Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Reading the Bible with My Kids

We started reading the first book of the Bible, Genesis, with our kids this month. Up until now, besides praying with them and the occasional aside about God's love and being kind and other such directives throughout the day, we've left the Bible up to their Sunday school classes. Illustrated pictures and crafts are easier to handle, and really, I don't think our kids were ready to hear and make any sense out of the Bible. Now that we've moved and aren't part of a traditional church currently, I felt like we should be doing something.

I also read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to kick off the new year with some what I assumed would be butt-kicking spiritual writing, and I was right on that part. I didn't expect the how-tos of living in community to be as direct about daily readings with your family, even with young children. If you are looking for a simple, clear and inspiring account of what Christian community can look like and how to get there, read Life Together.

The trick with all things that seem clear and simple is implementation. "Love God and love one another" is so simple and yet here we are, wars, terrorism, greed, selfishness, murder, violence, etc.

I expected resistance from the kids and instead found anticipation. At dinner time, they remind me that we haven't read from the Bible yet today, and so I open it up and dive in.

The strangest truths come out of my mouth as I'm reading. Not so much the text itself, although they are fascinated by it, but my midrash of it. Beyond just reading what is on the page, midrash is a practice in Judaism of interpreting and analyzing the text, filling in the gaps where details are only hinted at. For instance, one might extrapolate "the beasts of the field and the birds of the air" to include the wallaby and the peacock, the platypus and the jellyfish.

We are only four chapters in to Genesis, and a lot has happened already. There was creation, to start. That was something. Then you've got the temptation and deception in the garden, the discovery of shame, sex and babies, murder, lying, pride, arrogance, and bigamy. That's a lot going on up in here. Without any kind of guidance or extrapolation, how are they to know what to take away from this book?

I've discovered by reading this to them for the first time a renewed energy and excitement over biblical texts. I am remembering why I read the Bible, how this book is sacred because it tells us about God's faithfulness even when we royally screw up. In this way, the bulk of the Bible is not "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth," but one of the biggest soap operas of all time interwoven with the most faithful and true love story in history.

I tell my kids, "Every time we read the Bible, God's spirit speaks a new truth or conviction into the heart of the listener." We are talking about reading the Bible over ice cream at Sweet Henrie's. "It's the only book I read over and over again."

It is a living and breathing book because we are inhaling and exhaling it together with the Holy Spirit, bringing new human knowledge and information from all across the universe to expand upon a text that was written thousands of years ago. This combination of general revelation and divine revelation expand awe and wonder rather than deflate it. The narratives and poetry teach us how God relates to us and how we can relate to him. It gives us a common reference point in a world of stories, all of which seem to me to be mini-gospels, mini-Bibles of people pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty in its many colors and iterations against a backdrop of darkness.

I tend to find slivers of God in everything, even when the other person didn't intend for him to show up. We are walking Bibles with our own bruises and injustices, arrogance and pride, our own stories of how God has intersected our lives and when we have heard him and when we have not and when we've outright ignored him. The Bible gives us access to common stories across the ages we can relate to (or not relate to) in order to see God's grace.

These strange truths leak out as we're reading stories that are on the page confusing and odd, but I have the benefit of decades over my kids, years spent reading and being taught by others, and so I can explain bigamy in the Bible. I can talk about cultural differences. I can show them God's protection and provision over Adam and Eve and Cain and beyond. I can talk about how just like in science our understanding and knowledge of God is an ever-expanding universe of detail and depth and size, and even in our sacred texts we can see our own knowledge of God unfolding. It isn't God but our understanding of God that unfolds, like a flower bud, over these thousands of years.

Yeah, I've imparted all of this wisdom on my kids four chapters into Genesis.

Their journey is just beginning, their capacity for understanding is just opening, and I am excited to be a part of that. I expect they will spin their own midrash in our readings and reveal other truths to me as well so that we can all grow together. This coupling of knowledge and wonder, this life together, it is wonderful.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder



When Steven Harvey was in his thirties, his grandmother gave him letters his own mother had written between 1945 and 1960. It wasn't until Steve turned 61 that he began to read the letters of his mother, who had committed suicide April 6, 1961, when Steve was eleven.

