This August, my family gathered with over fifty other families from our church at Camp Berea on Newfound Lake in New Hampshire for a long weekend filled with teaching and fellowship. Tired and near the end of a summer full of day camps, activities, vacations and expectations, the parents present shared amongst each other that we were eager to eke through these last weeks and jump into new routines for the academic year ahead.
This was my fourth visit to Camp Berea in the past year. Our family attended our church’s first summer getaway in August 2018. I attended the women’s retreat there last September, and my daughter and I attended the mother/daughter retreat this past May. I thought of myself as a bit of a retreat expert by this point. Still, this weekend revealed what each had already showed me: I still have a lot to learn.
The teaching during this retreat was a continuation of the Home Tones theme that our family and marriage pastor began during our winter getaway in January of this year. On each of the five days at camp, we gathered together for worship, singing the theme song (written by our pastor) for Home Tones, with lyrics taken from this verse:
“Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.” Colossians 3:16 (NLT)
During each of the three main teaching sessions, three of our church’s pastors gave talks on how we could work to create a better tone in our homes. We thought about the musical concepts of melody, harmony and jazz improvisation, in order to reflect on what we love about our family’s tones, how our personalities complement each other, and how to love each other well when things don’t go according to plan. In the mornings, we reflected individually and as couples and in small groups during our segregated adult time. Our children were taken through a parallel curriculum on their level by a huge team of enthusiastic high school and college students. In the afternoons, thrown together again for long stretches of family time, we had plenty of opportunities to put our ideas into practice.
When we considered what we wanted to change, I suggested we try to limit interruptions. A good friend once explained that in conversation, there’s “talking” and “listening”...and then there’s “just waiting to talk”. We talked about how good listening involves thinking about what the other person is saying. We talked about using a non-verbal cue to get someone’s attention and waiting to speak until that person is ready and available to listen.
In our house of six, there are five people who have a lot to say. We have, among us, only one reliable listener (it’s not me). If I had to take a random guess, I wonder if the world is divided in similar proportions. We live with a steady stream of distractions and interruptions. Many of us just want to be heard and will demand the floor at any cost, even alienating those we want to speak with. In our house, I can be asked four times what we are having for dinner...by four people who are standing in the same room as me. And yet, I can be likewise guilty of not listening...when I wonder if a rambling story has a point I should pay attention to more than the details of keeping all of us moving through our daily activities.
When it comes to improvisation, I think you could call us clumsy masters at this point. We are always making it up as we go, while trying to stick with consistent values. My husband pointed out that it’s harder for us to stay flexible during times of low energy or low purpose, but that if we can regain either, then a new solution appears where we can live in a healthy place of firm, yet flexible. One of our pastors admonished that we approach these times with patience, humility...and generous listening (which would be aided by nixing the interruptions!).
By the end of the long weekend (which also included skits, swimming, boating, archery, riflery, “finger-blasters”/dodgeball, s’mores, gaga ball, “game show” night, scavenger hunts, slip n’ slide and lawn games), our family was exhausted and needing a break from each other. Thank goodness school begins in a few days. Yet, thank God for such a devoted pastoral staff and planning team and older youth who could enrich us throughout our time together. For now, we will dream of the possibility of change within and among us. In the meantime, we remain curious and hopeful creatures, hanging on and trying to put these ideas into practice one day at a time.
Bright and early on a Saturday morning earlier this month, families and couples and teens from our church gathered at the local high school for an event we call Serve Day. When this tradition first started about five years ago, I didn’t understand the concept. Why was this one day designated for service? Shouldn’t we be serving continuously? But, then again, my family was fairly new to the church at that point, and I didn’t know what opportunities existed already for how to serve the church and the community. Back then I wanted a rubric for options and requirements and expectations, and I wanted to fit myself into the work being done and get to know those around me.
For most of my life I’ve attended churches with large congregations, ones where I didn’t know most of the people I was sitting around. At times, some of us sat in the same seats every week and made more of an effort to vary the language we used during the times of greeting or when we exchanged the phrase “peace be with you”. When this happened, I’d grow confident enough to use their names and say hello again, but usually that was as far as the friendship would go.
