A Bundle of Letters on the Church’s Doorstep

When a pastoral search goes well, everyone wins. Last year when a soft-spoken lobsterman rose to his feet and challenged us at Spruce Head Community to seek a shepherd who would lead us and love us, we began praying and seeking to that end. The seeking and the finding has united us, and we are blessed to have welcomed a godly man and woman who are living small-town life alongside us, all the while holding forth the Word of Truth.

Winn Collier is also a small-town pastor, but with Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, he’s wearing his fiction-writer’s hat. Nonetheless, his heart for ministry comes shining through along with a clear-eyed affection for Christ’s body, communicated through the character of Pastor Jonas McAnn.

The pastoral search committee of Granby Presbyterian Church had grown tired of searching, weary of interviews, and fed up with the pretense when Amy Quitman, resident of Rural Route 28, took matters into her own capable handwriting and penned a letter that wrapped itself around one question:

“Do you actually want to be our pastor?”

Formalized by four signatures, the letter went forth to all future candidates.

In a half-hearted search of his own, Jonas McAnn saw in the letter a reason to reply with his own epistle, and finally, to leave behind his safe and predictable life in an insurance company cubicle, and to risk following his heart back into the trenches of pastoral ministry.

What follows is a bundle of letters from Pastor Jonas to his flock, randomly spaced and warmly personal. They have landed on my doorstep as well with their revelation of one side of a “spacious” conversation between a man who knows he was not called into the pastorate to fix anything or anybody and a group of people who have committed themselves to contributing “disruptive input” to each other’s lives.

With engaging characters and a page-turning narrative arc, Love Big, Be Well is a satisfying read for the story alone. Shades of John Ames of Gilead and Tim Kavanagh of Mitford made me hope for a sequel to follow Jonas’s return from sabbatical and future ministry at Granby Pres. However, at the risk of being banished to Wendell Berry’s desert island of exile for finding a subtext where none was intended, I will share that I came away with valuable insights — not in the form of a treatise on ministry, but rather more like thoughts overheard from a corner table at Stu’s Mud.

Thoughts on Calling

Jonas came to life in Granby with the settled conviction that he was committing himself to a web of relationships:

“So I committed my life to walking alongside people who I hoped to call friends. I committed to learning how to help people pray. I determined it would be my job to simply recount, over and again, that one beautiful story of how Love refused to tally the costs but came for us, came to be with us, came to heal us. . . “

Thoughts on the Role of a Pastor

Jonas McAnn came from a long line of pastors and proudly owned his heritage as one who fulfilled a unique and valuable role in the community:

  • to “live with people” (42);
  • to pray with them;
  • to ponder Scripture with them;
  • to “speak in good faith to other people who are trying very hard to listen in good faith” (47);
  • to receive the wisdom of God as “a slow drip, not a sudden knowing,” (60) and then to keep showing up where it will do the most good;
  • to “not take a position” when that is the most honest response;
  • to take cues from the farmer who “tend farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods they know and love, in the company of neighbors they know and love.”

Thoughts on the Role of the Church

Amy ruefully described Granby Presbyterian to a friend and managed to capture every other church in the process:

“Unfortunately, if you’re looking for people to disappoint you, we will provide the material. In spades.”

Even so, under Jonas’s leadership, the church was called away from a shiny and boisterous presence into a resourceful availability to clean up messes — with the humble admission that the church is called to go first in admitting to our own messiness. “This is why we need the church all the more . . . [for] the only thing worse than our failing to inhabit mercy and holiness would be our making no attempt at all.”

On a practical note, the pastoral/congregational relationship gets off to a good start when the body is there en masse to greet and unload the moving van. From that point forward, the liturgy of even the most non-liturgical band of worshipers is one of “showing up, doing the work, being together.”

Thoughts on Love

Pastor McAnn’s eponymous “Big Love” comes down to “simply circling and staying near.” It was God’s big love that called Granby Pres. member Don Brady into the kingdom and that carried him through the rigors of cancer treatment as he wisely concluded:

“Love’s the main deal.”