Most of Steve's memories of his mother were obliterated in her death, though some survived--dark, haunting memories that connected him only to the fact that she was gone, a shadow in his past. "Her suicide exploded in my life like the flash of a camera at close range, darkening everything around me and casting me into blindness, and when the light returned she was gone. She did not fade, or slowly walk away, or whisper goodbye. She was there and then she was not, and there was no getting her back. Ever."

Except there are these letters. "And then, when I was old enough to absorb the blows, I sat down with the letters, boxes of them, and attending to her voice over the course of several weeks, my memories, lying like ashes in me, were sparked. ... The letters unburied our past together."

Steve's memoir maneuvers through these letters, his own memories of his childhood, and what he knows now, decades later, about his family. Intertwined are excerpts from The Book of Knowledge, "ten hefty volumes bound in maroon leather each filled with questions from 'The Department of Wonder,'" which his parents had bought when Steve was three. The excerpts and their interaction with Steve's mother's life and death resonate together, unfolding the power of knowledge to bring understanding to the world while leaving space for the awe and wonder that keep the world precariously balanced. It is through exploring both the written recording of his mother's voice and the excerpts of The Book of Knowledge that Steve is able to discover his mother.

This memoir is a kind of resurrection, far more than just a suicide story. It is an effort to know someone deeply, and any time we seek to truly know someone, we almost can't help but find compassion, love, empathy, and intimacy with that person, discovering the ways we are similar, the ways we differ, and the powerful influence we have on each other.

While reading one particular letter, a memory returns to Steve of making animal shadows on the wall with his parents. Steve tries it again, decades later:

"Sometimes I forget that my mother gave me more than this handful of shadows I carry around in my genetic predisposition to dreams and nightmares, but this little trick of wings on the wall reminds me that the debt for much of who I am now runs deep in my childhood. I raise my hands so that the shadow will ascend the wall, but when I lift them to eye level it is my own hands I see, not the shadows, with thumbs linked, though the shadow brought them to light for me, and the wonder is that they are her hands, alive now in mine."

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is not just a suicide story. It is a story of the power of knowledge to amplify wonder. It is a story of pursuing, and finding, love, where only shadows were thought to dwell. It is a beautiful story.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Goals and Resolutions in 2015

Given the new job/new house/new routine thing that transpired in 2014 and the lingering sinus congestion that is fogging up my head, my resolution/goal list for 2015 is feeling a bit unambitious and uninspired. However, there are a few things I know I want to aim for in 2015.

New Year's Resolutions 2015:
  • Read or listen to 12 books (I did it in 2014, I bet I can do it again in 2015.)
  • Give thanks and pray daily, find a study or routine to revitalize spiritual life
  • Finish my MFA (August 2015, baby!)
  • Start a garden at the Copley house
  • Read books 5 and 6 of the Harry Potter series with Lydia (Maybe 7? Dare I think we could finish those massive books together this year?)
  • Restart biweekly date night with Brandon
  • Establish an exercise routine in the new schedule - at least two days a week of some kind of intentional fitness activity
  • Write something. Anything. Whenever I can jam it in.
New Year's Hopes for 2015: These are things that are almost entirely out of my control but what I would love to see happen this year.
  • Sell the Ashland house
  • Get an agent or editor to love my book
Those aren't preposterous, right? It could happen.

A Look Back:

2014: Resolution Time! I failed at the blogging goal, but everything else, hurrah! Check marks!
2013: Resolutions - Walk Instead of Run
2012: My Thirtieth Year
2011: Harry and Henry
2010: Key West Bound and Lydia-isms
2009: Happy New Year

Sunday, December 21, 2014

You Better Watch Out

You know that Christmas song, "I'm getting nuttin' for Christmas?" My son had one of those days today. It's like the part of his brain that is designed to say "This is kind of a dumb idea" got unplugged so the part of his brain that is designed to say "I wonder what will happen if..." ran on high speed.


And all I wanted to do all day was threaten to return his Christmas presents. It's been on the tip of my tongue, "You better watch out or there won't be anything under that Christmas tree."

I could set up a YouTube channel of the songs that warn kids to behave themselves or they won't receive any presents on Christmas day. "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town... he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!"

