Books Have Helped

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Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

In the beginning, the baby bird’s cries sounded not so much plaintive as curious. “Are you my mother?” He didn’t know, as he ran from one being to the next, dog, cow, boat, plane, asking his question. Nearer the end, I’d hear the increasingly frightened baby, fearful of being alone in a giant world of snorting cranes and belching barges.

The turquoise cover with the sparsely-drawn little hatchling always closed on a happy ending, and I didn’t know if it was his safe return to his mother or his adventures in the great wide world I loved the best as a little girl.

Favorite Friends

I can still see my favorite book covers that I pulled open over and over as a tiny girl. Are You My Mother? sat on the shelf near the white polka-dotted Put Me in the Zoo and the Old World deep red of Ferdinand the Bull. They all fell open easily, their bindings creased with jelly-butter hands and little girl adoration.

Now that I review the past, it shouldn’t amaze me that all three have a protagonist who feels mismatched with the world he experiences.

Those are the stories that spoke to a little girl, the last of seven, the one no one in that family of nine quite understood, except perhaps my sister Marilyn who stayed home with me all day, because her wheelchair didn’t allow her the freedom to explore the world as she would have liked. My smallness didn’t, either.

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Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

More Old Friends

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Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

By eight, I rode my hand-me-down teal green bike to the McHenry Library once a week. We lived outside of town, over the one-lane metal Old Bridge, so it felt like riding to the next county. My mother told me it was only a mile—google maps now tells me two. Mom didn’t have google.

At least a couple times a year, I strained high and took a blue book off the shelves in the “big people” section. I knew exactly where it resided on that shelf, a biography of Helen Keller the name of which I don’t remember but the content I don’t forget.

The cover felt worn, partially because I had worn it but mostly because it was old, the blue fabric wearing into strands rough on my small fingers rather than a smooth linen. 

Helen, too, felt alone. Helen, too, had dreams of leaving her confined world. Helen, too, was, as my mother described her last offspring, “stubborn as a mule.” I liked Helen. I loved that she won. I struggled with her every time I read her story, and I read it a lot.

I didn’t know as a little one that my firm standing as an INFJ and a female Enneagram 5 would always ensure I felt not quite “in” anything. Such knowledge comes much later, if at all, and we’re left to navigate the whys of feeling in this world but not of it on our own when we’re small.

I only knew books helped.

It wasn’t even hard to feel countercultural when I became a Christian near the end of high school. I already was.

The hard part was taking “me” out of the center of it all, a struggle I continue every morning when the alarm wails at me.

Books have continued to help.

New Friends

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Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

When I stood beneath the venerable tan archway of Wash U as a new student, looking alternately up at the looming arch and down at the bronzed, scuffed circle beneath me that honored our equally venerable founder, William Greenleaf Eliot, I knew the next four years would involve a lot of books.

I planned a major in political science. Economics stood in the second-place slot, at least until I discovered how much calculus it involved. Third, in what the horses races call “show,” was English. Somehow, by the beginning of sophomore year, that third horse pulled around the outside corner to become the winner, surprising no one but me.

Four years later, with a black flat cap, gold cords, and a three-hundred degree graduation ceremony out in the quad (English majors know the proper use of hyperbole), I held a degree that led me to teach high school literature, not sit at a table learning of amicus curiae, habeas corpus, torts, and writs.

Thank you, Jesus.

Always Friends

Books saved me as a child. They told me there were others out there like me. No one could be completely alone if stories brought into my bedroom nearly-orphaned little birds, not-quite-dogs whose spots led them to seek acceptance in a zoo, or bulls who sniffed flowers and imagined a world in which they didn’t have to be who they weren’t.

Books opened my confined world as a teenager. Sometimes, the discovery left scars, because the world I didn’t know could be brutal, even more than the one I did. That was Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Darn Steinbeck. 

Sometimes, they left yearning, like half-breaths I didn’t know I was breathing, catching in my throat. That was Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time—books I didn’t even read until I was twenty-two, but that doesn’t matter.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Books have formed me as an adult. I’ve turned from fiction to theology, sociology, biography, history. Non-fiction, well done, still drives the imagination, and that it drives mine toward a better me, a better church, and a better world resonates with me more than fiction these years.

With the tribute to Eugene Peterson last week, I thought perhaps I would continue in a series of books that changed me, in some way, spiritually. In a positive way, that is. We’ve got way too much negative swimming around already.

What works have stuck with me, making me a better version of the small child who wondered if anyone else out there understood what life felt like, real life, the kind that feels everything and wants to know the limits and go beyond them. That child is still there. I hope, believe, she’s less her, more Jesus by now.

Books have helped.

Things God Wants To Know

But why?

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How do you respond to motivation? Are you more inclined to do something if someone else wants you to? If the rules say you should? Or, like some of us, not at all no matter what?

Gretchen Rubin, in her book The Four Tendencies, divides people into categories depending on how they respond to motivation. Those who, like me, respond to inner motivation far more than anything from the outside, are called questioners. (You can even take the quiz here if you want.)

We ask “why” a lot. That’s the gist of the personality. If you can give us a good reason for doing something, we’re in. If not, we’re not terribly motivated. A good reason, mind you, is in the eye of the questioner.

