Weekend Daybook: conversations in community edition

Seven days of collecting what I've been up to lately: places, people, books, podcasts, music, links & more for your weekend downtime.

(1) photo from this week

Pumpkin-picking with my parents, Sport Hill Farm, Easton, CT

Pumpkin-picking with my parents, Sport Hill Farm, Easton, CT

(2) new posts this week

One new post In the Work Stories series & one overdue post on what I’ve been reading lately!

  1. Kim Akel’s care-connecting calling (I’m struck by the statement Kim shares about stewarding the pain of our lives. She has done this beautifully, and I hope that reading her work story will encourage each of us to do the same.)

  2. What I Read June - September 2018 (What are YOU reading these days? I love to hear your recommendations!)

(3) stories from people stewarding their pain in order to help others (in honor of Kim Akel’s work to steward her own)

  1. My Right Mind by Peggi Tustan via The Perennial Gen (“…needing God is a good thing!”)

  2. How Can I Be More Like You by Lore Ferguson Wilbert via Sayable (“I was painfully shy when I came to live with them, was deeply caught cycles of fear and shame, and struggled to look many adults in the eye, and yet, night after night, we'd be called on to both answer thoughtful questions and ask them.”)

  3. Heart-Grabber by Ash Parsons via Fathom Magazine (“The tricky thing about life is it can be heartbreaking to be here, even in the good stuff—especially because of the good stuff.”)

(4) book lists to find your next reads (in honor of my latest book post)

You also might enjoy my Pinterest board: Read / Reading / Have Read

  1. Our Favorite November Picture Books via Read-Aloud Revival (I confess that, on occasion, I fill up my library holds with these lists. And then I feel guilty because I’m probably keeping them from the children in my town.)

  2. 31 spooky (but not too scary) books for your fall reading list via Modern Mrs. Darcy (Loved seeing our current reading group title in this list. Can you spot it?)

  3. Excellent, must-read memoirs and narrative non-fiction via Hearts & Minds Booknotes (Have you subscribed to Booknotes yet?)

  4. How the Silent Book Club gave me back my reading life: Reading alone, together, at a table of introverts via Lit Hub (Add this to my wishlist of amazing book clubs to host.)

(5) photos from my parents’ visit last weekend

Such a fun, brief visit with my parents. The weather snapped cold and rainy just before they arrived, but we made the best of it. Our Saturday itinerary - farm market, chicken soup at the Olde Blue Bird Inn, walking the new pier at Seaside Park - was bookended with cozy chats and card games. My favorite kind of visit!

(6) recent & brief articles informing us as we head toward mid-term elections

Brian and I are experimenting with a weekly, Instagram-live conversation to try to foster more fruitful conversations on social media. We’ve learned a lot about navigating life from what the Anglican church refers to as the via media (Latin for “middle road”). It’s not the kind of discernment that grabs headlines, but over and over again it’s steered us toward a healthy middle ground in the midst of tempting extremes. We didn’t intend to address politics - at least not in our third week - but the questions we received on the subject were compelling: “When no candidate captures every issue I value, how do I prioritize issues when selecting a candidate? “

The beauty of Instagram Live is that it’s only available for 24 hours, and allows Brian and me to speak kind of “off-the-cuff”. We’re really wanting to foster conversation, not speak as if we know the final word on any given subject. Several people requested the video from this week’s conversation so I’m posting it here. As long as viewers understand this is just us working out our convictions with the best information we have available, we’re happy to have you share the conversations with friends and family. We encourage you to continue fostering grace-filled conversations with civil convictions.

I’m also sharing six different articles we’ve read recently that come around the question of voting from what we feel are generally “via media” viewpoints. The authors don’t all arrive at the same conclusion, but they’re navigating the questions from a healthy civic theology.

  1. The Pastor Negotiates With the Empire by Scot McKnight via Jesus Creed (I’d also add from earlier this year, McKnight’s What Makes A Culture Christian via the Telos Collective’s Intersection Blog.)

  2. When Justice Fails by Peter Leithart via First Things (Our friend Fr. Peter Coelho shared this with us, and I referenced it in the IG Live conversation. While specifically speaking to the recent Supreme Court nomination and hearings, the advice is generally useful. )

  3. Present in the Polis: Toward An Anglican Political Theology by Rev. Seth Richardson via Intersection Blog (“Political theology at its best cultivates imagination for how the Body of Christ, the church, can be distinctly and peculiarly present in the polis for the sake of others.”)

