the crucified God

“There is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith. It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with their alienation” –Jurgen Moltmann, the Crucified God

“For in fact the world is erupting around us, Christ is very often offering us the scars in his side. What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent in the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves” Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

 

The day our neighbor came over and watched my husband and I pour our spirits out was a day that forever changed me. Grieved and imprisoned in our own wounds, the persistent lies we were fed and nurtured, the histories that we swallowed whole, the sins as old as time, we pleaded with him to help us understand. There was a black boy who died and the person who killed him was let go. Our neighbor stayed for coffee and let us talk, and then he said: you have the luxury of being surprised. Nobody else around here is. In his astounding kindness, my neighbor stayed and talked with us, patient and sorrowful, his weariness more harrowing to my soul than I could begin to understand. 

It has taken many years, many relationships, cringe-worthy questions and blustering self-righteousness to get to the place that I am today, a place which is still far from where I want to be. My choice of neighborhoods is just the tip of me trying to scale the large mountains of alienation that are inside of me. I feel far from the people in Ferguson, but not as far as I was a few years ago; I feel like I see the wounds of Christ bright red in front of me, but I am still not able to feel them.

That people prefer themselves and all others like them is no surprise to any of us, but I am consistently taken aback at how often we refute that our systems might have the exact same kind of problem. Being the minority where I work and live and play has opened my eyes to the way the systems (political and religious) are intrinsically for me. This never bothered me before, until I realized what the converse of that equation is.

Those systems are against others.

That sentence alone is enough to stop me. The words sin and repentance and judgement swim before my eyes. But this time, the meaning is different. Turning away from myself, and turning towards God: for me it has looked almost unbearably practical. It has meant turning towards the ones who are being shut out.

It is this: moving in, listening, reading books. Putting myself in a position to be wrong, to be silent, to be chastised, to be extended forgiveness, to withhold judgement, to invite understanding. I thought the cost would be steep but it has turned out the opposite. The struggle to convince myself and others around that we were not, in fact, prejudiced people living in a very un-equal country–this is what has caused my soul enormous pain and distance from Christ himself.

Because Christ came to suffer with us, and he has no use for people who brightly and loudly exclaim that they indeed are well, that there is no need for radical transformation, no need for someone to save us from the seeds of white supremacy that have been sowed in us from the beginning. So in order to edge nearer to a God who is present in suffering, I had to lay down my mantel of being well. I had to, in the words of a beautiful poet, “start cleaning my house.” 

Make no mistake, I am scrubbed raw and bare and feel the impending panic of how often this process will need to be repeated. But the freedom–the absolute and utter bounty of staring our alienation in the face and telling it to go to hell–is something I will never give up again.

What has and is happening in Ferguson (which is a picture of what is happening all throughout our country) is an invitation to us all. The more we declare that we are well, the farther we will drift from Christ. And he is the only one with the words of life. He is the one offering us his own scars, pleading with us to look at our own. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Claire’s Life

I woke up to a world in disarray (to be honest, it has been all this time). I think this is as good as time as any to read a beautiful piece on The Giving Tree, a book that I to this day cannot read to my own small daughter without sobbing. I remember the first time I read it, at my grandparents house. Setting it back down on the shelf, 8 years old, I remember feeling immense sadness and gratitude, as well as thinking “well, that certainly wasn’t a KIDS book”. Claire (an amazing writer/editor who I have the pleasure of being in a IRL writing group with) brought me back with this piece. Feel free to leave a comment on your own Giving Tree story–I know there must be others out there!

 

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Claire DeBerg

 

This book did not change my life. This book transformed my life. The youngest of three, I would sit enrapt with my siblings as our father recited long passages of poetry to us each evening. I can’t remember if I was mesmerized by his remarkable ability to recite verse after verse after verse of poems he’d kept sealed in his heart his whole life or if I was caught up in the adventures of different poetry he shared, but having a father who was a writer and poet and pastor meant the mellow, oaky boom of his deep bass voice was calming and comforting and home.

My father loves language and wit, which is why the books of poetry by Shel Silverstein were such a critical part of our literary repertoire growing up. We three siblings would page through Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic giggling at the wild images enjoying how funny phrases would somersault in our heads plastering us to our beds imagining the wonders of the small worlds Shel created in perfect rhyme.

