A Catholic and a Mennonite Walk into a Plane

I have flown domestically and internationally dozens of times, and I can think of only one meaningful conversation I have had with a seatmate. That is, until last week, when I had my second most interesting in-flight conversation.   

A 20-something young woman fell into the seat beside me on a budget airline on a flight to Florida. Her accessories seemed expensive, and she apologized as she climbed over me, balancing bags, a hot sandwich, Starbucks, and a loose pair of pale pink heels. “Sorry!” she gushed as she arm-wrestled her posh belongings under the seat in front of her, disappearing under her blonde hair. Before consuming her sandwich, she very noticeably crossed herself, and I admit that I was not expecting this religious expression based on her appearance. 

I pulled out a conspicuous book to read. (I was wading through George Marsden’s brand-new third edition history text, Fundamentalism in American Culture.) It’s a thick book, and the bold headings throughout make it very clear that one is reading about religion. 

Half-way through the flight, she couldn’t resist: “May I ask what you’re reading?”

Me: “It’s George Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. It’s his new third edition where not only does he highlight how evangelicalism has been shaped by fundamentalism in American history, but he brings it all the way up through the Trump administration and discusses fundamentalism in America even in the last decade.” 

I couldn’t read the look on her face when I mentioned Trump, so I chalked it up to her breeding that she did not comment further on that reference.

“I see it says Christian civilization there on the cover.” She pointed to the cover art. “Are you an evangelical?” 

“Oh, um, I suppose, kind of. I participate in a Mennonite church. Do you know what that is?” 

She nodded yes, and then smiled brightly: “I’m a Catholic missionary.” 

I couldn’t have been more surprised, nor less wrong in my judgment of her appearance as “wealthy, entitled, Gen-Z spring breaker.” 

“I serve as a missionary to students in [certain big city] at [unmentioned Ivy-league school]. So I’m in ministry to Greek students. You know fraternities and sororities?” She laughed. “I minister to students in these societies and come alongside them and do life with them and answer their questions and I invite them to mass, like they can go to daily mass with me if they want, and we do Bible studies, and normally, within that, I connect with just a few students who have the capacity for leadership, and really build them up, and then they are able to lead out in their own Bible studies. We really adopt the model that Jesus used. I mean, he interacted with hundreds of people, but really only 12 of them knew him well, and within that there were the three. So that’s the model my ministry follows. I just, it’s so wonderful, because I came from West Virginia University,” 

I butted in: “Cool, I graduated from Ohio State!” 

“Really?” she gushed. “I totally applied there! It was one of my top three schools! Anyway, I came from West Virginia University, which is an affluent party school. Like only 60% of people graduate. It has to do with wealth and partying and drugs, and, I don’t know, it’s great to be a part of a ministry at [unmentioned Ivy-league-school] that actively enters that world. I mean, I kind of know that world just from being at WVU. Greek life is a lot!” 

She talks about her experience in Catholicism at WVU, and her spiritual director who had a profound impact on her, and how she ascribes to traditional Catholicism. I ask her if she attended grad school, and she says that she is looking at Augustine Institute, as her ministry offers scholarship to students to attend there. She mentions that for now, her work is part of the re-evangelization efforts within Catholicism to its own youth. As she speaks, it becomes clear that she found Catholicism as an adult. I ask her what drew her to Catholicism. Her eyes widen, “Do you know ‘Theology of the Body’?” 

Me: “It sounds familiar?”  

“Basically, Pope John Paul II (that’s three popes ago) – like, his whole life work was about the body and human sexuality, and how it points us to God and how we learn about the divine through the body and human sexuality. (The people at the Theology of the Body institute are so wonderful! I learned so much about marriage, faithfulness, sexuality, to include masculinity and femininity…) Anyway, I found it so compelling, partly because I came from a broken family, lots of sleeping around, and we had none of that, and I found it so, so beautiful. That, and also the Eucharist and everything in John 6. Do you know John 6?” 

I mean, yes, I know John 6, but couldn’t quote it. She speaks about how strange it was, how strange in Jesus’ culture it would have been for him to tell his disciples to eat his body. 

“And I mean, you don’t really get this unless you read it in the Greek, but it has this idea of ‘gnaw on my flesh,’ this really active, thoughtful action. And then there is the incarnation. Do you all take communion?” 

“Yes, we do.” I smiled, thinking about our rare spring & fall communions compared to regular mass. “We take it twice a year.” 

“And is it substantial or symbolic?” 

“For us, it is symbolic.”

She nodded, smiling. 

“Anyway, tell me all about Mennonites! I know nothing about them. And where are you guys? Like in the U.S.?” 

“We’re all over. Name an American state, and I’ll tell you in what city there are Mennonites.” 

“And what are guys?” 

Grasping, I mumbled something about Menno Simons and Zwingli and the Reformation, and then I highlighted some key distinctives which separate Anabaptists from Catholics and possibly other groups, including believers’ baptism and a decentralized church governance which (supposedly) steps away from church hierarchy in favor of consensus-style leadership and more democratic ways of being. And of course, pacifism and nonviolence. 

“So what is your dogma? What are your creeds?” 

“Welp,” I said, “we have them, but I argue that your regular conservative Mennonite, that is, your regular lay person, would not know what they are or be able to quote them. There are confessions of faith, and deeply buried historical catechisms (like the Waldeck catechism), and there are creeds, but your average daily Mennonite is not familiar with them. I happen to have a keen interest in what will happen to the future of our movement if these elements are not resurrected. I am very interested in liturgy, and I believe that we are getting to the end of something, if our people do not get back to some of these things.”  

Later in the conversation, I told her that our pastors don’t go to seminary, and she thereby lost her mind. “How in the world does that even work?!” 

I smiled and perhaps my eyes twinkled for I have had the same question at times. I also added, “To our people, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.”

I mentioned that these dynamics are similar in our educational institutions. “I should explain to you the state of our schools.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. 

“It is common practice in our conservative Mennonite schools for teachers to begin teaching right out of high school. Most teachers do not go to college.”

Her mouth dropped open. 

I went on, “I mean, some schools are working to change this. For example, I taught at the only accredited conservative Mennonite school in the United States. I also helped to start the first A.P. program at a conservative Mennonite school in the United States.” 

“Yeahhhh!” she cheered. 

Later she asked about the difference between Amish and Mennonites and said how her grandmother knew a Mennonite man, and also about marriage practices with the Amish and if they really are allowed to sleep together before they get married. And I said that there are a whole heap of things that I don’t know about the Amish, and I couldn’t say. 

Of course she asked about the Bann and how that could even be Biblical, and I told her that excommunication, as it is practiced, probably comes from readings in Paul where it says to expel the immoral brother and treat him as you would an unbeliever (that is, of course, after Matthew 18 reconciliation had been attempted). 

(At that point in the conversation, I couldn’t remember if Paul actually says to “expel the immoral brother,” or if that was just the heading of that passage in my study Bible growing up.) 

“Well yeah, but how do you treat an unbeliever? Why would you treat him differently?” 

I said that I supposed it had to do with the passage about doing good especially unto the household of faith. (Or that that is how some would explain it.) 

“That’s like indicating you wouldn’t do good to an unbeliever. To me, that just does not make any sense, because Jesus’ whole ministry was one of invitation and hospitality!” 

“Ah,” I said, “but don’t you practice excommunication?”

“No!” she said. 

“But you have closed communion, don’t you?”

“What do you mean, ‘closed communion’?” 

Me: “Not everyone can take communion at any time. There are things which keep people from taking communion.” 

Her: “Well yes, but in that moment, you are still Catholic!!” 

She explained how communion is only for members of the Catholic church because of what is believed about the Eucharist. “We wouldn’t want to give you Jesus’ body and you not know what you are eating!!” 

Then she explained venial sins versus mortal sins. That is, if you sin by not picking up your trash and littering, you won’t go to hell for it. But a mortal sin is where you know something is wrong to do, like very very wrong, like murdering someone, and you choose to do it: “I am going to do this thing.” While you are in that state of unconfessed mortal sin, then no, you do not take communion. 

I mentioned that some Mennonite churches have closed communion and some have open communion (related to church membership), and that I grew up with open communion. 

A bit later she asked about attire and head coverings and dresses, and since she seemed comfortable throwing around Scripture, I mentioned where Mennonites draw their teaching: I Corinthians 11. 

“Oh yes,” she said, “I know. As a traditional Catholic, I cover my head, too, in church.” 

Now it was my turn to be surprised!

At one point, feet-washing came up. “Do you practice feet-washing?!” she asked excitedly. I assured her we did. 

“I have to show you this video!” she rummaged for her phone. “Do you know [unmentioned sports team that is regularly in the news because of dynamics of gender]? I actively work with that team. So, so many good things are happening. I can’t tell you everything, but I have to show you this video of ______________ getting their feet washed.” She played a video, showing high church ornamentation, and a priest kneeling and washing the feet of several people wearing skirts. 

In the conversation, it became clear that she comes to her work honestly. She would ask simple conversational questions, and then very quietly ask bold, direct questions, to which you felt compelled to respond. Like her very carefully asking, “How do you experience singleness?” 

Which I quickly turned around on her because I was dying to know how she sees singleness being viewed in the Catholic church, and whether she thinks singleness holds a higher position in Catholicism compared to evangelicalism, due to beliefs about vocations like being a nun or being a “consecrated virgin living in the world.” (If you don’t know what that is, Google it!) 

There isn’t time here to bat around her response, nor to discuss our next topic – what it is like to be a woman in a traditional community – but I can say that she listened very carefully, asked probing questions, and at the end said, “I want to be clear. When you use the word ‘traditional’ to talk about your experiences as a woman in your community, I mean something completely different when I use the word ‘traditional’ when speaking about being a ‘traditional Catholic.’ You must know that I am referring to theology and orthodoxy.” 

I smiled knowingly: “Oh, for SURE. I’m completely aware.” 

I was struck, though, by her nearly instant ability to discover similarities and differences in our use of terminology and to graciously and humbly recognize our different experiences of that word. 

I wondered, then, if that is how some of these memorable and meaningful connections are formed. And if that – as I asked in September’s blog – if that is one of the keys to connecting with those on the margins.

How I Came to Be Polish – and Other Stories

Four weeks ago I discovered a pretty incredible Polish ancestor. I was quite thrilled with my discovery, for I would be traveling to Poland in a matter of days.

It all started with my great-grandmother who lived to be 102. Here’s a picture of her reading me a book.

Circa 1991


I have clear memories of her, and I’m so delighted that she lived to be so old. (I plan on living just as long. Also, how fun is it to be able to say I met someone who was born in the 1800s?! 1893, to be exact.) I remember the way she conserved water when washing her hands by turning on the faucet to only the tiniest stream, and there are stories about her traveling via horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Oklahoma.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother is that her mother was adopted from the Ukraine. You must know that this is significant; my family has very solid Swiss and German roots, so a Ukrainian ancestor is a bit of an anomaly. My great-great grandmother’s name was Mary Ratzlaff, and I was always convinced that she had an interesting Russian heritage.

Russian? Ukrainian? Polish?

You see, I have always wanted to be Russian. Because of this, I exaggerate my Ratzlaff family history. Some of you also know my affinity for Tolstoy. Once I spent the weekend in New York City and bought tickets to see The Great Comet on Broadway, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of War and Peace. I was pleased as punch with my nosebleed seats to see Josh Groban performing as Pierre, but more so by an Asian family who asked me how much it meant for me to see the play since I was obviously Russian. Earlier that day, a Russian family on the street stopped my friends and asked me for directions, and please could I give them in Russian.

“Why are you asking me?!” I said.

The man replied: “You look like you speak Russian!”

My family tells the story this way: Mary Ratzlaff arrived to America as an immigrant whose parents had died. She was taken in by the Brennemans, a childless Mennonite couple in Oklahoma. She never learned to read or write, but perhaps she enjoyed looking at pictures in the Brenneman’s German family Bible. (My father is in possession of this Bible, and I will inherit it.) The Bible includes a letter, written in my great-grandmother’s hand, on her mother’s origins.

Papa and I have done a bit of digging to discover more of Mary’s past, and we connected a few dots in Ukraine, but the trail goes cold in Poland, right around the time Mary’s parents and grandparents were marrying very Jewish sounding names – Koehns and Schmidts. (!!)

Dad and I lost our minds – what if we are Jewish?!

Last year, I posted about this on Instagram, and my Belarusian friend Kristina (who is living in Poland) mentioned: “Yes, her name sounds a little bit Jewish!”

Me: “Okay, is it Jewish? My dad and I have always wondered!”

Kristina: “For me, it sounds very Jewish. Both name and surname.”

Dad and I were so intrigued. A year later, this December, I did the final uncovering. Using all the free tools at ancestry.com, geni.com, and wikitree.com, I discovered the following:

Slavic?

The earliest known Ratzlaff relative was a Swedish soldier, of Slavic origin named Heinrich, who lived from 1590-1631. (Actually, his first name is unknown, but genealogists have nicknamed him thus.) He may have been a Swedish soldier in the European Civil War (the 30 Years War in 1618-1648), or perhaps a contract soldier (mercenary) of Slavic origin fighting for the King of Sweden. He was born is what is now Szczecin, Poland, a major seaport near the German border and the Baltic Sea. (This city was found by West Slavs in the 700s).

Reportedly, this Ratzlaff ancestor was moved by sermons he heard in the Mennonite church and determined to join the church. He pulled his sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post and broke it off at the hilt. Jacob Wedel (1754-1791), a Mennonite of Przechovka, Poland, who traced family names back to their origins in his Przechovka-Alexanderwohl church record, relates that due to the laws in Prussia of the time about converting to the Mennonite church, Heinrich could not immediately join the church. He had to leave for the Netherlands before returning to Prussia to join the congregation. Heinrich Ratzlaff married Caterina Alcke Vogt, and his only son is described by Wedel as “by our people’s standards, a very wealthy man.”