Thoughts on Prayer

When elderly Miss Nelson prayed over Don’s cancer treatment, she reminded me that even when we do not know the will of God on a matter, there’s nothing wrong with reminding Him of how much we love and need someone in our community.

Given my own uneasy relationship with prayer, I collect wisdom to keep me in the game. Jonas related a homely parable on prayer from a fruitless fly fishing adventure with Luther that left him flat on fishing, but tutored him in the practice of prayer:

“‘Why would anyone torture themselves with this galling pastime?’

‘I like how you’re just in it. You’re in the water, in the woods. Everything’s happening around you.’

I’ve concluded that my problem (aside from how I have no idea what I’m doing on the river) is my focus on casting properly, on actually catching fish. Luther, however, comes to the river in a much different way. ‘I like being in the water,’ he explained, ‘with the breeze and the scent and the solitude. Even when I don’t catch anything, I come back different than when I left.‘”

Jonas McAnn wrote letters to his congregation from a desire to pay attention and to help his people do likewise. He wanted to remind his readers that life together is good and it consists of shared stories — shared experiences that call us toward the Light. For anyone who is committed to this calling over the long haul, Love Big, Be Well is a benediction, a reminder that ministry is “shot through with blessing,” and a celebration of the dignity of the slow work of ministry in community.

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This book was provided by William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

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Blessing Management: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (Conclusion!)

Last week a huge windstorm felled both trees and power lines, leading to widespread power outages throughout the great state of Maine. By some miracle of grace, we came through the storm with our lights still burning, but my oldest son was without electricity for several days. Since he and his family came here to shower and do laundry, I invited them to stay for supper. This time with much-loved family (and time to hold my baby granddaughter and visit with the adorable grandson) felt like bonus-time, completely unexpected, and owing to something that was a trial for them, but the end result was a gift to me.

Loving adult children seems to require a measure of this kind of blessing management — a rejoicing in the unsought gift of their presence while holding it all loosely and without expectation. I would rather pine endlessly for my sons than be the nagging and needy mother, so when these serendipitous visits happen with no real planning on my part, it’s a source of joy — or as Jayber Crow would say:

” . . . these meetings must not be planned, expected, depended on , or looked forward to. They [are] a hope seen afar, that must be with patience waited for.”

A Book About Love

And so, Jayber found that he also was able to practice blessing management in his happenstance meetings with Mattie in The Nest Egg over the course of 14 or 15 years. In this respect, then, it seems as if  Jayber Crow is a story of how one man learned to love. He denied himself any expression of that love toward its object (other than his immediate and generous response to Mattie’s requests for help in difficult situations). However, his outflow of love toward the Port William membership can certainly be traced back to the commitment he made to Mattie, and, therefore, a commitment to remain as The Membership’s “married ineligible bachelor barber.”

Several chapters ago, Jayber remarked that Port William would break your heart if you let it. I wonder if that is true of any community if only we would  be willing to see the neediness that lies only just beneath the glossy surface. Perhaps Jayber’s commitment is an invitation for the jaded and the “been-burned” to begin handing out second chances to family, friends, community, or the church.

When Jayber reflects on the benefit of this sacrifice to himself, asking himself what possible good he could have derived from the arrangement, his response is deeply moving:

“What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.”

Listen well, O, my soul, for herein lies much wisdom for loving without strings attached.

A Book About Belonging

This outcome of Jayber’s internal argument is consistent with his value system expressed elsewhere in the story. For instance:

“To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

One of the places Jayber came to love and feel connected to was The Nest Egg because “everything there seemed to belong where it was.” (346) Unlike Troy, he did not have to possess something in the traditional sense in order to enjoy it. Although they were never his, the Nest Egg, the little cabin Burley gave him “the use of,” and even Mattie were all a source of joy. They also anchored him in a community which gave him his first (and only) set of roots since he was orphaned for the second time as a boy.

A Book About Calling

In his informal role as the “bootleg” barber at the edge of the river, Jayber continued to receive the words and confidences of his customers “as water draws to low ground.” For Jayber, it seems as if the minute he stopped trying to “make something of himself,” he became what he was intended to be.