So when my father first settled me into bed to read me The Giving Tree for the first time I was confused by the lack of a rhyme in the first several pages. I interrupted the story to check out the cover—yes, there was the odd wonderful name “Shel Silverstein” scrawled on the cover as though he signed the book himself. Yes, there was the simple line drawing on the book cover—the comforting signature of his art. So convinced this was indeed a Shel Silverstein book, I let my father start from the beginning again with his deep, sweet voice touched with echoes of the southern drawl his grandparents had gifted him, “Once there was a tree…”

And I loved the beginning because I immediately identified with that little boy as most of my childhood was spent in the trees and woods on our property. Despite the lack of rhyme, I thought I knew why my dad had chosen this book…he was seeing how my tomboy shenanigans were aligned with this little boy. He knew how much I loved sitting in the deep sand pit next to our garden carving out tunnels, he knew how I protected the pussy willow from being stripped of her buds by the hands of the legions of boys traipsing around our neighborhood. I knew my father read me The Giving Tree because he saw me climb Jennifer’s Tree scaling it with grace and care and hugging Jennifer’s Tree before bed each night in the summer.

And then he read, “…the tree was often alone.” The “alone” was a balloon just slipping from my grip and there was a pause where my father let me watch it float away. And my tiny little eight-year-old heart splintered, deflating. I could never leave my tree unattended. But the story continued and became for me a warning tale because in the story, the years tumble forward and the tree remains a steadfast giver each time the boy returns as the unapologetic taker.

The Giving Tree can be read in about nine minutes or less and when my father first read it to me I was exhausted at the close having surged through all the emotions my childhood heart could manage: love, grief, hurt, anger, mania, hurt, love again, longing.

I cried by myself after my father left the room and switched off the light. I distinctly remember feeling as though I needed to choose which I would be: the boy or the tree. Would I give with utter abandon until I was used up? Would I always look forward to someone even if they used me? Would I be the boy—always clear about what I needed? Always wanting bigger and better?

I was afraid to page through it again and instead let it sit on my bedside table for a week. Only after that time could I manage to let the story break loose inside me once more until I was withered and teary all over again. The heartbreak of the story and the gruff author’s image on the back cover frightened me for years until eventually I moved out of my parents house at 16 to board at my art’s high school. As I considered the stack of books to bring with me to high school I held The Giving Tree in my hands but didn’t crack it open because just holding it transferred the simple power of the story so I tossed it away from me and it stayed shelved at my childhood home until I myself became the home to a child.

I was pregnant and so was the dog when I returned to my parent’s house as a 22 year-old. I’d gotten pregnant in a scary way and was entering a dark night of the soul trying to decide if I should keep the baby or place it for adoption. I considered the dog at my feet in the kitchen her belly full of seven puppies she’d nurse for several weeks and never see again and I tried to see this pregnancy as simple as that—just birth and give your puppy to someone else to raise.

There were lots of late nights that winter where my family and I sat around the kitchen table discussing the plight of my life: single, poor, pregnant, minority, jobless. Finding hope in the folds of a Minnesota winter with taglines like those trailing my every move was very bleak to say the least. And being newly pregnant I discovered insomnia so I dove headfirst into my parents’ library reading everything by Wendell Berry and working my way through Barbara Kingsolver and eventually Walt Whitman.

And then one night I found and read The Giving Tree and I cried and cried and cried for the boy and for my baby. I cried for myself and for the tree. Her ideas about life were subverted as the boy grew. Each of her welcomes were ignored.

I wanted my life and body back. I wanted to be happy like the tree and the little boy at the beginning, to keep life as it was where everyone in my family had a place and nothing was changing—each day there would be apple-picking and branch-swinging and hide-and-go-seek and then we’d do all over again the next day and be happy.

But my body was changing, that baby was growing and demanding I make choices and face truths and be honest. The boy was echoing what this baby was already saying into the core of my body—that they would love me and leave me, “And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.” I just remember reading that and weeping softly in the room where I’d slept during my childhood. I considered my unsettled life and the reality of birthing a being that would cut down my trunk and sail away from me. I asked myself if I could allow such a thing, if I could permit the possibility of growing the heartless little boy and not the beautiful loving tree…I asked myself if I could manage the burden of choosing a person who might possibly be the taker of all of me.

I didn’t decide that night whether to keep the baby or not. But eight months later when I was sitting on my hospital bed with the beautiful little brown girl I had just met by pushing her into the light of the world…when I was sobbing and whispering to her my apologies and asking that little person for an ocean of forgiveness—I was reminded of The Giving Tree: the truth that it is quite possible to have a beautiful life and to choose to give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give

 

and give away…

…and still be happy.

 

And I am happy. I am happy to live into a life where someday I can invite my sweet daughter to, “Come…sit down. Sit down and rest.”