Wedels are not only 18th century Mennonite record keepers; their German counterparts started the Polish national chocolate brand: E. Wedel!

Kenneth Ratzlaff, in his 1998 A Mennonite Family’s History, raises some interesting questions regarding the possible Slavic origins of the Ratzlaff name: “Where did this ‘Swedish’ Ratzlaff come from with his Slavic-sounding name? Several sources have pointed to Pomerania, a region of northern present-day Germany, on the Baltic Sea west of Danzig [Gdansk]. Pomerania at that time was under Swedish control, and Sweden had been at war with Poland and Russia. Consequently a soldier from that region might have had contacts around Przechowka, and someone from Pomerania could have been identified as Swedish. A similar name, Retzlaff, is common in the area around Stettin [Szczecin] in Pomerania. The name Retzlaff could have been changed to Ratzlaff to fit the Low German dialect of West Prussia. That leaves another question: Ratzlaff sounds Slavic; why would a Slavic name come from a Germanic area? Centuries earlier, Pomerania had been occupied by Slavs. Though Retzlaff is not a Serbian-sounding name, a possible origin in the present-day area of Serbia has been suggested. The Slavic identity had been lost, but the name Retzlaff was possibly a relic of that occupation.”

(Interestingly, wikitree.com indicates that “no known carriers of Heinrich’s DNA have taken a DNA test.” Presumedly doing so could prove these Slavic roots. Me: HOLD MY MENNO TEA. My DNA test just arrived in the mail today!)

For eight generations, the Ratzlaffs resided in what is now Poland. They participated in Mennonite congregations in Prussia throughout the 1600 and 1700s, and if we follow the line, it is Heinrich, Johann V Hans, Elder Berent, Berent, Hans, Heinrich, Andreas Heinrich, and Andreas, who moved to Ukraine. Andreas’s son Tobias, and Tobias’s daughter Mary Ratzlaff (my great-great-grandmother) were both born in Antonivka, Ukraine.

Indeed, to have discovered these possible Slavic origins only days before a short trip to Warsaw, Poland, was immensely gratifying. I imagined my trip to be a kind of home-going, a visiting of the motherland. I imagined 6-year-old Mary Ratzlaff boarding a ship for America, leaving behind the flat plains of Antonivka, never to return again. I imagined her on her deathbed, at 44 years old, learning of her great-great granddaughter whose entire occupation is teaching language and reading. I tried to imagine the Polish landscape, a land my ancestors once inhabited.

No words on any Jewish origins, though. Many female maiden names in the family line sound quite Mennonite (Dutch Mennonite, for that matter): Voth, Funk, Kornelson, Unruh, Dreier. (However, a DNA test should be able to identify Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, if there is any. I will know soon!) I was also shocked to discover that Mary Ratzlaff’s father Tobias did NOT die, leaving her an orphan. Rather, he dropped her off in Oklahoma, and went on to Kansas where he remarried a Helena Schmidt, and proceeded to have 13 children! Both Tobias and Helena are both buried in a Mennonite cemetery in Kansas. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. How could he leave his little daughter, and was he estranged from her? For my great-grandmother’s letter mentions nothing of her mother’s father remarrying or ever visiting Mary after she was taken in by the Brennemans. So fascinating.

Story #1: Warsaw holiday

Some of you who follow me on social media know that I planned a short trip to Poland over Christmas to visit two dear friends, Lizzie who is teaching English in Minsk Mazowiecki, and my Belarusian friend Kristina, who is living in Warsaw, who I met on Oasis Chorale tour in Ireland in 2014. (A crazy connection! We met after a concert in the Waterford cathedral, and we’ve stayed connected on Instagram ever since.) When I mentioned that I might be in Warsaw over Christmas, Kristina graciously invited me to visit her church and have a meal with her family.

I traveled with an old roommate of mine (you remember my scientist friend who accompanied me to the Mennonite History conference in Winnipeg) and her husband, and we had a magical time exploring the most festive bits of Old Town, for we arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

(Interestingly, Tobias and his little daughter Mary arrived to Philadelphia from Europe on Christmas day in 1874. One hundred forty-seven years later, I traveled from Philadelphia to Warsaw on Christmas Eve.)

Mary’s passage documents that I found on ancestry.com: “Maria Ratzlas, 6, female, child, Russian” aboard the S.S. Vaderland in December 1874. (Note the two little girls’ names after hers. Mary had several little sisters on the ship!)

Christmas day was spent with Lizzie and her friends, and Lizzie put me on a train back to Warsaw in the afternoon to meet my Belarusian friend Kristina, who I had not seen for seven years. I was so nervous about getting off at the correct stop, but I managed to find my way, and soon I was in the middle of a Belarusian house party, laughing my way through games played in Russian. Kristina took me back to her apartment, and we drank tea and talked late into the night.

It was an honor to attend her church on Sunday (I may or may not have sung a duet with Kristina in the service), and it was a privilege to meet her parents and 12 siblings. We shared a meal, after which the house was filled with music and singing (in Polish and English), and it felt nearly familiar, with rich four-part harmonies.

Evening came, and more conversation, and soon Kristina and I were sipping coffees at the train station, waiting for my goodbye train.

It is conversations and connections like these that bring us back to “where we are” and remind us of God’s good earth the world over. Sometimes I find that my life feels very in-grown, so very small, at my tiny school in a rural county. But that evening, it was as if, for a moment, I turned slowly in place and surveyed the whole landscape, instead of fixating on that broken hilt.

Story #2: A Man with a baby cat

On my train back to Minsk Mazowiecki, a Man with a Baby Cat began walking through my train, asking everyone to pet it. Everyone cooed at the baby cat. Even though he was well-dressed, I did NOT want to be bothered by this stranger. I got off at my train stop, and he sidled up to me near the stairs:

“Chcesz pogłaskać kociaka?”

I tried to ignore him, and put my head down and kept walking, a little scared to find an empty train platform with my friends NOWHERE in sight.

The Man with a Baby Cat, who was still wearing a huge smile, toddled off to find other victims. I couldn’t remember how to get back to Lizzie’s apartment, so I was left to shiver in 7-degree weather on the train platform and furiously text my friends.

Ten minutes later, they arrived, and all the way home, I gushed about my freshly-made Warsaw memories, and hollered about the Man with the Baby Cat, and right when we were crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, the Man with a Baby Cat dashed up behind us and asked in English, “DO YOU WANT TO PET THE KITTEN?” and we squealed and ran for the apartment and dashed inside and locked the doors.


Story #3: Ice Skating

Indeed, my Warsaw holiday was a gift, thanks to the hospitality of Lizzie and Kristina, and my traveling companions Janae & Justin.

One highlight was exploring Kazimierz Dolny, a historic town filled with art galleries, along the Vistula River.

I also enjoyed ice skating in Old Town Warsaw. (Indeed, I hadn’t gone ice skating in years!) Admission to the rink in the center of Old Town is free, and renting skates costs only $2.50. The rink is lit by festive lights strung dazzlingly across, and in the amber light, I shoved my feet into hockey skates while my friends sought out hot drinks and grilled sheep cheese with cranberries.

I slowly warmed up on the ice, weaving in and out of Polish strangers until my body remembered the movements, and then I skated fast like a little girl, darting in and out of the bundled skaters. I skated around and around, changing directions when the announcers called it, lost deep in thought, not realizing my time had wound down, much past my rental. As I swirled around on the ice that night, an old woman with gray hair, across the rink, caught my eye. She stared into my eyes, smiled, and waved and waved. I circled the rink again, trying to find her face to see if she was actually waving at me or someone else.

I kept scanning the spectators warming themselves with hot drinks by the fire heaters, but I couldn’t find her.

Had she slipped into the crowd?

It doesn’t matter. I will always imagine her to be my ancestor welcoming me home.

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On Being Woman: Reflections on My Mennonite Running Life

Last summer I was interrupted during a particularly foggy early morning 12-mile run. There was an unusual amount of road traffic for just after sunrise on a Saturday. I noticed a large number of Amish buggies, and huge white Amish-hauler vans and big trucks (that seemed like they should have Trump stickers but didn’t) were passing me. As I coasted down a hill, I realized I was running through Linda Stoltzfoos’s search party. I approached a Mennonite church parking lot and found the make-shift search party headquarters. It was 7:00 a.m., and probably one hundred Amish, Mennonite, and community members were gathering to commence the search. Buggies were still arriving, and police cars slowly cruised in the lot. Several men eyed me carefully as I jogged past. I kept my head down and kept running.

It’s been one year since Linda Stoltzfoos, an 18-year-old Amish teen, disappeared from Beechdale Road in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. She was walking home from a Sunday church service when she was kidnapped, strangled, and stabbed to death by Justo Smoker.

I think about her regularly, for I, too, spend time alone on country roads. She, walking home from a Sunday church service, and I, a Mennonite long-distance runner.

When the news story broke last June about her disappearance, and in the following weeks as a kidnapping and murder seemed imminent, I felt sick to my stomach. I spend hours running alone on country roads in Lancaster County. What if it had been me? Had I been out that day? I checked my GPS watch running logs. My half-marathon training records show a 6-mile run in a nearby area the day before.

The 12-mile run when I stumbled upon her search party was a difficult run to finish, for I imagined myself finding a body… in a ditch, in a corn field, under a tree.

I remember as I finished my run and I neared my house, a squad came screaming past. I felt sick to my stomach. Had they found her body? Was it nearby?

While the run was traumatic, I suppose I felt safe that day. I was at least running through a search party.

I think about safety a lot. I’ve been road running for eight years, and you learn some things.

Like when you choose a new running route, don’t use earbuds for several days. Get used to the route. Notice the traffic, the people. Notice the cars driving past. Do you feel safe? Where do you feel exposed? Don’t run at night. Wear bright colors. If you’re running in the early morning, wear a head lamp. At all times have an exit plan. That slow-approaching car? Where can you turn off? Which Amish farm is closest? Do you trust the folks at this non-Amish farm? Pay attention to cars that pass you twice. Memorize license plates. (You can always tell when folks are watching you when they pass you from behind because they slightly drift over the yellow line. Every time a car drifts over the line, I look up and find myself locking eyes with someone in the rear-view mirror.) (It’s always a man.)

Part of my approach to road safety I’ve learned from one of my friends who lives in New York (which, according to my rural neighbors is “the most dangerous place in the world”). Besides the common-sense tips of not being out alone after dark, she talks about intuition.

“You don’t feel safe? Something feels off? That person on the subway making you feel uncomfortable? Get out. Move to a different car. Change your location. There’s a reason your body is giving you these messages. Listen to your intuition.”

Recently we traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were walking, just the two of us, through the beautiful, colorful streets, Instagramming the architecture in the late afternoon sun. The streets were empty, and we turned down one street and noticed a man muttering to himself. We felt it at the same time.

“Let’s turn around,” I said.

“Absolutely, let’s go the other way,” she replied.

As two 30-year-old single women, we enjoyed our time exploring Old San Juan. We also listened to our intuition and deviated from our route if necessary.

For the most part, nobody bothers me when I run. The time in my life when I received the most harassment was when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana that was surrounded by Amish homesteads. It was common on my afternoon run for J.O.’s  in a Jeep to drive by and harass me. (J.O. refers to “jumped over”; it refers to Indiana Amish youth who have left the Amish; they have “jumped over” the fence.) They would honk the horn and yell at me, leaving me to think J.O.’s in their free time weren’t good for much.

Mostly, though, when people see a Mennonite woman running, there is just general confusion. When I was attending a Mennonite Bible Institute in southern Indiana, I was running (in a skirt) one winter afternoon. An “English” man was walking next to his young son who was on a bicycle. A look of great concern came over the man’s face as I approached, and he motioned for his son to stop riding, (presumably so he could “save” me from whatever it was I was running from). I awkwardly waved, tried to smile, and ran past.

When I moved to Lancaster, PA, a Mennonite friend in the city offered me a “running tour” of Lancaster city. We were both wearing Mennonite running skorts. I donned an Adidas hat to cover my head, and she wore a prayer veiling. We scampered all over the city. A young woman with a missing tooth and a cigarette walked past, “Okay, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have NEVER seen an Amish person exercise.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes. My friend smiled and said hello.

As I think about running safety and the different reactions I get while running (from mild harassment to general confusion), it strikes me how these experiences are not shared by Mennonite men. No one bats an eye if a Mennonite man were to run down the road. But this is not the case for Mennonite women. (Indeed, no one bats an eye if a white Mennonite man were to run down the road. The same might not be said for an African American man.)

And so I think about the parts of my running experience that are not shared by white men. For Justo Smoker did not attack an Amish male. He attacked an Amish girl.

And I wonder – is the experience of being a woman different than the experience of being a man? The answer is so obvious, but there are those who want it not to be true exactly when they need to focus on it. There are those who pretend the experience is the same for everyone precisely when it is not.

The fact that I think about Linda Stoltzfoos on nearly every run is evidence, for one. I’m constantly scanning traffic. I notice my route radiuses getting shorter and shorter. I notice I struggle to have motivation to get on the road. I haven’t been this scared before. All this, based on one murder. (It makes me wonder what my black brothers and sisters experience, considering the news we encounter on a regular basis.)

Indeed, different Mennonite women have different attitudes toward road running and female safety. I once suggested a running route to one of my friends, and she said to me, “You would run on that road?! A man exposed himself to some girls on that road once!”

While I champion safety, I do not fall into this “fear of the public” mentality.

“Let’s be clear,” I responded. “That was a one-time event. He doesn’t live on that road and was probably driving past. I’m not going to avoid one of the most beautiful (open, visible) routes in Lancaster because of a one-time event years ago.”

