Learning to Believe

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Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.

Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.

But One Remained

The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.

Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.

My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.

You Can Be Smart and Still Believe

Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.

“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”

He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

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The pulpit from which Lewis preached “The Weight of Glory” in Oxford.

And There Were Others

It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.

Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.

_There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it._

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.

I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.

The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.

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And Now

Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.

“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.

Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.

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.

2017 Round Up

2017

It’s round up time. Well, it’s a little late for round up time, but that’s how I roll. SO here is my list of favorite things from 2017. I would love to hear some of yours in the comments.

Reading

It always feels a bit odd to write a list of my favorite books. I mean, I am a self-professed theology and lit nerd. I’m also in school. So most of my reading material is not general public interest. Nevertheless, I think this is a good list.

Favorite books of 2017 (in no particular order):

  1. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. Made me understand my own family of origin better. It’s also a fascinating and personal look at what’s contributing to national divides and crises.
  2. The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright. A big book. But it will rock your theology in all the best ways.
  3. Of Mess and Moxie, Jen Hatmaker. All the fun Jen usually is and all the serious we need to hear. Very favorite quote:

    “God has not given us a spirit of fear, nor has he saddled us with a spirit of defeat. We live because Jesus lives, because he is real and present and moving and working and he will not have us conquered. This is not hoodoo; it is a powerful reality. Flatten your feet, because nothing in your life is too bad for resurrection. It can be worse than you think and more crushing than you imagined. And even then, we live.”

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  4.  Welcoming the Stranger, Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. Matthew Soerens and Hwang Yang. No work is so packed with the truth on this issue. The authors go through the history, struggles, and realities of this difficult human problem.
  5. Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice, Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson. The best devotional I’ve ever read. I read it twice in a row.
  6. Phenomenal, A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, Leigh Ann Henion. I enjoy travel books, and I liked her narratives of going places I would love to go. Now the Serengeti is definitely on my list. (The monarchs always have been.) Not that fond of her conclusions about life, but the travelogue is beautiful.
  7. Emboldened: A Vision for Empowering Women in Ministry, Tara Beth Leech. Buy this for your pastor or church leader. Now. Male or female. A powerful story of her own wrestling with the call to ministry and how we can work together to unleash all of God’s people into the kingdom.
  8. Teams that Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership, Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird. OK, this was a textbook for class. And probably only a church leadership nerd will read it. But it is an excellent resource for those who want to make their teams more “team” than followers. I’m going to use it with my board in the coming year.
  9. Good Faith, Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme, David Kinnaman. I read virtually everything this man writes. This wasn’t my favorite of his, but it is full of good info on what the rest of the world thinks about Christians and how we can help change that picture.
  10. Being Church, Doing Life: Creating Gospel Communities Where Life Happens, Michael Moynagh. Hands down the best book on where the church is going, and has to go, and how to get there that I have read. I also got to meet the author in Oxford, which was the biggest thrill. Just as you would expect a British teacher to be.

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Watching

Again, I don’t even own a TV, so you know how much of it I watch. But we have broken down and gotten Netflix (solely because of the advent of the Gilmore Girls reboot), so there is that.

Favorite shows of 2017:

  1. The Crown. I am loving this completely. Also, I want her wardrobe. And the waist that can wear it.
  2. Dr. Who. Well, I would be loving this if I could get us together to watch it. We have a solemn pact between me and my younger two daughters that we will not watch this apart from one another. This was made much more difficult in 2017 as one spent 3/4 of the year in West Virginia and one in southern Illinois. I am hopeful for the remainder of Christmas break. I love the actual theology here. Surprising, for supposedly atheist writers. How can you not love speeches like this:

 “I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.” — The Doctor

3. Murdoch Mysteries. I know, a Canadian outlier. It takes a while, but then it’s fun and addicting. Also, I think George is the best.

4. Anne with an E. I’ve decided I’m on the side that likes this one. It’s real and honest about what her life was probably like as well as being the beginning of a loving family. However, if they mess up peoples’ lives in the next season, I won’t be so easy on them. I did not like the end of season one.

5. British house shows. Especially Hidden Houses of Wales. But all the ones I’ve watched. British house shows are better than American. Americans are all drama and going Kardashian if they don’t have double sinks or the right paint color. Brits just nod and politely say, “That’s still nice. We can work with that.” It’s refreshing. Also, they’re both creative and respectful of history. We just don’t seem to have that.

It occurs to me that all of these are British or Canadian. Make of that what you will.

Favorite Movies of 2017:

  1. Wonder Woman
  2. Hidden Figures

Seriously, I only went to about four movies this year, so . . . But these two were amazing. I bought a Wonder Woman mug. I preach with it.

What’s saving my life right now:

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  1. Volunteering with Homework Club for World Relief. Refugee teenagers are a joy. And as frustrating sometimes as any teen. Which is the truth, really. We’re all the same inside.
  2. My Christmas tree. It’s still up. The lights are all on still. I am all about Christmas and I love it all. Also, I can see my Cubs World Series ornament from here.
  3. Almond Cookie Tea. Sereneteaz. Yes, it does taste a bit like the cookies you get with Chinese takeout. And it’s wonderful!
  4. My new date book. Nothing says new year, new plans, new places to write all the things than a new datebook. I am a list nerd, too. I love my lists. I love my organization. I love the entire concept of a new date book.
  5. Scrapbooking weekends. I found a meetup group that spends entire weekends doing this. They are hard core. These ladies bring luggage racks full of stuff. I’m not (I show up with three bags), but it’s been great to catch up on all the vacation albums this year. In two weekends, I’ve finished Spain, the UK, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and some miscellaneous Christmas. I am almost done! Which means–a new vacation!

What’s saving your life? What are you reading? Watching? I’d love to know.