Work Stories: C. Christopher Smith’s Bookish Place to Work

Welcome to the first post in a brand new series of guest posts on the subject of our everyday work lives. For the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time, I’ve invited some friends to share a one-day snapshot into their work life that will help us see what they know to be true right now about who they are made to be.

I’m grateful for the work of my first guest, C. Christopher Smith, for the work he does which is both theologically rich and missionally compelling. His work has influenced my own love for reading, writing, church, and meaningful conversations with friends and neighbors. It’s an honor to introduce him to you all today.

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Hi, I’m Chris Smith, my family and I live in the urban Englewood neighborhood on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and I make a living by piecing together a number of book-related jobs: mostly writing, editing, publishing, and bookselling. I have loved books since the very earliest days of my life when my parents would read incessantly to me, and I feel really fortunate to be able to work with books daily.  Here’s a little peek into some of the sights of my daily work.

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My work is rooted in the life and mission of our local church community, Englewood Christian Church. Englewood, a church with a long history of being a reading congregation, has created a space for me to do this work that I love – a space both literally, within the church building, and metaphorically, within the shared economy of our life together. I dabbled in some parts of my work before I came to Englewood over 15 years ago, but without the church, I would not be able to do this work full-time. 

(I LOVE the 1960s era font of this sign on our church building!)

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Englewood has started a number of businesses together over the last quarter century. My various book-related jobs were not our first venture into common work, nor were they our most recent. This picture was taken in our little park across the parking lot from church building and a few houses down the street from my house. The primary function of this park is as a nature playspace for children in our early childhood learning center. The young children get to play amidst natural wonders like trees, wildflowers, vegetable gardens, and even a little stream, right in the heart of the city! Our learning center was one of the first businesses that we started in the mid-1990s. About the same time we also started doing work together in affordable housing. In the back of this picture, behind the red-ish roof of the picnic shelter, is our most recently completed housing development, named Oxford Flats, which consists of 15 units of mixed-income rental housing. It opened in late 2017. On beautiful, sunny days like today, I like to go out to the bench in this picture, and to work on editing or simply collecting my thoughts.

Just around the corner from our little park is Pia Urban Café and Market. Pia (or Pia’s, as the locals who like to tack possessive apostrophes onto everything, call it) is owned by our friend Maria, who grew up in Puerto Rico, and came to Indianapolis for a previous job with a pharmaceutical company. Englewood owns this building, but we’ve helped Maria get her business started and keep it going. She aims to serve “Indianapolis’s finest Puerto Rican Coffee,” and Pia is a wonderful gathering place for people in the church and neighborhood. I usually stop in there a couple of times each week.

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Pia is also one of the places where Indianapolis locals can pick up a free copy of The Englewood Review of Books, the quarterly magazine that I edit. I stopped in today, said hello to Maria and to another friend who was using the coffeeshop as an office today, and snapped this picture of the copies of our two most recent issues. Probably two-thirds of my working hours are devoted to the two editions of the ERB, our online edition and our quarterly magazine. We cover a wide range of thoughtful books that will be of interest to socially-engaged Christian readers. Almost all our readers identify as Christians of some tradition or another, but probably less than half the books we review are published by Christian publishers. The practice of reading broadly, and talking together about our reading, has been immensely transformative for us as a congregation, and has been an integral part of the diverse sorts of work that we do together in our neighborhood. The ERB is one way that we encourage Christians in other churches and other places to read and reflect in ways that transform the communities to which they belong.

Next door to Pia is our neighborhood branch of the Indianapolis Public Library. I love the architecture of its early 20th century, Carnegie-funded building, one of the most distinctive structures in the Englewood neighborhood! My wife works here as a clerk, so I am regularly popping in to see her and to pick up books that I have ordered through the library system. When budget cuts threaten to close this branch, our church fought to keep it open, and eventually we were part of a neighborhood coalition that helped not only keep it open, but also to expand and modernize its facility, making it accessible to all neighbors.