It’s hard to miss the continual contrasts between Jayber and Troy who never did cease trying to make something of himself (336, 341). I wonder if some of the ceaseless striving came because he required so much fuel from outside himself in order to feed his voracious ambition.

Jayber’s calling that transcends even barbering is his love for Mattie, the wife of another man.  Even so, he makes no effort to interfere with the marriage. He never tells anyone else about his love for her, and the “marriage” he initiates in his heart changes him to the core.

A Book About Ending Well

There’s a phrase that occurred earlier in Jayber Crow‘s meanderings and with its second mention, it continued to gnaw at me. I’m thinking about “the leftovers.” In spite of his efforts to avoid living “an unexamined life,” Jayber still had some leftovers (355) which he defined as the “things I might once have done that are now undoable, old wrongs, responsibilities unmet, ineradicable failures — things of time, which is always revealing the remedies it has already carried us beyond.”  He has borrowed the term (268) from our friend Della, Athey Keith’s widow, and it was these “leftovers” that brought her to tears after Athey’s death:

“There are leftovers, Jayber. There are things I did or said that I wish I hadn’t, and things I didn’t do or say that I wish I had.”

These are cautionary words from fictional characters from whose story arc I want to learn and benefit.

Jayber calls himself a man of faith even though “faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark.” (356)  Faith does not exempt the faithful from pain, Jayber says, but assures that “there is a light that includes our darkness, and day that shines down even on the clouds.” (357)  Faithfulness, for Jayber, is not about getting something for one’s efforts but is in itself its own reward.

It is not until the last paragraph of the book that we see any ray of hope for Jayber’s heart in his poured out life, and I can’t resist sharing his words of longing for this “good-good-good” life:

“I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.”

May I ask, when is the last time you read a novel in which the culmination was a chaste and selfless love? In fulfillment of I Corinthians 13,  Jayber’s love “suffered long,”  did not “seek its own,” as it “hoped and endured all things” rather than allowing the weight of his desire to crush the beauty of its object. With the careful paintbrush of a poet, Berry suggested rather than described the understanding between Jayber and Mattie in the book’s final paragraph, and I expect (because, I ask you, who can resist thinking about a fictional character’s life beyond page 363?) that Jayber lived the rest of his days with the memory of that “smile that he had never seen.”

Looking Forward to 6:30 . . . 

This is a bittersweet moment as we come to the end of our discussion. When I’m in the middle of a series, I am convinced that I’ll never survive to the end and make all kinds of rash vows that include the words “never again.” I guess I’m a little bit like Jayber with the hands of my clock permanently pointing at 6:30, keeping things open-ended. However, I’m already starting to think about books for the next round, so stay tuned!

As ever, be sure to share links to any blog posts you write on Jayber Crow or related topics, especially if you decide to throw caution to the wind and write about “texts” and “subtexts” you’ve found, or if you attempt to “explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand,'” because then we can all be exiled together and enjoy “the company of other explainers.” Wherever the exile ends up, I’ll bring a thermos of English Breakfast Tea and some disposable cups.  See you there!

Many thanks to all who persevered to the end! It’s been a great experience to spend some time as honorary citizens of Port William with you!

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It’s Not About You — And It Never Was!

There’s always a certain amount of eye-rolling that goes on in a household overrun by teens and young adults. My husband and I are amazingly un-cool. His humor is entirely “Dad-jokes.” My questions and observations are overwhelming evidence that I’m over-thinking everything.  But here’s one tiny bit of wisdom that has been passed down without protest, maybe because it is so abundantly clear: “People who are all wrapped up in themselves make pretty small packages.”

Sharon Hodde Miller found the pull of this variety of self-focus to be stronger than gravity, robbing her of her joy and killing her confidence, for no accomplishment was ever stellar enough to overcome the downward pull of comparison; no applause was loud enough to drown out the self-condemnation; no audience was large enough to banish the feeling of invisibility.  What we’re all fighting is a “mirror reflex” (25) in which everything is a reflection of ourselves, leading to the tendency to shape our self-image around people, possessions, and profession and to live in a state of self-focus that will “make everything about you, even when it’s not about you.”

