Category: Blog (Page 1 of 4)

Minivans and Mortification

If you had asked me last month what I thought about minivans, I would have told you I thought they were great. Such a convenient option for growing families! In fact, I would have mentioned that I drove a minivan for a few years when our kids were tiny–before we got our SUV.

Our SUV was a gift from God. Seriously. We were batting around the idea of getting a new car, and it just happened that a friend was able to get us a CRAZY deal on a fully-loaded used SUV at the dealership where she worked. It was such a gratuitous gift at that point in my life that I was a little afraid of it. Why is this happening to me? Am I reaching for things beyond what I should? Is this some sort of temptation or test? (I may be prone to *slightly* overthinking things. Obviously.) Finally, I got to the point where I just received it for what it was: a gratuitous gift. We needed a new car. We wanted the space. We were offered an SUV that fit the bill, and then some.

Last month I thought minivans were awesome… for you. I wouldn’t have said it exactly like that, but it’s what I meant. Or maybe I didn’t really know that I meant that, but it’s the truth. I know that now because this month we’ve been having some troubles with our SUV and decided that our best option financially is to trade it in and look into purchasing… a minivan.

I don’t know when being an SUV-mom wheedled it’s way so deep inside my persona. There’s really no denying it, though. At Mike’s first mention of the possibility of moving to a minivan I was surprised at the bitterness of my reaction. How stupid. Who cares what I drive? What a privileged position I’m in to be considering trading in one working vehicle for another! Most of my life I’ve been a drive-it-until-it-dies person. What changed?

The best I can come up with is that while I initially received the gratuitous gift in gratitude, somewhere along the way I decided I was entitled to it.

Entitlement starts small; a slippery seed dropped onto the soil of our soul. It’s dangerous and deceptive because most of the plant is under the surface. It sprouts something tiny. Puny leaves that are easily ignored. A twinge of pride over our sweet new ride. A flicker of avarice shoots up; this is good and it is mine. All the while thick roots twist downward at breakneck speed and wrap around the base of our gratitude. The large leaves of gratitude are meant to catch the light and remind us that our source exists outside our self. Everything we need to grow and flourish is freely given.

But those stubborn roots of entitlement stunt the growth of gratitude, and we begin to think that what we have is of our own doing. The once wide plumage of gratitude shrivels, crinkling brown and dropping away until all we are left with is the ugly weed of entitlement. We can try to dress it up a bit, maybe tie on some fake blooms–look at my lovely life on social media!–but the reality is that we are left clutching and hoarding and protecting a plant that will never produce good fruit. This not only leaves us lacking, but is unable to nourish anyone else.

The most common use of the word mortification is to indicate embarrassment or shame, but it also means “the action of subduing ones bodily desires” or “the practice of asceticism by penitential discipline to overcome desire for sin and to strengthen the will.” The medical definition is, “the death of one part of the body while the rest is alive; gangrene; necrosis.” It’s practicing discipline to overcome sin. It’s putting something to death. In my case, the thing that needs to die is my feeling of entitlement to be an SUV-mom. The cool-mom. The slightly-better-than-you, side-eyes at Minivan Mom.

What needs to be mortified is the entitlement that sprouted pride.

I can’t ignore how perfectly timed all this is playing out in this Lenten season where we are reminded of sin’s stranglehold, and thus our desperate need for a Savior. Jesus gets this. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (ESV)

Even though He was already God and lacked nothing, Jesus emptied himself to become like us, so he could obey the Father and die to redeem us. And not just die to redeem us, but “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV). The ultimate mortification: the shame of a criminal’s death (though innocent), the complete submission to the Father’s will, the death of His body to pay for our sin.

Jesus humbled himself with pouring himself out to death.  

I’m humbling myself with a new car.

Let’s just sit in the inequality of that for a moment, shall we . . . ?

(Father, make me more like your son!)

With this image fresh in my mind, I am choosing to be grateful for the opportunity to uproot my entitlement.

I am grateful to let go of SUV-mom to embrace minivan-mom.

I am grateful to be shaken awake to see this is not a step backward in some crazy carpool hierarchy, but a tiny death to the sin that SO easily entangles us; has entangled me.

I am grateful for another opportunity to invest in growing my gratitude.

And I’m grateful for affordable, family-friendly, reliable transportation with ample cargo space–perfect for towing a large dose of humility.

 

 

The List: Books and Podcasts Edition

 

Who needs those end of the year book-lists when you have a book and podcast list randomly in the spring, amiright?!