Several years ago, I was advised by someone in ministry that if I want to get to know people, really get to know them, I needed to do more than show up on Sunday morning. I tried serving with the kids’ ministry, at first teaching two-year-olds and later occasionally subbing in the one-year-old or three-year-old classrooms, but I learned over time that I needed a break from being around small children. I finally allowed myself that break and started seeking out other ministries.
A few years ago I organized a book club for ladies at the church, and for several months while it lasted, we enjoyed discussions around contemporary Christian writers. Last year I sang in the choir during the Christmas Benefit Concerts. These types of things were wonderful while they lasted. They served others, built community and perhaps I will be able to do them again in the future.
But in the absence of participating in any ongoing kind of work through the church, and perhaps as an opportunity to have a change of pace for those who are more plugged into regular service (through ushering, serving communion, worship team, hospitality, youth ministry and admin), a couple of times each year there are big events, chances to get in on a one-day project and come together as a congregation. In the winter, hundreds of attendees invite their friends and neighbors to the annual Christmas Benefit Concerts. In the spring, we run the World Vision’s Global 6K (which I wrote about in May; the race also serves as an entry point for more families to serve through child sponsorship). And this time of year, near the end of the summer, we work to get the high school ready for the upcoming school year.
Recently on that Saturday morning we broke up into teams in order to spruce up the grounds, clean the library and paint a classroom for the upcoming school year. I would have loved to sign up to work in the library (you know that’s my favorite room in any building!), but I opted instead for the more family-friendly option: weeding and mulching the front grounds.
I have a black thumb. Really, weeding and mulching and anything to do with gardening are things usually quite far from my mind. (And if you walk by my house, you can see that’s fairly obvious.) But for church? For our neighbors?
My family arrived on site with a gardening shovel, an adult-sized rake, four kid-sized rakes and an assortment of gardening gloves (which were then fought over) and at least looked the part...before the kids lost interest and my husband and I worked as quickly as we could to make progress in between redirecting our children.
At some point we noticed that we hadn’t had to break up a fight in awhile. We looked around and saw that our children had latched onto another family, parents a little older than us with teenage children, who were tolerating our kids and putting them to work around a hedge about fifty feet away. My husband and I shrugged and enjoyed a few minutes of quiet work while chatting with another parent about his experience at our church.
We couldn’t stay for the entire morning, but we gave it our best effort for about two and a half hours before collecting our kids and our tools and thanking the other family for engaging our kids and thanking the man in charge for distributing kid-friendly snacks.
We gazed across the lawn from the parking lot where we loaded everyone and everything back into our car and felt good about the work we were able to accomplish. The grounds looked improved and inviting, clean and organized. We felt satisfied when the head gardener told us he was happy with the work.
There are some days when I hem and haw about where to put my efforts. Which organization should I donate to? How much? Which organization should I serve with my time? For how long? On a regular basis?
We might not be able to answer those questions, or our answers might change. But I think back to something my pastor Laura Truax said during a sermon at our church in Chicago. She had just returned home from an international mission trip and was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of need in the world. She reminded herself -- as she reminded us all -- that while we likely aren’t able to solve all of the world’s problems, we are called to do something.
That Saturday morning, we did a simple thing. I was grateful for the opportunity to work alongside our congregation, to serve locally and see the immediate fruits of the labor, even if it did mean scrubbing the dirt from my fingernails afterwards.
I don’t know who is responsible for the terrible title, but I found reading this book to be as refreshing as drinking a cool glass of water. Finkel’s narrative led me to consider why I seek solitude at times. I felt a solidarity with an author who admits feeling compelled to tell stories, even if it means diving into conflict-rich material. And it provided some good general life advice.
I had just closed the cover on Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and headed up to my bedroom bookshelf to search for an antidote for the dissatisfaction I felt -- both from it and Bad Blood, two books I read back to back that deal with investigative journalism. What to read next?
