Remember that prayer closet I made last spring? Like many other things, it hadn't been a consistent part of my day, but that changed over Advent. Something about the newness of the church year that invites me in, as if beginning an adventure (pun not intended). Every year I am more eager to take the familiar journey through the life of Christ and see where God leads me this time.
Before I was introduced to all things liturgical - so basically the first 35 years of my life - I found a similar kind of grounding when I read the Bible. Revisiting the same passages I had read many times before, they would always spoke something new to me, even the times (more than I care to admit) when I just flipped it open and turned to a random Scripture. Randomness, though, turned to staleness over the years. There was no rhyme or reason to my reading of the Word, except in community settings (church, small group) where we might be going through a particular book of the Bible or a topical study. So when the intense child bearing season hit, I abandoned my lifelong practice - which had become more of an obligation - of reading the Bible every day. I felt both free and fearful. I believed that my desire for the Word would return to me but I also felt some guilt and fear. I began to experience a sort of quiet spiritual renewal as I learned more about the seasons of the church year. I was drawn to the beauty and mystery of the symbolism and patterns.
When we came to our church four years ago this spring - the only evangelical liturgical church in our area - it was like finding the final piece of the puzzle I didn't know I had been solving. Since that time, I have used a lot of church year resources to guide my time alone with God, but I have yet to follow a consistent Bible reading plan. Last Advent, I planned to start the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican but used by PCA churches like ours), which would go on for the next two years. I didn't do it, and though I could have picked it up at any point, I was resistant. I came up with other creative reading schemes which I never implemented. I had amassed a number of books (which I will list in this post) that offer various plans for daily Scripture reading connected with the liturgical year, but despite that tie-in, they all felt disjointed to me.
A funny thing happened to me when we began homeschooling five years ago (this month). I became completely obsessed with chronological order. You see where this is going. Well, it's not exactly novel to begin in Genesis in January with the goal of finishing Revelation at the end of the year, but I didn't want to read the Bible straight through - I wanted to read it in order of history. So a year ago at this time, I printed out a plan for doing that and I got started, but I found myself slogging through Genesis and Job, scratching my head at things I had read all my life, but which now suddenly didn't make sense to me. That kind of "I need to go to seminary" angst was just too much for me to handle while having a marriage, raising kids, homeschooling, managing our finances, etc. So I dropped my Bible reading...again. I decided to give up my chronological OCD and just start year two of the Daily Office beginning in Advent.
When November rolled around, I started having doubts - as much as I love the liturgical year, the idea of reading in three or four different parts of the Bible simultaneously, not chronologically, and not even whole books at a time (well, sort of, but with sections skipped) just felt too choppy to me. On the other hand, reading the whole Bible in one year didn't appeal to me either. I also didn't want to totally drop the liturgical connection.
During Advent, I decided to just do the readings that correlated with the season, and (as usual) wait until January to start something more comprehensive. In the process, I realized I really liked meditating on the Sunday passages from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) throughout the week. If I could do that and also read through the Bible chronologically, that would be the best of both worlds...so that's what I decided to do. I would be consistent but not a legalist. I would vary my spiritual diet by making it a buffet, but with the same menu for me to pick and choose from each day. Yes, I have finally arrived at the point of this post (kind of like how long it took me to get here in life!).
So when I enter my prayer closet every day (the goal but not the rule) at the start of my kids' room/rest time, with my cup of tea, I can either get studious and pick up where I left off in my chronological Bible reading (with commentaries to help) or opt for a more reflective time and meditate on one of the brief passages from the RCL...or even do a little of each.
Here's what's on the books section of the menu (only the first two are new purchases - I've collected the other Bibles over the years), starting with the "study" aspect:
The Daily Bible
It's designed to be read in one year, but I am reading it at my own pace (just ignoring the dates). I chose this particular chronological Bible because it's the highest rated and I liked that it merges all four gospels into one narrative. The editor, however, is staunchly anti-Calvinist, so when I read his devotional commentary (which I'm mostly skipping), I keep that in mind.
Archaeological Study Bible
"Articles (520) covering five main categories: Archaeological Sites, Cultural and Historical Notes, Ancient Peoples and Lands, the Reliability of the Bible, and Ancient Texts and Artifacts" This resource provides historical and cultural context (the world scene), as well as some apologetics, which especially helps with some of the stickier parts of the Old Testament. Homeschooling and a "larger story" (is there a theological term for this besides "gospel centered"?) theology have turned me into a history nut.