  4. How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t. by Tim Keller via NY Times Op-Ed (This is a fairly broad approach which makes sense for its context in the NY Times, but it might be a good starting point for those who’ve not considered that neither political party is the “Christian” party.)

  5. Christians Don’t Fit Into the Political System. Period. by Charles Moore via Voices blog at the Bruderhof (A respectful response to Tim Keller’s op-ed in the NYT. For a longer read from Bruderhof’s Plough Quarterly Magazine, I recommend this interview with Stanley Haeurwas: Alien Citizens)

  6. Do politics belong in church?: 11 pastors and theologians weigh in via The Christian Century (While this is addressing more specifically pastors’ practices of speaking about politics in the church, I find that reading many viewpoints helps me understand the spectrum and discern where to land in a healthy middle.)

Here’s the video capture of our IG Live conversation. Maybe next week, we’ll show the other half of my face!

(7) blog posts from this week in the archives

  1. 2017 - Heading Home (One of my favorite essays I’ve ever written.)

  2. 2015 - Thoughts On the Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry & Our Attempt to Love Texas (What I learned from Wendell Berry as I tried to make myself at home in Texas.)

  3. 2014 - A Few Incomplete Thoughts On the Sacred Practice of Sabbath (Worth reading frequently.)

  4. 2013 - When Did You First Notice the One You Love? [tiny stories #5] (In honor of my grandparents’ 72nd wedding anniversary this week!)

  5. 2011 - Alex is Baptized! (A beautiful memory.)

  6. 2010 - Barefoot Hospitality (Still learning this and grateful for the many friends who’ve taught me the meaning of hospitality through the years.)

  7. 2009 - Why We’ve Saved For Therapy Instead of College (A little bit tongue-in-cheek, a little bit practice in humility!)

Alex's Baptism.jpeg

7 years ago

Alex’s Baptism - Christ Church of Austin, TX

May your weekend include some time at home and some time with friends that welcome your tears as well as your laughter. 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: Kim Akel's care-connecting calling

Welcome to the newest 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.

Today’s guest is one of those people who became friend and neighbor in our relatively short, but life-changing season in Austin. She and her husband Mike and daughter Grace lived one street over from us for about two years, and on a few memorable occasions I’d meet her for an invigorating walk to our favorite coffee shop and back home again before most of our neighbors were awake yet. Kim is a fantastic story-teller with a unique skill of communicating both joy and sadness in life-giving ways. I’m pretty sure I laughed and cried every time we spoke, and I’m confident I always understood better what love means. In the short time we were neighbors, Kim and Mike made a life-changing impact on my family (including moving out of their house the weekend of our son’s wedding so my sister’s family could live in it).

Kim’s passion for her work is a force to be reckoned with, and may only be outmatched by her passion for her family and friends. I wish I could meet Kim’s mother, but feel that I probably would recognize her through Kim’s work and friendship. I’m struck by the statement she shares in today’s post about stewarding the pain of our lives. She has done this beautifully, and I hope that reading her work story will encourage each of us to do the same.

Kim Akel1.jpeg

I am a daughter of the most High God, I am the spouse of my husband Michael, and mother to our daughter Gracie. My occupation is to serve as a co-teacher to Gracie who attends a classical school. I also work in role that is based on relationships. I serve alongside local hospital systems and national leadership, hospital administrators, directors, managers, my counterparts on my team, physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, and practice administrators to grow quality oncology programs.

I am always filled with both peace and a song when I am working in my sweet spot!

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 55: 11-13

I wake up with songs on my heart, especially when I am steeped fully in relationship with Christ. Today at 3:00 a.m., my body jolted and I found myself marinating in Dana Dirksen’s version of the song, “Greater Is He That Is In Me, Than He Who Is In the World.” I took that moment to pray that song over my family - that they would know Who is greater, and have an open posture toward the One who is greater and Who is in them.

 Later as I packaged up our daughter for professional teacher school day, I played, “Lord, Establish the Work of Our Hands,” and prayed for our hands, feet, our hearts, and our minds to be established in solid foundation. That the Lord would go before us and prepare the hearts of those in our paths this day, and every day.