I’ve separated The List into three parts, with each entry in random order. Because I could no sooner choose a favorite star (bonus points if you catch that movie reference). This is just the stuff I love that I find myself sharing with anyone who will listen. I’m kind of like the dad on My Big Fat Greek Wedding who thinks all maladies can be solved with Windex, except that when you tell me your problem I will exclaim the solution is, “A BOOK!” Or, in this case, a podcast.

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). I’m going to use Amazon links (because Prime & real life), but feel free to search out any of these titles at your local bookstore!

Books:

  • Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing by Andy Crouch  This is my favorite book on leadership (although Henri Nouwen’s In The Name of Jesus is a close second). Basically, I now stalk Andy Crouch online and read anything of his I can. He is SMART and engaging and can break down a complicated concept into a 2×2 like nobody’s business. He has a new book coming out in a couple weeks called The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place that I am already praising God for and I haven’t even read it yet.
  • You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith I’ve read this book almost three times in the past year. Twice so I could steep in its profound wisdom enough to distill it into this review for The Well: Orienting Desire: Training for the Good Life. Then once more so I could lead discussion on it for a leadership group I’m a part of at our church. It’s short and, while admittedly not a beach-read (unless you’re a nerd like me), I think it’s an important read for any believer concerned with doing discipleship well.
  • A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot This is a dense biography, but don’t let its size intimidate you. Amy’s story will pull you in from page one and keep you turning pages late into the night. Amy was an Irish missionary and writer who spent fifty-three years in India working with orphans. I borrowed this one from our public library, but I’ll likely end up purchasing it. It was that good.
  • The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer This classic has been called a “devotional masterpiece.” It has nearly five stars on Goodreads with over 38,000 ratings, so you don’t have to take my word for it. Tozer writes in the beginning that he’s writing because, though others “have gone much farther into these holy mysteries than I have done, but if my fire is not large it is yet real, and there may be those who can light their candle at its flame.” Maybe just the spark you need?
  • Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey My favorite books tend to take me down the rabbit-hole to finding other great books (like Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior) and this was no exception. Yancey’s immersive storytelling style is on display in these mini-biographies-meets-memoir that each left me wanting more. Already I’ve read two books from people he profiles (Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton and Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen). I still can’t believe I’ll get to hang out with him in Alaska this September for the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop! Remind me to tell you the crazy story of how God provided for that sometime…

Podcasts:

  • Cultivated: A podcast about faith and work This is put out by the good folks at Harbor Media. I listened to the entire first season and I can’t wait for season two. The interviews are insightful and inspiring, and the guests are diverse. From think-tank types to writers to rappers, and trying to cover every square inch of creation in-between, this podcast has something for everyone.
  • Pass the Mic “Dynamic Voices for a Diverse Church” This is the podcast of the Reformed African American Network. Are you curious about racial reconciliation, but feel a little overwhelmed in finding a starting point? Me too. I’ve found this podcast to be both nuanced and unapologetic in its approach, and a safe space for someone like me to ask questions and be confronted with my blind-spots in this area. Highly recommend.
  • The Calling An interview show put on by Christianity Today with: “One church leader, one calling, one honest conversation.” Richard Clark or Kate Shellnutt ask great questions and really draw out peoples’ stories in unexpected ways. I’ve been surprised by some of the answers even familiar leaders have given. It never fails to inspire me, with God’s sovereignty on display in the divergent stories of His people seeking to follow Him. (If you’re a woman in leadership/ministry you won’t want to miss the most recent interview with Jen Wilkin).
  • Quick to Listen Another podcast from Christianity Today (which I want to emphasize says something about the quality of work CT is putting out–in a world of “fake news” and sensationalism they’ve become one of my go-to’s for their commitment to Beautiful Orthodoxy).  In this show co-hosts Morgan Lee and Mark Galli (shout-out to original co-host Katelyn Beaty!) are joined by a guest to “go beyond hashtags and hot-takes and set aside time to explore the reality behind a major cultural event.” I’ve found the discussions to be challenging and helpful for me to sharpen my own thoughts around a popular topic. I especially love the “Gut-check” segment at the beginning where everyone lays out their initial reaction to the issue at hand–a practice I’ve stolen and found works well in discussions with youth group students.
  • Persuasion with Erin Straza and Hannah Anderson I could listen to these two talk about ANYTHING. For reals. Pick a random or familiar topic and they will hold it up to the light and display a facet of it you have never considered before. (This podcast is put out by Christ and Pop Culture, who also have an awesome online community worth checking out). Host Erin Straza describes the aim of Persuasion on her blog: “Our goal with the show is to offer feminine insight on culture, theology, and everyday minutia—without reducing it to a podcast about “women’s issues.”” I have found myself so deeply engaged in their discussions that more than once I have replied out loud to them as I’m folding laundry.

Bonus: Books By My Friends!