(Finally finishing this post 2.5 weeks after I started it, so I'm not taking the time to put in the other links)
Essential Evangelical Parallel Bible (ESV, NKJV, NLT, The Message)
This one is especially good for meditation on a verse or passage. While one word or phrasing may not jump out at me in one translation, it may in another. It helps to create an overall impression of the chapter by reading it repeatedly in the different versions. And it's useful for clarity/understanding. I wish it had the NASB or NIV instead of The Message.
ESV Collection (went a little crazy when that translation first came out!)
ESV Study Bible - the best of the three
Reformation Study Bible - hit or miss
Literary Study Bible - ironically, this is my least favorite
Other Bibles (not listing them all because that would be embarrassing)
Orthodox Study Bible - love the metaphorical interpretations, patterns, symbolism in the commentary
KJV Devotional Bible - for when I want to hear it in the King's English and maybe get a profound quote
Mosaic Bible (NLT) - this comes more into play in the next section, but basically it takes about passages from all three years of the RCL, creating a theme for each week, with artwork, prayers and devotions (that part is the front of the Bible, while the Bible itself is in the back - it's nice because they put page numbers next to the scriptures to look up).
...Now for the more "meditative" resources...
Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)
Every week there is a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and two scriptures in the New Testament. I don't usually get to all them each week, and since I'm in the Old Testament in my (chronological) Bible reading, I generally choose the psalm and NT readings. To meditate on it, I may use Lectio Divina (doesn't come naturally to me but I keep trying) or use one or more of the following books (all but Living the Lectionary have a daily Bible reading plan and other resources, but I mostly just use the RCL related material):
Mosaic Bible (see description above)
The Bible Through The Seasons by Nicholas Connolly
Living the Lectionary - Year A by Geoff Wood
A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Upper Room)
More Liturgical Resources
Bread and The Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Orbis Press)
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Orbis Press)
Eternal Seasons: A Liturgical Journey with Henri M. Nouwen
Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross
The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittser
...then there is the "theme" for the year, which I will share about in a separate post, and that has its own books, but I'll just give you a taste of it: God as shepherd and as Lamb of God.
Other reflective type books I'm reading this year so far
Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson
The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther De Waal
Soul searching type books I'm also reading
Inside Out by Larry Crabb - read this back in my early 20s, and it was profound, so I'm revisiting it
Storyline - doing this workbook style "narrative of my life" with my church community group
There you have it - my spiritual menu for 2014, subject to seasonal change (sorry, I couldn't resist). I can tell you I got off to a good start and then hit the 20 minute...er, two week lull. So I - gasp - haven't been in my prayer closet in a week in a half! The good news is that there is no pressure. God is not in a rush, so why should I be? He is always with me whether I'm in my prayer closet or not. I am growing whether I read any or all of the above good stuff every day or not for a few weeks. But I do notice the difference when I take that time out. I crave it. I get kind of cranky without it. Over time, that does cause problems. So there's no deadline on any of the above, but there are many good reasons to race to my father's arms and sit awhile in His presence, feasting on His goodness.
(Note: I really did eat the food in the picture, and it was all very good. My mom and I went to lunch at Park 121 in Sonoma. If you're ever in Wine Country, you should try it. )
I'm thinking about attempting to read through all the works in The Well Educated Mind over the next four years, starting with medieval times (where we are in our history studies this year), and concluding with ancients (the year that my oldest begins the rhetoric stage), so I was pleased to find this chronological list, and am posting (with a pic for pinterest) in case anyone else might want to follow the same reading plan. The Well Educated Mind organizes the reading lists by genre, and within that chronologically, but I would rather read different kinds of literature from the same time period, especially since that will flow with our homeschooling.
My husband likes to pretend he's working in the yard. In fact, we have no yard, but he does indeed work the land...or rather, the containers of dirt that line our outdoor areas. Having been raised by two farmers - one from the midwest, the other from the middle of the Pacific (Maui) - his thumb is greener than most people's. With nothing but a cement oversized patio and a covered porch, he has somehow managed to grow flowers and food. First we inherited potted rosebushes. Then my mother in-law gave us earthboxes, and he started with my favorite summer crops - tomato and basil. As the variety of plants has increased, so has his set up - installing grow lights in the house to sprout seedlings, very creatively using the minimal space available, and adding greenhouse type awnings to the sides of our patio walls.