 

 

 

Claire DeBerg headshotIf Claire DeBerg isn’t writing snappy copy for her commercial writing biz or managing content and timelines as editor of the magazine, Timbrel, for Mennonite Women USA, she is eating an ungodly amount of peanut butter right off the spoon, prepping for a modeling shoot, biking on a 1950s Schwinn Suburban with her pre-teen, playing a Chopin piano prelude, discussing the merits of the uncooperative chair with her toddler or trying to behave as much like Elaine Benes as is socially appropriate. She’s put over 3,500 miles on her legs after training for and running 7 marathons (including Boston!) but now she needs to put some miles on her fingers and finish writing her novel (for the love). She forever adores her sweet littles, Gloria and Harold and always her beautiful husband, Darren, and occasionally her hairy airedale, Velvet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

East Of Eden

 

 

 

 

 

The Book that Changed Kurt’s Life

I met Kurt a few weeks ago at my amazing Collegeville writing workshop. Kurt has the spiritual gift of editing (having both a keen eye and an enthusiasm for beauty) and it was such a pleasure to meet him. He encourages me to read well, to write “tight and bright” and I really resonated with his thoughts on Steinbeck here (about time for me to re-read ol’ East of Eden). 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

Kurt Armstrong

 

When I was 23, I moved back to the family farm in southern Alberta to help my mom and dad with the harvest. I was broke and depressed and the two-year MCC program I’d been counting on was cancelled because funding had been dropped. That summer someone had stolen my bike from outside my apartment and someone at work swiped my camera. Someone else dumped me because she recognized me as a half-hearted boyfriend and knew she deserved better. (Correct on both counts.) So I moved home for a couple months, and in the evenings I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Steinbeck sets out to tell his own family’s history, but about eight pages in he gets sidetracked for about 535 tumbling pages and then, oops, he never gets back to what he supposedly set out to do. It’s moody, brooding, and dramatic, overwhelmingly masculine – very few women other than the nearly-silent Eliza and the shape-shifting, nearly-demonic Kate – and some of the characters seem more like caricatures than the more complex, layered flesh-and-blood humans you or I might be related to. It is not a perfect novel.

But East of Eden is a bold, ambitious modern midrash on Cain vs. Abel, touching on the timeless, perennial struggle of sons to honour their fathers without being damned to echo all of their shortcomings. The sins of the father run thick through the book, as in human history, and Steinbeck’s flawed novel proclaims a hard-won hope that even though inherited sin may be an unbearable yoke, even heavy yokes can be broken.

It’s nowhere near as iconic as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath: too subjective, too narrow, too intimate of a story. But where Grapes of Wrath weaves politics and parable into the tale of a family, thus narrating the experience of an entire generation, East of Eden reaches back to ancient, primordial myths and touches on a more universal, and much more personal story. James Joyce said that “In the particular is contained the universal,” and it is precisely because East of Eden is such an intimate, particular story that it rings true on such a fundamental level. “Here’s your box,” Steinbeck writes in the dedication, a note to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking Press. “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.” How true. It is a sprawling book, full of sin and redemption, loss and hope, suffering and love, and soaring above it all, the great, terrifying gift of human responsibility – and yet there remains ample room for readers to find themselves. Forty-seven years after it was published, it was obvious to me as I read it: a story this personal is much, much bigger than the little box contained between its covers.

East of Eden touched me more deeply than I knew a novel was capable of. Broke, depressed, and heartbroken, I was highly sensitive to it’s high drama. And being home on the farm, practicing the simpler pace of farming – more demanding and more direct than any of my city jobs had been – clarified my own thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck’s book got into my bones; the mood and images stuck in my everyday imagination for months afterwards.

It’s rare that I re-read any books, especially novels. Having wasted too much of my youth in front of the television I spend a lot of time reading because I’m already so far behind. But I’ve read East of Eden three times now, and each time I’ve found it more surprising, refreshing, and moving than the last. I know I’m in the minority, but I consider it by far the better of Steinbeck’s two “big books.”

 

 

 

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Kurt Armstrong is the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock) and has written for The Globe and Mail, Paste, Image, and Geez, among others. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and works at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Amy’s Life

Well, I will be straight with you: this one is a doozy. I SO identify with everything my good friend Amy writes here– missionary biographies were my JAM growing up. However, Amy highlights some pervasive lies we swallow in regards to vocation that have serious consequences for us all. As someone who devoured these types of books with fervor (and realizing how they have shaped me) I am so glad that Amy is working on a book-length project (!) that deals with all of these sorts of issues. I cannot wait to read it.