This is NOT some attempt to smush in all my author buddies at the end just-because. This is because I have been blessed with some crazy-talented friends who are putting out first-rate words into the world. I promise I would not waste your time with books I didn’t back 100%. I’m just putting the ones I’ve read here because I couldn’t bring myself to choose between them for the books section above.

And these are just the ones I have in my possession right now! I hope this list motivates you to explore some new titles. Because whatever your issue, I’VE GOT A BOOK FOR THAT!

 

Ministry of Silly

I trend toward the serious. I’m probably more concerned with what I think people may be thinking about me than you realize. It’s not that I don’t like being silly, but I prefer it to be in a controlled environment on my own terms (don’t I sound like a party?). “Look how much fun we’re having!” –in this Insta-filtered, curated and perfectly captured moment. I’m so silly, and btw doesn’t my hair/life/outfit look great?!

God knew that the perfect balance to this was Michael Marsden. My husband is silly and self-confident. He’s pretty sure that if you’re thinking about him it’s definitely good things. He looks in the mirror in the morning and thinks, “Man, I’m looking great today!” He does not care who’s watching and certainly doesn’t need to curate an experience for the internet.

However, on a whim one Sunday morning in early 2016 he posted a DubSmash of me getting ready for church. It was pretty funny. I was mildly irritated when he posted it on his Instagram account, but more eye-rollingly shaking-my-head amused. He posted one the next Sunday, and then our friends started to encourage this behavior and it turned into a weekly thing. Basically, it’s him lip-synching to a short song clip while I’m in the background flossing or putting on makeup or generally trying to hide from the camera. 

When he first started, I untagged myself from all his posts. Sure, I thought it was funny and so-Mike. Endearing even. But you can’t post me getting ready sans-makeup/hair wearing my pajamas on the internet! What will people think?!

And then I heard myself: You can’t show my REALITY to people I’m trying to impress. I was taking myself too seriously.

In a weird way, these weekly videos have become part of a liturgy of my life. I am being trained to not take myself so seriously. An opportunity to practice humility. It’s also part of my Sabbath practice to keep off social media, so half the time I don’t even know what he’s posting until Monday, anyway.

I think this kind of practice at letting go of our so carefully often over-cultivated images is a good thing. Ann Voskamp writes that, “Perfectionism is slow death by self. It will kill your skill, your spark, your art, your soul.” What a high cost for such little reward, the fleeting ‘likes’ of your online community. The ministry of silly pushes back at this, gives us space to be us, and permission for others to be them. And isn’t that social media at its best?

In case you’re now morbidly curious to see this strange Sunday ritual carried out in our home, here is Mike’s compilation of videos from 2016. I hope you’re inspired to find some silliness of your own to share:

Giving Up Fear for Lent

You know the kid in the movie My Girl who is allergic to everything? I’ve often thought about how I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of the normal terrible things (death, pain, illness, psychopaths), but also not-so-terrible (disappointment) and even kind of weird things (bedbugs–which I’ve never actually encountered but still).

I’ve managed my fear as best I can. I remind myself that it’s an opportunity to grow in courage. I pray. I wake up my husband in the middle of the night to go check on whatever sound I-think-I-maybe-heard (but maybe I was dreaming) but-still-go-check, please! I figured there was no way of getting over this, just a side-effect of an overactive imagination, but then my friend JoHannah Reardon wrote this book about how she gave up fear one year for Lent. And I thought, “What if…?”

What if I could feel more comfortable and courageous in this place, in my Father’s world? Wouldn’t that be worth a 40-day experiment? At worst, I stay the same. At best… freedom from fear? It seems almost too good to be true, but I’m going to give it a shot.

Want to join me? Lent starts next Wednesday, March 1st. Here’s the Amazon link for the book: No More Fear by JoHannah Reardon. It even has Prime shipping! Let me know if you decide to join me. I’d love to hear about your journey!

If you’re still on the fence, check out this interview with JoHannah I’ve included below. Maybe you’ll hear your own voice in her words. I know I did.

*****

Why did you write this book?

I have battled a lifetime of fear and anxiety that began in childhood. I was afraid of everything and didn’t know how to process that fear. When I became a Christian, I knew the answer was in Christ, but I didn’t know how that translated into my day-to-day living. It wasn’t until I took 40 days to give up fear that I realized the stranglehold it had on me.

What motivated you to take 40 days to give up fear?

I did not attend a church that practiced Lent, but I worked with many people who did. I thought it would be useful to examine any habits that I knew I needed help with. So for a couple of years, I gave up food and media as everyone else I knew did, but one year I decided to pray about what I should give up. I felt as strongly as I’ve ever felt anything that I was to give up fear. That 40-day journey was absolutely life changing and broke a pattern that had dominated my life from as far back as I could remember.

