Category Archives: Books

Thoughts on Kairos and Epiphany, the ‘unbidden and unexpected’

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I’ve been reading and loving my newest happy discovery, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. Its author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is a theologian and the book is a straightforward theological teaching on the things we’ve been talking about around here. She’s a mother who believes the Church has missed its opportunity to honor the spiritual formation that can arrive out of the mess of everyday parenting. Often we’re taught that in order to encounter God we need to step out of the dailyness of life with children. Miller-McLemore, instead, holds up Christ’s own mother (and all that pondering she kept doing!) as our mother-hero of the faith.

Miller-McLemore is sharp and dryly witty and her insight is fantastic. I’m having this problem where I’m underlining every other paragraph and drawing lots of hearts and exclamation points in the margins, as well as phrases like: “Ordinary Awe!” and “Live graciously WITHIN time” and “Mysticism of Everyday life—-> Ignatius.” If all that doesn’t prove it to you already, this book is right up my alley.

So, on this Monday morning following a weekend with four trips to the airport, one night of watching New Girl episodes and eating Vietnamese food with my sister-in-law on the couch, one soccer game, four emotional breakdowns from August, one 93 degree/shadeless soccer game (with a back sunburn to prove it), and two bags of popcorn, I’m going to share some of my favorite words of Miller-McLemore’s so far.

Seriously, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Just when my six-month-old fell into a predictable sleep pattern and I thought we had it all together, he grew and changed and we had to adjust…

The profoundly interminable and shifting nature of the work of parenting is both its challenge and reward. More than this: many parents would agree that in this practice of attending, they must learn, change and develop or the child will not thrive. For decades, modern psychology presumed that parenthood required little or no change in the already existing mind-set of the parent … Only recently has it begun to dawn on us that birth and rearing children a powerfully transformative for parents an children alike.

If I attend well to my sons over time, there is opportunity, however irregular, for astonishment … Children’s author Judith Viorst has learned , from watching her three sons, that “it is possible to find delight in us hanging around the kitchen while one kid is making a chicken salad sandwich and the other is tossing a napkin into the trash and missing.” It is just this potential for joy int he most mundane moment, pondered and attended to with care, that leads her to conclude, “Family life is better than most any other thing going on in the universe.”

Recently, a pastor who is also a father admitted to me apologetically that family devotions fall by the wayside in his household…

Here’s what I wish I could have said. Although family prayer has its important place … prayer and scripture reading do not alone determine faith. Faith is not one more thing to check off the list. Family prayer; check. Bedtime prayer; check. Ritual for dead hamster; check. It is not something set aside outside regular time. It is what we do in time and space, with our bodies and through our movements. The practices of this man’s family—playing with the children after school, interacting around dinner, greeting and parting, attending and pondering—these practices are formative of faith…

There is no ultimate solution to the dilemma of enacting faith in families in time. One cannot control kairos or schedule an epiphany … This is precisely the gift and bane of kairos and epiphany: such moments come unbidden and unexpected.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, 2007 Josey-Bass, 56-57, emphasis mine.

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Andrea Palpant Dilley: Doubt, Flat Tires and the Goodness of God

I first noticed Andrea Palpant Dilley when she shared her testimony in front of our church. That was  sometime in September, four weeks into my new life in Austin. And, I couldn’t help but notice: She spoke like somebody who loved words. I decided right then, I’m gonna make her be my friend

Thankfully, she started a writing group and I jumped on the email list and once a month I get to sit in a circle while she leads a discussion about literary things (and, sometimes, Jesus). I love this lady. (And I don’t think I’ve had to force her into our friendship so that’s a relief.)

I’m also proud of Andrea, whose first book Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubtcame out last month. Her story is fascinating: She spent her early childhood as the daughter of Quaker medical missionaries in Kenya. When her parents left the mission field, she moved to Washington state, began to question God’s goodness as  teenager, and by her twenties had left the church. The memoir is the story of that journey and her eventual return to faith.