For starters, compared to the organization of Orlean’s halting chapters, Finkel’s thoughts and leads roll right into the next, and I could follow his natural path from his home in Montana to Knight’s camp in Maine. I could visualize him retracing Knight’s steps and easily accept the chapters when the camera zooms out so Finkel can explore the meaning of solitude and silence across cultures and throughout history.
Unlike in Bad Blood in which author John Carreyrou doesn’t appear until deep in the narrative, Finkel, introduces himself early in the text, providing a descriptive yet concise personal bio that explains why he was interested in this story. He mentions understanding the need for retreat, having participated in a silent retreat in India after feeling overwhelmed from having three children in three years. He admits that the trip to India felt a little too extreme, too overwhelming in its otherness to be relaxing for him. Reading his experience prompted me to reflect on my own recent retreats and what I found so restorative about them (which I wrote about in My own there and back again and in Mother/Daughter Retreat 2019). Anytime I can see myself in a book, I enjoy it more.
I loved Finkel’s analysis of why we head to the hills. He describes three kinds of seekers: protesters (“whose primary reason for leaving is hatred of what the world has become” 79), pilgrims (for “the connection between seclusion and spiritual awakening” 80), and pursuers (who “seek alone time for artistic freedom, scientific insight, or deeper self-understanding” 82). Finkel needed a reboot after having three kids in three years. I head to nature for connection with God. But what about Knight? He didn’t fit into any category. Knight told Finkel that he just wanted to get lost.
Finkel describes the day Knight walked away from civilization and naturally transitions to writing about Knight’s childhood and family, adding details that probe his personality and lead into a discussion of the psychology of the type of person who seeks solitude over interaction with others. He also discusses the opposite personalities, those for whom solitude is nearly torturous. Strangely enough, he quotes a study I first read about in Tish Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary, the study from the University of Virginia that found that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women when placed in a room alone for fifteen minutes ended up administering themselves an electric shock rather than be forced to not interact with the world.
Knight, on the other hand, is an extreme case in the other direction. When Finkel describes the day Knight walked away from civilization, he also mentions how much Knight liked driving. After returning to Maine from a solo roadtrip to Florida, Knight drove to the very end of a tiny road in Maine and ditched his car there.
If Knight would allow me one follow up question it would be: Why didn’t you just become a trucker? Surely that could satisfy your need to be alone, to drive, and to listen to endless media and stories as he did during his time in his camp. But maybe he would point out that interstate 80 is a long way from the woods. It seems that, for Knight, the woods held a gravitational pull that he could not shake.
When Knight is finally caught, he is forced to return to civilization to work off his crimes. Finkel asks him, would he have done it differently knowing how this would turn out?
Knight comments, referring to himself, “The brilliant man wishes he weren’t so stupid to do illegal things to find contentment.” (183)
Finkel records how he is one more contributor in the process of preventing Knight from having the life he wants.
“Knight told me that he planned to stay out there forever. He was willing to die in his camp, the spot where he was most content….He wasn’t going to leave behind a single recorded thought, not a photo, not an idea. No person would know of his experience. Nothing would ever be written about him. He would simply vanish, and no one on this teeming planet would notice. His end wouldn’t create so much as a ripple on North Pond. It would have been an existence, a life, of utter perfection.” (190-1)
So...the reader wonders, should Finkel have bothered Knight at all? Should he have written this story? In reference to the writing I’ve created recently, I ask myself that question all the time.
Should I write this?
In the end, Knight gave his permission, perhaps understanding that as the woods drew him, a similar force compels the writer to write.
On the day Knight ditched his car, Finkel mentions that the Chernobyl disaster had just occurred. I find it fascinating that I happened to read two books this same summer that describe events occurring simultaneously to this global-newsworthy event in 1986. With all of Finkel and Knight’s discussion of books and media throughout their interviews, neither mentions the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. Michael Finkel, like Susan Orlean with The Library Book, gives new life to a human interest story that may otherwise have been left buried deep in a newspaper and only partially told in the first place.