You see? They don’t get to scare us. They don’t get to make us disappear. I will keep running and being visible. I will keep showing up. I refuse to stay inside.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about systems recently. How systems can carry ideology and treatment of people even if the people currently running the system don’t believe those things, and the folks who put those systems in place are long gone. As a school admin, I see how systems put in place years ago continue to affect students and staff that the institution serves. It occurs to me that there can be institutional dysfunction which is the fault of no current employee, yet we all experience the dysfunction, and we all bear the responsibility for change. (I could give examples from various institutions – can you?) (I like to think that it works both ways, that leaders can affect long-lasting positive change, institutional change that outlives them. Why does it feel so hard to be hopeful in this way?)

Is it different being a woman?

A friend of mine, studying at a liberal Mennonite university gave a literary presentation that somehow included reference to his conservative upbringing, to women, and to feminism. A questioner in the audience asked about women from his community and about feminism – if they want it. My friend responded, “Mennonite women are largely content. They have no need of feminism.” He told me this story as if for approval, yet self-assured of his answer. I looked him square in the eye and said: “I would never have given that answer!”

And he shouldn’t have either. He is much too educated to provide such a simplistic, unnuanced answer. He should have at the very least said, “It’s complicated,” and cited the countless sex abuse cases and the (countable) disaffected Mennonite women he knows.

But when a system is working for you, you don’t question if it is working for others. Not to mention the female hegemony he doesn’t look past. 

Years ago, a group of young Mennonite students plopped into their seats as the bell rang for my English class, and they asked as a group: “Miss Swartzentruber, are you a feminist?”

This was a land mine, for then (as now) the word feminist is heard as a four-letter word among conservative Mennonites, especially in those pockets where fundamentalism has attached itself to Anabaptism.

I backed away from the land mine. Turning the question around on them, I asked, “What do you mean by a feminist? Can you define what feminism is?”

They squirmed and looked at each other.

I went on: “If by feminism you mean that female teachers should get paid the same as men, and that female teachers should receive the same benefits as married male teachers, then yes, I’m a feminist.”

A few kids raised their eyebrows. Not because I said, “I’m a feminist,” but because of the hint I was giving them about pay practices at a Mennonite school they attended. These bright students knew that their female teachers worked their fingers to the bone every day for their students. I believe they were shocked to discover that between their goofy, easy-going teachers there was inequality quietly percolating, as it had been, for years.

I suppose what running is teaching me right now is that different people from different groups have different experiences. And it’s no use arguing that we all experience the same things.

Yet no matter how often I have this conversation, someone refuses to listen to it. It is as if there is a chosen deafness.

Why can’t we trust people? Why is it so hard to accept that someone has had different experiences than me? And that those experiences have occurred in systems which happen to benefit me, but not entirely everybody else?

Despite the fact that running motivation for me has been quite low, a few months ago I signed up for the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon. This local race is nationally recognized for its community experience and next-door view of Amish life. Runners “run with the Amish” through Lancaster County, past Amish farms and schoolhouses. Aid stations are manned by Amish kids and families, and finisher medals are fashioned from old horseshoes from Amish horses. I generally avoid heritage tourist traps, but the race is so highly rated (and literally in my backyard) that I figured I ought to run it. (I noticed that the course is only a half mile from Beechdale road.)

My training leading up to the race was absolute trash. Pouring rain, an insane work schedule, and low motivation caused me to miss half of my training runs. Then I got quite sick with allergies the week of the race. I decided to run anyway, despite my hacking cough and intermittent nosebleeds.

Registration, parking, and port-a-pots were seamless. Indeed, Mennonites and Amish are similar enough for me to know that we know how to do large group events. The lack of thumping music at the starting line was also decidedly local. I felt proud to be welcoming so many out-of-state visitors to “my” community. Didn’t see many Amish or Mennonite runners, though; I was rockin’ a skirt by myself, amidst all the neon spandex.

By mile 2, I ended up in an Amish front yard for a 20-minute pit stop. I had a nosebleed.

“You live here?” I asked four Amish spectators.

Fluids flowed down my hand. Each spectator checked their pockets for tissues.

An Amish man asked softly if I would like some paper towels, a rag to clean myself, and a cup of cold water.

“That would be nice?” I stammered. I realized the nosebleed was going to be a bad one, and I contemplated dropping out. Meanwhile, an Amish lady found a crumpled (used?) tissue, which I accepted. The Amish man returned, and I jammed paper towels on my face. I asked him how many runners he knows are racing.

“Didn’t they say about 1800? Or do you mean how many runners I know personally? About 8 or so. My son was one of the first ones through here,” he said modestly. Though wearing a long beard, he did not have a mustache, and his cheeks looked like they had just been shaved. Behind him, a cow mooed.   

He looked at me: “You need someone to help you. You don’t want to keep running. It could start bleeding again. Aren’t there people around to help?” He was referring to the race organizers and the ambulances dotting the course.

He mentioned a second time that I should probably not finish the race.

THIS WAS EVERY MOTIVATION I NEEDED TO ABSOLUTELY FINISH THE RACE.

I mumbled something about finding an ambulance, then motioned awkwardly to the pile of paper towels at his feet.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said softly, looking into the distance.

I walked for a mile holding my nose, then carried dirty paper towels for 10 more miles. Which I ran without stopping.

At one point, I came upon a group of women in matching miniskirts cresting a hill, squawking like birds.

“Where are you from?” I asked, jogging past.

“Long Island!” they hollered. “LONG OYLAND! Long Oyland! Where YOU from?!”

“I’m from right here, man; I run these roads every Saturday.”

“Ahhhh! You are so lucky!” they cried.

Indeed, little Amish kids offered “wasser” at multiple aid stations, their little chorus of cries in near unison. I was amused at the runners’ wonder and curiosity at all of the county delights – I mentally catalogued all the things they photographed.  

Because I had stopped so long for my nosebleed, the race had really thinned out. For the last two miles, we were running parallel to Beechdale road. I was running alone, and I thought of Linda Stoltzfoos. I blinked back tears.

I finished the race and was surprised by the “community picnic,” a free, massive Amish dinner of ribs, BBQ chicken, potato salad, veggies, cake, and soft-serve ice cream. I wanted to hug the food tent. I’m not sure if race participants understood how Amish/Mennonite that part of the event was. The menu, the help-yourself buffet styling, the endless food for a crowd of over 2000, the seamless organization of it all, the little tiny Amish and Mennonite children darting to and fro. This kind of hospitality runs deep in my bones.

With my back to a tent of 1000 people, I sat by myself in the grass, cross-legged in the bright September sun. I thought to myself how, though I had been surrounded by 2000 people that day, I had barely spoken to anyone all morning (except for the runner’s group from Long Island) and one Amish man.

Both of these groups were my people: the running community, and the plain community. Yet that morning, somehow I felt more like a spectator than a participant, in both groups. 

And maybe that’s what I mean by different people from different groups have different experiences. I wonder what it takes to identify the margins. Who is experiencing life differently than I am? And what might they need?

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Icons, Fighting Conches, and Abundant Giving in the Kingdom of God

I was standing inside the book shop window of Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, enjoying the solitude of the “religious books” section, when I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s Penguins & Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places. (Never before have I read Madeleine L’Engle. Egregious on my part.) Fresh off the beach, my friend and I were passing time before an early dinner. With sand still on my toes, I put back Thomas Merton and began reading L’Engle’s story about an unlikely trip to Antarctica and a particularly transcendent interaction with penguins, an experience so memorable and meaning-filled that she began to see penguins as a kind of icon. She created her own definition of “icon” to mean those moments, or places, or things, or people that remind us of God, or theology, in some way. As she put it, icons are “an open window to God.”

On her trip, L’Engle learned first-hand that penguins are extremely communal creatures. They never do anything alone, always waddling about in little groups. But L’Engle was surprised to learn this one fact: penguins lack intimacy: “Unlike some of the great birds who mate for life, the penguin does not. If, at mating time, last year’s mate appears, well and good. If not, another mate will do.” (8). This is because “intimacy is dangerous. If you open your heart to a mate or a chick and in the next hour that mate or chick gets eaten, you open yourself to loss and grief” (4).

L’Engle reflects on the way in which humans, too, avoid intimacy as a way to protect themselves, or they overlook the incredible amount of time it takes to build intimacy, even allowing for relationship missteps along the way. These thoughts led L’Engle to iconize the penguin: “An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands of us, el’s mortal children, than I would otherwise. It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable as we open ourselves to intimacy, an intimacy which leads not only to love of creatures, but to love of God” (7).

She goes on, “Perhaps one price we must be willing to pay in order to be what we call ‘human’ is to be vulnerable. To love each other. To be willing, if necessary, to die for each other. To let each other die when the time comes. So the penguin, lacking intimacy by its very nature, became an icon for me, an icon of vulnerability” (7). (If you’re thinking this writing sounds a bit like Brene Brown, you’re not wrong. Indeed, Brown quotes from this passage of L’Engle’s in a variety of lectures.)

I purchased the book and walked out back into the sunshine, pleased to have a met L’Engle and to have made a new literary friend. That night I went to sleep with icons on my brain.

The next morning, my friend and I slipped out of our Airbnb in the dark, quietly making our way back across the three-mile causeway to Sanibel island. We were hoping to make it to the beach before sunrise. As we approached the west-facing sand, the white sands were empty except for my one friend and our one book of sonnets. It was Easter morning.

To our right, the pearl, pale pink horizon was lifting the white sky above gray emerald waters, and to our left, the sun was just beginning to peak above distant midnight palms. The whole earth, the beach, the coast, was enshrouded in silent white and pearl pink.

“I’m crying. I can’t read the poem. You read it,” I told Janae.

She read Malcolm Guite’s fifteenth Stations of the Cross poem (“XV Easter Dawn”). We had meditated on the other Stations of the Cross sonnets the night before, saving Mary’s sonnet for Easter morning. Reading that poem, in that place, was a moment of deep beauty.

Arriving at the beach at sunrise also meant we were arriving at low tide, the prime time for shell collecting on one of the most shell-dense shores in the United States. We scampered about along the beach with our little plastic bags, offering each other treasures, and delighting over each other’s finds. I found a leopard crab shell, and many miniature cone-shaped shells, and after an hour of hunting, many, many, broken Florida fighting conches. (Not so very significant.) The beach was empty except for a few walkers. As we were bending over some shell mounds about half-way through our walk, a tall, dark-haired woman and her husband approached us.

“Are you looking for any in particular?” she asked.

“Not necessarily!” we murmured, barely looking up from the sand.

“Look at this one.” She approached me and handed me a perfectly polished Florida fighting conch. “This one is whole, with no imperfections. It’s a very good one.”

“Oh, wow, it’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. Not sure how close I should approach her (we live in COVID times, after all), I fingered its wet, dark brown coloring. “I love it!”

I handed it back to her, but she pushed it into my hands.

“You can have it,” she smiled.

“Are you sure?!” I asked.

“Yes!” She laughed. “I have dozens of them at home!” She and her husband walked off.

I gasped with delight and handed it to Janae.

The woman’s husband soon turned around with another shell.

“Did you see this one?” It was finely turned lightning whelk. “This one is also unique. You may have it!”

The moment of accepting that shell on the beach, accepting a gift, no matter how small it was, moved me. I was struck by this simple generosity. It was no-doubt a familiar courtesy for them, but rare for us as visitors, with our one-day desperate hunting. To our surprise, as the couple moved further down the beach, we began finding perfectly whole fighting conches nearly everywhere.

I suppose my story ends there: Some strangers gave me a shell at a beach. But the moment was so pregnant with meaning for me. During my vacation I managed to read Makoto Fujimura’s newly published Art + Faith from cover-to-cover, and I was completely taken with it, especially in its emphasis on generosity in the Kingdom of God. Fujimura is an American painter trained in Japanese tradition whose style includes abstract expressionism, and whose muse includes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is what I call a theologian in his writings on Christianity and the arts, and he published his most recent book in January. I was pleased to read the foreword by N.T. Wright that hinted at some of the themes from Duke Divinity’s conference on theology and the arts in 2019 (at which he spoke and I attended); in the foreword, I heard some themes that were discussed extensively there. Indeed, Fujimura counts Wright as one of his influences, for Fujimura draws on N.T. Wright in several passages.

In Art + Faith, both Wright and Fujimura depict a shift away from the classic Protestant cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration” to a slightly more nuanced cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation.” Fujimura calls this theology the theology of making, and as sure as it is a step away from fundamentalism’s heaven-or-hell binary, it also moves a little further past the “God is putting everything to rights” “fix-it” sort of theology. (If you’re not familiar with this theological shift gaining popularity particularly among artists, I suggest Fujimura’s book as an introduction.)

What is beautiful about having theological discussions with artists is the possibility which they bring to conversations. And the possibility Fujimura brings is that he reminds us of the incredible abundance of the Kingdom of God. He writes, “When we make, we invite the abundance of God’s world into the reality of scarcity all around us” (4). This contrast of abundance versus scarcity is striking.

It’s not as if Fujimura doesn’t see the resistance: “A Theology of New Creation may at first seem ‘too good to be true’: excessively generous, even gratuitous. This generative path challenges our obsession to reduce everything to utilitarian pragmatism and presuppose a scarcity model. But there is not an iota of scarcity in ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The God of the Bible is the God of abundance” (78). This focus on generosity and abundance is what brings freshness to Fujimura’s writing.

As Fujimura contrasts a familiar sort of “fix-it” theology (what he calls plumbing theology) with the theology of making (or the theology of the New Creation which God breaks open into the world), I thought of my own work in education, and the way that it feels like we are plagued by the scarcity model. All too often in Christian schools, we are stretched to the seams, and as institutions, we position ourselves in the “fix it” theology mode. I confess that I somewhat wistfully respond: what luxury making must be. To make. And further, to make a Christian school as it should be. Can you imagine this?