I’ve read memoirs about doubt before that were near reflections of my childhood and story: my brother Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith and Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. But rare is a childhood like Andrea’s. Her faith experience was braided right alongside the deep suffering of the people her parents served. Her story is fascinating to me because she isn’t responding in any way to an overbearing evangelical culture (as I would expect). Her story is about the problem of suffering and the search for God’s goodness. 

Here’s a bit of our conversation about her book:

Micha: You talk about the Rift Valley in Kenya as being the origin of all humanity, but also the origin of your childhood. Do you think your childhood in a developing country made you even more predisposed to question God’s goodness in the midst of suffering and poverty?

Andrea: Absolutely. In the book I poke fun at the fact that, while most kids my age were playing Pac Man and eating pop tarts after school, I was visiting patients at my dad’s hospital. I spent time with sick people who died the next day. I attended funerals. I watched women wail in public, which was part of the mourning ritual of life in rural Kenya. Even the hospital morgue sat only fifty feet from the front door of our house. So yes, growing up as a medical missionary kid exposed me to more death and darkness than most kids my age would ever be exposed to, living in a western country. And those experiences very much informed my view of the world and my view of God. As a child, I don’t think I fully understood what was going on or why it was significant. But I carried those stories with me over the years. Eventually, as a young adult, they came to bear on my faith crisis.

M: Music also plays a major theme in your book. Good music brings about in you some sort of deep spiritual longing for something that you can’t find the church or even in your personal encounters with God. Do you feel like your coming back to the church carried with it any kind of experience that mirrored what you experienced in music when you were younger?

A: I recently visited some friends up in Dallas and went to church with them at an Episcopal cathedral called Church of the Incarnation. I might as well have been attending worship at an Anglican church in London. The cathedral itself was stunning. The liturgy and music were holy. As I walked forward to take communion at the front of the sanctuary, I passed by the choir, which flanked both sides of the altar space and surrounded me with singing. I felt deeply moved by the experience of hearing those hymns and taking communion beneath the high stained glass windows.

Now that I’m back at church, that kind of high-church liturgy really draws out my longing in the same way that some pop music did when I was a young adult. Maybe I’m getting old and boring, or maybe I’m moving deeper into the reflective spaces of art. Art will always play a part in my faith life. I’m a very tactile person, so I find myself compelled by the ceremonial aspects of faith in practice—the liturgy, the sacraments, the music, all those embodied experiences that speak to the senses. Some people might call it false religion, focusing on icons instead of ideas. But I believe that God engages us through our bodies and through visceral experiences that draw us closer to goodness and beauty and truth. Art is a mark of the imago Dei, the image of God in and around us.

M: The goodness of God– “Mungu yu mwema”– becomes a major theme in this book as you journey through doubt and your departure from the church. God remaining / continuing to be good despite your rejection of him (and despite his apparent rejection of the orphaned children you spent time with in Kenya while in college). What does it mean to you now that “God is so good”?

A: When people ask me what drove me out the doors of the church and then what brought me back, my answer to both questions is the same. I left the church in part because I was mad at God about human suffering and injustice. And I came back to church because of that same struggle. I realized that I couldn’t even talk about justice without standing inside of a theistic framework. In a naturalistic worldview, a parentless orphan in the slums of Nairobi can only be explained in terms of survival of the fittest. We’re all just animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources. The idea of justice doesn’t really mean anything. To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality, and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.

After that realization, I found myself driven back to the doors of the church. More than that, I realized that I had to think about the problem of good. Why is there any goodness at all in the world? Now that I’m practicing faith again and back at church, I can say with more confidence that “God is so good.” God is the source of justice, goodness, beauty, and art. Evil, injustice, and suffering are just a lack of goodness and a lack of God. That vision doesn’t necessarily answer the question of suffering—I still struggle with it—but it draws me deeper into a positive view of God’s enduring love and goodness. I fight to believe what Julian of Norwich believed, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

M: One of the things I appreciate about your story is that it’s not tidy. It’s easy to want a book about doubt to offer a simple answer at the end: This is how to believe! But your story was a journey and even as you come back into the church and find a place for yourself in the Christian story, you’re still journeying and your questions and past are not neatly bound. As you come back to faith in the story, you say that somehow your “doubt was your desire” in a spiritual sense: “To possess the presence of God.” What did that mean for you then? What does that mean now in your faith experience?
 
