away!
Your child will make a zillion
pieces of art before he's 5.
You simply can't keep them all.
Cute toy storage idea: don’t buy many toys. They will just fill up your already crowded-with-art-projects-and-potty-reports house. My kid has more fun with tape and cardboard boxes than all his toys put together. And if your child has the “collector gene” which my husband passed on to my child, I recommend Hot Wheels. Ringing up at about a dollar, these can satisfy your kid’s need to amass a gaggle of something without breaking your bank, or taking up too much space. If you have a girly girl, though… sorry. Can’t help you with that!
Cooking for family tip: When it comes to veggies, just steam everything, saute it in olive oil, or eat it raw in a salad. While I don’t stress about the food I serve, I do love my fresh veggies… so we have a farm share. You know, that’s where you pay a farmer some money in February and come April or May, he brings you a weekly box of produce. Last year I made all kinds of elaborate dishes with the vegetables. Ever made ratatouille? Talk about complicated! So for a brief period, I actually WAS a Martha Stewart. While I hit on a couple of good dishes, for the most part, eggplant was still eggplant. This year, though, I’m following the advice above.

If your kid MUST collect, I recommend
Hot Wheels. They are cheap and small.
I'm guessing you get the idea about my housekeeping, parenting style  from the above PinFails... pretty messy. And I know I'm not alone. A friend recently posted an article from about a woman who had not-so-positive response to the trend of “look at me – I’m a mess” blogs. You can read it here if you want to get the full gist. She made some valid points about the dangers of holding on to our brokenness and making light of sin, but I think she might have misunderstood what we're trying to say.

Of course I haven't read ALL the blogs, but I think that their point – like the point of the above – is not to highlight and wallow in our brokenness, but to point out that some of the popular standards of womanhood, motherhood and good housekeeping are artificial, having nothing to do with our ability as mothers or our love for our family or our success as women. To which I say, hear hear! I refuse to try to be a size zero and I refuse to stress out about whether my child eats perfect, organic food from a bowl handfired by me on a natural-fiber placemat I wove from sheep I raised and sheared, in front of a centerpiece made of organic fruits and flowers from my garden.

That's right, I have no patience with those particular standards... That is not my brokenness. Rather I have other, more grave imperfections including (but not limited to) pride, fear, lack of faith, anger, jealousy, hatred, a sharp tongue, contempt, taking other people's blogs too personally, and many other real and serious sins. If you read my blog regularly, I discuss these too occasionally... Because I want to be honest. 

I mean, when I first went to church, I thought everyone seemed so perfect and together, and I want you to know that this is not the case. I'm here to tell you that I can't even manage the fa├žade! And if I share my struggles with you, maybe other strugglers won't feel alone. Just like walking into a house that's messier than mine is kind of a relief. I like knowing I'm not the only one. 

I'm not a great housewife,
but that's not my sin.
And if you keep reading my posts... you'll see Who I run to in my troubles... because hot on the heels of my confessions of deep imperfection, I always claim for myself – and offer to you – the warm and sweet embrace of the grace of God. 

I do love to wallow in grace, but that doesn't preclude stretching myself to allow for soul improvement. But does my quest for improvement involve crafts and elaborate meals? Nah. I mean, that might be more of a strategy for distraction than improvement. Because wouldn't it be easier to bake my own whole grain bread than to build my patience and increase my capacity for kindness, love, and the grace I show the members of my household and the wider world? 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Take Me To Sound City (Part 2)

If you are my friend on facebook, you know that I struggled with the entry on Sound City I posted last Saturday. I watched and rewatched, wrote and rewrote, cut, copied and pasted… I was driving myself nuts trying to organize my reflections. I guess the problem I had was … just that I had so many different thoughts about it… and I would be writing about one thing, and meander off into some other territory…

And the whole time I was dwelling on it all, I was fully cognizant of the fact that it was kind of weird that I would compare the Christian life to the making of rock and roll records. But … rock and roll does tend to inspire fervent devotion from its… devotees. I’m not sure why – I just know how it makes ME feel.