To be sure, Fujimura is not writing of the religious school; he writes mostly of artists doing the work of culture care, but catch what he says here of the industrial mindset: “Ever since the Industrial Revolution, how we view the world, how we educate, and how we value ourselves have been all about purposeful efficiency. But such bottom-line utilitarian pragmatism has caused a split in how we view creativity and making. To what purpose, we ask, are we making? If the answer to that question is ‘we make to be useful,’ then we will value only what is most efficient, what is practical and industrial” (19).

If you’re unsure why this emphasis on practicality is problematic, Fujimura extends his plumbing metaphor to explain “fix it” theology. He suggests that many people go to church each week to “get fixed,” or to receive a tool to fix some pipes, as it were, each week, in their lives. The problem with this kind of thinking is that once the pipes are fixed, then what? “What are the pipes for?” he asks.

That transcendence is what artists help us to understand, for according to Fujimura, “Artists already live in the abundance of God. They see beyond the pipes. They hear the ‘music of the spheres’ and desire to respond; they see a vista beyond the world of gray utility; they desire to paint in color; they dance to a tune of the Maker who leads us beyond restoration in the New World to come” (31). Indeed, “God does not just mend, repair, or restore; God renews and generates, transcending our expectations of even what we desire, beyond what we dare to ask or imagine” (31).

Reading Fujimura’s book is like drinking a glass of water. It inspires and refreshes those tired, dry bits of yourself, especially those bits laid out in the work of culture care. I was encouraged by two points by Fujimura. First, he encourages those artists (who are also believers) who feel pulled between two worlds. He describes artists as “border-stalkers,” “found at the margins of society, meandering into the borders of established thought patterns” (46). I must admit that at times I feel as such a border-stalker, especially as it seems education falls so regularly along utilitarian lines. When you find yourself as a person who sometimes faintly hears that music of the spheres, it’s encouraging to hear Fujimura support that “border-stalkers have the ability to learn and communicate extratribal languages, and they can transcend tribal languages” (46). Indeed, it is helpful (dare I say useful) for the church to have people that “speak” a variety of languages. For is it not through the arts that our imaginations are formed, and that we learn to desire such a New Creation?

Second, Fujimura’s work made me think about how (if at all) the theology of making can be applied to the religious school. To me, it seems rather difficult to be an “artist” or a “maker” within the Christian school at this time, yet Fujimura reminded me that “an artist hovers in between what is conventional and what invokes the future” (48). How needed are these prophetic voices both within education and the church. So I was encouraged to think of the abundant, generous Kingdom coming about by new methods, apart from fix-it theology. Fujimura writes: “In building for the Kingdom now, we must move beyond the gospel of fixing things and instead set our hearts on the theology of Making. Again, redemption is more than fixing; it is a feast of healing and transformation” (54).

Don’t get me started on how fasting and feasting play out in our theology; they are the direct antithesis to scarcity models that were evident even among the disciples who asked of Mary’s gratuitous pouring of perfume, “Why this waste?”

So we are thankful for this feast. And may we ponder: what does feasting look like for us in the Kingdom of God? What does feasting look like in the religious school? What of the theology of making, there?

Fujimura expresses how beauty is connected to sacrifice, and he writes of the gift that is given through art, a kind of gift that is invaluable.

So I thought of gifts that morning there on the beach. I thought of giving that is abundant, generous, and gratuitous. I thought of my own work in education, and I thought of the theology of making. I thought of people who have offered themselves to me as a gift. I thought of a particular person who has been regularly pouring into me for 11 months. I thought of their input as a gift, an abundant Kingdom gift.

And I was reminded of a line from a poem by Malcolm Guite, from his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford. In his poem “A Shared Motif” he writes,

“To be a person is to be a gift,

Given in love. For each of us receive

The gift of being from another and we lift

Each other into light with every glance,

Given and returned in this long dance.”

The Ordinary Saints project is a series of icon-like portrait paintings and accompanying poetry and musical works, a work I was introduced to at Duke Divinity’s 2019 conference on theology and the arts. I attended a workshop in which Guite, Herman, and Redford explained their artistic process of Herman painting twenty portraits and Guite creating poems for each painting/person along with Redford’s music. The unifying concept of the work is the “sainthood” of everyday persons. It is true that sometimes we “go into nature” to glimpse God, forgetting that our cities are brimful of the image of God, for each person is made in His image. The artworks and poems speak of each person as an “ordinary saint.” At the workshop, there was a painting from the collection, a portrait of the artist’s father. Herman remarked, “You go to a gallery and you are never allowed to touch the paintings. You can touch this painting. There is nothing you can do to it that I haven’t already done to it.” And so we were able to touch and interact with his painting.

The workshop took the “ordinary saints” theme one step further. After Redford presented his music, the presenters asked us to take a quiet moment to regard the stranger sitting next to us. We were to turn to the stranger next to us and look them in the eye, and imagine them as an ordinary saint. I was sitting next to a middle-aged man in a suit, no doubt some musical director, and I turned, and it was a vulnerable, beautiful moment. A kind of communion.

For Guite had just read from his own poem, the “Ordinary Saints: Epilogue”:

“How shall we know each other now? Will all

That we have seen recede to memory?

Or is our sight restored, and having gazed

On icons in this place, will clarity

Transfigure all of us? We turn, amazed,

To see the ones beside us, face to face,

As living icons, sacraments of grace.”

_________________________

These thoughts flooded my mind, and I was left tightly clutching my shell as the sun rose higher. The strangers disappeared beyond the beach.

 “To be a person is to be a gift

Given in love.”

I can’t be sure, but perhaps that shell is my own little icon, a sacrament of grace.

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Whole-Hearted Living: Psychology and Christianity in Paul Tournier’s A Place for You

If you’re like me, when it comes to counseling, you’re aware of a certain stigma related to folks who receive counseling services. This phenomenon is especially present in the church, as it seems that many in the church curate a certain suspicion for, or an ambivalence to, the field of psychology. With this in mind, I must tell you of the book I’ve finished reading. It’s by a French-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who was trained as a physician but later turned to counseling as a profession. Practicing in Geneva, Paul Tournier wrote prolifically on the intersection of psychology and spirituality. Tournier, who was a devout Christian, wrote works that received overwhelming reception due to their pastoral nature, and many of his books were translated into English and German.

First published in French in 1966, his book A Place for You attempts to bring together the seemingly separate worlds of psychology and Christianity. He explains how nonbelievers and Christians alike (while they may not have language to express it) seem to “know” the Two Gospels of both worlds, which seem in opposition to each other. The gospel of psychology, as he calls it, is one of “self-fulfillment” and “self-assertion,” while the Biblical gospel is “self-denial” and “renunciation.” (Tournier is careful to point out that this particular conception of the Biblical gospel is just that: a (g)ospel, not the Gospel, but it is nevertheless a gospel which Christian communities immediately recognize.) If, then, we recognize the strain between these two seemingly separate entities, we must ask the question: is there any “place” in which they merge?

Tournier argues that there is. He contends that both movements are necessary for whole-hearted living, but that they must be enacted in a particular progression. He sees the necessity for self-actualization and self-fulfillment to come before renunciation, and the former movement can only occur when children experience attachment in their family of origin – when they have a sense of place within their family. It is out of this sense of place that attachment forms, which is the starting point for young people to develop a healthy sense of self and self-assertion. It is this personhood, this self, which then interacts with a spiritual movement as an adult, when they, as fully formed adults, make true commitments of faith and willingly give themselves up to appropriate renunciation and self-denial.

We are all aware of Christian communities that legislate conformity in behavior and attitude (and dare I say, dress). Further, we are all familiar with Christian communities that deem unacceptable such language as “self-assertion” and “self-fulfillment.” Yet Tournier argues that untold damage is done in Christian communities by curating “premature renunciation” before the member has experienced the appropriate “free expansion” of self, which occurs mostly after having experienced attachment love in the home, when the person felt a place in their family of origin. Without this sense of place, the church’s language of renunciation, to “deny oneself,” becomes painful and confusing. Tournier narrates the progression of a child who does not experience a sense of place in the family, how he begins to imagine that he is not accepted, and he becomes prey to a martyr complex (whether real or imagined), and how he can drift from place to place as an adult, always seeking something he never had, torn by a nostalgia for a place he never knew. It is to this person that the church says, “Give yourself to the service of others, for in the service of others you will find yourself.” Tournier responds in a resounding, “No!” for he understands that since the client “has not been loved, or not loved well, he can neither love nor believe in and accept love.” 

This is the place where psychologists and the Church can work together, if they can understand their respective roles – that is, the psychologist and the counselor attending to the needs for a sense of place (in the consulting room), and the Church rightly interacting with whole-hearted adults who understand the call of Jesus, who says, “Come, follow me.” It is interesting, Tournier notes, the type of person it was who God “called” in Scripture; Tournier notes that those who were called demonstrated a well-formed sense of place. Abraham was well-established in Ur of the Chaldees when God called him. Moses was asked to leave Midian, where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus called Simon and Andrew to leave their well-established fishing profession. The rich young ruler was just that: a rich young ruler, seemingly self-actualized and well-situated in society. Yet we note that perhaps the Church preaches this self-denial a bit too hastily to all persons before (as Tournier argues) the necessary self-assertion movement occurs.

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

“We have all seen so many of those men and women who have never grown up because they have been repressed by a religious upbringing, and have been trained since infancy in systemic renunciation.”

“To how many generations of miserable exploited people has the Church preached resignation, acceptance of one’s lot, surrender, and submission?”

“How many mediocre personalities are there in our churches – people who have not the courage to live full lives, to assert themselves and make the most of themselves, and who look upon this stifling of themselves as a Christian virtue, whereas faith ought to create powerful personalities?”

It is astonishing how accurate Tournier’s vision of the church is, considering he lived in French-speaking Switzerland (and over fifty years ago!).

I must tell you that reading Tournier was as worldview-shifting for me as reading N.T. Wright, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. There is something in the writing that rings so true. I’m most struck by the stories of his clients who struggled to fit in as young children, along with his clear vision of the way that the church is experienced in almost a heartless way by its many calls for renunciation. (Interestingly, he has many comments about single women and their journey to detaching from their parents, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways. In one chapter about “place,” he indicates that he could not stress enough how important it is for a woman to move out and have her own home.) I appreciate how he clearly highlights the distinctions between the work of psychologists and the work of pastors, and how he offers a Biblical framework for understanding a sense of place and a sense of self in the context of mature Christianity (hence the title, A Place for You).

A bit more personally, his work is teaching me to have grace with myself as I attend to the Two Movements, perhaps at rates different from my peers. Additionally, I’m learning to have grace with others who use language of attachment with God that I used to think was unbelievably hypocritical or even ignorant, for I boasted, “You cannot possibly feel that way about God,” when in fact, perhaps I did not feel that way about God, but yet somehow, by some grace, those persons had experienced some sort of spiritual ascension which I had not yet found. There is a sense, then, in which reading the book improves your own self-knowledge.  

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

Indeed, I developed my own little attachment to Tournier because I, too, am Swiss, but more than that, there is something about reading his work which makes one feel seen. And that is one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’re curious to read countless stories of his clients from years in the consulting room (to include single women learning to detach and self-actualize in healthy ways), you simply must read this book. A word to the wise: the book is out of print, so scrounging around Amazon is the best way to go. A few copies show up on Amazon for $20 every few weeks; other than that, original copies sit around $600 for sale (!).

Fun fact: I begged three friends to buy their own dusty copies, made them read it, and forced them to attend my own little book club. I cooked Herbed Artichoke Cheese Tortellini and baked (what I call) somewhat edible gluten-free garlic muffins, and we discussed the following book club questions (written by yours truly) for three hours! Let me know if you want to come next time. 😊  

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1. How do you interact with Tournier’s discussion of children knowing a sense of place? Did you experience a strong sense of place within your family as a child? Why or why not? (See p. 12.) If you struggled with attachment as a child, do you connect with the “increasing and unsatisfied nostalgia” he mentions? Further, did that lack of attachment produce in you “real and imagined persecutions” (18)?

2. Choose one of the following quotes and discuss it:

  • “It is readily understandable that to be denied a place is to suffer a serious moral trauma. It is a sort of denial of one’s humanity” (26).
  • “It is true that [man] has a remarkable capacity for adaptation… Nevertheless his capacity to adapt himself has its limits, and if the evolution in his environment becomes too rapid, it may demand a rate of transformation in man which is beyond his capabilities” (53).
  • [many quotes from 55-57 about how our sense of place as humans is being majorly disrupted by advances in science, travel, communication, etc.] “Time was when each man lived shut up in his own little garden. How the world is swept by one tidal wave after another. How can you ask young people to hammer out a personal spiritual place for themselves in the midst of such a maelstrom?” (57)
  • “[The woman] feels more strongly than the man the importance of places… Having a home of her own is particularly important for a woman… it means she has become a person… what a difference it made in their lives. They could have visitors, they had a place of their own” (59).
  • “It is often very difficult for a patient who has been cured, or at least undergone an improvement in his condition, to feel at home in the Church, even if he wants to. He finds it so impersonal, so cold and conventional, after the stirring experiences he has had in the psychotherapist’s consulting-room” (79).

3. Tournier’s argument begins with his concept of the Two Gospels. Define each gospel, and describe how premature renunciation is problematic (91-93).

4. Explain Tournier’s concept of the Two Movements, and give examples of hindrances to this linear movement (98, 101, 108).

5. Father Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Develop yourself first” (100). Do you agree or disagree? Where might some disagree theologically?