I'm all for good behavior. I want my kids to be kind and respectful, to think through their actions before they do them instead of after, to love each other and share their toys and be patient and eat their meals in a timely fashion. I want all of these things. I will threaten to take away electronics time, to send them to time-out, to take away Legos, to separate them until the conflict simmers down, but I will not threaten to take away Christmas.

Here's why. The God I believe in loved me before I loved him. He gave me life and grace and freedom and forgiveness and redemption long before I ever blinked in his direction. The peace and joy and hope that are promised this time of year and all year round through Jesus Christ, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are unearned. They are gifts given whether I deserve them or not. They are gifts given because God loves us.

I give my kids presents at Christmas because I love them, because God loves me, because that gift of love that is remembered at this time of year through Jesus Christ's birth is not intended to shape up the sorry sinner into a better behaved little boy; no, the gift of love we remember is the one that rests solely on grace, solely on the goodness and holiness and unconditional love of Christ that is given to make us holy.

I want to deny my son those presents. It would be a very effective threat... an empty threat, but effective nonetheless. Earned gifts make so much more sense than unearned gifts. The god with the scales weighing good deeds and bad makes way more rational sense than the Christ child. My God is baffling in his extension of grace and mercy, humbling in his constant reaching out to the lost and needy, overwhelmingly compassionate to the broken and world worn. If I am to be like Christ, then that's the love and forgiveness I must strive for.

It's impossible on my own. Oh, how I want to just snatch away that hope, threaten an empty Christmas tree to see him wriggle and worry over his behavior.

Really? Did I just say that out loud? He is seven (today it is Elvis, tomorrow it'll be Henry, don't worry, they take turns being jerks to each other); I am certain that he does not seek out to be bad. I am certain that part of his brain just doesn't engage until he's already in the midst of some impulsive "I wonder what would happen if..." moment.

We have to teach them everything. Everything. I have had to learn these things, too. Consequences to actions. Reward for hard work and good behavior. How to love well. How to receive love. Forgiveness. How to rely on someone else's strength. How to believe. Permission to doubt.

And grace, outrageous, extravagant, mysterious, beautiful, amazing, unbelievable Christmas morning grace.


Why will my children receive presents on Christmas morning? Not because they were good or moderately good or kind of good or amazingly good. Only because we love them. Only because of Love. Oh, and also, we have a bad spending habit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Be Who You Are

This is my son, Henry:

My son, Henry, participated in his first Christmas program at his preschool on Tuesday:


My son, Henry. 


“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back When:
2013: Sharing the 'Good News,' with a little excerpt from Walk the Line that relates to Ralph Waldo Emerson... "Or, would you sing something different. Something real. Something you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear."
2012: The Third Candle: Joy, Mary's Candle (Poem)
2011: Swimming in Troubled Waters: Writing about Faith (The essay I refer to, "Underwater," was published by Relief not too long ago!)
2010: Mama and Papa Bear vs. Parents of Three-Year-Olds
2009: Baking Cookies, but the finished version of this poem makes a decent little YouTube clip:

2008: Pruning Burning Bushes: first poetry publication (also in Relief, ironically)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Praise God from whom all shopping bags flow...?

I stood in line for an hour and a half without a cart carrying a basket full of stuff and two boxes full of more stuff for $160 worth of merchandise today. There was much sighing. I kept telling myself, this might be the only day you have free child care and can actually go to the store and pick stuff out, so buy the stuff and get out, get out, get out!

I love this season. I love the anticipation, the longing, the delight, the promise of hope and joy and peace, all of which I think are essential to practice and promote when the darkness seems to encroach from all corners.

Lydia's Christmas List
It's hard to practice peace and hope and joy in a line that wraps around the perimeter of a store with a hundred other Scrooges out to buy buy buy some joy joy joy joy down under the tree.

I am a planner; I set up certain expectations for myself and I expect myself to deliver or exceed those expectations. No one says, Sarah, you really should blog daily in the month of December like you have the last two years, but here I am wrestling anyway with whether to attempt to blog daily in December or whether I should give it up. It's a challenge, so part of me looks at the doubting part of me and says, "Oh yeah, you BET I can do it, just you watch, I'll prove it to you," while the doubting part says, "Yeah, you're crazy." But surely I could get up earlier, stay up later, sneak it in over lunch, rush home to rush off to make cookies to wrap cookies to deliver cookies to sing and pray and read and hurry UP sit DOWN buckle UP let's GO... Surely I could make it happen. I can make it happen.