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Back inside my office in the church building are, as one might imagine, shelves upon shelves of books. In the twelve-plus years since I went full-time with this book-related work, one of our main sources of income has been selling used books online. And I had been selling used books for the better part of a decade before I started working at Englewood, starting while I was in grad school, trying to pad my meager budget as a student by doing something I loved. Pictured here are a few of the shelves in our online used-book inventory. Within six to twelve months, we will be stopping our used book business. This is a bittersweet development that will allow me to narrow the range of work that I do, focusing more intently on The ERB, and writing and speaking engagements. I will be glad to juggle fewer work-areas, but as used bookselling is the type of work that I have done for the longest stretch of my adult life, over two decades, I am a bit saddened to let it go.

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A few years ago, my work afforded me the luxury of reflecting on my personal vocation and the ways in which reading has been a transformative practice not only for us as a church community but also for our neighborhood. These reflections eventually took the shape of the book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.  Many of the themes that I have very briefly introduced in this photo-essay are explored in more depth in the book (e.g., the connections between reading, imagination, and social transformation; the vital relationships between churches and libraries; and the crucial role of reading in discerning a vocation and maturing within it.)

Thanks, Tamara for the opportunity to show your readers around my place and my work!

C. Christopher Smith is a member of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. He is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and co-author of the award-winning book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. Chris is eagerly awaiting the release of his next book, How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, Spring 2019).


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What about you?

What story does your daily work tell about who you are called to be in this world right now?

Let us know in the comments below.


A prayer for all of us:

Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer

Weekend Daybook: the catching-up edition

 From a little road trip through The Berkshires with my husband this week.

From a little road trip through The Berkshires with my husband this week.

What I've been up to lately: places, people, books, podcasts, music, links & more for your weekend downtime.


(1) new blog series for Ordinary Time - Work Stories

Did you read the post about the new blog series I’ll be posting between now and Advent? I’m excited to get this place up and running again this fall and can’t think of a better way than to invite a whole bunch of friends to tell stories. I hope you’ll chime in with a few of your own!



(2) updates from musician friends

  • Our friend Jason Harrod started a Patreon page and we recommend! (If you’re not familiar with Jason’s music, listen to some tunes at his website.)

  • Our friend Krista’s track, Little Stars, a tribute album (back in April, but, as you know, I’ve been off schedule this year!)


(3) somewhat-random, but extremely interesting links


(4) podcast episodes I enjoyed in the past several months

p.s., Have you heard a new season of Serial is on its way?!?


(5) good musical moments from two very different funeral liturgies

Senator John McCain’s funeral at the National Cathedral:

Aretha Franklin’s funeral at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit:

  • Amazing Grace sung by Jennifer Hudson (maybe the most amazing performance I’ve ever heard of this beloved hymn.)

  • The Lord’s Prayer played on the harmonica by Stevie Wonder (and it’s gorgeous).

(Thanks to Dr, Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for the heads up on the last two links.)


(6) blog posts from the archives on the ache of vocational uncertainty

In relation to the new blog series on the subject of vocations, calling, and work:

2015 - Father, forgive them (A guest post by Brian during Holy Week.)

2009 - Heavy Man Stuck (Inspired by an artistic illustration.)

2009 - We are expecting! (Not what it sounds like…)

2008 - How I’m feeling these days (A post in graphic form.)

2008 - Confession (Trying to blame it all on my mother.)

2008 - Anguish (Inspired by a poem this time.)


(7) books on my nightstand in September

I’d love to hear what you’re reading (or hoping to read) this month!


(1) photo from the archives

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9 years ago

On Wrightsville Beach, NC with friends, summer of 2009.

Praying for the Carolinas this weekend. Lord, be near!