A: In the book, I tell a story about walking into an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco one Sunday morning while I was in the middle of my faith crisis. I didn’t know a soul. I sat at the back of the church. When communion started, I went forward, knelt at the altar, took the sacrament, and then watched the priest stretch out his hand to bless me on my head. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of longing for God at the very same time that I felt frustrated with church and ambivalent about faith.

That story really embodies my spiritual journey then, and in some ways, my spiritual journey now. I believe that doubt and faith—rather than standing in opposition to each other all the time—can actually go hand in hand. In Mark 9:24, the father of the demon-possessed child says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Flannery O’Connor calls it the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often. Both then and now, my doubt actually grows out of a longing for God, in this way: I feel disappointed with God when I feel disappointed with the messed up world. I feel disappointed with the world because I hope for something better. And I hope for something better because God has given me this inborn desire for goodness, justice and most importantly, God himself. So in that strange, circular way, my doubt often leads me back to faith and reminds me of my desire to know God and “possess his presence.”

M: Sometimes I feel like I battle a laundry list of intellectual questions toward God, only to have His answer be a presence, an experience, rather than a clear-cut response to my issues. That’s why I so related to the moment toward the end of the book when you experience God’s hand on your head in the middle of the night, and are overcome with the presence of peace. Was that your experience of God’s goodness? Was that some sort of answer for you to the long list of questions in your head?

To be perfectly honest, I still struggle to make sense of that experience of feeling God’s hand on my head. It didn’t answer all of my intellectual questions. But it gave me comfort at a low point in my personal and spiritual life. More than that, it assured me of God’s presence in the midst of my own spiritual uncertainty. When I think about that moment, it brings to mind that scene in the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov where the Inquisitor fires off a series of questions and criticisms at Christ. At the end of the scene, Christ steps forward and kisses the Inquisitor on his “bloodless, aged lips” instead of answering him. He doesn’t say a thing. He doesn’t offer a counterargument. He says in action rather than with words, “I Am.” That’s how I feel about my own experience of God’s presence. I didn’t get the answers. But the great I Am made his presence known to me in a still, small moment.

* If you live in Austin, Andrea will be giving a reading tonight at Book People at 7. The rest of you should take a look at her book here.

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Awkwardness and Vulnerability

The great thing about being married to a reader is that if my husband cares, really cares, about what he’s reading, it is read out loud. Then we talk about it more in the car while the Cars 2 soundtrack is playing and the boys and I are dropping him off at work.  Then he processes it more with me on the way home because he cannot stop.

Today, I will share with you what Chris has been reading, because it’s been on my mind this week as well. It’s called Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte. I’ve written before about how these past two years, while we lived in San Francisco, both of us were learning about calling, identity and what defines us. Chris was introduced to Whyte, who is also a poet (though I have yet to read his work) through our church in San Francisco. I’ve quoted him before here. I’m dumbstruck by how beautifully and honestly he writes about the human condition. So, I have to share these words with you today.

 

“We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far-reaching powers, and our all knowing competency. Yet in the real world, no matter how many relationships may have been initiated by strength and power, no marriage or friendship has ever been deepened by these qualities. After a short, erotic honeymoon, power and omnipotence expose their shadow underbellies and threaten real intimacy, which is based on mutual vulnerability. After the bows have been made to the brass god of power, we find in the privacy of relationship that same god suddenly immobile and inimicable to conversation. As brass gods ourselves, we wonder why we are no longer loved in the same way we were at our first appearance. Our partners have begun to find our infallibility boring and , after long months or years, to find us false, frightening, and imprisoning.