Read Knight’s story through Finkel’s eyes. Consider the role of solitude in our lives and how each of us either seeks or runs from its cocoon. And wherever your preference falls on that spectrum, enjoy this glimpse into an extreme case, a chance to learn about a type of person who otherwise would be lost to this world.
And since hermits have a sage reputation, let me leave you with this hermit’s ultimate life advice -- wisdom built on twenty-seven years of introspective experience, which coincidentally also echoes Warren’s advice in her chapter on bedtime. This is an expression that Finkel has to work hard to winkle out of him since Knight admits “silence doesn’t translate into words” (142).
The only advice Knight can truly offer is this:
“Get enough sleep” (148).
I’m so sorry I can’t recommend this book to you. I really wish I could.
Maybe that is too harsh. Let’s start with something good, like my favorite moment: On page 233 a reader calls into the Los Angeles Public Library and inquires about Celeste Ng. Celeste Ng! Love the mention of a local Cambridge writer!
Orlean’s research is painstakingly extensive, and stretches in many directions. Fifty pages in, this was tolerable, and I found myself telling people the book was “interesting” but that it would be even more interesting to see how she weaves these threads together as the book progresses.
I had to wait until page 200 in order to begin to see the tapestry, and for me, that was a long time to wait. The history of the LA Public Library and its librarians....its burning in 1986...the family story of the presumed arsonist and his trial with the City...a history of book burning throughout time, with special focus on WWII...the existential purpose of book restitution...the efforts of global libraries and philanthropy groups to sustain the exchange of information and provide centers for the fostering of healthier and more connected communities….
I wanted Orlean to commit to a subset of topics and a particular genre, albeit all evidence to the contrary that this was her goal!
Orlean describes many of the patrons and librarians, adding a small, specific detail about each to make them come alive. However, this makes them paradoxically forgettable. There are just too many to remember. On the flip side, the librarians interviewed admit that they don’t really know their patrons, although they are friendly with many. To me, this makes her library feel cold. Maybe it makes sense then, that I tend to seek out my own little neighborhood branch library in my own city over the main hub. I certainly hope that the friendships I’ve made there are made of stronger stuff than the ones portrayed in Orlean’s book! A library can offer zillions of services (and it’s clear from Orlean’s expose that many do), but until we get personal, we won’t have real community.
Orlean seems to argue that as long as we preserve our libraries as book depositories and locations where information can be exchanged, we will preserve our own history for all time. She points out that at the annual convention for the American Library Association in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said,
“Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die.” (202)
Now, I’m going out on a limb here to argue with such a giant of a man, but isn’t it true that books go out of print all the time? How many of you can really remember the plotline of the novel you read last week? For sure, books become a part of us and in some way, once read, they never die. But the numbers of books destroyed during library burnings of WWII and other wars is staggering. Surely some texts only survive by legend.
What lives on though, is our need to share information. The human need to record life and exchange experiences is pervasive. The need for connection, the need to be seen and known. These are the aspects of the immortal spirit of books that live in most human beings.
Orlean throws all kinds of information at her reader, but I felt like something was missing. What did I want to know more about?
When she first moved to Los Angeles from New York City she took her son to the library for a school assignment. That particular visit prompted a brief romantic journey through her own childhood experience of visiting her local public library with her mother. Later, Orlean concludes her acknowledgements section with this poignant line: “Mom, I made a book for you.”
The reader gets the sense that Orlean set out on this journey to research and document the library as a testimony to her mother and their shared time together. Within the text of the book, Orlean writes that she tried to share her research with her mother at points in the process, but that as dementia set in, her mother was unable to understand. Their shared experience was coming to an end. And indeed, her mother passed away years before the book was published.
I wonder if Orlean wrote this book because she fears death and obscurity. She writes, “Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93) But it’s possible that, due to her grief of her mother’s passing, she was unable to put more of herself into her creation.
Knowing more of Orlean and her relationship with her mother would have made this book more memorable for me. I know I’m stuck on memoir lately, and this book wasn’t marketed under memoir, but very early on, Orlean introduces herself as a character. We understand her motives at the beginning, but we lose her character and her motives as the book progresses. She becomes a fly on the wall of history when I want her to interact with it. I wanted her to get personal. We can’t help her or her mother live on if we don’t know them.