The writer of Hebrews has thrown the window open wide for all of us who live in the stuffy room of self absorption, inviting us to stop running the race distracted, focused on our cute sneakers and flawless form, and to “fix our eyes on the only One who can heal our wounds and set us free.” (35)

Living life as if it is all about me sends me off course in seven very specific ways. Sharon refers to them as “mirrors,” and in our own brokenness, they reflect back an image that has nothing to do with the real world as seen through God’s eyes.

  1. When you make God about you, it’s as if He exists to make you feel better about yourself, to serve you, to make your life easier, and to bring about your kingdom and your will on this earth.  Freedom comes when our life focus becomes the glory of God.
  2. When you make family about you, everything comes back to image management. Your kids, your husband, their accomplishments (or lack of same) either puff you up or deflate your bubble. Here’s the truth: “The purpose of your family is not to make you look good. The purpose of your family is not to make you comfortable. . . The purpose of your family is to love your family and other families. The purpose of your marriage is to love God and the world better than you could have done it alone.” (67, 68)
  3. When you make your appearance about you, it becomes an idol, a demanding tyrant. Preoccupation with appearance drives a wedge between women. The alternative (and healthy) view is “compassion over comparison.” “[O]ur goal is not to be the cutest girl in the room . . .” And on the flip side of this, physical imperfections become opportunities to “relinquish our splendor” in humility and grace. (77, 78)
  4. When you make your possessions about you, your hope is in something that is very temporary and unreliable. Sharon unpacks Paul’s instructions to women about modesty in I Timothy with an emphasis on the cultural context of extravagance — apparently a problem in New Testament days as well! The modesty Paul argued for was a path to decrease their own glory and to exalt God by hoping in Him rather than in wealth.
  5. When you make your friendships about you, you will operate out of a position of perceived rejection and continual loneliness. “Our friendships are for us, but they are not about us. They exist primarily for the glory of God. They point us toward the perfect friendship we have with him, and as long as our friendships remain grounded in that truth, even the broken ones will be swept up into the arc of redemption.” (102) 
  6. When you make your calling about you, you will live in dissatisfaction with the present and may find yourself acting in disobedience to his calling in self-protection or self-promotion. Paul was a man who carried a heavy calling as if it were feathers on the scale because “he wasn’t living for his own glory, so nothing was on the line.” (112)
  7. When you make your church about you, suddenly your preferences have become essentials and your search for the “perfect” church will become a matter of consumerism. Sharon compares church attendance to marriage in that both are intended to grow us and to teach us perseverance — for better or for worse.

With the tendency for self-focus hard-wired into our fallen DNA, it would seem to be an impossible struggle to ever become Free of Me, and yet, there are four broad categories of healthful habits that can put us on the right path:

  • Loving God

  • Loving Others

  • Pouring Out from the Well of Your Gifts and Interests

  • Letting God Plant You and Trusting His Heart

Throughout Scripture’s narrative arc, God points to a redemptive plan in which all things will be redeemed — nothing will be wasted. Freedom comes when we see ourselves as part of God’s bigger story, crucially involved in the advancement of His vision for the world while swallowed up in the freedom and contentment of self-forgetfulness. Free of Me is an invitation to throw off the burden of self-focus and to find worth and belonging within the larger context of an obedient following that is all about Christ, His purposes, and His glory.

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This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Additional resources

Read more of Sharon’s journey at her website, where you will also find her blog and resources related to ministry and leadership.

Jamie Ivey interviewed Sharon on The Happy Hour podcast in which they chatted about the way Sharon met her husband, getting her PhD, supporting women in ministry and cheering others on in their unique giftings.

Sharon also shared her story and her book on Melanie Dale’s podcast, Lighten Up! Besides a sneak peek into the concepts behind Free of Me, Sharon talks about what it’s like to be pregnant and professional, falling asleep in class, and resisting the temptation to become cynical in  ministry roles.

This review is coming just in time to be part of #NotAboutMeNovember, an entire month in which we seek God and seek ways we need to make life more about Jesus and less about us. I’m sharing it here along with a crew of other bloggers who are inspired by the goal of making much of Jesus — and less of ourselves!