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

by Amy Peterson

 

 

 

 

This summer I’ve been re-reading the missionary biographies I devoured in childhood. Amy Carmichael was my favorite missionary, not only because we shared a name, but because she was as imaginative, daring, and heroic as Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew combined.  Amy Carmichael started a Bible study for “mill girls” on the margins of Irish society, traveling through neighborhoods considered unsuitable for proper young ladies. Eventually 500 girls attended her Bible studies.  In India, she snuck disguised into temples to rescue girl-children destined to be temple prostitutes.  She adopted the Indian way of dressing, assimilating at a time when few missionaries understood the importance of entering a new culture as a learner.  She wrote poetry. I loved her- her rebellion, her zeal, her heroism, her red hair, all of it.

But when I opened With Daring Faith: A Biography of Amy Carmichael this summer, to re-read it, my breath caught in my throat at the author’s dedication. It was to her daughter:

To Katherine Joy Davis

with the prayer that she will hear and

answer a call from the Lord

to a foreign mission field.

I tried to imagine praying that for my daughter, Rosie, when I put her to bed at night.  Wouldn’t hearing that prayer send a seed into the soil of her heart, implanting the idea that I believe (or even that God believes) that overseas missions work is the best thing you can do with your life? What kind of pressure might that put on a child?

 

 

I wondered if Katherine went.

***

Before I continue, there are some things you need to know.  Chief among them is that when I was twenty-two, I moved to Southeast Asia to “teach English.”  When I say that books like With Daring Faith changed my life, what I mean is this: when it came time for me to decide how to live an adult life, I could envision no more interesting, meaningful, or heroic work than missionary work overseas, and I blame that mostly on the books.

Sure, if you had asked me, I would have said that there was no division between “sacred” work and “secular” work — that working as a copyeditor at a publishing house could be just as meaningful and worthwhile as moving to a foreign land for God — but I didn’t really believe it.  How could I?  No one wrote biographies of copyeditors.  Accountants never snuck into temples. Housewives never changed the world.

Sermons that talked about living lives fully dedicated to God rarely held up sweeping the floor daily as an example of dedication.  They seldom lauded people who responded to emails punctually and thoughtfully.  They didn’t praise those who regularly attended conferences for professional development so that they could be up-to-date in their fields.

I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality and adventure, fully committed to God.  I wanted to be the greatest.  And the only way I could see to find that life was by going overseas.

***

How does a child begin to believe that one way of life is more spiritual than another?

***

I read the dedication to the book, and I wondered about that daughter – Katherine. How old was she when she found those words?  What did they mean to her then? What do they mean to her now?

My daughter is five, and I’m not sure she knows what the word missionary means.  I ask her.

-Have you ever heard the word missionary?

-I think, maybe, once.

-Do you know what it means?

-No.

-A missionary is a person who goes to another country to tell people – people who have never heard about Jesus – to tell them about Jesus.

-Oh. {pause}.  Like, if Mae Mae and Papa didn’t know about Jesus, and we went to visit them and told them about Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Yeah, like that.

***

I confess: then I googled her.  I googled the author, and found her on Facebook.  Her daughter Katherine is married now, maybe a few years younger than I am.  She has an art degree and lives in Michigan with a husband and a baby.  There’s no sign that Katherine ever heard a call to foreign missions.

***

I’ve been wondering if I should put missionary biographies on the shelf for my daughter.  She’ll be old enough to read them in just a few years. Do I stack them next to Nancy Drew and Half Magic and A Wrinkle In Time, or keep them in my office?

***

I went overseas, running face-first towards what I thought was the will of God. I hit a wall of thorns, landing flat on my back, the God I thought I knew quite well wilting like a punctured balloon animal next to me. I went overseas looking for adventure and found tragedy. God was silent, and I spun into a dark night of the soul.

That’s why I’ve been re-reading these books from my childhood.  I had to know: did they leave the tragedy out when they wrote the stories for children?  Why had I expected adventure but not opposition, spiritual success but not sorrow?

Here’s what I found: the hardships are there, right there in the stories I read as a child.  Gladys Aylward leading a group of starving children through mountain passes. Elizabeth Elliot losing Jim. Eric Liddell dying in an internment camp, hardly having spent any of his adult life with his wife and children. The heartache was there, plain as day.  Why hadn’t I remembered it?

I hadn’t remembered it because missionary biographies shaped my imagination in my formative years, when I could understand heroism but had no framework for tragedy.  The intrigue and daring had stuck with me, but the losses and struggles had gone in one ear and out the other.  I had no way of comprehending them.

It’s like this: you read Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth before you have your first baby, and you feel confident in your ability to give birth: you hear these stories about women strong and in touch with their bodies and their babies, and you think, I can do that, too.

Then you go into labor.