But, as my husband points out (because, like Orlean’s husband, mine also reads every word I write) -- we don’t get to choose whether we are remembered. We can put our stories out there, but history will choose from itself, for itself. And we know that history is rewritten all the time as more stories come to light. (I wrote about a similar idea earlier this year on my blog while reviewing Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King, a commentary called Your sacrifices are not in vain, in which I consider how ideas live on even when manuscripts and details are lost.)
These criticisms aside, let me finish by thanking librarians everywhere. If there’s one inspiration I took from this book, it was that I was intrigued by Orlean’s mother’s comment that “if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.” (310) If I had a chance for a do-over of my own career path, perhaps I would have considered library science as well.
Librarian, you do good.
My librarian recommended this book to me. Then I went home and realized I already had it on my shelf. A friend had gifted it to me the week before.
I love diving into books that I know others are reading. I feel a sense of community building. I know I’ll have an opportunity to discuss my thoughts with others. And I assume that what I’m about to read holds some kind of universal quality that speaks to many kinds of people.
There are many “church” books on my blog this month. Some of you will be into that. Some of you will skim the titles and avert your eyes. But if you have ever wondered what God has to do with everyday life, please consider picking up Warren’s book. In it, she pairs eleven ordinary daily actions with a spiritual meaning. From waking, making the bed, brushing teeth, losing keys and eating leftovers to fighting with her husband, checking email, sitting in traffic, calling a friend, drinking tea and finally, sleeping, she gives meaning to some of the moments in our day that we might feel aren’t worthy of notice or are frustrating or are self-indulgent. She elevates these moments to shed light on how God sees us, and how we can better see God.
I took notes, and I pulled out so many quotes that I might as well have copied and pasted the entire book.
Near the beginning, she quotes Annie Dillard, saying,
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” (23)
As I let Warren lead me through her day, I reflected on how my own life compared, where my worries were similar, where I could reach out to trust God more. Among other things, Warren made me feel better about being a person who likes ritual. I appreciated her reasons for accepting the limits of my body. She convinced me that not only should I get sufficient sleep, I should celebrate it!
I recommend this book for self-reflection, but if you’re in a situation where you can discuss in a small group, there’s a section at the back called “discussion questions and practices” where you and your friends and prayer partners can dive in deeper and really savor each chapter.
What do I want to remember from her teaching?
First, Warren reminds us that each morning, as our minds awaken slowly at first and then switch to hyperdrive as we consider expectations for the day, just as God was pleased with Jesus at his baptism before he began his ministry, we also begin beloved by God. I appreciated the way she interprets the act of making the bed as a small, repetitive way of restoring order, similar to God speaking creation and setting things up, noting that the “work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive” (35).
In chapter four when she misplaces her keys, she details falling into the rabbit hole of psychological reactions. I could trace my own reactions (and feel as terrible about them) in parallel to hers as she described: logic, self-condemnation, vexation, desperation, last-ditch (prayer), despair, and then repeat. It’s a simple and yet profound picture of how we need to repent and ask for grace daily in order to practice contentment. Since I fell in love with Rich Mullins’ music as a teenager, I feel a nostalgic closeness to others who know or quote him, as Warren does in this chapter:
“Rich Mullins, one of my favorite writers and musicians, said that when he was a kid he’d walk down the church aisle and be “born again again” or “rededicate” his life to Christ every year at camp. In college he’d do it about every six months, then quarterly; by the time he was in his forties it was “about four times a day.” (56-7) (Originally quoted from a concert in Lufkin, Texas, in July 1997.)
She continues: “Repentance is not usually a moment wrought in high drama. It is the steady drumbeat of a life in Christ and, therefore, a day in Christ.” (57)
In chapter six, as Warren details a fight with her husband, she reminds us all too clearly that we mess up all the time, especially with those closest to us.