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Like the Sound of Many Waters — Jayber Crow Discussion (3)

As I write today, Houston is well into the long rebuilding that follows a hurricane and flooding, and Irma has raged through the Caribbean islands and through Florida, leaving a wake of destruction and death. In an odd sort of coincidence, those of us who are reading Jayber Crow according to the schedule have been following our protagonist’s progress through the flooded region that borders the Kentucky River on his journey toward home. Then, to add a third strand to these braided images, the patient husband and I have been reading in the book of Ezekiel these days, and we encountered this word picture in one of the wild-eyed prophet’s visions:

 “Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate that faces toward the east.  And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. (Ezekiel 43:1,2)

Calling and the Voice of God

Scripture portrays the voice of God as still and small; as fearsome and emanating from the midst of fire; as a commandment-carrying instrument which must be obeyed at all cost.  And God’s usual means of communicating to His people is through Scripture; however, God (being God) can speak to us in any way that pleases Him.

Whether it was the voice of God or the voice of his own longing for home rising up in his heart and finally being heard, one thing was certain:  the river flooded and it brought Jayber back to Port William. The River was rising on that January day in 1937 when Jayber packed up his belongings and left behind his first barbering job, the first room he’d “ever had in his own right,” along with his pursuit of making “a theoretical something of himself” through education. For him, at least at this point in life, his calling is all about leaving. It’s not until he reaches the bridge in Frankfort, Kentucky and is stopped from crossing by the policeman (and the raging flood waters) that his journey seems to turn toward something.

” . . . If that barn breaks loose and hits this bridge, she’s a goner, and you too if you’re on it.”

And then I said something that I had never thought of saying, that I didn’t even know was the truth until I remembered myself saying it. Right then I only felt all of a sudden so lonely and homesick I could barely talk. I said, “I’ve got to get to my people down the river.”

Of course, it does complicate things that none of Jayber’s “people” know he exists yet . . . but enter Burley Coulter, and suddenly Jayber is known. The un-naming that happened back at The Good Shepherd has been reversed and the calling and the blessing of life as a barber begins to unfold.

The Calling and the Being

” . . . I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have — and, beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber. All my real opportunities have been to be a barber, as you’ll see, and being a barber has made other opportunities. I have had the life I have had because I kept on being a barber, you might say, in spite of my intentions to the contrary.”

I can’t resist asking this question:

What do you “keep on being” that has resulted in blessing — maybe in spite of yourself?

Another question that bubbled to the surface as I read was, “Who is this guy?”

On the one hand, he’s lived a solitary life since Aunt Cordie died. On the other hand, he risks life and limb to cross a bridge to get to his people (“as surely as if [he] had a home to be on the way to”) and then stands in the capitol building on his way out after having spent the night there, looking at all his fellow refugees and longing to “tiptoe around and just lay my hand on each one.” He seems capable of feeling more tenderness toward people he doesn’t know than people he knows. Wendell Berry has certainly crafted a character full of contradictions.

Looking Ahead

The rising of the waters, the guilty feeling that he wants to repay the $5 bill Sam Hanks gave him on the basis of a lie, and Burley Coulter’s rowboat all worked together to bring Jayber back home.  As chapter eight comes to a close we see the beginnings of Jayber’s future, and so does he, but his narrator’s voice on page 82 draws our attention to an unknown quantity that would, eventually, have a powerful influence in his life — an influence as powerful as a calling:

“But my future, as it turned out, proved to be elsewhere. I hadn’t even glimpsed it yet. I had imagined no future. Who she was who would have my heart to own I had not imagined.”

So after three stories completely ended, Jayber begins a new story in an old setting.

How has the voice of God come to you in the past?  And how are you hearing Him today?

Have you experienced any hair pin turns in your sense of calling? Does Jayber’s experience help you in thinking about vocation?

I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and stories from your own experience in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 28) having read Chapters 9-11.

And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

3 Stories Completely Ended: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (2)

My faith unraveled at a Christian college. I know that’s not the way it’s supposed to happen, and I can remember wishing that a hostile, atheistic professor had bludgeoned me into my doubts with brilliantly irrefutable arguments.

It would make for a much better story.