We also don't have a garage or basement or any sort of tinkering area, which is not that big of deal since my husband is more of an artist than a handyman, but he can build stuff when he's inspired, so when I requested a fountain, he went to work and made one out of large ceramic pots in three different sizes. Then someone gave us a cute pedestal type fountain, so he spent time getting it to function properly. For Christmas, when he asked what I wanted, I requested an outdoor fire pit (I bet you're wondering how we fit all this stuff on our patio, along with a small table and chairs, and still with a little room for the kids to blow bubbles, do chalk art, etc...well, honestly, it's pretty miraculous), which he initially balked at, picturing the diameter to take up most of the width of the patio.
Well...a funny thing happened on Christmas Eve...he stopped into a bakery which our pastor had recommended, and guess who he saw? Our pastor and his family. He told them he was out looking for a fire pit to give me for Christmas, and then they told him that their landlord had left one in their yard which he said they could keep, but they didn't want it...so, you've figured out the end of the story, but the really amazing part was that it was the tall, narrow kind - called a chiminea, since the smoke rises out of it like a pot bellied stove - so it takes up very little space on our patio and it's whimsically charming. Best Christmas present ever. Smitten by divine serendipity once again.
In local literary news...our neighborhood library was a zoo today - they're remodeling the downtown branch, so everyone has been re-routed to ours, which is tiny. I couldn't find my requested books on the hold shelves - turns out there are so many transfers right now that they had to put them all in a room in a back. I've never seen the children's section look so sparse - the EZ readers had been totally raided. I guess this is a good problem to have..but I will be glad in a few weeks when our sleepy library is back to its normal self, complete with our usual librarian - he's a young-ish guy with a ponytail, glasses, who's reserved but friendly - I'm guessing he's into sci-fi and technology and saving the planet. Today it was a slew of older women running things, probably from the main library, which is about five times larger than ours, and not within walking distance...though we rarely walk to ours since we always are transporting so many books back and forth, and it would probably shorten the life of my trusty bookmobile.
So since I've failed to have a consistent Bible reading plan for...oh, a number of years...I had hoped to try afresh with the start of the church year, but it didn't happen until the advent of Lent (pun intended), at which point I began following the daily office of the Book of Common Prayer, which takes you through the Bible in two years in a sequential fashion - not in order or chronologically, but through three books of the Bible at a time with each day having a passage from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and an Epistle. It also has several psalms (think it takes you through them twice). Thematically, the readings are patterned after the seasons of the liturgical calendar. The idea is to read the Word morning, noon, and night, but I usually just do it in the mid-afternoon when my children are having quiet time in their rooms, and if I miss that, then right before I go to sleep, or if I miss that, then two days' worth at once (which is what's happened this week). I haven't yet worked in the psalms, but I'm hoping to read one in the morning and one at night.
Today I read in Deuteronomy and Hebrews about belief vs. unbelief (God's faithless and unfaithful chosen people) , and then Jesus' words in John 3 about baptism and spiritual rebirth...fast forward to tonight when I read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis' favorite author) to my daughters, the chapter was all about belief /unbelief - including the truth that even seeing isn't always believing, and it used the imagery of baptism - the princess submersed in a a magical bath that cleanses and renews her, inducing a peaceful sleep. As we were discussing the Christian symbolism (really the first time it's been obvious and we're pretty deep into the book) of believing the gospel, dying to our sinful self, and becoming born again, which baptism represents, I suddenly realized it was all so evident to me because I had just read it in the Bible! Yet another divine serendipity...
I left the debut meeting of a new book club (six women from my church) wondering if Literary Mom is a misnomer. I'm really not all that widely read when it comes to fiction and other forms of creative writing. I love good literature but it's only recently (thanks to classically educating my children) that I've begun to read the classics. As for novels written in the last one hundred years (other than Lewis & Tolkien), I've only read what I was required to in school, so when the other women were bouncing book titles off each other, I was strangely brought back to middle school P.E. where the ball was passed to everyone but me. It didn't take long for them to figure out I wasn't athletic, and after a few rounds of literary back and forth (i.e. have you read xyz?), I was on the sidelines. Of course no one made me feel inferior (except maybe my own self), but it was cause for introspection.