What approach does your book No More Fear take to overcoming fear?

The 40 days of giving up fear taught me that I had a warped view of God. Since that time, I’ve been meditating on who God truly is. Knowing his good and loving character has helped me to trust him with all that happens in my life and world. In the book I also wrestle with what it means that God is a judge, that I should fear him, and that he does get angry. By understanding that I don’t have anything to fear from God has been huge in my journey away from fear and anxiety. So, by closely examining God’s attributes, I found that he was faithful and that giving up fear was simply believing that and trusting him with my life.

Is simply knowing who God is enough to overcome fears?

Good question. Before I started my 40-day journey, I knew God’s attributes intellectually. However, I hadn’t engaged my emotions in relation to his attributes. In the vein of Christianity I grew in, emotions were considered unimportant and even unnecessary. I was taught to put emotions aside and just go with what I knew to be true. So much about this is good and necessary; yet, it caused me to so disconnect with my emotions that I denied them. I decided I wasn’t afraid, even though I was terrified all the time. That’s why taking 40 days to just concentrate on my emotions of fear and anxiety were so important. I had to face those emotions head on by acknowledging them and by realizing God was trustworthy enough to deal with whatever was causing me terror. That experience with God was what caused a breakthrough for me.

Since you gave up fear, have you had any relapses?

I had one relapse when my husband was gone on a trip. I heard some noises in the night and felt the old panic begin to rise. I sat up in bed with all the old fears pouring in on me. But then, I felt angry—angry at Satan for throwing this old pattern of fear at me again. I said aloud, “No, Satan! I am not doing this again.” The fear lifted and I went peacefully back to sleep.

Then, when I released No More Fear, I began to (ironically) fear that I had just found something simple to placate my emotions and that I couldn’t really offer help to anyone. But that week, a couple of men murdered someone in the town next to mine. They fled to my neighborhood and a massive search occurred. As the police examined every shed, camper, and nook or cranny a person could hide, general panic took over those in my town. People called me and told me I could come stay with them until these men were caught. I was elated when I realized I didn’t feel even an iota of fear. I would rather face armed murders than return to the prison of fear I’d been locked in for so long.  

What do you hope a reader will come away with?

For everyone who reads my book, I pray the following: that they will be able to identify their fears and rest them one by one at Jesus’ feet, knowing he will banish them. That their experience with God is so powerful they would rather face the worst life can throw at them than return to a life of fear and trembling. That their relationship with Christ becomes so real and palpable that it will affect every part of their lives and permeate it with inner peace.

JoHannah Reardon was a Christianity Today editor for nine years. In that time she built and managed their Bible study site, ChristianBibleStudies.com. She also served as an editor for Today’s Christian Woman and Gifted For Leadership. She currently serves as the senior editor for The Redbud Post. She is the author of 13 books, including devotionals and fiction. Although she loves her work, her favorite things in life are teasing her husband, annoying her children, and spoiling her grandkids. Find out more about JoHannah and her books at johannahreadon.com.

Of Wanderlust and Home

Wanderlust has pulsed in my inner life, leading me to reach for new places and experiences, since at least the third grade. That’s the first clear memory I have of the euphoria of anticipating a trip. My aunt and uncle had invited me to join them and my younger cousin for a weeklong visit to southern California.

Southern California. I remember naming the place as if it were exotic, telling anyone who would listen about this fantastical locale I would be visiting. A place of beaches and the world renowned San Diego Zoo. A place, in fact, only seven hours away by car down I-5, but seven hours is an approximation of eternity for an eight-year-old.

With each new year of my life the longing to be away has lingered. In high school half the fun of youth group was going away to camp or leaving the country for the first time on a short term missions trip. I fantasized about going away to college, which would turn out to be for naught. Instead I honeymooned with my husband, deeply in love with him and the moonlight we shared over the Pacific. In the midst of childbearing years, overwhelmed by the necessary but often stifling grip of my place, I marked time by our family trips to Disneyland. Each new year as I survey our calendar, travel is still at the forefront of my mind; where will this year take us?

This longing has made home a complicated concept for me. Home is the place I’m always leaving behind…

To read the rest, visit my friend Jen Pollock Michel‘s blog: http://jenpollockmichel.com/2017/02/10/birdtree-street-vacaville-california-guest-post-by-aleah-marsden/ Hers is one of my favorite spaces on the internet, so be sure to check out some other posts in her Home series and sign up for her excellent “monthly-ish” newsletter: Miscellany. 