May your weekend include some good music, friends, reading, and rest. Peace...

p.s. This post may contain affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

Work Stories: announcing a new series of guest posts for Ordinary Time

Depending on who you ask, the church calendar has been in Ordinary Time since June. This quirk of the liturgical year is one I find slightly annoying - is it Ordinary Time immediately following Pentecost Sunday or do we mark the time as weeks after Pentecost? Some churches refer to these weeks as “weeks after Pentecost” beginning with the first Sunday after Pentecost also known as Trinity Sunday. Other churches refer to this time on the calendar as “weeks of Ordinary Time” (as in, “Today is Tuesday, the eleventh of September in the twenty-eighth week of Ordinary Time”). There are a few more variations, but I’ve found it more fruitful to worry less about what to call these weeks between Pentecost and Advent, and instead to focus and become more deeply formed in the theology of the church’s intentions. What does it mean that half of our calendar is left open to the ordinary? What does it tell us about the God who created and gives purpose to our lives?

One way I do this is to consider the parts of Christ’s life that Scriptures tell us almost nothing about. Between his newborn and toddler days which were spent in various locations of the earth, as his parents sought refuge from Herod to the beginning of his more formal ministry marked by his baptism in the Jordan River we know only a few sparse details. You could say this was the Ordinary Time of Christ’s life. The years we can patch together a few details of work and worship made up the vast majority of his days on earth.

Each liturgical cycle, we reenact that reality in the church’s calendar with days, weeks, and months of ordinary time. In the United States, this time of year (summer and autumn), the civic calendar is packed full with holidays and remembrances. The trinity of celebrations that bracket our summer (Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day) ensure we pay attention to the passing of a favorite season of barbeques, vacations, and recreation. From Memorial Day to Veterans Day, our calendars remind us to also set aside time to remember our place as citizens of our country with parades, memorials, and flag raising. (I happen to be writing this post on September 11, another day on our national calendar that will live in infamy.)

If the historic liturgical calendar teaches us to number our days to gain a heart of wisdom, there must be a lot of wisdom to be gained in our regular, working, resting, and worshipping lives. This is the model Christ seemed to have lived, and the church invites us to embrace the same pathway.

In the words of theology professor Wendy Wright, Ordinary Time is a season:

“…to become attentive to the call of discipleship both outer and inner. What are we called to do? … What are we called to be?”

For the remaining weeks of Ordinary Time, I’ve invited several friends to share a bit of their daily, ordinary work lives in a series of guest posts. I always feel like I can understand my own journey better when I spend time soaking up other people’s stories. Maybe that’s true for you too?

There may not be another area of our lives that we hold most in common without realizing it: we want to know what we are uniquely made to do in our lives and we spend our days trying to fill the gap between what we were made to do and what we do with our days in reality. This gap is no small thing; it often feels like an ache we can’t name and leaks out in the midst of our day jobs and our too-short weekends. We carry this sense of wanting something more with us into every relationship and every job interview. We know, in our innermost being, we were made for something good and most of us are not sure how much attention to pay to that feeling.

In the meantime we have to pay the bills, care for our families, mow the lawn, and figure out what to eat for lunch.

In between the lines of the thousands of posts I’ve logged into this blog you can hear these questions and this ache in Brian and me. If nothing else, the nearly twenty-eight years of our marriage has been trying to help each other figure out what we’re going to do when we grow up.

In some beautiful ways, God has helped us gain deep peace in this question and we feel like we have some answers to the question of our callings - as individuals and as a couple - that will probably stay with us for the rest of our lives. In addition to the lifelong callings of being husband and wife, mother and father, we now can add priest (Brian) and spiritual director and writer (me). Whatever else develops for us as we age (grandparenting? caregiving for family members? book writing?), we are grateful for some hard-won confidence that the recent vocational arrivals will stay with us into eternity. Hard-fought, hard-won and all the more rewarding for the sometimes excruciating insecurity on the journey.

I’m delighted to share some stories from a few friends who are on the same journey. I’ve asked them to give us a one-day snapshot into their work life that will help us see what they know to be true right now about who they are made to be. Some live out their callings in a way that they get paid to do the thing they’re most uniquely suited to be in this world, others work jobs that pay the bills so they are able to pursue those callings. Most are a combination of the two.