And I’m obviously not alone. This film has everything – reverence, shrines, pilgrimages, relics, saints, evangelism, heaven… See, in the latter part of the action showed how Dave Grohl heard that Sound City was closing, so he purchased the revered Neve soundboard (relic/shrine) for his own personal studio.

Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney
having fellowship
Then, he invited a bunch of the people who had recorded at Sound City to come to his studio to make a record. And they made the pilgrimage. Stevie Nicks. Rick Springfield. John Fogerty. Paul McCartney. All the saints. I loved the part where the guys from Nirvana were jamming with Paul McCartney and they slipped into a familiar groove… and Dave looked over and was like,”Wait… Paul McCartney’s here?!”

Of course, I have no idea what heaven is like, but I love to imagine that in addition to my dear departed loved ones I will get to hang with many other of God’s saints… have tea with C.S. Lewis, run on the heavenly shore with Eric Liddell, sing with Bono (I know he’s not dead yet… plus I can’t sing worth crap, but it’s MY vision of heaven, right?!)

Anyway, the musicians all jam in different configurations and we get a peek into the creative process. Brad Wilk from Rage in the Machine urges us to explore the works of rock’s founding fathers – to carry our appreciation to its roots. Rick Rubin tells us to be true to ourselves, and spread the good news personally.

And in one of my favourite quotes of the movie, Neil Young, in a fit of evangelistic fervor, tells us what it’s all about: "Let’s rock, let’s play, let’s record, let’s play it back. ‘Wait ‘til you hear this.’ I can’t wait to get in my car to here this. I’m gonna play it for my friend. I’m making a copy. I’m gonna blast it for f*ing 10 hours and I’m gonna listen to it."
Neil Young: "Let's rock. Let's play.
Let's record."

See? It’s all there! And I’m really not sure why... but again, I know how I FEEL. Of course I’ve written more than once – including in the last blog post – about the salvific role rock and roll has played in my life… just like Jenny in the Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll – “Jenny said when she was just bout five years old / You know my parents are gonna be the death of us all / Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars - / Well you know it ain't gonna help me at all Not just a little tiny bit / Then one fine mornin' she turns on a New York station / She doesn't believe what she hears at all / Ooh, She started dancin' to that fine fine music / You know her life is saved by rock 'n' roll, / Yeah, rock n' roll  / Despite all the computations / You could just dance to that rock 'n' roll stationAnd baby it was allright…”

The Velvet Underground
But rest assured, this rock and roll salvation – well, it’s salvation with a small “s”. More of a diversion, really. I have actually wondered since I was just twelve years old whether my love for the stuff constitutes idolatry. And … well, I hope not! I mean, it means a lot to me… but not everything. I could certainly live without it. It was just… a lifeline when I was sinking. It gave a lonely outcast a bit of sunshine when every day was gray.

And even though it's been called the devil's music, I think it actually pointed me to God. In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells the children that they have to go back to their own world, but that he’ll be there too. Aslan says,

"There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there"

And no, rock and roll was not a wardrobe to an alternate universe where I met a Christ figure, but it did give me a sense of home… a place I belonged… when my own world didn’t serve me well. So that when I finally came to my TRUE home, that is Christ, I recognized the feeling.

And, it being art, and full of soul, I think rock and roll was the vehicle through which I learned to worship… to look for meaning, to weigh it in my mind, and to let my heart soar in response to something outside myself.

Sure, it's made him a gazillion
dollars, but even Mick Jagger
knows it's only rock and roll.
Yes, rock and roll as a savior – and as an art form – is limited. It never died for me (naked, stoned and stabbed), nor can it actually Save me – with a big S. It’s kind of like the part of Sound City where Dave Grohl talks about how Trent Reznor uses computer technology as a tool rather than a crutch. Just so, I like rock and roll for what it is… a style of music that I enjoy and subculture that fascinates me… not as a Saviour.

So, yes I DO know that it’s only rock and roll… and even the people who make it find the worship of it silly. “I know it’s only rock and roll but I like it,” Mick Jagger slurs. I like it too, Mick. I really do.