 

Epiphany and Where the Sidewalk Ends

After I graduated high school I did a brief stint of community college. I decided to major in “Liberal Studies” because I figured all I needed was general education/transferable credits anyway. One of the required classes on this vague track was statistics.

Now typically, I do words not numbers, you know? But I had always done well in school. Learning came easy. I wasn’t the top of my class, but I was closer to the top than not. I never started a project prior to the weekend before it was due. Never studied unless I was cramming for a specific test the following day. Comprehensive finals-type tests I didn’t study for at all. Too much work! I figured if I didn’t understand the material by then I probably wouldn’t ever understand it. I pulled mostly A’s and B’s, so it never occurred to me that there was anything lacking in my methodology.

Enter community college statistics.

The first half of the semester was breezy. I’d come in late with a latte, skip the optional homework, and still do well on the tests. Friends invited me to join their study group and I halfheartedly showed up for a couple meetings. As someone who got it, I felt a certain sense of responsibility for the poor people who just didn’t get it. Bless their hearts.

Then the second half of the semester happened. With painful clarity I realized I had reached my math threshold. Nothing made sense anymore. It was (literally) Greek to me.

So what did I do? Double down and dig deep? Lean into the study group I had deigned to join? Spend countless hours in the math lab taking advantage of free tutoring resources?

Nope.

I quit going to class. My attitude was such that if I couldn’t understand it, then it was obviously stupid. Statistics was the problem, not me. I mean, my methods had carried me this far with decent results. I couldn’t possibly be the problem. Anyway, I do words not numbers.

I showed up for the final. I don’t even know why I went. I slammed through the first half of it, and then left most of the second half blank. I was the first to leave, and I felt the daggers shot in my back by the eyes of my long-abandoned study group.

Guess what? I failed. Shocking, I know.

Apparently in math, if statistics can even be called that, getting 100% on the first half of your final and 0% on the second half averages you out to a big fat F. I don’t know, like I said statistics wasn’t exactly my thing. I ended up with a D in the class. In my entire, albeit short (Hello, Marsden babies!), stint with higher education it was the only class I didn’t pass.

I rode the Easy Street trolley to the end of the line. My natural ability got me to where the sidewalk ends and when I reached it, I stopped.

This is where I find myself once again in 2017: at the end of the pavement staring out at the wilderness of not knowing how to do the thing I need to do. I’m not even sure where to start. Starting is so hard. The pavement behind calls to me. It whispers sweet things to draw me back to the comfort of feeling confident and capable. You are perfect just as you are. This is just your personality; you’re an enneagram Five who prefers to live in her head. You don’t have to strive. You don’t have to stress. You don’t have to try. Just be content in being here. All is grace.

Damn this convincing concrete! It keeps my feet planted with no allowance for roots. These gnarled roots of mine seek deeper things, continue to push at the pavement, twisting over myself trying to tap a source beneath practical platitudes.

I can grow no taller here.

Here where I’m mixing my metaphors of trolleys and trees. Or maybe I’m not. Aren’t we all walking trees? Deeply rooted and ever called-out to follow beyond the brink of the known, believing there is something worth pursuing.

Like a star. Like Epiphany. Like the three wise men who gathered their collected wisdom and their understanding drove them into the wilderness in hot pursuit of celestial satisfaction. If these Fives can strike out in search of kingdom-come, surely my boots can inch away from this crumbling concrete. I, who live my life in the presence of the One they sought. They brought Him gifts fit for royalty and He gave everything for me. Even I can grasp this simple math: I am gratuitously provided for.

The end of the line is the end of me.

I’ve been told the end of me is the beginning of Him.

That’s just another Instagram meme of a statement, though. It’s meant to make me less insecure, but He’s just as with me now and He was at the beginning and He is in the middle. There is no space without Immanuel; God with us. I’ve been balancing on the edge waiting for Him to “show up big.” Maybe He’s been here with me all along waiting for me to do the same. Dallas Willard taught me that grace is opposed to earning, not effort. I’ve never been much of a doer. I’m more of a don’t-er, an observer.

2016 had me watching from a safe distance, but 2017 calls to me: Come.

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.

—Isaiah 55:1-3

He says not to labor for things that don’t satisfy, but in saying so doesn’t he imply that there is labor required for things that do satisfy? Aslan is on the move. And so am I.

The last final I took at community college was for an elective I had chosen: Early British Literature. For the essay portion of the exam I wrote a stuffy piece with a supercilious title. I don’t remember much about it except that the professor told me it was well written, but didn’t add much to the conversation. I didn’t get what she meant. I gave her all the right answers, regurgitated and spliced her lectures together into something I figured was “academic.” Looking back, I wonder if she meant I was the missing thing. I told her what I thought she wanted to hear, but maybe what she wanted was to hear from me.