And when you read Ina May again after having given birth, you notice things that slipped right past you the first time.  Oh, in this story her labor lasted for thirty-six hours.  Oh, one woman said the pain was orgasmic, but another described it as the worst feeling of her life.

Before, your mind had attached to the successes, but now, when you read about the thirty-six hour labor, that detail doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.  Now, you know exactly what that feels like.

So should we encourage women to read Ina May before they give birth, knowing that they won’t really have the framework to understand the stories?  Should we encourage children to read missionary biographies?

I haven’t decided whether to put the books on the shelf for Rosie yet.  I still have time.

***

 

If I ever dedicate a book to my daughter, I’ll say this:

 

To Rosemary,

the beloved of God,

with the prayer that she will grasp how wide

and long

and high

and deep

is the love of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Ockenga Honors Scholars at Taylor University. Read more at her blog, or follow her on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

Jesus For President

 

 

 

 

 

The Book That Changed Our Life

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I graduated with a degree in Bible/Theology in December of 2007, and a few short days later, we were married. We moved into the old farm house next to the mega-church where you were the care-taker/maintenance man. The price was right (free) and the rolling hills and llamas-for-neighbors allowed us to buy a beat-up old drum set and start a 2-person family band (sample lyrics: We’re just two pork chops marinating love/we’ve got each other and that’s enough).

You were still in school, I was working depressing retail jobs, we were young and in love and materially poor. We ate candy for dinner and never worried about anything that happened outside of our cozy house, safe and secure with each other.

At the independent bookstore on campus, that oasis within the storm, I saw a book that would not escape me. Jesus for President. Faux-battered, a precious little lamb on the cover, an intriguing political title. Although we never, ever did this, I bought the book at full price, fresh off the press, and took it home to read.

We took turns, devouring entire chapters, me impatient with your slow and careful reading. Maybe this was our first married fight. We sat together in the over-sized recliner that was there when we moved in, too large to fit through the doors. Squished next to each other, we would talk long into the night: serious conversations about what we were reading. Words like “Empire” entered our vocabulary for the very first time. You were converted intellectually and theologically to the idea of pacifism right away, chasing down the rabbit trails in your mind, finding for you a belief that mirrored your own sacrificial love, your unshakeable forgiving spirit, your sense of God as a very good father. I was captured by the immediate practicalities, casting off the cloak of the kingdoms of capitalism and consumerism. We changed all of our shopping habits, committing to second-hand and doing without, tuned out of all the political discussions swirling around us.

We were being converted, together. This doesn’t always happen, and I know what a precious gift this time was. We were changed, both of us, and we decided to obey together.

The book spoke to us in a time where we could recite the Bible out of both ears yet hungered to know how it could penetrate our spirits and our wallets and our relationships with everyone we knew. The subversive nature of it was exciting, the practicalities beyond challenging. We spent a night or two hopeless at our own complicity. And we repented to one another, and held hands as we tried to move forward.

A few short months after we read that book, we made some changes. I went to graduate school, getting a degree that was slightly less theoretical in nature. You pursued your calling as a notice-er and a peacemaker. We moved into the low-income apartment complex where so many of our refugee friends lived. We said goodbye to the rolling hills and llama’s and our last chance to play the drums as loudly as we wanted to, to live just exactly as we pleased.

And it has never been the same. With Jesus as our President, the world has become so much more complicated. We have been shocked at the amount of confrontation we have run into, the amount of forgiveness we have had to ask our Father for. Nothing is easier, but it has all been so much brighter.

Sometimes, if I am being honest, I still feel a little afraid of what will happen next, now that we have no Empire guidelines to fall back on. All I have is this little piece of Jesus I hold onto, believing that he can heal us from ourselves. And you are here with me, sitting right beside me as I type this out. It helps me to no end that I know we will continue to turn again, to be converted towards the Christ that brought us together, and I pray that it never stops.

And maybe someday we will buy another old drum-set, and start a band where everyone we know will be invited to sing along.

That certainly sounds like something you would do.

 

 

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Other posts in the Book That Changed Your Life series:

Night

Walking on Water

 

 

 

 

 

Look out for a killer guest post coming on Thursday!

 

 

The Book That Changed My Life: Walking on Water

The first of my writer friends up is the great Christiana. I love her for her whimsy, spiritual insight, and her story that spans great swaths of American life. I really resonated with this portrayal of how books shape us when we are in college–how some pieces fall away while others (somewhat inexplicably) remain. Also, St. Madeline, right????

 

 

 

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Walking on Water
Guest post by Christiana Peterson

 

 

C.S. Lewis said that those of us who are life-long readers don’t often grasp how indebted we are to authors for their part in the “enormous extension of our being.” Our worlds have been so expanded by reading that without it we would feel stifled. Through reading, our capacity for compassion and understanding of others is magnified along with our knowledge of self. Lewis says, “My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through the eyes of others…in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.”