I’d love to hear your stories, too. At the conclusion of each post, I’ll add a prayer of blessing for all of us in our work and ask a question about your own vocational journey. I’d be honored for you to take a few minutes to share those answers with me in the comments.

Let’s help each other recognize the truth that often our most extraordinary qualities are demonstrated in our ordinary work. Sound good?


My various work selves:

Brian’s various work selves:

8 things I learned this summer

 Nephews sunset swimming during our annual  Hill family vacation  on Canandaigua Lake, NY.

Nephews sunset swimming during our annual Hill family vacation on Canandaigua Lake, NY.

 

1. Staycations are a great solution (& Jones Beach was better than I expected). 

Since our kids have begun to leave home and our subsequent move to Connecticut, we've been exploring new rhythms of being together. Our kids are still in that transient stage of college and post-college years so I think we'll be figuring this out for a while. We don't need destiny vacations or travel-brochure excursions; just finding times to be together under one roof for a few days and nights is a major feat! In July we flew our kids to Connecticut to spend a week together, and we had a really, really good time. I'm kind of a fan of staycations anyway (I've noticed some bloggers refer to this practice as being a "hometown tourist") and we've got a long way to go to discover all the wonderful places to enjoy here in Connecticut. 

2. Ice cream stands in Fairfield County & Ferris Acres Creamery in Newtown, CT

We love the good, old-fashioned, seasonal ice cream stands scattered throughout the Northeast, and think we may have found our new favorite, thanks to our friend Amy's advice.

3. Working together with Brian - using our individual gifts and callings - is a dream come true.

In the abundant grace of God, we were invited to facilitate a couple of days of debrief for a group of Mexican and American staff championing students in the small fishing village of Chiquila, Mexico. While they worked in the rugged beauty of rural Mexico all summer, we only went as far as Cancun to meet with them which felt a little bit like cheating. We did our best to see the work through their stories, hearts, and - thanks to the help of a skilled and generous interpreter- their native language.

My heart for the work of Hands Offering Hope grew three times larger. As did my heart for my husband and to the Good Shepherd who kindly leads us to the people and places that make us more like Christ and more like our truest selves. To be able to combine our pastoral, spiritual direction, global community development, and organizational leadership passions and skills was life-giving for us, and, hopefully for those we served. My heart is full - like the liturgy we pray each week - with “gladness and singleness of heart”.

We took very few, and mostly poor photos, but here’s a glimpse.

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4. When I most need comfort is often when I'm least able to ask for it.

I've mentioned a few times that this has been an emotionally challenging season and that I'm learning how to navigate it with integrity and gentleness. On a couple of occasions in the past year, especially, I've experienced an intensity of anxiety that I haven't for many years. Brian has walked next to me through these experiences with so much gentleness even when my reflex is to push him away. I've learned that, among other important strategies for caring for my body and soul preventively, what I most need when my anxiety is hitting the fan is physical soothing. Now, rather than the anxiety coming between Brian and me (because often I can't quite tell what's set me off, and sometimes I point it at Brian), I ask him to just give me a hug. That's it. There are a time and a place for me to talk through and reflect on what's bothering me, but it usually isn't in the heat of the moment. This is not revolutionary and maybe the rest of the world has figured this out, but for some reason, it's taken us almost 28 years of marriage to understand the soothing power of a hug.

5. Why we live in Bridgeport, CT (aka, "Who the [flip] goes to Bridgeport?")

After a year renting a house in a more traditional neighborhood in Fairfield, we made the decision last summer to move into an apartment complex in Bridgeport, an area of Fairfield County - which includes nationally-coveted properties in Greenwich and Westport - that is an unconventional choice for several reasons including crime and blight. This move surprised a few of our friends and church community and I've been trying to figure out the best way to explain to myself and others why we made this choice. I'll share more in an upcoming post, but I've been grateful for the people who've asked us questions because each time helps me articulate better to myself why we're glad to live here. 

In related news: Brian and I just discovered an Amazon original series set in Bridgeport and Trumbull, CT. If you don't mind the language, here's a scene that made us laugh out loud: Who the [flip] goes to Bridgeport?!?