I remember walking out of that dusty classroom, tucked down a dark corner hallway in the English department, and stepping blinking out into bright California sunlight. Exultant with the freedom of summer I inwardly exclaim, “Thank God that was the last essay I’ll ever have to write!”

epiphany-and-where-the-sidewalk-ends

Enter to Win AND Support the Dream Medical Center in Rwanda!

So, my super-talented woodworker husband makes these GORGEOUS clocks. Each clock is handmade and stained in our garage-turned-workshop and measures 19″ in diameter. They retail for $100.

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becky-fisher-300x300Our friend Becky is climbing Kilimanjaro with a team of women to help raise money to finish the Dream Medical Center that Africa New Life Ministries is building in Rwanda. More about that here: http://www.africanewlife.org/ministries/medical-clinic/

 

Where do you come in? For every donation of $10, you’re entered to win the handmade “Winter” clock pictured above. You can donate through the widget below, just make sure you come back to this page and click “Enter” after donating. **NOTE: Be sure to click the PayPal link before you click the enter button. Thanks!**

a Rafflecopter giveaway

We’ll take the cost of shipping out of the final amount. Only open to residents of the contiguous United States. Giveaway closes Wednesday, November 30th at 11:59p. Winner announced here on the blog Thursday, December 1st. Good luck! We’re excited to support Becky and the good work Africa New Life continues to accomplish in Rwanda. Thanks so much for your support!

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With Greatest Affection for B&C

I am struck by the irony that the event which has finally pushed me to step out of the long, overgrown shadows in this space is the news of a dearly beloved publication stepping into its twilight.

Books & Culture will always have a sentimental significance to me. My first published words appeared there. I’m choking up remembering.

The story goes…

Once upon a time in the Twitterverse, a guy with generic name, no profile blurb, and only books for a profile picture retweeted a blog post I wrote about my tenth anniversary. I had no idea who he was, but thanked him for sharing and moved on with my life.

Some time later, after writing a tweet gushing over Jen Pollock Michel’s Teach Us To Want, this same guy tweeted asking if I would be interested in writing a review of it for Books & Culture.

Who was this booked man?

I googled.

Jaw-drop.

I reread the tweet.

I re-reread the tweet.

I sent a screenshot of the tweet to multiple writer-friends asking, “Do you think he’s asking me to review for B&C?! Or, is he just asking if the book should be reviewed for B&C?”

I timidly and roundabout-ly message John.

And I land my first paid, published piece.

I have to be careful not to prematurely eulogize John here. He is alive and (I hope) well(ish), considering, and is much more than this wonderful publication which was entrusted to his care. I don’t pretend to know him well, or at least as well as anyone I’ve had the pleasure of conversation and coffee with a couple times. And yet, there is something of John which is Books & Culture.

In trying to pinpoint the overlap of the two for me, I think I’ve landed that it is in the sense of seeing where each excel. As a complete unknown, I felt seen by John; who was I to be published among academics? But this sense of seeing always ran over into the newsprint pages. B&C is (I have replaced “was” because it’s just too soon and I’m not ready yet)… It is a collection of seers curated by curiosity. Here, next to my morning tea, I have read about books that I wanted to read and books I wanted to read because I read about them in Books & Culture. I read about topics that interested me and topics that never would have interested me until reading them in Books & Culture. I will miss the opportunity to steep with my tea in the magic of words penned by writers well-matched with books.

Again, the sense of seeing involved in matching a writer and a book tugs at me.

I remember being halfway through a novel John had given me to review and wondering how he had pegged me. Somehow this was the exact story I needed in this season. I would have blushed at the vulnerable, transparent feeling–am I that obvious?–but even then I knew it was that John’s gift was that precise and special. And I felt blessed to have witnessed it firsthand.

I count myself among the many hoping and praying for a Lazarus-esque resurrection. Lord, if only you would call it out! B&C has been part of calling me out to new thinking, and waking up my brain to lead me into my quiet time for a while now. This seems fitting as reading has led me to worship most of my life. I expect many readers who enjoyed Books & Culture could say the same.