6. Why does Tournier takes issue with the following statement: “Give yourself to the service of others. It is in giving oneself that one finds oneself” (105)?

7. Delineate the movement of Tournier’s female client that begins with a silent girl with quarreling parents and ends with parents shocked by the adult woman literally “coming to blows” with them (109-110). Discuss the “religious blackmail” in the life of this client, and also in the context of, oh I don’t know, Mennonite women everywhere.

8. Do you feel that your own parents in any way inhibited your “free expansion of youth” (115)? Do you, or do you not, agree that there is a tendency by Christian parents to dampen ambition?

9. Discuss premature renunciation. For example, Tournier writes, “The great risk, if one tries to urge someone to be loving and forgiving is that he will pretend to love and forgive” (120). Note, too, the example of the young married man on 129 & 130. With this as a context, how comfortable are you with waiting “to urge self denial on a man” (141)? Discuss your own experience of “false forgiveness, false loves, and false renunciations” (142).

10a. In section III “Supports,” Tournier discusses a kind of anxiety that clients must overcome as they leave the first movement of self-actualization (and its accompanying supports) and enter authentic renunciation. (This anxiety may also be experienced in a preliminary stage of self-actualization, wherein a client may realize their false renunciations and exchange them for authentic self-actualization). Situate yourself within these movements, especially in the context of this comment by Tournier: “The person who has had the benefit of a solid support in childhood from which to launch out into life, will have no difficulty in letting go of that support, and in finding fresh support somewhere else” (163).

10b. Lastly, let’s discuss “infantile regression,” this tendency in both psychology and Christianity for people to remain satisfied right at the point when they should be marching forward (186). Where have you seen folks “fossilized in their satisfaction”? And how does Tournier see this phenomenon in relation to the impulse for basically all of his work (see p 222)?

Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution

While thinking about goal-setting, I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain episode, “Where Gratitude Gets You.” He was interviewing psychologist David DeSteno about the role gratitude plays in helping us achieve our goals.

Early in the episode, they reminded listeners that one ingredient for success is delayed gratification. DeSteno points to the infamous “marshmallow test” by Walter Mischel which concluded that children with the most self-control are situated to be the most successful in life. (You’ve no doubt seen plenty of parodies of the marshmallow test on Youtube.)

The Marshmallow Test

What’s so fun is that DeSteno ran an adult version of the marshmallow test at Northeastern University, but this time with cash. He found that adults, not just toddlers, were pretty susceptible to instant gratification, agreeing to accept $17 in cash right away, rather than waiting for $100 in cash in a year.

Another thing that DeSteno found in his research was related to people’s [in]ability to use self-control in order to act with integrity. His team conducted a study where they asked participants to flip a coin in order to decide which of two tasks they would complete for the experiment – a long, tedious task, or a short, fun one. In this willpower test, 90% of participants fudged the coin toss flip to make the answer be in their favor, creating all kinds of stories for why it was okay for them to cheat.

Perhaps you think that you would pass the willpower test with flying colors, but we all know that self-control is hard to cultivate. And what’s more, it is interesting to note that self-control, and not giving in, is, according to research, stressful on the body. DeSteno suggests that using self-control alone to reach your goals brings a stress response that actually affects your health. He cites a study by Gregory Miller of Northwestern University who was working with kids from disadvantaged background, teaching them executive control strategies. He found that over time, those strategies worked, but “the stress level that those children… and adolescents were under began to manifest itself physically. And so if you kind of expand that out, the upshot is, yes, if you’re always trying to exert self-control, you can achieve your goals, but your health is going to suffer.”

For those of you who pride yourselves on being able to win the marshmallow test or to not cheat on coin flips, beware. There’s another caveat for those with self-control superpowers. The interviewers cite a study by Christopher Boyce that indicates how self-controlled folks interact with failure.

DeSteno explained: “This was a study looking at the trait of conscientiousness, which is the ability to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and persevere in pursuing your goals. And people who do that, yes, they succeed. But when they do fail (and they do fail less because they’re working really hard), the hit to their well-being is 120 percent greater than the rest of us. And although the data doesn’t show exactly why that is in that study, personally, I believe that one reason is because these individuals haven’t been focused on cultivating the social relationships that are there to catch us when we fall and to make us more resilient.”

It seems that self-control alone is not enough.   

The role of emotions in achieving your goals

Next, Vedantam and DeSteno discuss emotions in relation to achieving goals, and they hint that emotions may be an important key for success. In fact, DeSteno suggests that we should rethink the “use” of emotions. He suggests that emotions are not about the past; instead, emotions are about protecting ourselves for the future: “Many of us see our emotions as the enemy when it comes to carrying out our resolutions, but we often forget something: emotions can also be enormously constructive and powerful… Emotions are not about the past. They are about the future. And what I mean by that is if you even just think about the brain metabolically, what good would it be to have a response that is only relevant to things that have happened before? The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it’s altering the computations. Your brain is making your predictions for the best course of action.”

DeSteno’s work explores how cultivating certain emotions allows us to meet our resolutions. In one study, DeSteno’s team found a correlation between gratefulness and being able to practice self-control. That is, when people were in a state of gratefulness, they were able to double their self-control. Now it took participants $31 of cash up front, instead of $17, before they would give in to a cash payout, instead of waiting for $100 in a year.  

Not only did studies show the connection between gratefulness and practicing self-control, but also between gratefulness and lowered stress. The emotion of gratefulness elicited by counting one’s blessings had a powerful effect, as DeSteno notes: “Robert Emmons would ask a certain percentage of his subjects to engage in daily gratitude reflection. So he was making them basically count their blessings as a kind of an experimental intervention. And what he found is that over time, the individuals who did this reported that they were better able to engage in exercise again, a type of sacrifice in the moment for future gain. They reported better quality of their relationships. They reported less symptoms of illness. And so taken together, what this kind of signifies this to me, that it’s practicing gratitude is enhancing people’s well-being and kind of reducing the stress that comes from illness or feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

Additionally, a study by Wendy Mendez shows how gratitude can buffer the effects of stress, and she found that gratitude “was basically like a booster shot for stress reduction.

Vedantam & DeSteno remind us that “it might be better to think of gratitude as a skill rather than as a trade or just simply an emotion, something that just pops up unbidden in our hearts.” Also, “emotions are tools that you can cultivate in your life. When you meditate, you’re building an automatic response to feel compassion more regularly. When you count your blessings daily, you’re engaging in an activity. You’re curating your own emotional states. You’re making yourself feel more grateful.”

[And just think: all of this on a secular podcast about the benefits of gratefulness, while our Scriptures speak about thankfulness upwards of 170 times. It is always so fascinating to find instances of science aligning with spiritual directives given by God.]

Theology and brain science on transformational change

I was pondering this Hidden Brain podcast over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stumbled upon an interview with neurotheologian Jim Wilder, a clinical psychologist who studies the intersection between theology and brain science. He was discussing his new book, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Wilder draws on from multiple conversations with contemporary Dallas Willard (who positions himself as a counselor) to produce his book which asks the question: how is it, exactly, that people change? What causes transformation in people?

Interviewer Skye Jethani asked the question this way: “What leads to real transformation? For a long time in the western church, we’ve believed that knowledge alone is what will change people. Therefore, if we just learn enough of the Bible, if we just have enough theology, our behavior will be transformed. Well, a lot of us have realized that that’s actually not the case, and so in recent years, a lot of us have been drawn towards spiritual disciplines, the practices that change our behaviors, and we’ve come to believe that a combination of knowledge and practice is what really leads to transformation.” But for Wilder, there is a third component, one that is deeply rooted in our biology.

Indeed, we understand the limits of “worldview education,” that is, using sermons, Sunday schools, and Christian schools as the primary means to “communicate” someone into the kingdom of God in order to bring about transformation. (I have blogged extensively about the limits of worldview education as a means of transformational change and as a mode of transferring the Gospel and discipling Kingdom participants.) Certainly, theologians and philosophers like James K.A. Smith (drawing on the work of Charles Taylor) depict other means of imparting the Gospel or forming the imagination and desire, one of the strongest drivers of behavior (for, as Smith puts, “we are what we love”). While many Christian leaders today emphasize theology and worldview instruction (or even a passive education of “knowing all the worldviews so that you can be aware of how they depart from Christianity”), we know through work by Smith and others that factors much stronger than explicit instruction of worldview components (through sermons and high school Bible classes) are the factors that lead to evident behaviors. We call these forces liturgies, or embodied practices that tell us much about the way we see the world than any stated doctrine, and these liturgies (or embodied practices) bend back on us and reinforce the way we view the world. 

In the interview (beginning at 48:00), Jim Wilder (who has the closest thing to a Mennonite or Beachy Amish accent that I’ve heard on air – no relation) speaks as a neurotheologian when he says that if the brain tells us something, and the Bible tells us something, it strikes a theologian that we ought to pay attention. Wilder then argues that the brain needs to learn to be Christian, and that it is the main thing that learns to interact with God. (Admittedly a departure from that recognizable American evangelical Gnosticism that always situates the body and the material as less spiritual.)

Many are familiar with Dallas Willard’s VIM model as a vehicle for transformational change: Vision, Intention, and Means. Wilder breaks down the components this way: “The ‘vision’ everyone can agree on. We have to have the right ideas, the right vision, the right understanding of things. Truth and all of that fits very well on the vision side. The ‘means’ side is what are the actual practices that we have to go through. But the ‘intentions’ side was always the squirrely one. How do you actually get people to try to do this? What’s the motivation?… Dallas knew right from the start it wasn’t willpower. Because there are some people who are willful, but not necessarily better spiritually. How do we go about motivating people to want to be Christ-like?… The strongest motivator in the brain is attachment. It’s who we love. It forms our identity in the brain, it forms our attachments, it shapes our ideas… We are much more changed by who we love than what we believe.

Wilder then explores if there is anything in Scripture that hints at, or supports, a kind of transformational attachment love. (For he acknowledges that “attachment love” as a concept is only about fifty years old in science.) He points us to Scriptures like Isaiah 49:15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” This example of nurture between mother and child is certainly an example of what we now call attachment love. Wilder points to the difficult-to-translate Hebrew word checed as further Biblical instance of God pointing to the attachment function he created in our brains. (The word appears 248 times in the Bible.) Wilder explains checed love as a kind of gluing us to God: “This attachment is permanent, it is full of good things, it is full of kindness, and it is a source of love for us.” Wilder asks what resembles checed love in the human brain – and it is attachment love.

I was keenly interested in Jethani’s and Wilder’s discussion of how attachment to a group forms our responses and behavior, rather than words or ideas. (Especially as we in the church continue to deal in “truths,” focusing on “having the right ideas.”) They asked the question how we might form deeper attachments to God, which Wilder deemed a very important question, for he pointed out that Willard had not yet heard of a theology where salvation involved a new attachment with God. Jethani agreed, citing that the way many of us have been taught about salvation is agreeing to a set of doctrines, or having intellectual assent to “ideas that are true or are from the Bible.”

Fostering attachment for transformational change

When asked how we might foster a deeper attachment to God (rather than just having a knowledge of ideas about him, or incorporating practices), Wilder responded this way: “I take biological systems to be a metaphor for spiritual life. Jesus talked about your hearing, your eyesight and things like that… they reflect some kind of greater truth. Attachment is the way your brain finds out what gives me life. So we attach to what feeds us. That’s how it starts for every child, for every animal. You want to get your dog to attach to you? You gotta feed it. If you don’t give it food and water, that dog is not going to attach to you, and the same with any living creature. It’s what gives us our food and water. So in one sense you could look at the original sin as letting the wrong person feed us.”

Wilder takes it one step further: “And you would anticipate that if feeding you was very central, then central to most worship service there should be some meal, or some feeding of people. The god when he came to earth would say, ‘Um, you know, I’m like bread for you. I’m the bread that would give you life. I’m the water that would give you life. And the thing is, he actually practiced that in relationship to other people, so now we have life-giving relationships.

Wilder lists a second step: “Once you get past food, the next thing that causes attachment is joy. You will attach to whoever it is who is just super glad to see you.

But the most important takeaway from the interview, the actual kicker, is when Jethani asked, “Any final advice to people who want to foster that deeper attachment to God? What do they need to include in their life or remove from their life that’s going to help their brain form that attachment?

Wilder responded, “Most of the spiritual disciplines are pretty good at removing stuff that shouldn’t be there and creating some space for God, but they’re not particularly designed directly to create that attachment with God. So the number one thing that forms that attachment with God is actually thankfulness or appreciation. Every time something good comes your way from God, make a point to thank him about and then tell somebody you know how grateful you are… I think there’s one other thing I would tell people. The relational system that runs your identity has a firewall in it. It won’t let your identity change unless you have an attachment to the person who you’re interacting with. So if we have a problem, some area of ourselves that needs changing, we actually need to have God’s presence, either through another person or through God directly, be available for us right when we are having our hard time. So the thing that we typically do as religious people is we hide our hard times from each other, so we never have this attachment, and it’s because we think this whole Christian thing is not about permanent attachments. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll dump me. But all attachments for the brain, and I think for God, are meant to be permanent. If we are becoming a permanent people, then if I see you struggling, or having a weakness, my inclination is to bring God into that moment of weakness with you. And if we have a permanent relationship, you’ll let me do that.

I’m intrigued that neurotheologians and secular psychologists both point to gratefulness and thanksgiving as a means of transformational change. (You can be sure that practicing gratefulness is a part of my resolutions for 2021!) Significant, too, is this idea of attachment love both in the spiritual and the relational (especially remembering back to the example of overly-conscientious people who experience hard-hitting failure when they fall, and who may not have cultivated the necessary social relationships in the meantime).

I pray you find much success in 2021 as you cultivate regular thanksgiving into your life rhythms. And may your arms stretch wide as you welcome the good gift of life-giving relationship when it is sent.