6. Voxer is pretty great and so are my sisters.

In the past, I've tried to stay up to date with my sisters lives through Skype sessions, but we find it harder to pick a time that worked for all of us. There's a ten-year age gap between us and our seasons of life are not in sync. My sister Alicia suggested we use the Voxer app and, while I'd used it sporadically with various friends, I didn't quite understand the way it worked. It's been the perfect solution for us to stay in touch with each other in real time. When one of us has a question or a story or an insight we want to share we record a brief (and sometimes not so brief) message on our thread and the then listen and respond as we're able. I need my sisters and value their friendship and insights so this is the perfect solution for us right now. 

7. I can live (for a limited time at least) with two dogs.

When Kendra made plans to spend two months with us this summer, she asked if she could bring her beloved pit/lab, Juliet. Have I mentioned I'm not a pet person? We've had Leo since 2013 and Duchess for about five years before that. That's because I like my husband better when he has a dog. Also, we live in a loft apartment with very few separate spaces and I couldn't imagine what it would be like to have TWO furry, smelly, occasionally raucous creatures in our space. But we gave it a try, and it wasn't too bad. The dogs played together non-stop which was sometimes cute and other times annoying. In the end, I survived and it was totally worth it to have Kendra here with us.

 

8. Rule of Life is not the end of the world

As part of my training to become certified as a Spiritual Director I've been tasked with writing a Rule of Life. If you've never heard about this practice, developed first in early Christian monastic communities, is a holistic description of the regular, intentional practices we engage to live out our life's calling. As a recovering "to do" list addict, I've spent approximately ten years avoiding the sort of lists that I could never quite match between my ideals and my current realities. This assignment has been hard for me. Really hard. A gentle nudge from my supervisor (and some helpful suggestions from this site) helped me finally buckle down. I'm working with rough draft, hoping to orient myself toward God's invitations for my life rather than forcing outdated ideals on myself. Some of the time this has felt joyous and other times frustrating. My hope is to take God at his word that the work he calls us to is not burdensome and that, in some mysterious way, we can order our lives in the way of Christ's unforced rhythms of grace

I hope you are aware of the rhythms of grace you're being invited into at the start of a new season. I'm looking forward to showing up here again on the blog a couple of times a week - it's part of my Rule of Life!

 A July afternoon with my Brother's family on Jones Beach, Long Island. 

A July afternoon with my Brother's family on Jones Beach, Long Island. 


How was your summer? What are your hopes for fall? Read any good books lately?

I love to hear from you! Let me know in a comment or any of the following places:

Instagram

Facebook

Email

Peace, friends.

Tamara

 

I didn't intend to stay away for so long [an update]

 

Hi, friends. I've been meaning to write an update for several weeks and finally just recorded a short message to post on Instagram which I've included at the end of the post.

While I canceled several of my freelance writing assignments this summer, I've had two posts published at the Telos Collective's Intersection blog. You might recognize the content from a parenting series I wrote here some years ago, but the contents been polished up a bit (thanks to the editorial help at Telos). Head on over to their site to read. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

While you're there, take some time to peruse other posts. I've linked a few of my favorites below.

My posts on the Intersection blog:

Part 1: What Is Your Family's Cultural Footprint?

Part 2: Becoming Culture Makers and Blessers

A few other posts to check out while you're there:

Black Christians in America: A Personal Invitation from Esau McCaulley (I strongly encourage you to listen to Esau McCaulley' talk at the 2018 Intersection Conference "Towards A More Diverse Anglicanism")

What Makes A Culture Christian?

Present in the Polis: Toward an Anglican Political Theology

And here's my four-minute, off-the-cuff update:


Thank you for your companionship on the internet. I'm grateful for you and look forward to reconnecting soon!

In the meantime, I'd love your feedback on the types of posts you find most encouraging. Drop me a comment and let me know. You can browse through the menu bar at the top of the website page here for a view of the various categories I've covered over the past twelve years.