With greatest affection for B&C (and sincerest thanks, John),

–Aleah

 

 

 

The Marsden Expedition: Chicago

Wheaton, Illinois is a postcard-worthy place. I’ve visited the friend that we’re staying with a few times before–using the biennial Redbud Writers retreat as an excuse to come early and explore. Kathy is always a gracious hostess, being sure to include stops she knows I would enjoy: a trip to the Wade Center where I saw C.S. Lewis’ writing desk or a visit to the Wheaton College library to see Madeleine L’Engle’s handwritten notes in the archives. This visit was no different in Kathy’s attentiveness, but with plans adjusted accordingly to it being my whole crew instead of only me. No need for quiet museums or archived stacks, today we walk a couple blocks in glorious sunshine to play on a giant trampoline with her granddaughters and then go out for deep dish pizza. Perfection.IMG_5313 (1)

During dinner I ask Kathy and her daughter Mindy to help me figure out a touring plan for tackling Chicago the next day. It’s so unlike me to not have this sort of research completed by now, but this trip has too many variables to account for all of them. I’ve found it better to talk to the locals whenever possible. Truth be told, I’m a bit anxious about having to use public transit. I’ve never taken a train before, let alone with four kids. Mike has limited experience. I listen intently as they tell me the best stops and must-sees.

IMG_5316The next morning, still full from breakfast, Kathy walks us to the train station and gives us specific instructions on purchasing our tickets. I’m especially grateful for the tidbit about where to put your tickets when you’re sitting on the second level of the train. I hate looking like a clueless tourist. When we all climb up there I lean forward and slip the paper tickets under the small metal tab. Walter is in obvious awe of the uniformed conductor and watches intently as he punches our tickets; Walt hands his faux child-under-six ticket to him and he punches it into a smiley face mirroring Walt’s wide grin.

After an hour we arrive in Chicago, hustled onto the platform in the large station, trying to keep track of the kids in the bustle. After the brainstorming session with Kathy and Mindy over pizza the previous night, we’ve decided to attempt to save the kids’ energy by using Uber, rather than walk the twenty minutes from Ogilvie Transportation Center to Millennium Park. Another first for Mike and I both. While getting into a complete stranger’s car feels contrary to everything my mother ever taught me, UberXL (we need larger cars for our crew) ends up being easy and surprisingly affordable. Chicago is gorgeous and the weather is apparently showing off for us Californians. I careen my neck to try to glimpse the tall stone buildings rising around us like a forest out the window.

IMG_5331At Millennium Park we follow the streams of tourists to The Bean. I don’t know why there is a giant metallic bean or what it has to do with Chicago, but we have fun making faces into it’s mirrored surface and viewing the infinite images underneath. Next, we happen upon a modern art fountain on our way to Buckingham Fountain. The kids strip off their shoes and socks and roll up their jeans, which almost keeps them from getting completely soaked as they splash across the water’s glossy surface.

day 17 (5)Shoes back on, and Walt is lagging behind as we walk through the city. I can never tell if he’s actually tired of walking or is succumbing to boredom. Fortunately, his energy spikes with the rest of the kids’ excitement upon seeing the enormous Buckingham Fountain. The water sprays dozens of feet into the air and is whipped across the esplanade by the wind. I puzzle over who would put a giant fountain here in “the windy city.”

day 17 (7)We can’t stop commenting on the vastness of great Lake Michigan across the street. “It looks like an ocean!” “You can’t even see the other side!” “There’s just no way that’s fresh water!” We cross at the crosswalk and sit with our legs dangling over the fresh, sky blue waters and eat a snack. I try not to panic when Lucy drops her goldfish bag and leans down toward the water to grab it. I fail, and shout a little too loudly to, “Hold still!” My kids look at me like the safety-freak this vacation is teaching me that I am. I grab the bag off the concrete step separating us from the deep water and make everyone scoot back a foot.

I summon another UberXL, not realizing there is nowhere for the driver to stop to get us. We cross the street to a slightly wider muddy shoulder and throw the kids into the minivan when it pulls up.

Next stop: The Museum of Science and Industry.

IMG_5343We shut. this. place. down. Even after four hours of exploring and playing with all the interactive exhibits, we still hadn’t made it to the top floor. We run up the stairs and try to take in as much as we can while polite-but-firm docents announce repeatedly that the museum is now CLOSED.

Now pretty much pros, we UberXL back to Ogilvie Transportation Center. There is one express train which leaves around 5p, skipping all the stops we waited through on the way out and only taking a half hour to get to Wheaton. I am determined to make this train. Upon entering the station, we realize that tourists are in the minority here as it’s obviously rush hour. We find the correct platform and walk further and further down the train only to see car after car packed to capacity. It would be difficult to find seating for a single, and we’re looking for space for six! We climb aboard and continue to walk single-file down aisle after aisle. Eventually we come to a car with one available bench seat. Mike squeezes the four kids onto the bench and sits next to a woman across the aisle. I sit next to a gentleman behind him and sigh with relief. I fish our tickets out of my jacket pocket and place them in the clip. Like. A. Boss.