That is how I see so many of the wonderful books that I’ve read. Not every good piece of writing has changed my life but many of them have flowed into the sea of my life that was changing not wave by wave but drop by drop.

But there are some books that fit just so into that sea of change that they cause a storm, setting me on a course for uncharted waters.

When I was studying theology in grad school, I would huddle against the cold, stone, walls of my Scottish dorm room (I know, feel sorry for me), clutching my hot water bottle, and wondering what I believed anymore. I grew up in a close Christian family, went to a small Christian school on the same property as our church, and had never met an atheist until my lovely South American roommate in Scotland.

I never knew that people studied religion from a non-religious perspective. Therefore, I was unprepared to have post-Christian, agnostic, and multi-religious classmates studying Christian philosophy with me. After graduating from a Christian college in Texas, I was also unprepared for my grad school professor (who was himself an Anglican priest) to shut down my naive talk of faith in the classroom.

Many times during those years, I could picture all my old beliefs as thousands of marbles that had been tossed up into the air. I scrambled to catch those old beliefs as they fell and often wondered if I even wanted to catch them at all.

And then came St. Madeleine.

When I read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water for the first time, I felt a lifeline had been extended to me. I didn’t have to catch all the marbles that fell but then, I didn’t have to let them all go. And sometimes, there were new beliefs and thoughts that collected, ideas the hues of the Scottish sea, grey like the stone path out to the raging waters, and white like the huge dipping moon.

Madeleine gave me permission to rest in faith and doubt, to see those new colored marbles as part of the beautiful nuance of Christian faith.

In one of my undergraduate writing classes in my Christian university in Texas, I was essentially told that we weren’t going to write YA fiction because it was not real literature. I had always wondered a bit if the sense of longing I felt while reading a quality piece of fiction or a wonderful YA book was just my way of escaping the real world into my own imagination. This writing teacher’s words confirmed that for me: that there was somehow something bad in me that wanted to delve into fiction, fantasy, and literature for children.

But a year after reading Walking on Water, I enrolled in a creative writing program in Scotland to begin a YA novel that had been rolling around in my imagination for years. L’Engle’s words about faith and doubt, about the beauty of writing for children, and the importance of this longing that fantasy and myth stirred inside me, legitimized my own longing to write YA.

I can’t say that I’ve had a long career in YA fiction (not yet anyway), but I learned so much about myself and my place in creation during those subsequent years in Scotland, that I truly believe L’Engle’s book changed my life.

 

 

 

unnamed-2Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on farm life at her.meneutics and Flourish.
She lives with her family rural Illinois where she feels the daily call of farm life, folly, food, and occasionally fairies. You can find her blog and links to her other writing at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or you can follow her on twitter @renewsustain.

 

 

 

 

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The Book That Changed My Life

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I grew up homeschooled, erratic books and lesson plans, some years all straight-up, hard-core smart kid math books, other years we just read Laura Ingalls Wilder and tried to make acorn pancakes ourselves (not so tasty, as it turns out). This was before the phrase “unschooling” was on anyone’s lips and most people thought us a strange and wild bunch. After a mighty struggle to read (various testings for dslexia, the words all knotting up my mind and in my mouth) suddenly the dams burst forth. I was a reader from that day forward.

I chose to be homeschooled much longer than my sisters, for various reasons (a main one was that I could get all my work done in an hour or two and be free to read or teach myself the electric bass or start a dog-walking company whenever it pleased me). When I was about to start my junior year of high school my family up and moved to a small town in central Oregon. The public school there was small, focused on the arts, and with a breathtaking view of the Three Sisters mountains. I decided I could get by there just fine and enrolled.

My English teacher was a large, somewhat stern woman who I now recognize as having a very wry sense of humor. The grown-up children in her class both bemused and bored her (it was a small town school injected with some very rich and very privileged kids). I don’t remember what she taught; I know we had to write research papers and all that but it was all a bit of a blur. Whatever she assigned for us to do in class I would do as quickly as possible. And with a nod to my unschooling ways I would stand up and go to the shelves that lined the classroom, pick up a book, sit on the floor, and start to read.

I did this, class after class (The House on Mango Street and The Bean Trees were two of my favorites). My teacher once came over to my and smiled down. You know, she said, you can take one of those books home to read if you would like. I just looked up at her and smiled, shaking my head. I was good, on the floor, in a corner, lost in my own world. It had always been my favorite place to be.