“We are quarreling people, but God is reforming us to be people who, through our ordinary moments, establish his kingdom of peace. Believing this is an act of faith. It takes faith to believe that our little, frail faithfulness can produce fruit. It takes faith to believe that laying down my sword in my kitchen has anything to do with cosmic peace on earth. And it takes faith to believe that God is making us into people -- slowly, through repentance -- who are capable of saying to the world through our lives, “Peace of Christ to you.” (87, italics mine)
That’s a long quote, but I share it because recently as I was settling a sibling squabble (or attempting to), one of my children didn’t want to apologize to another. In their stubbornness, both children remained angry and separated for a good stretch of the afternoon. Time moved on and they separately and silently agreed to put it behind them without a proper “peace walk” of any kind (which I wrote about in an earlier blog about our Church Family Retreat from last winter). They skipped a step. And I worried it would build resentment.
But before that, when my child was stuck in stubbornness, I suggested to that child that this was why there was war in the world. Perhaps it seemed like an outlandish leap. But on the other hand, my child could sense how badly one can want to hang onto the feeling of self-righteousness. My child understood how difficult it can be to admit wrong and ask for forgiveness.
The day moves on, and in chapter seven, the author checks her email. As she does she points out a revolutionary idea birthed in the Reformation -- that our work is blessed. “The idea that all good work is holy work was revolutionary.” (90) Specifically, we don’t have to be priests to honor God. We can honor him with the work in front of us -- even if it happens to be cleaning some heavily soiled laundry. I remember my pastor describing a friend of his who worked for many years at IBM...until he lost his job during their first-ever round of layoffs. Taking IBM's severance package, he changed paths and dedicated himself to young men's ministry.* While he was still fairly young, he was killed in an accident. My pastor was one of the young men influenced by his love for God and God's people and could describe first hand his amazement at the 700+ people who attended his memorial service, many from his work in ministry.
*This paragraph is corrected from its original content: I had remembered this story from an old sermon and had mistakenly thought that this friend's service to his co-workers at IBM was what led to the large attendance at his memorial service. My pastor used this example during his sermon just this week (8/4/19) and refreshed my memory. I have to believe that if this man was so influential in young adult ministry, he probably also had a presence at IBM. I believe his work at IBM was not wasted but played a part in God's role for him.
When Warren calls her friend to discuss her day, I remembered my own Christian friends who pray with me and for me and work with me as members of the body of Christ.
I loved that as she drinks tea in chapter ten, she points out that coffee was a Christian invention:
“The church has a reputation for being antipleasure...In reality, the church has led the way in the art of enjoyment and pleasure. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington points out that it was the church, not Starbucks, that created coffee culture. Coffee was first invented by Ethiopian monks -- the term cappuccino refers to the shade of brown used for the habits of the Capuchin monks of Italy. Coffee is born out of extravagance, an extravagant God who formed an extravagant people, who formed a craft out of the pleasures of roasted beans and frothed milk.” (131)
As I drink my tea and write this post I too celebrate with the psalmist who “enjoins us to taste and see that the Lord is good” (128).
I skipped a few chapters in my review here. I’ll let you go back and fill in the gaps, and figure out what I left out...and how it might reveal where I need more discernment and patience in my day. But if I could highlight one last passage…
We know that sleep is a biological necessity, but I love how Warren points out God’s intention in his design. “In Jewish culture, days begin in the evening with the setting of the sun” (150). But, “though the day begins in darkness, God is still at work, growing crops, healing wounds, giving rest, protecting, guarding, mending, redeeming” (151).
And how can we respond to God’s gift of sleep?
“Each night when we yield to sleep, we practice letting go of our reliance on self-effort and abiding in the good grace of our Creator. Thus embracing sleep is not only a confession of our limits; it is also a joyful confession of God’s limitless care for us. For Christians, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is an act of reliance on God.” (152, italics mine)
That perspective sure makes me feel better about enjoying a good night’s rest!
Read Warren’s book. Learn to look for God in your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And then curl up to rest and delight in his protection and love.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.