Advent is the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ; it is the period of time during which Christians sing, "O Come, o come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel..." the coming of Christ marks freedom from the slavery of sin, ransom paid, release from debt, burden lifted. We are supposed to hope for things yet unseen, and yet, instead, I yoke myself to obligation and ritual - I have to do this because this is what I do, this is what is expected, this is what will earn me love and appreciation. "Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel..."

It is hard to lift your hands in praise when you're still carrying your Black Friday shopping bags.

"Advent" is a part of the word "adventure," a pursuit to explore spaces we haven't before. This is a new season, new territory, with new challenges and new opportunities. An adventure has plenty of elements we hope for that are yet unseen.

Advent also means "a coming into being," like the advent of computers, or the advent of cell phones. Once there was none and now there is. Once it was one way and now it is another way. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.

So, too, with this advent.

I do not think it is possible, or realistic, or healthy, to set for myself a quantifiable goal of blogging/crafting/reading/event-ing every single night of December leading up to Christmas. I think it might serve the opposite purpose of the season - where there could be hope and joy and peace, there would be despair and frustration and anxiety. I do not want this season to be despair and frustration and anxiety. I want to use whatever minutes of the day I have for sowing love into my kids, and this is surprisingly difficult when you begin to believe the best way to demonstrate love is by signing them up for lots of activities or planning lots of outings or buying all the things.

I think what I will do this year is string up "hope" and "joy" and "peace," and maybe we will weave these in with some unscheduled nights to play board games or in the early morning hours on the couch under a blanket. Maybe we will pray for ways to make hope and joy and peace real in our daily goings-about.

And maybe, just maybe, there will be a moment like tonight after the giggling ceases and only the tree is illuminated, when I will feel so moved I'll sing, "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..." and believe.

2013: I was saying the exact same thing to myself.
2012: This is when I got this stupid I mean awesome advent activities calendar idea.
2011: This was the half-marathon, parents-30th-anniversary, season-of-Beans-going-crazy year
2010: This is when I was trying to make more quality time for my kids. I've obviously solved this problem.
2009: I was super-duper excited about Christmas and poetry and life.
2008: I posted a poem about Snow in Auburn that I still like because it's really a poem about hope and God's presence although you might not know it because it isn't the best poem ever.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why do we need spiritual leaders?

In a team building exercise at work today, we were given fifteen people and a life raft that only holds nine. The Titanic is sinking, basically, so who gets in and who stays behind? My team kept Obama but dumped Jay-Z, we kept the carpenter but dumped the line cook at Denny’s, we kept the pregnant lady but dumped Meryl Streep, we kept the stay-at-home mom but dumped John Boehner. At the end of the discussion, we had a priest and a rabbi in the boat with us and Oprah Winfrey in the ocean. My teammates wondered, why are we keeping the priest and the rabbi? “I suppose maybe someone might take comfort in a spiritual leader,” someone said. “I’m agnostic, so…” someone else said. “If we dump the priest, I’ll feel guilty about it,” someone else said, crossing herself simultaneously, “and have to go to church.”

I didn’t know how to answer. Why should the priest and the rabbi get a spot in our hypothetical life raft? What do they have to offer?

I had just brought up my come-to-faith college experience during the earlier ice breaker, so one colleague asked, “Are you still religious?”

I process my thoughts so much better with a keyboard and a backspace button, so when these kinds of conversations happen, I get a little nervous. I always work up in my head this big deal about how I love Jesus but I’m not that kind of Christian, you know, that kind, and I’m not that other kind either, I’m serious but not legalistic, saved but not a six-day Creationist, deeply interested and educated in the history of religion and a lover of the word of God that I really believe is the word of God but also believe that all truth is God’s truth so I also like science and math and philosophy and the advancement of new ideas and the realization of wonder and awe in nature and the power of mystery and miracle and relationship and love, love, love, so you see I’ve really thought a lot about all of this so please don’t think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in my head.