One day I picked up the book Night by Elie Wiesel. In the middle of class, reading the first few chapters, I soon realized this was a story about the Holocaust as I had never read it. Here was lament, here were the prayers for the dead being screamed out in anguish. Here was a baby being thrown up in the air and being caught on a bayonet, right in front of her mother. Here was doubt, doubt in a good God, personified. Here was the terrible world, laid bare before my 15-year-old self.

I laid the book on the floor. Deep, shaking sobs started and they just couldn’t stop. The classroom, busily working on writing out sources, stopped; the teacher stared, then turned concerned. I got up and ran to the bathroom, unable to smooth over the deep well of feelings that had been unearthed.

I never did recover, from that, my first shock of the horrible, brutal ways in which humans treat each other. It was a veil being lifted. It was the thin veneer of respectability, of denial, of distancing being scraped away. I was still a child, but I knew: it had happened, it was still happening, and I don’t want it to ever happen again.

I went back to the classroom, water splashed on my face. I sat back down on the floor, not knowing if people were still staring. I picked up the book and continued to read, both compelled and fearful of what would be asked of me in response. But as Wiesel documented his doubt, mine never grew. Another world is possible shivered underneath my idealistic self. But even then, I knew: it will never come if we don’t face up to how very far away that beautiful kingdom still is.

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Night is one of many books that changed my life. There are so many stories of words changing me, of causing my heart to be just slightly less rock-hard and impenetrable. I’d like to take the next few weeks and invite some of my writer friends to write just a little bit about the books that were a part of shaping, softening, and changing them.

In the fall, likely around the end of September, I will do a round-up type of thing where I will be asking all of y’all to contribute. So be thinking, even now: what are the books that changed you?

As we move on in the world, trying every day not to be hardened to the way things are–books have been a vital part of helping me see in a new way. And I suspect it has been the same for you.

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on homesickness

There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I’m home. The sweetness inherent in that thought–of being known and wanted and comforted–is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I’m not. I don’t live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes.

It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.

One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.

Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors

Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me–the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God–quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.

A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.

And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writer’s Gonna Write

from Austin Kleon, "The Life of a Project"

from Austin Kleon, “The Life of a Project”

 

 

There’s this thing where writers tag other writers to answer questions about writing. I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. My fancy writer friend Christiana tagged me (she’s in my online writing group, she writes killer YA, and she is bursting forth into the world with her wonderful creative non-fiction–where she writes about Mennonite intentional communities, chickens, and death. Also, she is a poet, and once sent me a magazine of poetry in the mail. Swoon.)

 

So here I go. Writer’s gonna write (especially about themselves!)

 

1. What are you working on?

Big picture: I already finished the manuscript for my first book, and it is currently off in the wilderness. I look forward to a rigorous editing process, hopefully sooner than later.

Small(er) picture: I currently have 2 different book reviews due (I love reading and I love talking about books–but writing about books can be so difficult at times). One is Americanah by Chimamanda Adiche, and the other is Life, Interrupted, a book on trafficking into forced labor. Reading these books (especially the latter) has led me down many rabbit trails, specifically in the area of how the U.S. has historically treated migrants (hint: abysmally). I have been sucked into the worlds of James Agee, Robert Coles, and an exceptional Edward R. Murrow documentary. I think I have something else due as well, but it is currently escaping me. Not very professional, D.L.

I am also working on some other creative non-fiction stuff (which isn’t fit for public consumption). And I would die if I didn’t journal/do morning pages nearly every day.

 

 

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

How do you answer this question without sounding terrible? To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am in a unique position of being someone who lives and works among the poor but who also devours McSweeneys, Image, and O! magazine (just keeping it real). People writing about life in the margins of American society tend to be male, make their own clothes out of burlap, and are not too concerned with literary merit. I love those guys, but that ain’t me. I do, however, have a similar message in regards to finding Jesus in the outskirts of the Empire.

I like writing about poverty and privilege, and I also like taking a piss at myself every now and again. I am also deeply interested in how writing can be beautiful, and am not too terribly concerned with things being tied up neatly (either theologically or in a story arc). Where I live, there is a lot of sadness, despair, death, and destruction. There is also so much beauty and humor and people who transcend the word “survivor”. I really, really like to write about failure, which seems to not be a super popular thing to do. So I guess that is different? I also use a lot of the “passive voice” and “run-on sentences” which I think is arty but my good friend Amy makes me edit out anyways.

 

 

3. Why do you write what you do?

My life choices are an obvious jumping point. I often find myself overwhelmed with life and writing helps. I also see huge gaps in the narratives we are being fed about who the blessed really are; I see how many of us have no real concept of what it means to be poor in America. As I catch a glimpse now and then I can’t help but share what I am seeing, mostly out of a sense of isolation. If it was prime-time news I think I wouldn’t feel the urgency.