Instead, the truth is I just got numb. The constant barrage of meaningless requirements that were, somehow, mysteriously related to Christianity: plowing through a three-inch thick commentary on Romans with no specific assignment in mind (other than to reach the back cover), fending off the desperate and over-bearing overtures of my “dorm mother” who wanted to befriend all “her girls,” and trying to stay awake while the combed-over, suited-up preacher-of-the-day got carried away and stole time from the class that followed our mandatory chapel.

One day it all got to be just too ridiculous.

Eventually, of course, I realized the problem was localized and what I had been objecting to was not “Christianity” itself, but a mindset that existed on a particular campus in a specific zip code.

Perhaps if Jayber Crow could have reached that conclusion a bit sooner, he would have been able to finish his education and then take his questions and his refreshing insights into ministry instead of just out the door and down the road with no clear destination in sight. Later in the book, we’ll see that he does eventually patch things up with organized religion, but even then, his musings about faith often sound as if they are coming from an outsider.

Living the Questions:  Calling

Since Jayber ended chapter three with the observation that Aunt Cordie’s death made him “the survivor already of two stories completely ended,” I’ll add that his departure from Pigeonville College made for number three.

This week’s discussion of Chapters 4-6 covers the bulk of the twelve year period in which Jayber lived away from Port William.  During those important growing-up years, the foundation was laid for Jayber’s understanding of what it means to be “called.” He starts out hedging his bets with a decision that it would be wiser to “accept  the call that had not come, just in case it had come and [he] had missed it.” I’ve heard it said no one should go into professional ministry if they can be happy doing anything else. Maybe that advice would have helped young Jayber with his sorting process, but Dr. Ardmire helps Jayber turn a corner with this wise and wonderful conversation:

“I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

Maybe, like me, this conversation brought to mind Rainer Maria Rilke’s words about living the questions.  Just in case it did not, I’ll share it here:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I think we will see that Jayber Crow gave the questions his best effort throughout the seventy-two years of his recorded ponderings.

Living the Questions:  Dualism

Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd with Brother Whitespade at the helm practiced a kind of dualism which gave the Apostle Paul plenty to write about 2,000 before, and which the church is still battling today. Jayber remembered it as a “divided world” with an “ideal world of order” there within the safe and secluded boundaries of the school and the “real world of disorder” which was forbidden . . . and therefore, very attractive to the students. His description of localized naughtiness brought an understanding smile to my face:  “They would not have been easy in their minds if there was something they could have got away with if they had not got away with it.”

(I think there’s a warning here for those of us who are parents and want to shelter our children from all the evils of this world.)

The same rift between body and soul showed up at Pigeonville College, but this time, Jayber recognized it for what it was.  Do you ever see this same contradiction in your own Christian circles?

“Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins –hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust — came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world.  And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.

Living the Questions:  Power

I was disappointed with the way Brother Whitespade handled names at The Good Shepherd, effectively un-naming every student who walked through the door. Although his affection for Jayber was increased with Jayber’s “call,” even this is a form of un-naming him, for although Jayber had not changed a whit in his inclination to become a better student (or a deeper Christian), the notion of his calling was perfect camouflage for his lackluster performance and somehow made him more valuable or worthwhile in the headmaster’s estimation.

Living the Questions:  Home

Home is more than a place. It’s the people who live alongside us, and all this was lost for Jayber when Aunt Cordie passed away. He was made to feel the weight of his “homelessness” with continual reminders that he was counting on someone’s good graces to feed, clothe, and educate him at The Good Shepherd.

Isn’t it wonderful that Jayber felt at home in The Good Shepherd’s library?

Jayber held himself separate and “solitary” during his time at the school, and I wonder if his loyalty to “home” — even though it was a place that no longer existed for him — was what allowed him to retain his personhood in the midst of pressure to become a cookie cutter boy in the image of Brother Whitespade.

We’ll see as we continue reading that “place” is a huge influence in Jayber’s story.  But, then, it’s true for all of us, even though we are sojourners on this planet.  God’s story began in a garden, and one day it will end in a city, so just as our bodies are not incidental to our salvation (sorry, Brother Whitespade), place is not unimportant either.