“Uhh, yeah… well… yes, but not in a ritualistic way…” I stuttered, “I care very much about faith, still.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

She really doesn’t care about all of that. All she really wants to know is if I’m going to be offended because we are thinking about saving Oprah and ditching either the rabbi or the priest.

So I offered the priest up to the sharks. After all, I said, he’s a man of God. He’d do that kind of thing to save someone else. Plus, if he’s Catholic, he doesn’t have a family waiting for him at home, and he’s on good terms with God, soooo… pull Oprah back into the boat.

The question bothered me all day long—why should we keep the priest and rabbi in the boat—all through the afternoon trust equation discussion, through happy hour, on my drive home, and even through our Friday night house church meeting.

We studied the first part of James 3 tonight, which is all about the power of the tongue. How does bad language and our speech affect our behavior and attitude? How do words impact our children, our neighbors? How should we speak? What should we expose our kids to?

And in the midst of all of this I thought—all of the people I work with, all of the people I’ve interacted with year after year, they are all trying to be good people. They generally know the difference between right and wrong. They have their own moral codes, adopted from their parents or from their culture or reshaped and redefined along the way, and they are all not perfect. They try to watch their language and speak kindly to other people and encourage their children and spouses. They are all trying to be better. My office and school and higher education is filled with people who are generally good human beings trying to be better at something, trying to succeed.

The conversation tonight wasn’t just morality, but isn’t that what you hear most days from spiritual leaders? Do this. Don’t do that. Be kind. Follow the golden rule. Do better. Be better. Even corporate America and business educators are suggesting that businesses flourish by becoming agents of world benefit. World benefit – isn’t that what Christians aspire to? Do good? Serve the poor? Care for the earth? Treat each other with kindness (it was, after all, World Kindness Day yesterday)?

Which brings me back to an even bigger question than why spiritual leaders… why God? Who needs him, anyway, now that world leaders and business educators and philosophers have reasoned out the best ways to live? They are preaching the same gospel, aren’t they?

As we hashed out the ways our words affect other people tonight at house church I imagined the same conversation taking place in my secular work environment. It was nearly the same, minus a few Bible verse references.

Except for this one thing: Grace.


Grace—an undeserved gift that releases us from slavery to “do good things” and delivers us into “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” This love frees the spirit from the burden to perform, the burden of guilt, the burden of fear. It is rooted in relationship. It filters the muddy waters. It strengthens and encourages and emboldens because we know there is a force that is stronger than our imperfections who is working in and through us for wholeness, for completeness. It is compassion in a hurricane of brokenness and disease. It is freedom from the hells we have been given and the hells we’ve made for ourselves, in addictions, in poverty, in selfishness, in greed. It illuminates so we can see how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. It resides in us through the Holy Spirit as compass. It clarifies, purifies, mends, heals, hones, hammers, and polishes. Because it is unearned by definition it does not consider your qualifications or your past failures; grace loves and loves and loves, all day long, whether I take it or not, whether I recognize it or not, whether I call it “Jesus” or “God” or not, it shows up in truth, it shows up in beauty, it shows up as forgiveness, it shows up all over the place.

Spiritual leaders, then, shouldn’t be morality instructors. Even though the internet loves the “ten ways” lists, and people love to know how to become better people, the priests and rabbis might do better to stop telling people how to be better. Spiritual leaders should be more like scientists who observe and announce, “Look! Look what I found!” or maybe like poets who ponder and write, “I saw this small thing in the world and look how full of meaning it is,” or maybe they should be like stargazers who point to the heavens and declare, “There, isn’t that marvelous?” Spiritual leaders should say, “Let me show you grace. Here it is. Here it is. Here it is again. This is grace. This is love. This is Christ. This is God. Here is the Father. Here is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. Here they are again, ever-present, everlasting, loving you forever and ever and ever, loving you even after you screwed up, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ even in your attempts to earn it, loving you, beautiful you, stunning you, masterpiece you, God loves you. That’s it. That’s all.”

Maybe I’ll grant the spiritual leader this one final benediction, “Now act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” We don’t need the priest who preaches morality. We need the priest who points to the heavens and says, “God. Have you seen this? Have you seen this grace? Have you seen this love?”