I wrote my book primarily because the world could always use another reminder that the the upside-down kingdom is here, all around us. Also I think it is intrinsically an interesting story–one where I start out trying to convert everyone, and slowly start to realize how heretical my own view of God is. As an activist at heart, a small part of me must believe that what I write could change a minds towards a belief in the words of Jesus. Because once we start to believe what he said, everything starts to change.

I also have made a conscious decision to write for people who might not agree with my conclusions. It is important for me not to get bogged down in an echo chamber of agreement–only interacting with other writers/readers/thinkers who believe the same thing. I like writing about WIC for conservative Christian websites. I like disguising an essay on downward mobility and reconciliation as an argument about alcohol for a traditional Christian magazine. I like being surprised by what I read and I want to do the same thing with my writing.

Remind me of this the next time I complain about the haters, mmmmkay?

 

 

4. How does your writing process work?

 

I am forever in the throes of a busy season. I teach ESOL to non-literate learners 4 days a week. I also take care of my daughter in the afternoons/evenings. I have a variety of community events/relationships I am involved with and I also have multiple commitments with the non-profit I work for.  For an up-coming writers workshop I am supposed to write down when I write. Thus far it looks like this:

Wed: write during nap time. 40 minutes.

Saturday PM: write for 30 minutes, fall asleep.

Every Other Friday: write for 1 hour, check FB and Twitter for 45 min.

 

Soooooo, not great. The problem is that by the end of the day there is not a blessed thought in my head. But I am loathe to wake up early (as my many talented friends do). I am hoping for a few reshufflings in my schedule for the fall, but I never know what will happen. For now it is a very part-time gig, and I have honed my skills at writing fast and furious when I get a chance.

As far as what I choose to write–when the mood strikes, I often pitch ideas to various places and usually find myself writing at least 1-2 essays a month. I try and scare myself a little each time I write. Blogging is currently not a huge priority for me (see: time) and as I have said before the crazier it gets the quieter I have to be in my writing. For now I take the stolen minutes I get and type into my laptop (usually sitting on my bed, or the couch) and I consider myself lucky. When I get super stuck for ideas or I hit an editing fog, going on long runs really seems to get my thoughts in order (also, cake helps). Being in an online writing group has been the best motivation ever (they believe me! they really do!) and now I am in an awesome IRL one as well. I am basically surrounded by beautiful, talented writers who force me to keep producing content. It is awesome, and I highly recommend this to everyone.

 

 

 

 

Oh man. Now I’m done talking about myself and my “craft”! So now I get to gleefully tag two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful (and sometimes cranky) words.

 

The first writer is Becca over at Exile Fertility. I just love everything that comes out of her mouth. She gets it. She gets that everything is terrible and everything is beautiful. She is my favorite writer when it comes to womanhood, birth, beauty, and radical self-care. I wish she would write more, but I understand that her arms are very full at the moment. Go on over to her place and check it out.

The other writer is Kevin Hardagan, who I think is the Joel Osteen/N.T. Wright of Ireland. He could go either way, really. He is wicked smart, a little cantankerous, half the time I do not know what he is talking about but when I DO I really like it. And he always makes me think (a good sign, right?). I would dearly love to know what he is working on in regards to his PhD (I think it has something to do with mammon. Mammon!) and everything he writes is funny. Including a response to a blogging round robin.

 

 

So there you have it. I would love (and I mean this from the bottom of my heart) to hear from any of you in regards to what you are working on, what your process is, and how you see yourself fitting into the writing world. So please comment and share!

 

 

 

 

 

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The beautiful ruins

I wrote a little stream-of-consciousness style post that is up over at A Deeper Story today.

 

Here’s the beginning:

 

 

 

 

Q: how do you ruin your life?

A: Start with a scarf. Start with shoes, hip glasses, the coffee in your cup. Start with that, but don’t stay there. Dig deep into the roots of why you must connect your purchases to your soul, that gaping chasm that feels the disparity of the world, that part of your spirit that can’t un-see or un-know all those tragedies of birth and geography and class that didn’t happen to you. Buy that beautiful scarf made by women half the world away, and tie it fiercely around your neck as you head out into your own kingdom of darkness; a world where the devil is prowling like a lion, hungry to see us satiated and superior and calm. You will need every bit of beauty you can take with you on the journey. There is a Calcutta everywhere you look, especially in your own heart.

 

 

 

 

aaaand, it just sort of goes on from there. Click on over to A Deeper Story to read the rest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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