Junge Frau: A Story about Growing up Female

There was no warning when she came to live with us. I came down the dark brown carpeted steps one morning and stopped short – a young woman in sleeveless floral pajamas was ironing a blouse, her soft brown hair about her shoulders. I whispered to my sisters, “Who is that?” Mama looked at me and said, “This is Rosie. She’s from Germany. She’s going to stay with us.”

I had a vague memory of talk of a visitor last week, but clearly it had not stuck, for I was quite startled to see this stranger drying her hair and ironing clothes in the dining room. Uncharacteristically, I stood back, lingering behind my sisters.

After breakfast, Papa took the girls to school in his unmarked white box truck, and Mama and I drove with Rosie in our wood-paneled minivan all the way to Rosedale. Mama told me that Rosie was going to attend Rosedale Bible Institute. German words dropped here and there as Mama asked about Rosie’s parents back in Berlin. See, Mama and Papa had lived in Berlin in the 80s. They worked at the Hafen. Papa “worked with the guys from the streets,” and Mama did housework. Rosie’s parents had been Papa and Mama’s house parents. The Hafen, of course, was in West Berlin; the Berlin wall surrounded the city, at the time, separating it from communist East Germany.

Rosie asked, “And the girls? They have school?”

“Yes, Lester drove them this morning.”

“And Esther?”

I sat up a little straighter and tried to look important.

“Esther is in Kindergarten, and she only goes three days a week. She does not have school today.”

I remember thinking that it was in fact nice to have a day off with these ladies.

Kindergarten was a German word that I knew – it meant “child garden.” Papa also sometimes called us “Kinder!” to beckon us inside. I knew other German words, like all the words to Gott Ist Die Liebe. (Papa made me sing it for Walter Beachy every Sunday that he preached, when he carried me out through the receiving line.) Vorsichtig is what Papa says to you when you need to pay attention to what you’re doing. Mama and Papa say “Tschuss!” to each other every morning and kiss each other on the lips. I used to think tschuss means “kiss,” but I think it means goodbye. At the table, you said bitte and danke and it was usually all right to get the butter then.

Culottes, Cut Flowers, & Me, 1996

Rosie spent a few days at our house before moving into the dorms at Rosedale, and she came to our house occasionally after that. How much did we learn about being a woman!

There were Victoria magazines, skirts with buttons down the front, fashionable European shoes with chunky heels (Mom called them “clodhoppers”), German coffees, and tea parties. Rosie took one look at our hair brush and said, “No, no!” She promptly bought us a brand-new brush (the right kind!), and introduced us to Herbal Essences shampoo. She’d weave our long hair into intricate braids – French, inside-out, and fish braids – and choose a French twist for herself, or even better, she’d style her hair with a red velvety accessory called a “turd.” (How we laughed at the name!)

We visited her dorm room at Rosedale, and we met her roommate Carol. They gushed, professing undying love for each other: “We even have nicknames for each other – sometimes I call her Honey Bee, and she calls me Sweetie Pie!” Carol had the most beautiful mane of thick black curls (she looked like Diana Barry), and in my 5-year-old mind, Carol and Rose were the most elegant women on earth. They’d come to our house for Sunday dinner sometimes and occasionally bring friends.

Rosie loved fresh flowers, and she wore silver rings on her fingers. She also liked “laying out,” and we’d lie on the lawn on a blanket beside her lawn chair while she tanned. Laying out took forever. One Sunday we were “laying out,” and Rosie started giggling.

“Why are you laughing?” my sister asked.

“Ettie can’t sit still. She runs inside to get a pillow. She runs inside to get a drink. She runs back in to get a book.”

After that, I tried very hard to lie still and Not Move. But it was just very rather boring to lie in the grass!

One time we asked what Germany is like and she said it’s a place where rats come up the toilet and bite you on the bum. I immediately listed Germany among countries not worth visiting.

Some time later Mama and Rosie were reminiscing about Germany days. “We’ll have to take the girls sometime!” Mama said.

I piped up, very serious, “I do not want to go to Germany!”

“What?” Rosie asked, “Why not?”

“There are RATS in the pots!” I wailed.

Mama and Rosie erupted into laughter.

“I was only joking,” Rosie said, “They don’t bite you on the bum in the bathroom.”

Still. It seemed like a place not to go.

Occasionally, Rosie invited her many friends to our house. She once hosted an entire dinner party – all gentlemen. The table was immaculately set with all the place settings. There can be no doubt that strong coffee and German kuchen (like Erdbeer-Sahne-Torte or Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) were for dessert. Our phone with a cord rang at the last minute.

“All right! A girl’s coming!” Rosie cried, as she hung up the phone. “Gotta change the plates!”

She had set the entire table in Mama’s plain cream dishes, with all the matching place settings. With the presence of just one other woman at the table, it was worth it to change the place settings to Mama’s best china. We quickly reset the entire table.

Once Mama and Papa went to ministers and elders meeting, and we had a babysitter. The babysitter was also attending Rosedale Bible Institute at the time, and she called beforehand asking if she could take us to the talent show. I didn’t know what a talent show was, but it was like church, except like when the youth group did it, at night. People sang songs and did skits, and it was all right to laugh. Afterward, our babysitter greeted all of her friends. We saw Rosie, and she poked each of us in the stomach and squeezed our cheeks so hard that we almost cried, were it not for all the smiling.

Rosie had male friends who occasioned our house – one in particular was Bill. He came quite frequently, he and his long blonde hair. He was what I think Mama calls “ruggedly handsome.” From the very beginning, I did not like Bill. He took up a lot of my new friend’s time – I developed an aversion to him. He tried to speak to me while I emptied the dishwasher.

“Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said without looking at him, “It’s Billy Goat’s Butt.”

Bill didn’t say anything and went back out to the patio. At some point that evening, Mama found me.

“Esther, I want you to be nice to Bill. You are being very RUDE.”

“I only called him Billy Goat’s Butt,” I fumed.

“That is rude. You do not call anyone by that name.”

Weeks later, Bill came through the door for the cream-colored-dish-turned-fine-china dinner party.

“Hi, Esther,” Bill winked. “Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “It’s Bill.” 

“Aren’t you going to call me Billy Goat’s Butt?”

“No,” I said, and went out and sat on the porch swing by myself.

Rosie knew how to sew, and once she made a sailor-style shirt for Bill. It featured corded lacing in the front. Mama raised her eyebrows: “I guess that will show some chest.”

Rosie folded the shirt, “Probably.”

Rosie surprised us in other ways, like her penchant for thunderstorms. She would even SIT on the PORCH… during the storms!

“You’re crazy!” Mom hollered, as cracks of lightning flitted across the pitch-black fields, followed by cacophonous booms.

“Thunderstorms are the best!” she’d say, and disappear onto the porch with a letter to write.

For her first car, Rosie bought a tiny blue Ford Escort, and one sunny day, she washed it outside on the concrete slab while singing along to songs on the radio we’d never heard before.

“How do you know all these songs?” we asked, incredulous.

“It’s called pop! They played it on the radio every day in Germany when I rode the bus to school!” she said, before belting out another tune. We helped spray down her hubcaps before retreating to play with a ball we found. When she practiced for her driver’s test in our driveway, we rode in the back seat and listened to more “pop” while she maneuvered a stick shift in our short lane.

Her brothers came to visit her once, and our house was filled with laughter as Papa and Mama retold countless stories of life at the Hafen when Rose and her brothers were young. I finally met the infamous young man Angie, who in Papa’s slides was a boy who would sleepily say each morning, “Honig, bitte.”

We went to house fellowship on Sunday evening, and Rose and her brothers stayed home. When we drove home under a full moon, we were not prepared for the scene we found. They were lying in the middle of the road.

Mom was in hysterics in the van, and Papa turned into our lane. “They’re crazy,” he muttered. Papa parked the van, and we all ran out to the road.

“What in the world are you doing?” Mama shrieked.

They laughed. “We’re sitting on the road! What does it look like we’re going?”

“Do you have any idea how fast people drive on this road?!” Mom was referring to the extremely flat, extremely straight country road, bordered on both sides by corn fields and bean fields and the occasional Midwestern house.

“We’re learning!” Angie grinned.

“What do you do if a car comes?” I gasped.

“We roll to the other side of the road. Like this!” They rolled over. “And if a car comes on the other side, we roll like this!” They rolled back.

One time, after being away for some time, Rosie returned to visit us, and she showed us a painting she had done of some cherries. I stared at it, wide-eyed.

“How did you do that?” I breathed, incredulous. For it had the look of actual cherries. Real cherries! If you looked closely, she had used colors not associated with cherries to get the actual look of cherries. One of the colors she used was peach.

“You like to draw, don’t you, Esther?” she asked.

I said, dumbfounded, “I will never be able to paint like that.”

“You will,” she said, and meant it. “You will paint like that someday.” I hardly believed her. How could a person learn to paint so that it looked real?

At some point she transferred to a college, I suppose, for soon we were traveling to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend her college graduation. It was an incredible thing to be invited to a real campus. We stayed in a bed & breakfast with very thin walls and a bathroom in the hallway.

Part of the festivities in the almost Southern town was a final chorale program in which Rosie sang in a choir. The concert was in a large white church, with tall white ceilings and dark wood railings at the front. We had very good seats. An African American woman sang a solo, after which many people clapped, and during one piece I was shocked for the director to seat himself and for a woman to direct the choir for a performance. She was a student director, he said, and I never knew in my life that a woman could direct music. I cannot for the life of me remember if she was African American too, and it seems like it matters to remember if she was or not, but all I remember is that she was a woman.

When we left the concert, my sisters and I immediately began whispering about the soloist.

“Her voice was so weird!” we said. We tried to imitate her voice using shrill-like trills. Mama overheard us.

“Oh no,” Mama said matter-of-factly, “She was an excellent soprano with an incredible vibrato. I’m sure her director loves the fact that she can sing that high. She was an excellent soloist!”

I sat back, again surprised. I clearly had much to learn about singing soprano. How could anybody enjoy that kind of singing? But Mama knew. She was one of the best sopranos in church. In fact, she herself had sung in the Rosedale Chorale for many years.

During the graduation visit, we took an evening walk through campus, past tall white columns and under Southern trees to a church where sometimes Rosie and her friends played for worship. They walked to the front of the church, past the dark railings for kneeling, and in the near dark played and sang songs for our little entourage. After the first piece, someone clapped.

“Oh, no, don’t clap,” one of the them said haltingly. “We always play in the context of worship, so there isn’t clapping.”

Again, I was surprised. So we just sat quietly in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to their music.

The next day was graduation. We hiked to the balcony of a grand old auditorium for the baccalaureate service and giggled and giggled as the procession began – for the outfits! The outfits! Oh they must be prof – prof – professors! Look at their heads! Their heads! My mother laughed out loud at the colorful regalia.

“Did you like their outfits?” Rosie asked me later. I giggled.

We craned our necks from the balcony as the graduates processed in, in long lines of black caps and gowns. Far below, and halfway up the aisle, Rosie turned around, looked up, and winked at us. This, too, surprised me.      

 * 

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Jean Louise & Virtue Signaling: A Meditation for Millennials

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been my summer read, and it has been so cathartic for its giving language to the experience of coming into one’s own views, views which necessarily create tension with the community that raised you.

I’ve been drawn to this novel since I charged into Better World Books in downtown Goshen, Indiana, on July 14, 2015, the official release day of the book, determined to be one of the first customers to buy it. I’m fascinated by its historic publication, and how it functions alongside Lee’s better-known work, To Kill a Mockingbird (published a full 55 years prior in 1960). It’s said that Go Set a Watchman is actually a 1957 draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, a draft that publishers did not accept (I have my own reasons for why they did not – the angsty vitriol from which Lee does not hold herself back, the neatly tied ending that offers resolution prematurely for Jean Louise’s conflict with her community, the “telling” rather than “showing,” the lack of character development, etc).

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It is this vitriol for which TKAM fans are shocked. How can the same author who wrote the heart-warming tale of 6-year-old Jean Louise produce a profanity-laced manifesto against Atticus Finch? TKAM fans revere their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends an innocent black man who was unjustly accused of raping a white woman. But in Go Set a Watchman, readers are shocked to discover that Atticus Finch not only sits on councils approving of segregation but was at one time a member of the KKK. This shock, this jolt, is the main experience of Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, throughout the whole novel, as she comes to grips with the way that her conscience has formed apart from her father’s.

I do not offer my comments here as any sort of comment on current events, rather, as a few observations on the topic of the individual vs community, a topic which is a bit of a mainstay here at Shasta’s Fog.

I’m particularly drawn to the fact that Lee was 31 when she wrote this draft about a 26-year-old woman returning from the urban environment of New York City to visit her rural southern town one summer, as race issues pushed to the forefront in the news and in her daily life. Not only are urban vs rural tensions incredibly significant for us today, but also Jean Louise’s experience of facing realizations about her hometown is a thing so common among 20-somethings.

For me, in a world where virtue signaling has taken the place of coming to grips with one’s own emotions upon finding the disparity between one’s conscience and the community in which you live, I can’t think of a better time to reflect on Lee’s novel. There’s something about Jean Louise’s experience that speaks to the anger, fear, and disgust one experiences upon realizing that your conscience no longer aligns with the community that raised you. For Jean Louise, those issues are related to race. For the 20-somethings reading my blog, it could be that issue, but it could be many more.

A few observations:

1. First, we ought to be aware that Jean Louise is blessed with physical proximity to the issues that plague her, related to community.