What have I missed by not reading fiction written in the last 50 years? 20 years? Decade? I've read biographies, memoirs, and all sorts of non-fiction, though I admit mainly Christian books, but I do think (and I say this rather sheepishly) there are at least half as many good ones as bad ones out there (but that's sort of an evolving assessment). I've also read many spiritual classics, and I continue to be drawn those kind of books. I'm just now coming to a fuller appreciation of story, but I am skeptical of what modern writers who don't know Christ have to teach me through their imagination. I don't want to invest precious time in their words - honestly, I'd rather just see the movie...and even that has become rare. Instead, I have a strange affinity for serial TV shows. If I'm going for pure entertainment, I don't want to have to do any work, and I prefer the story not to end, so I can chill out with the characters I've come to know and love.
So when I do buckle down and read a work of fiction, I have to believe it will be relevant and redemptive...if not life altering. Who are these authors? What are they filling their minds with? The creators of worlds and peoples and situations...they all draw from their life experiences and beliefs and observations, which they make through the lens of where they come from and what they've been taught to see. Just because someone can tell a good story, does that mean the story is good? Should we be intimately influenced by so many voices? Do we even know how they are affecting and shaping us?
I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos":
Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all." (p. 174)
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path, I read this passage:
A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:
"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!
In my first giveaway ever, winner Jacque chose a cookbook, and since she's partial to Italian food, she will be receiving a well-loved copy of The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces, the bestseller by Diane Seed, a.k.a The Italian Gourmet.
I come from a family of traveling chefs, so this was owned by my grandfather who spent a lot of time in Italy...and the kitchen. I inherited a shelf of his prized cookbooks when he passed away a few years ago, but I just don't have time to work my way through them in this crazy kid raising, homeschooling stage of life, so it's better that I adopt this one out to someone who may use it as much (or almost) as he did. Besides the simple and authentic recipes, my favorite thing about this cookbook are the colorful Mediterranean-style illustrations. Buon appetito Jaque! :)
The random number generator chose #11, which just happens to be my favorite number, and the eleventh commenter was Jacque who said:
I'm not really a numbers person....still, I can't help but "like" that we hit 50 fans for the blog's facebook page on the same day I spent $50 on 50+ books at The Book Place! I'm thinking it's time to share the literary wealth...
If you want to win a book from my library (I promise it will be good), comment with the answer to this. When you enter a bookstore (or library), which section do you make a beeline for? (i.e. biography, historical fiction, religion, children's literature, etc.) Be as specific as you can because the winner (chosen randomly) will receive a book that fits their answer. You can choose more than one genre/topic if you can't narrow it down! Winner will be announced Tues, 7/13.
Each of these will give you one entry, so do all three for the most chances of winning:
1. Comment your answer here
2. Share this on your facebook page (comment either here or my FB page to tell me that)
3. Tweet the giveaway on twitter (be sure to include @literary_mom and don't forget the underscore!)
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. A true story that reads like a novel. It's about about soulmates (married) who travel around the world in a yacht, come to Christ through their friendship with C.S. Lewis...need I say more? I read it like 5 times in college when I was on the quest for "the one." It does have a tragic element but the spiritual one counterbalances it (hence the title)...think Shadowlands but more romance, beauty, poetry, etc.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim. I saw the film first and fell in love with it (it's finally on DVD in the USA as of this spring! We had a petition circulating) Eventually I read the book and enjoyed the extra details. The book and the film are equally good, in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is (but of course a totally different genre). The romance (s) is central, though subtle, and it's hard to beat the setting of four women in the 1920s on holiday in a castle on the Italian riviera.
My favorite mythical romance is of Beren and Luthien in Tolkien's Silmarillion, but the book falls more into the fantasy epic allegory genre than romance. It has everything and that's probably one reason I liked it so much.
I'm not really into romances (though I did adore Pride and Prejudice, as well as the BBC production; disliked the Keira Knightley one), so a book/movie has to have other elements for me to totally be drawn in. I also rarely reread or rewatch anything, and I've done that with both of the above many times (for Enchanted April, just the film, but I know I'll reread the book also).