We have the same strange idea in word as we do in love: that we will engender love, loyalty, and admiration in others by exhibiting a great sense of power and competency. We are surprised to find that we garner fear and respect but forgo the other, more intimate magic. . .

We have an even stranger idea: that we will finally fall in love with ourselves only when we have become the totally efficient organized organism we have always wanted to be and left all of our bumbling ineptness behind. Yet in exactly the way we come to find love and intimacy with others through vulnerability, we come to those same qualities in ourselves through living out the awkwardness of not knowing, of not being in charge.

We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we are opening to the world whether we like it or not” (emphasis mine).

 

The gate of our lives is awkwardness, vulnerability and ineptness. Wow, right? I don’t have anything else to say. I’m just thinking on this today. What’s your reaction?

 

 

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Absence, marriage and making that little heart grow fonder

So yesterday I came across an article in Slate about a new book by Iris Krasnow, who has spent every July for the past decade away from her husband of almost a quarter century. Her book is called The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes To Stay Married, and much of it has to do with how spending significant chunks of time away from your spouse may actually be good for your marriage, especially if you’re a woman.

“…the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that is a cliché. But it is a cliché for a reason,” writes Jessica Grose at Slate.

The benefits of the time spent apart? It helps women become more emotionally self-reliant. It empowers women to recognize that the emotionally fulfilling relationship of marriage is still not “an intimacy oasis,” as a 1980 study from the Journal of Marriage and Family describes it. Also, it benefits couples because they are forced to communicate. It’s easy in the chaos of daily life to go through days with out ever needing to really speak to your spouse. But when communicating is all there is to your relationship, many wives say that time is incredibly fulfilling.

What about you? If you’re married, how often do you spend time away from your spouse? And when you do, does your marriage benefit?

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How ‘the ordinary becomes a container for the divine’

My brother and sister in law gave me an Amazon gift card for my birthday. It didn’t take me long to go straight to my Wish List and find the two books I’ve been most longing for. One is finally going to order my life (I know it! Come on, Organized Simplicity!)

The other is going to be discussed on these pages over and over and over. I can feel it.

To Dance With God was recommended by my friend Nancy in San Francisco, who taught a course in our church on living as a Missional family. She often alluded to this book, which is subtitled Family Ritual and Community Celebration. I can’t express how much I long for intentional ritual and spiritual rhythm in our family’s life. I want our lives to be seasonal, measured by the Church calendar, and our instruction to our children in the faith to be grounded and ordered, not simply shaped by our whims or lucky conversations. But I also don’t want to be the parents who force boring “devotional” times on our kids. (I have this sick feeling when I think about a half-hearted dad reading scripture to bored kids in the living room.) I want to wow them with wonder. I want their senses to be stirred by the beauty, the blessing, the power of the God we worship. I want their worship to be childlike, tactile, magical.

When my kids grow up and remember the autumns of their childhood, I want for them not only the magic of cooler nights and bundling in blankets at the football stadium, I also want them to connect the fall season with All Saints Day and how we made an attempt to remember those we’ve loved who’ve died. I want their memories of Advent and Christmas to be tied to so much more than gift opening, but to recall how we prepared ourselves as a family for Christ’s birth, how we acted out the story with their toys. I want their memories of Holy Week to include how we used our hands: baked Easter bread, made a prayer corner in our home with hand-drawn pictures on the wall.

I love thinking about these things and I can’t wait to share them with you as we enter from Ordinary Time into the Church seasons. Until then, I’ll leave you with this:

This Church celebrates our cycles and seasons, inviting us to see and engage and feel and touch and be aware and grow and be transformed. Through myth and symbol the experiences which make up our daily lives are affirmed and made sacred.

This creative and poetic Church helps us to pay full attention to what we might otherwise deem ordinary and commonplace. Rites and symbols use the ordinary and earthy elements of our existence and, by encircling them, ratify, sancitfy, complete. The ordinary becomes the container for the divine and safely holds what was uncontainable. The transcendent is disclosed in what is wonderfully familiar: bread, wine, fire, ash, earth, water, oil, tears, seeds, songs, feastings and fastings, pains and joys, bodies and thoughts, regressions and transformations…In its creative function, the Church speaks directly to the heart, a heart which hears symbols, not rational vocabulary (7).