And as God’s children, we are never homeless.

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I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and criticisms of my conclusions in the comment space below!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 21) having read Chapters 7-8.

And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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“Laundry Is My Overflowing Inbox”: Working within the Home

Stuffing a ratty t-shirt into the washer’s maw, I try not to think about the fact that it was only yesterday that I hung this very same t-shirt on the clothesline.  The laundry is never done — even though we are down to a family of four these days.  How in the world did I survive eleven years of cloth diapers?  Apparently, somewhere along the way I have discovered that there is Glory in the Ordinary, that there is meaning to all the mundane tasks that are stuck on replay in this mothering life.  So when Courtney Reissig compared her laundry hamper to her husband’s overflowing inbox at work, I stopped and underlined, and nodded, “yes and amen.”

My soul resonated, too,  when she argued that in our ordinary chores and in the act of corralling chaos into order, we image God.

“You and I were created to work because God Himself works.  It is a function of being image bearers.”

Organizing a cluttered closet, mucking out a nasty refrigerator mess, distributing clean and folded laundry to the four corners of the house — these are all as quietly mundane as the work God does in our time to water His trees with rain or, in history, to arrange for the Exodus 16 manna that faithfully fed a generation of Israelites.

Go Back to the Purpose

Courtney’s personal illustrations and the vignettes shared from the lives of her friends encourage me to lift my eyes from the all-consuming “what” of my daily list and from the pervasive “how” (as in “how am I going to get all this done?”), and to fix my eyes on the one beautiful question:  “Why?”

Why do I do what I do every day in my home?  To love God and to love my neighbor.  And sometimes the hardest “neighbors” to love are the ones that share my last name and my DNA.

While Martin Luther made it clear that the works of our hands are not meritorious for our salvation, he wrote decisively that “one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even one’s enemies.” (Kindle Location 871)  Loving others in our homes is more than a feeling, and it is likely to include the inconvenience of vacuuming the mud from their shoes, replacing the groceries they consume, and washing the dishes and the bedding they besmirch.

Mother’s Little Helpers

The whole family is invited to experience the “glory in the ordinary” that comes with the work of home — not only because of the “many hands make light work” principle, but because of the soul-shaping nature of chores and collaborative effort.  With sweet reasonableness, Courtney shares this gracious logic (Kindle Location 923):

“The home we all live in is for us all, and therefore, requires that we all contribute to it.”

She traces the history of housework through the the subtle transition in terminology from “housewife” to “stay-at-home mum,” and examines the impact of cultural context on the believer’s theology of work.  For instance, missionary and author Gloria Furman is a mum and keeper at home in a middle-eastern, community-oriented culture, while those of us in the West tend to have a go-it-alone mentality which can lead to the isolation, loneliness, and burn out that has given motherhood a bad reputation.

Toward a Sound Theology of Home

Since God is relational Himself, and since He ordained (Genesis 2:18) that his creatures would fare better in company with others, even the introverts of the world (I’m looking in the mirror here), need to consider what part community should be playing in our work at home.  Hannah Anderson says it well:

“God did not intend for families to be islands; they are part of the continent.  This is why multi-generational communities are so important to the work of home.”

I enjoy covering the nursery in church these days so that young mums can get a break from little children, but I am on the receiving end when a dear friend in her eighties washes all my dishes whenever she attends a big gathering in my home.

“Home here on earth is a microcosm of the heavenly reality that awaits us, [and] so is the church.”  (Kindle Location 1134-1143) Good theology and its practical application should lead to a connectivity and a “my life for yours” mentality as we serve one another.  This glorious truth gets lived out whenever Titus 2-truth sees daylight in a discipleship relationship between older and younger women or whenever men and women of “grandparent age” step into a situation where are there are no grandparents nearby to help and encourage.

“Community done among women commends the gospel to a world that breathes isolation and loneliness.” (Kindle Location 1151)

The God-Designed Gift of Rest

If God rested (and He did), if Adam and Eve in their perfect prelapsarian bodies needed rest, it stands to reason that my own post-Genesis 3 life will be better if I submit to a pattern of work followed by Sabbath.  J.I. Packer speaks wisdom into this subject (Kindle Location 1276):

We need to be aware of our limitations and to let this awareness work in us humility and self-distrust, and a realization of our helplessness on our own.  Thus we may learn our need to depend on Christ, our Savior and Lord, at every turn of the road . . .”