Back at Kathy’s we’re spoiled with a rib-sticking home-cooked meal of crock-pot tender roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh baked bread, and green beans. Mike and I had skipped the awful, overpriced food court pizza at the museum and dig into the delicious dinner with vigor. This quaint home has become one of my happy places, always overflowing with stimulating conversation and hospitality. I sip my tea after dinner sleepy and deeply content.

IMG_5346Next morning I’m up early to sneak away for a couple hours to have coffee with some local Redbud writers–board members, actually. Time passes entirely too quickly–as it is apt to do when I’m immersed in friendship and caffeine and conversation–and it’s too soon time to leave. I catch a ride back to Kathy’s where the kids are just finishing the homemade cinnamon rolls they got to help make for breakfast. We thank Kathy for her warm hospitality and the gift of having a place at her table.

And the Marsden Expedition rolls on.IMG_5324

I’ll take a large Chicago vlog, please: (insert image of me laughing hysterically)

Some of Wheaton also on Day 16: https://youtu.be/fkZj7_kOdzY and Day 18: https://youtu.be/G4slqa9Midk

The Marsden Expedition: Indiana

We don’t have turnpikes in California, only toll bridges. Imagine my surprise as I’m cruising down the interstate in the middle of the night somewhere in Pennsylvania, suddenly stopped at an electronic booth and told to take a paper ticket. I’m not exactly sure what to do with the ticket, but I stuff it in the center console for safekeeping. Mike and the kids are all sleeping. An hour, or less or more, later I come to another booth where the attendant asks for my aforementioned ticket. I give it to her and explain that we’re from out of town. She smiles and asks me for $35. Thirty. Five. Dollars. CASH. Who carries that kind of cash anymore?! Is Pennsylvania full of drug dealers and restaurant servers?

Fortunately, there is a safeguard built into this archaic system for clueless outsiders like me with a seven day grace period where you can pay fees online. I have to ask for this grace at the next turnpike as well. The following turnpikes accept credit cards, as they should since the trip from Virginia to Indiana ends up costing us over $60.

Indiana is flat, but green. The neighborhood our friends live in is a row of well-manicured homes on large lots. I dock the Mars(den) Rover in the driveway. I get out and hug our friends, the Brummel’s, then climb back into the RV to freshen up while Mike and the kids go in the house.

image1 (3)I join the grownups at the kitchen table a little later, gratefully accepting a warm mug of coffee as we all catch up. Mike and Suzanne were youth leaders at the church we attend when Mike and I were in high school. We laugh about all that has changed as time has passed. Mike and I answer questions about how’s so-and-so from church, and ask them about their recently married daughter we knew as a little kid.

“Have you ever had Amish donuts?”

I don’t remember if it was Mike or Suzanne who asked this question, but I was all-in for wherever this was about to take us.

“We can have [our grown kids] watch your kids and we could go get some?”

All the YES.

IMG_5284We four adults climb into the Brummel’s minivan and head out to Shipshewana, Indiana: Amish country. We buy delicious donuts. Mike and I also buy smoked sausage bread and a jar of a dessert-worthy peanut butter-marshmallow fluff mixture. We drive slowly behind a black horse-drawn buggy on our way to a cheese factory (where we buy a small block of tangy sharp white cheddar). I’m amused at the honey shop that it looks closed, because: no electricity. I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and this was no exception. I’ve practically got my face pushed up against the window and we drive (twice!) by an Amish baseball game; everyone in plain, simple clothes and dozens of bikes and buggies lining the street.IMG_5287

IMG_5294The next stop after leaving the Amish area has my Mike’s face pressed up against the glass: a fireworks warehouse. He can’t stop smiling as he fills his red plastic handbasket. Most places in California don’t allow fireworks. I remind him of this and of the drought of the last three years. He pretends not to hear me.

That evening the Brummel’s have invited us to join them at a friend’s house for dinner. The house is full of kids and friendly faces. My crew quickly scatters. This property is actually a small working farm. We see chickens, geese, roosters, dogs, cats, a bunny, and cows. One cow is swollen with pregnancy, due any day. I shudder in sympathy remembering feeling the way she looks.IMG_5300

IMG_5303Conversation is easy and the food is plentiful. I’m reminded at church with everyone the next morning of the gift of fellowship in community. During the service we sing the hymn Because He Lives. The last time I sang this was with a group of Africa New Life staff during their mid-week devotional service in Kigali, Rwanda this past February. How beautiful the Church can be, made up of brothers and sisters from across the chapel and around the world. A touchstone of welcome across cultures. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

After a lunch of butter-burgers, cheese curds, and frozen custard at Culver’s, we bid our dear friends goodbye and thank them for their generous hospitality. With a hymn in my heart, we pull back onto the road—Google map set to AVOID TOLL ROADS—for the (mercifully) short drive to Wheaton, Illinois.

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