How good is that?!


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‘Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle’ (Or, Why One Thousand Gifts is changing my life)

Today I’m guest-posting at Christianity Today’s Women’s Blog: Her.menutics. The piece is called “One Thousand Gifts, Reconsidered: A second take on Ann Voskamp’s bestseller about gratitude.” As if you really wanted to hear me go on and on about One Thousand Gifts some more…

Please? Don’t you want me to go on and on a little more?

Read it here.

Love,

Micha

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Just a little practical bookish sort of wish list

I’ve been posting a lot of book lists lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve actually had time while I’m staying with my parents (and before that, my mother-in-law’s) to think about books and consider how I’m going to spend the extra brain time I’ll have when we get settled in Austin and we don’t have commitments yet. (It probably won’t last long, so I’d better take advantage of it.)

Here are the books on my non-literary wish list:

 

Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices by Julie Clawson – This has been in the back of my mind for a while and I have general convictions about how my family should care for the earth and for those who are most vulnerable on this earth. But I feel like there are a lot of blurry places in my mind that I need to clear up and know where I stand. What stores should I shop at? How do I know which clothes I buy are made in sweatshops? I really need to invest some time in forming my convictions about these things…

 

Mercy Rising: Simple Ways to Practice Justice and Compassion by Amber Robinson – Samesies

 

To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration by Gertrud Mueller Nelson — My friend Nancy from Mom’s Group in SF recommends this in the course she and her husband teach on building a “missional” family.  As my boys get older, I want them to experience the beauty of ritual and ceremony, especially as it’s understood in the Church calendar. I want us to live deliberately and presently in every season of the year.

 

The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. We love food in the Hohorst house. Chris and I bonded immediately over our passion for eating well. And I fell in love (partly) because that boy knew how to feed me! (All I know about cooking, I learned from him–FYI, my mom tried to teach me growing up but I rejected her attempts…sorry Mom.) I know we would both love this book but I’m imagining the Mister will bask in it. (One of his favorite books of all time is The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon.)

 

Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living by Tsh Oxenreider — Growing up my mom described her style of housekeeping as “lived in” and I’m unashamed to say that my home tends to be “lived in” as well. Though, there can be too much “living” and not enough “putting away.” (Why is “putting away” in quotes? Don’t ask me!) I want to be an organized person. I want to be a straightening type. But I have a problem with getting things into their places. Let me blame it on being an ENFP and feeling instead of doing all the time, okay? But in my head I am all about being “intentional” and I am all about decluttering my life and home. So, my plan is to read this book and get a grip…

 

The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley — I would describe myself as “Medium Crunchy” as in: I diaper my babies in biodegradable diapers but feel a little guilty that they’re not cloth. I use paper towels and then console myself with the fact that I can compost them. I’m all for local, fresh and seasonal food but you can still find me buying grapes for my kids out of season. I’m the same way about babies. I “wear” my babies and breastfeed for over a year (which in my hometown makes me freaky and in San Francisco makes me conservative), and I’ve “co-slept” with all my babies. I don’t usually write about parenting issues because I don’t like taking a stand on what I think is the right way to parent. I’m constantly unsure about what I’m doing and I know that anything I feel passionate about today could be up for debate tomorrow. August slept in our bed until he was four months old and then I followed the advice of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child to help him begin sleeping on his own without needing our help. But the “crying it out” prescription has never set well with me, even though the book really helped me understand and put into practice the importance of good sleep for him. Yesterday, I just read a post at Emerging Mummy in which she recommends The No-Cry Sleep Solution. The crunchy in me says: “Can it really be true?!” The practical, sleep is important part of me isn’t convinced good sleep is possible without the stern parent stand. I’ll let you know what I decide after I read it.

 

Now I just have to convince the Hoho Budget that, Yes! Of course we can afford to buy six more books!

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