She does not wake up in New York City, flip to her phone, and see an inflammatory comment from a former classmate on social media. These comments only come to her after a long train ride to from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, and even then, she has to endure a grueling hour of Aunt Alexandra’s ladies’ coffee before she can get into with Hester Sinclair. It is not that she does not engage with the tensions, but it is that she does not have to engage every day, especially in a space like social media in which very little helpful dialogue occurs. The anxiety, anger, fear, and disgust that comes from processing your community’s endless opinions on a daily basis are largely absent. This is not to say that she does not “know” her community; she could have accurately guessed how any one of them would have responded to any such event. But she did not have the burden of needing to process all of it at once, especially while sitting on her bed on any given day, reading some New York newspaper.

2. Jean Louise is used to living in community with people who believe and say really unreasonable things.

(Aren’t we all.) Jean Louise sneaks into a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, and she notices a gentleman about to speak: “She had never seen or heard of Mr. O’Hanlon in her life. From the gist of his introductory remarks, however, Mr. O’Hanlon made plain to her who he was—he was an ordinary, God-fearing man just like any ordinary man, who had quit his job to devote his full time to the preservation of segregation. Well, some people have strange fancies, she thought” (108).

You can hear the you-know-the-type in Harper Lee’s narration. This is a characterization that folks from religious communities are familiar with – we’ve all had the experience of sitting under some visiting somebody who says legendary unreasonable things that nevertheless strike a chord with our community, and we can’t believe how comfortable everyone is with it.

Jean Louise, too, is familiar with this type of visiting somebodies.

3. But what she’s not familiar with is her loved ones putting up with it.

“She stared at her father sitting to the right of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw. She stared at Henry sitting to the left of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw… …but they were sitting all over the courtroom. Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations… …She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned” (110-111).

Jean Louise is shocked by two things: presence and silence. She is shocked to return to her hometown for a 12-day summer visit and spend the first day back watching her father and her kind-of-boyfriend listen politely to this pro-segregation discussion. Further, she is incredulous that the rest of the home folks are complicit as well, content to let a monster drone on with his political meanderings.

A comment: we’ve just come through no less than two culture wars, and I’m guessing that many young Mennonites have had this same experience. (Yet due to the pandemic, this shock is experienced virtually rather than in physical proximity.) You have been shocked by your community’s shares, likes, and posts. The whiplash you experience in your feed is divided into the following categories: urban vs rural, educated vs ignorant, and occasionally there are age dynamics (whereby sometimes age dictates fear and an aversion to conflict & dialogue). Additionally, you have had significant experiences which shape your understanding of any number of issues, and these experiences are included but not limited to: classroom education, the reading of books, urban work and urban living, and living and moving around to different states/countries.

When your loved ones do not share these experiences, and when they do not fully understand how they form your worldview, you feel silenced, or even betrayed. You feel so different, and when you realize that your conscience is continually being formed apart from a collective conscience (or collective conscious?), there is an anger that arises from the pain of separation.

Jean Louise’s language for this, for her father sitting at a council meeting where someone speaks about segregation, is one of hurt and betrayal: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, shamelessly” (113).

4. Not only is there pain and anger, but Jean Louise experiences a disgust for home folks who speak in ignorance.

She quietly sits at an awful coffee organized by Aunt Alexandra, and she tries, she really tries. She throws a dress over her head, bothers with lipstick, and endures conversations. But she silently seethes.

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its ways through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard” (175).

Notice her irritation. At the coffee, Jean Louise vacillates between amusement at Claudine McDowell’s description of New York (“We saw a stage show at Radio City Music Hall, and Jean Louise, a horse came out on stage”) and graciousness:

Claudine: “I wouldn’t want to get mixed up with all those Italians and Puerto Ricans. In a drugstore one day I looked around and there was a Negro woman eating dinner right next to me, right next to me. Of course I knew she could, but it did give me a shock.”

“Do she hurt you in any way?”

“Reckon she didn’t. I got up real quick and left.”

“You know,” said Jean Louise gently, “they go around loose up there, all kinds of folks.”

But when Hester Sinclair goes on to parrot her husband’s views related to race, Jean Louise engages with her head on. For her, there’s an incredulous horror at the “acceptable” opinions, and Jean Louise is mystified how these people made her.

5. But they did make her, and it’s not as if Jean Louise is a product of some liberal agenda at a liberal arts college. In fact, she doesn’t feel at home there either, and maybe even feels the need to “defend” her hometown to more liberal communities, in some ways. She feels conflicted about who she is and where she belongs. When the conversation dies down, one overly powdered lady turns to Jean Louise in a shrill voice:

“‘WELL, HOW’S NEW YORK?’

New York. New York? I’ll tell you how New York is. New York has all the answers. People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers. The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist. The best minds in the country have told us who you are. You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think. I can say only this—that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious. I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day. They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating. I despise your quick answers, your slogans on the subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ‘em as long as you exist” (178).

And this is the experience of so many – we have been formed by communities that make us, and we’ve had a falling out with them, but here’s the thing – they’re not monsters. I mean, at least – we don’t think they are.

6. Jean Louise is angry, and there’s a lot of language.

Ahh, uh, this is, actually, in reality, how 26-year-olds talk. They feel so much. Everything matters. Everything is vital. That is why the experience of realizing how you depart from what’s acceptable in your home community is so destabilizing.

7. Also, Jean Louise wants Maycomb not to mean anything.

She wants to be free to run away from it and not care a nit-wit about her hometown. It’s one of the things she lauds New York for: “In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to” (180).

But is she kidding herself? Some people are able to fly away to urban anonymity, but Jean Louise is not that naïve. Note her conversation with a gentleman at a grocery store:

“‘You know, I was in the First War,’ said Mr. Fred. ‘I didn’t go overseas, but I saw a lot of this country. I didn’t have the itch to get back, so after the war I stayed away for ten years, but the longer I stayed away the more I missed Maycomb. I got to the point where I felt like I had to come back or die. You never get it out of your bones.’

‘Mr. Fred, Maycomb’s just like any other little town. You take a cross-section—‘

‘It’s not, Jean Louise. You know that.’

‘You’re right,’ she nodded.

It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.

Now she was aware of a sharp apartness, a separation, not from Atticus and Henry merely. All of Maycomb and Maycomb County were leaving her as the hours passed, and she automatically blamed herself” (153-154).

There is a reckoning that Jean Louise must have with her hometown. It is not so disposable; it is not so able to be curated. She spews out at Atticus: “You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s land but good – there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never entirely be at home anywhere else” (248).

8. Finally, instead of owning the way that her conscience has formed differently than her loved ones, she takes on these issues personally and begins a very negative internal dialogue – that there’s something wrong with her.

You can hear Jean Louise’s desperation: “Something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me” (167).

The religious language continues, and is paired with cynicism and an emerging fatalism. Also note how the narration vacillates between the narrator and Jean Louise to the point that we can’t tell if this is Jean Louise or Harper Lee herself. And it all converges: “Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party” (225).

To my millennial readers, I say, if that isn’t a mood, I don’t know what is.

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If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman (especially recently) I’d be curious what your thoughts are regarding the way that Harper Lee characterizes the conflict between the individual and community (and the individual and family) as one of conscience. In some ways, we rarely hear that language anymore, and instead the conversation is immediately politicized (for example, conversations of race, gender, the economy, etc). I wonder if it could be helpful to describe these conflicts as one of conscience, and if a certain humanizing could occur by that appeal. This is what Harper Lee seems to suggest in her final chapters, particularly through the appeals of Dr. Finch and Atticus, and while I initially resisted this move, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and would be interested in your thoughts.

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Also, Big Reveal:

To my beloved readers: I have been blogging at Shasta’s Fog for 9 years now. In the past, you’ve received free monthly content (and one year, even bi-weekly content) on this platform. I have never monetized my blog. You’ve scrolled through awkward ads, reading free literary essays, travel diaries, and academic recaps. This writing takes time. Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother putting stuff out there. In fact, I contemplate deleting my blog every summer. One of these times I will.

Your feedback is incredibly motivating. Your comments, likes, and shares keep this blog running. Some of you have even walked up to me in real life and introduced yourself. That has meant so much to me.

Anyway, I just found out about this great little app called “Buy Me a Coffee,” and GOING AGAINST EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING, I’m offering you a chance to show Shasta’s Fog some support. By clicking on this button, you can support Shasta’s Fog with a small PayPal donation. If you’ve been encouraged by Shasta’s Fog and hope to see this writing continue, I invite you to click the button below and drop me a line if you wish. Your support means everything to me.

A Book Questionnaire to Share with All Your Bookish Friends

Last week The Striped Pineapple completed this bookish questionnaire created by The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots, and I thought it was pretty on-brand for Shasta’s Fog, so I thought I’d join in on the fun. Here goes!

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Educated by Tara Westover.

What’s the last book that made you laugh out loud in public?

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss’s hilarious, guffaw-inducing manifesto about how crucially easy it is to learn where apostrophes go. Minneapolis airport. 2015. I was wheezing out loud on a white-ish leather chair, my back to the glass of a moving sidewalk, when I read:

“Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter than you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

I don’t need to tell you that I snorted a scone through my nose.

What’s a book that people make fun of but you secretly love?

The Scarlet Pimpernel. Before I was 16 years old, I read virtually no classics. Some old souls (well-read girls at church who had read all the classics and were just beginning Mein Kampf) attempted to rectify that by suggesting this classic-lite, and I still think of The Scarlet Pimpernel as my first classic novel. (Though it’s a bit saccharine to be called that.) Dashing men, damsels, and daring seaside escapes?

“Yes, please!” – 16 year olds

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What’s the longest book you’ve ever read?

Tolstoy’s War & Peace, specifically Anthony Briggs’s 2005 translation (a particularity that makes all the difference in the world. I have nerded out about War & Peace translations here.)

What’s a genre that you love so much that you’ll read even sub-par books so long as they’re in that genre?

Running memoirs. I absolutely love a good running tale. From even poorly written books can be gleaned great advice.

What’s the last book you purchased?

Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, recommended to me by three different Friends Who Think. Man, anyone else growing in their notion of what Sabbath means? Here are some great thoughts by Peter Scazzero about rhythms of rest in the Christian life: “Before I routinely observed the Sabbath, I often returned from vacation or days off feeling somehow further from God… …We’re not taking time off from God; we are drawing closer to God… It does not mean we necessarily spend the entire day in prayer or studying Scripture, though those activities may be part of a Sabbath day… On Sabbath, we intentionally look for grandeur in everything from people, food, and art to babies, sports, hobbies, and music… we are intentional about looking for the evidence of God’s love in all the things he has given us to enjoy” (The Emotionally Healthy Leader, 148).

What was your favorite book as a pre-teen?

The Jennie McGrady mysteries, a series about a 16-year-old super sleuth who solves crimes for local law enforcement (lol) and occasionally the FBI. Bonus: her dad died eight years ago but SPOILER ALERT he was actually working undercover in the FBI the whole time (we do not find this out until book 8!!)

What was your favorite book in your late teens/early 20s?

I enjoyed The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia so much that I named this blog after one of its characters! (More about that in my disintegrating About page.)

But nothing will compare to devouring Jane Eyre for the very first time. I was a sophomore in college, and never before had I been so hungry to read, analyze, and devour a novel OF MY CHOICE. With a year and a half of literary analysis under my belt, I was offered the whole of the British canon from which to choose a novel to study for my final Brit Lit research paper. Every day before dissections in Biology, I sat in the glass atrium of the Richard E. Smith Science Center holding a banana, a string cheese, and my beloved Jane Eyre. I underlined the novel copiously and self-righteously aligned myself with Jane’s character in all things (hmm hmm, a little of Brontë also features in my About page.)

P.S. Charlotte Brontë’s birthday is today. (What are the chances?!) Happy Birthday, dahling!

What’s your current favorite book?

What?! The Ohio State University just asked me the same thing! The English Department is posting lists of social-distancing book recommendations, and alumni were invited to share their top ten favorite books. I knew I wouldn’t be able to list ten novels because I am such a non-fiction girl (and poet, for that matter!), but I submitted a list anyway, after deliberating nearly an hour whether the Bible belongs on a list like that. In the end, it does, and it did, for I decided to make a list of my ten *current* favorite books, with the list slipping toward the category of “formative.”

  1. The Bible
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  3. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
  7. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
  8. Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
  9. A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (anthology)
  10. Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year by Malcolm Guite

Have you ever read a book so many times that you ruined your copy of it?

To be clear, I do get a lot of jam on books I read. I also cover them in notes, using a pencil. I’ve never had to replace a book, but there are books I wouldn’t lend to people because of the amount of writing that’s in them.

Tell a story about something interesting that happened to you in a bookstore.

I was twelve years old, armed with a stack of cash to spend at Good Steward Books, a dusty little Christian book warehouse two towns over from us. I was buying the last seven books of the Jennie McGrady mysteries, plus two devotionals. With my wallet balanced on top of my loot, I approached the cashier window, and a big man whose dad ran the warehouse rang up my total: “That’ll be $16. …But… you’re a kid, and you must like to read a lot, and that’s a really good thing to do, so I’m gonna take 50% off. Total is $8.00.”

Okay, $16 is like $80 in kid money, so getting eight bucks wiped off your bill was THE BARGAIN OF THE CENTURY.

Interestingly, I showed back up to Good Steward Books when I was 15, taking my first job shelving stacks and stacks of Christian romance.

If you could forget the entire plot of one book, just so you’d have the chance to read it for the first time again, which book would you choose?

War & Peace. I remember this wave washing over me upon finishing it, thinking: oh my goodness, I have so many classics to read that I shall never finish all my days. And, I probably have no business re-reading books if that is the case. Shall I never read this whole novel, this War & Peace, again? I wept, thinking about how I had just read it for the first and probably the last time. (My 20s were a very dramatic time.)

Have you ever read a book all the way through, thinking you loved it, but the ending just destroyed it for you?