Our prideful rearing up against the rest we need and the fact that work exhausts, depletes, and frustrates us are both factors attributable to our fallen-ness.  So is the idolatry that makes work into a god and permits it to supersede in importance even the people we are called to love and to serve.

When my children were all small (in the pre-homeschooling days), I gave myself the weekend off from cooking by preparing meals ahead every Friday.  Courtney shares an idea from a friend who depends on leftovers and PB&J for the weekend.  Regardless of how we accomplish it, we ensure that the Sabbath is honored in our homes by “working hard at rest,” investing the effort up front and employing some carefully chosen “no’s.”

 Enter into the Joy

The job description driving the work of home is an unwieldy thing, shifting daily and expanding and changing as our families grow.  While this is unavoidable, we can lighten our own load with some purposeful choices and a Christ-shaped mindset such as steering clear of comparison; resisting the urge to audition for the role of Super Mum; and encouraging our husbands to fulfill their own God-ordained roles as workers at home — without feeling threatened or “less than” because we are unable to shoulder the work of two single-handed.

Mired in the here and now, we forget that the work of home is the work of spreading God’s glory throughout the world.  By entering into the reality of that today, we leave a mark on those we serve and prepare our hearts for a future of greater work and greater joy when we will see that there has never been a mundane task without purpose in God’s incredible universe in which nothing goes to waste.  Every little task, every intentional act of service points back to the God who made us and forward to an eternity in which the connection between worship and work will be forever eliminated.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Regular readers will recognize that the theme resonating throughout Glory in the Ordinary has shown up in these parts quite a bit in recent days.  I recently reviewed Jen Pollock Michel’s excellent book (Keeping Place) that also touches on the work of home.  Click here for part one of my review which deals with a theology of home.  Part two parallels Courtney’s thoughts and gives additional perspective on the work of home.

Melissa Kruger blogs for The Gospel Coalition and has interviewed Courtney at their website.  Click here for further insights behind the scenes of Glory in the Ordinary.

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And . . .

. . . stay tuned for details and a reading schedule for Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. I’m looking forward to a discussion here each Thursday from September 7 through November 16.

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Living in the Wide Open Spaces

Life has a way of expanding to fill the available space.

Little League games used to occupy Saturday mornings with hours of sunshine (and mosquitoes) and with chatting on the bleachers with other mums. However, a quick glance around my house reveals  our family has aged out of that particular American institution.  We’ve moved on, but even so, Saturday mornings are still booked. These days, though, I’m not a spectator.  I’m experiencing the great outdoors from the seat of a lawn mower.

If your goal in life is to live small and safe, beware the family business!  With its shifting parameters and employees who double as offspring and then have the audacity to grow up and move on to their own lucrative pursuits, our mowing business is challenging all my known boundaries.  Going from “I don’t do complicated machinery” to driving a zero-turn has been a harrowing experience, and one best accomplished in a wide-open field – for the safety of everyone!

There, with the startled butterflies rising along with the scent of fresh-cut grass, I’m gathered into the wildness of open sky alongside the coziness of trampled grasses where a deer bedded down the night before.

There, everything becomes an invitation:

See the wispy clouds, faithfully tending to their job of breaking up the stunning blue.
See the flock of hungry birds ransacking the honeysuckle bush.
See the honey bees, clearly all Threes on the Enneagram, hauling the makings for a flourishing life back to their far-away hive.

From my seat on the mower, inspiration is everywhere.  I have a job to do:  halt the advance of the Maine wilderness in this one location for this one season.

This I can do.
What a relief.

Capture

I’d love it if you would continue to read this story of how driving a lawn mower is impacting my sense of vocation and my conviction that God is active and present in my crazy, in-between life.  Click on over to SheLoves Magazine for more on the truth that even when our circumstances are shifting and the future seems unclear, we can step through God’s open door and find the wide-open field of His calling.

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.