So it’s not a surprise, I suppose, that I would be drawn to the questions in the Bible. A couple weeks ago, we talked about God’s first question. (Where are you?) It’s important, I believe, to look at the things God wants to know and ponder why. (I did say I asked “why” a lot.)

Questions God asks

God, presumably, does not ask rhetorical questions. He doesn’t need to ask questions at all. What doesn’t he already know? Can he ask a question he doesn’t know the answer to?

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“Omniscient” is one of those fifty-dollar theological words that means the ability, or even character trait, of knowing absolutely everything. (So go use that word now to impress people.) God has no need to ask us anything at all.

That’s why I find the fact that he does so intriguing.

Who is able to advise the Spirit of the Lord? Who knows enough to give him advice or teach him? Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice? Does he need instruction about what is good? Did someone teach him what is right or show him the path of justice? (Isaiah 40.13-14)

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone? Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east?

Do you know where the gates of death are located?  Where does light come from, and where does darkness go? Can you take each to its home? Can you direct the movement of the stars? Do you know the laws of the universe? Can you use them to regulate the earth? Can you shout to the clouds and make it rain? (Job 38)

So why would he ask us questions?

Well, why did I ask my students questions when I taught high school? Did I need to know the author of Pride and Prejudice? Was I ignorant of the psychology behind Javert’s issues? Could I not google the date of publication of War and Peace if I didn’t know? (No, in fact, I couldn’t. We didn’t have google. Or the interwebs. It was that long ago.)

As a parent, do I really have to walk into a room and ask “Who made this mess?”

No parent in the history of parents needs to ask that. We know.

But we do ask these things. We ask them for several reasons.

We want to see if others do know the answers they need to know. We want to give people a chance to confess to things they need to know (or things they did) before they have no choice. Maybe we want them to rethink an answer they’ve given or a belief they hold. Perhaps we want to prod action. Possibly, we just want a dialog.

God works in similar ways. He doesn’t need information or answers. So what’s left?

Maybe God also wants to:

  • Help us figure out the answers
  • Make us rethink some answer we thought we knew
  • Prod us into thinking about our answers
  • Give us information
  • Move us to action
  • Have a dialog with us.

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It’s a well known axiom of adult learning experts that asking questions helps people learn better. (That’s why I’ve taken to doing it a lot when I preach.) In their research, Julie Bugg and Mark McDaniel at Washington University in St. Louis (shout out to the alma mater!) set out to discover what kind of questions worked best. They determined that conceptual questions—those where you ask yourself or someone else questions that require putting ideas together rather than just knowing details—help us learn best.

So asking about motives of Javert would give my students a much better grasp of literature than asking the publication date of War and Peace. Truth.

What does this have to do with God?

It’s important because if God asks a question, we should probably pay attention.

If he’s wanting to dialog, we should be joy-filled at the prospect.

If he respects us enough to want us to figure things out on our own, we can be grateful. He made us in his image, which includes the ability to think things through.

If he speaks in questions so often, perhaps we should rethink our tendency to speak in proclamation more often than not. I love that Jesus often spoke in questions. Maybe being like Jesus should prod us to listen more, ask more questions, trust people more to be able to come to conclusions of their own. Perhaps being so sure we have wisdom to impart should give way to his method of helping people figure out wisdom and confession in their time and way.

If questions are such a vital part of God’s toolkit, maybe we could take a look at why. Next week, we’ll continue the journey that we started with God’s first question—Where are you?—with Jesus’ first question. What is it? You’ll find out next week.

Family Feud

The third in a series on discipling the family, originally appearing in Light and Life Communications.

In Prodigals and Those Who Love Them, Ruth Bell Graham reminds readers that, “Lord, You have trouble with Your children, too.” A family fractured by the estrangement of a child or parent has unique discipleship needs. Yet it also has unique opportunities to grow beyond what might be experienced in easier circumstances. Having gone through the experience, I’ve discovered the value of those opportunities.
A few verses put into perspective what God can teach during a family feud.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” (John 15.5-6)
Often in loving an estranged family member, we feel thrown away. But when dependent, abidingprayer is all we have, we find out it’s what we most need. We learn the absolute truth of how little we can do without our Vine when we are forced into helplessness. It’s scary–until you discover its deep peace.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12.15). Until we know the pain of a child turning from God, let’s be honest, we tend to be judgmental of other parents.
But when it happens to us—suddenly we re-recognize grace. We discover that everyone has a backstory. We hurt when they hurt. We grasp the depth of God’s mercy and become profoundly grateful. It’s not so easy to criticize—and that leads to relationships you never imagined you’d have with grace you never thought you’d yield. The beauty of that becomes overwhelming.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20).
The father’s heart is broken and his trust shattered. Yet he doesn’t interrogate his son about intentions and sincerity. He doesn’t wait to see how it’s going to work out. He welcomes him completely back into the family. My guess is the only way this father could do that was to practice praying for his son and offering forgiveness daily.
*What can you let go of today in true forgiveness?
*What is the hardest thing for you about trusting a family member who has hurt you? How can God help that?