Okay, when Pip finds out that his anonymous donor is not Miss Havisham, that he is not entitled to marry beautiful Estella, and when he loses Estella in a marriage to his mortal enemy, and he lopes home to make up his proud, haughty behavior to father-figure Joe, and seeks to marry (what’s left of) his boring friend-from-home, Biddy… it is a LITTLE DISAPPOINTING TO FIND OUT THAT JOE AND BIDDY MARRIED EACH OTHER. #deniedexpectations

Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?

Nonfiction, because truth is stranger than fiction.

What book has given you advice that still sticks with you?

Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life was a helpful little book that I read at just the right time. As a freshly graduated teacher (who was cultivating a rambunctious little toddler blog), I was looking for advice about “making it” as a writer. Wilson pointed out the importance of being a reader, if one intends to be a writer. He wrote: “The aspiring writer would like to graduate from college at twenty-two, marry at twenty-three, and land a major book deal at twenty-four. While the right kind of ambition is good, it rarely works like that. And even if you did have a major book deal at twenty-four, you would hardly have a vast reservoir of experiences to draw from. There was that time when you went sledding with your college buddies and broke your finger. Anything else?”

This helped me realize that there is a certain lifestyle which accompanies great writing. I was working on the “experience” bit, throwing myself into a zany teaching schedule of teaching SEVEN COURSES A DAY, WITH NO PREPS. Teaching by day, ticking off the occasional classic by night.

Which fictional man would you most like to marry?

Wow, okay. Hmmm. Maybe Pierre Bezukhov.

Which fictional woman would you most like to be friends with?

Anne of Green Gables, but then she’d always get all the attention. So maybe Jean Louise Finch in Go Set a Watchman.

Which fictional house would you most like to live in?

That boat from A Severe Mercy (yes, I know it’s not fiction) where the Vanauken lovers spend a whole summer sailing, sun-tanned, and living off the sea.

Has anyone ever read a book over your shoulder on public transportation?

Yes, I was trying to stuff my copy of Finding God Beyond Harvard surreptitiously into my bag, for the title was SO LARGE, and I didn’t want to be that person, evangelizing to everyone as I waited to deplane at JFK. It was May 2013, and I was the freshest graduate of The Ohio State University, and I was unbelievably excited to have the crushing weight of four years of undergrad under my belt. NO. MORE. ASSIGNMENTS. No more pressure. Unbelievable freedom, and I was traveling to New York for four solid days of touristing with Camille the local. The jet descended toward Queens, just as the sun was coming up and casting golden shadows on the Manhattan skyline.

The seatbelt light came off, and the young soldier next to me, a Pacific Islander, asked, “What are you reading?”

I knew we would have this conversation; he had been eyeing my tome out of the corner of his eye the whole flight, and I was desperately trying to avoid a religious conversation.

“Ah, um, it’s called Finding God Beyond Harvard. It’s a book about the origin of the American university, and how if we look at early university mottos, crests, and architecture, we can see that American universities were intended for the pursuit of truth, or veritas, and these artifacts show that these institutions believed that truth was found in the person of Jesus. The author suggests that removing Jesus as the central focus of university has resulted in a lot of the problems that we see on college campuses today.”

“You must really like it. You are making A LOT of notes.”

“I can’t help but think that she’s right. I think that a belief in Jesus provides a lot of answers for university students, on the far side of complexity.”

I was hoping to end the conversation quickly. Maybe it was because I was so weary of those kinds of conversations. Maybe it was because the few times I tried to seek out those kinds of conversations in college, they went so badly. (I was a self-righteous little thing, desperate for everyone to agree with me.) That day on the plane was the first time where felt like I didn’t care if he agreed with me or not.

But he smiled. And said, “Yeah, I think you may be right.” And he very, very carefully helped me with all my bags.

I wonder if that was the first time I spoke about my faith in a remotely gracious way.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

There are about seven unfinished books on my bookshelf. The one I’m actively penciling right now is the second in James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series – Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. It’s halfway between inspirational and academic, and I’m learning so much.

All right, friends! You’re invited to complete the questionnaire, or, if you’re not a blogger, to choose a single question and answer it in the comments below!

Easters I Remember

There are two Easters I remember well.

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In the first, Papa is a carpenter. I grew up around sawdust and power tools, screw drivers and lumber. Daddy wore jeans and tan work shirts to work every day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. Sometimes as little girls, we tagged along to job sites, sweeping up sawdust Here, and learning to put Those Boards over There. We were handed nearly empty jars of putty and dull carpenter’s knives to fill holes in woodwork. We’d hold the ends of giant pipes, while Papa carefully painted their rims with green and purple substances. We supervise him soldering copper with a blowtorch, cringing in fear when tiny bits of melted metal dropped to his skin. He’d bark, “Don’t open the tape measure all the way!” But we always did anyway, holding contests to see how long we could unroll it into the air without it cracking to the floor. We stood next to him as dutiful carpenter nurses, handing him various instruments: “Square.” “Sawzall.” “Screw.” “Tape.”

Many times, we were called upon to clean up his work site. We’d arrive to find sawdust spit into every corner, the little bag for catching sawdust completely fallen off the miter saw. Wooden clamps lay twisted on the floor, every which way. Power drills and cords lay haphazardly. “After you fill this, you can play,” he said, handing us impossibly large black trash bags.

Papa had this way of convincing you that you were the greatest at tasks you’d never done before. One day I helped him spackle some drywall. He handed me a stainless-steel trough of freshly-mixed spackle, along with a trowel, demonstrating the motion. He left, then returned to check my work. He’d shake his head.

“I can’t believe it!” he’d say. “You’re better than the guys I hire in Columbus!”

“Lookin’ good, sister! I tell you what. I’d like to hire you!” he’d say, while re-spackling most of the spots I’d done with a “second coat.”

“Just smooth it out, there. See.”

One time, Papa worked for a German woman named Heike in Columbus. She was a professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. I don’t know how Papa met her, but he had a knack for finding German-speaking people and for going out of his way to practice his German on them.

Heike had a remodeling job for Papa to do, and one day Mama drove us in our green wood-paneled Plymouth Grand Caravan to see Heike’s house.

“Esther, you have to see her house. You’ll really think it’s neat.”

Heike had short hair like a boy. Her house was unlike most houses I had seen, in shape, in the amount of rooms, and the furniture. She had a whole table made of glass. (A whole table! Think of it!) Mama instructed us not to touch it. When Mama and Heike were not looking, I touched it.

I remember rattan chairs, and strange art, perhaps from Africa. The best thing of all was her garden and lattices to the side of the house. Papa hadn’t finished the steps down into the little alcove, so he had set up a piece of 2×8 as a ramp that he padded across, and we girls thought that was the neatest thing. But it was raining that day, and as we trotted back and forth on the ramp, Rachel promptly fell off, sprained her ankle, and there was maybe a little blood. The carpenter’s blubbering, crying daughter caused quite the alarm for Heike, who wanted Rachel to be taken to the emergency room. (“That’s because she’s Professional,” Mom said.) Instead, Mom asked for a rag, loaded my two sisters in the minivan and drove home.

I was left with Papa at the work site. I wanted nothing more than to march up and down the ramp some more. But Heike said no.

She asked me if I liked to draw. I said I did, and she invited me into the house. I suddenly felt shy as she walked me toward a sunken room that had little natural light. Only a small window was near the ceiling. She offered me a pencil with which to draw, and gave me the largest collection of colored pencils I had ever seen. I turned my nose up at them (for they were not Crayola), but I was in shock to discover that they were the smoothest set of colors I had ever used. There were no primary colors, and I remember being disappointed to have to improvise using obscure shades. The colored pencils were magical, the lead buttery soft. (I now know that Heike leads the Interior Design department at Ohio State, and I can only imagine what writing instruments she put into the hands of a grimy 7-year-old.)

“Heike is probably not a Christian,” I reasoned, so I decided to draw her a picture of Jesus so that she might be saved. Perhaps it was nearing Easter, for I decided to draw Mary at the tomb. I colored Mary’s robe with a non-descript mauve color for there was no pencil labeled “blue.” Heike returned to the inner room.

“Show me what you’ve drawn.”

“It’s Jesus’ resurrection,” I explained. “This is the angel,” I pointed to a white character. “He’s telling Mary that Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen from the dead. And that’s the tomb.” A large gray circle filled the middle of the page.

“I see,” she said.

“It’s for you,” I explained.

“Oh!” She set it aside.

I was a little surprised she didn’t become a Christian after I gave her my picture. I squirmed out of my seat to go find Papa. I didn’t want to draw with Heike anymore.

***

I am not sure why that memory is so vivid in my mind. I remember her soaking-wet, green gardens, the overcast gray clouds, and the curious angles of her home. I remember her very short hair. I remember the delight of scampering over a simple ramp made by Papa, and the momentary uncertainty of being with a stranger.

***

Easter as a child was memorable for a lot of reasons. Grandma sent us brand-new matching Easter dresses (from J.C. Penney) in a box in the mail every year. We got to wear white shoes to church, or even better, white sandals. There was always an Easter play at church on Good Friday. Grown men would roughhouse Jesus (where the podium used to be), and soldiers (really, all the carpenters in church) would “nail” Jesus to the cross, pounding real nails with hammers that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Jesus would writhe in agony, then be raised on the cross, wearing a T-shirt splattered with red food coloring. Easter morning was a sunrise service, and families would argue whether the church window blinds should be opened or closed.

“The sun causes a glare on some people’s glasses,” some said. Others remarked haughtily, “It’s a sunrise service! What’s the point of a sunrise service if we don’t see the sun?!”

The song leader would apologize “to our morning voices” before leading “Up from the Grave He Arose.” He would try to pitch it down, to the chagrin of sopranos like my mother. Then we had a magical hour of breakfast at church, with tulips on the table for three hundred forty-seven people, and plenty of old ladies to “ooo” at my new dress.

After church, there was ham.

***

But once we were not home for Easter. We traveled to Illinois to visit mom’s friends. I was delighted to realize that mom’s friend had a daughter my age, and we would be playing together all weekend long. Not only that, we would be playing on a farm. Her father was not just a farmer; he was a shepherd. And it was lambing season!

The frigid chilly mornings were full of sunshine and romps through the greening pasture, down to the stream that ran under a road culvert. We spent hours playing by the stream, accompanied by their border collie. I caught a tiny fish by plunging my bare hands into the ice-cold water. We sprinted the long distance toward the farmhouse, skidding to a stop to gingerly crawl under the electric fence, before galloping the last few yards, hollering for an ice cream bucket to keep our new pet in. We turned on the laundry sink at full blast. “Don’t you want pond water?” Katie’s mama said. We stared each other, hollered and sprinted out the back door, stopping to carefully slip inside the pasture again, and whooped and hollered all the way to the stream to fill our 2 qt. cottage cheese container with a more hospitable environment. Her little brother Grant followed us, though we had averted him all morning.

Papa and the older girls picked up branches in the yard and loaded them in wheelbarrows (strong winds were common there). Katie’s father started a fire to burn the brush. In the afternoons, we washed dishes and listened to Adventures in Odyssey.

There was so much laughter when we visited. Papa teased the older girls, and their dad had blue eyes that sparkled when he threw his head back and laughed. The whole family laughed.

The night before Easter, and a lamb was to be born. We had to walk through the pitch-black to get to the barn. Only the oldest daughter was allowed inside the stall. The ewe was in distress, and my friend’s dad informed us the sheep was having twins, and one of them was breech.

In the straw lay a huge bottle of dish soap. He started slathering his hands with soap and explained to each girl in attendance, “This will help me pull out the lamb very quickly. When a lamb is being born, it’s first instinct is to…’hah!’” he motioned taking a big breath. “If it breathes too soon, the baby lamb will breathe in the birthing fluid and drown.”

The ewe became increasingly restless, and my friend’s father sternly rebuked it. His loud voice and firm grip scared me, for he was a kind and gentle man, and I had not seen him be gruff with anyone, especially his children. Adding one last bit of soap to his hands, he slipped his hands in the birthing canal after the sheep had settled, and pulled the first lamb to safety, immediately wiping the amniotic fluid from its mouth. The second twin was ready to be born, and with his hand inside the ewe, his blue eyes widened incredulously, “This one’s born breech too!” Soon two tiny lambs lay next to each other in the straw, one a lot smaller than the other. The oldest daughter poked some straw just inside the lambs’ nostrils, to help them breathe.

On Easter Sunday, the sun was replaced by freezing gray clouds, and a chill wind blew over the unplowed corn fields. I did not wear a new dress from Grandma; she had died the year before. Instead I wore a floral skirt and a lavender T-shirt from Kmart. I had packed large brown sandals, and Mom handed me some nylons to wear. I found Katie downstairs sitting on a sheep’s wool rug, putting on her nicest Sunday shoes. She was wearing a velvet mauve dress and white tights. She looked like she was going to the orchestra. I felt like… that I did not look like I was going to the orchestra.

Katie’s dad was a preacher, and there are few sermons I remember from childhood, but I remember that one.

For his text, he did a word study on the word “Easter,” explaining that the term is nothing more than the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Early Christians in England began celebrating Christ’s resurrection during “Eastermonth,” a season named for the goddess, and a season in which early pagans celebrated the vernal equinox. The preacher carefully highlighted the events of Holy Week, along with the resurrection, resting on the meaning of Easter for Christians who serve a risen God, before arriving at his conclusion: why do we choose such a strange name for our Christian holiday?

Easter Sunday? Pagan god Sunday?” he asked gravely.  “No,” he shook his head, before breaking into a smile, “Resurrection Sunday!”

There was a certain triumph when we sang “Up from the Grave He Arose.” For one thing, it was noon, and every soprano could hit the high note.

On our drive home, they called us to tell us that the smallest little twin lamb had died.