Today I have a 7:00 a.m. meeting, so I arrive before the sunrise. I recognize the people waiting in the hospitals aren’t there because they want to be there. Many are in the midst of tragedy or on the other extreme with celebration of new life. Regardless, I am always overcome by the sacred moments I capture… and therefore I am not able to photograph. Instead, this is what it looks like for me on most days, dark and empty as I walk ahead. In my heart I give thanks for each person I have the honor of passing.

 As I walked to my next meeting, my heart sang Audrey Assad’s “Joy of the Lord is my Strength.”   There is a local nonprofit group who focuses on registering marrow donors for patients facing a stem cell transplant. Because of the great need, the nurses and clinical staff invest in the community by volunteering at various events to support the registration of more donors on college campuses, employer groups, and within the area hospitals. I coordinated this meeting in an effort to bring all of the right people in the room to execute on the upcoming marrow donor drives. I make the connection, and then let everyone do their part to make this happen! Because of the partnership with multiple groups, in just three days, they registered nearly 500 people. There are people living today because someone decided to donate their marrow!

 I have worked since I was in junior high school. I babysat nieces and nephews, served nachos and popcorn at the concession stand during my younger brother’s baseball games, cleaned my dad’s house, poured yogurt with my siblings at a local frozen yogurt place, worked at a clothing store in the mall, was a telemarketer at a staffing agency; however, after my mom’s cancer diagnosis, I had a shift in the work I wanted to do with my hands. My heart. 

 Mom had both thyroid and metastatic breast cancer. She had various surgeries, chemotherapies, whole brain radiation, and a stem cell transplant. I have fond memories of her surgeon and her oncologist and even the hospitals in Pasadena and Houston, Texas. My mom worked for a world-renowned computer company and was fired for missing work due to her cancer diagnosis before there were laws to protect patients in that predicament. I found myself in detention at least once a week due to being tardy caused by taking my mom to/from her radiation treatments. 

My mom is my motivation to serve cancer patients and their caregivers, as is my daughter who never got to meet her. She went to be with the Lord twenty years ago in September, which means I am forty. Next year I will have been alive longer than I had known her.

My Mom

My Mom

I make it my job to have a general understanding of all aspects of oncology and serve as a liaison for physicians who screen, diagnose, and treat cancer and our local and national oncology administrators. I meet with physicians to uncover opportunities for new or enhanced programs for oncology patients and their caregivers, I sit alongside the oncology nurses, nurse navigators and support team who serve our community and always am looking for ways to enhance our community relations. I am the connector, and enjoy being linked to the entire team.

 Our system hosts multiple tumor conferences across the city. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, their physician will present patient’s case to a multidisciplinary team to discuss the standard of care treatment for that diagnosis, as well as what clinical trials are available to that patient. I have seen treatment plans change because of these discussions. This is good medicine!

Several times per day, I receive texts asking whether I am available for a quick chat. Sure! The first time, I spend ten minutes talking through an issue one of our physicians had recently, and we develop a plan on how we can bring the right people into the room to address the issue. The next is about an opportunity to meet with a new physician entering our market, another is a PR opportunity, a nurse navigator needing to talk through a hospital question. By gathering various sources of input, we are able to turn a lot of these short ten-minute talks into a best practice for our teams across the nation.

 Later on, I sit in a planning meeting with my counterparts to discuss an outreach strategy to promote an oncology program to a rural community our system serves. We recognize that many rural communities do not have oncology specialists, and in the coming weeks we bring our medical director out to three rural communities to meet with hospital leadership, emergency physicians, and the local physicians. We also bring our oncology nurse navigator, who shares her role as an educator and advocate. Later in the month, my colleague and I will follow up with those administrators and physicians to hear how the process is going, and hear feedback how we might better support their community.

 While in between meetings, I hear the news that one of my dear friends was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage 1 with an aggressive personality. I immediately socialized some of this with my gynecologic oncology nurse navigator, who helped me better understand the cancer and how I might support my friend. Through our conversation, she talked about the miracle that it was found at stage 1, and that is normally unheard of for ovarian cancer. We ended up talking colleges, and uncovered that both my navigator and I graduated at late stages in our lives, at 45 and 30 respectively. It led us to a fruitful discussion on the why behind our roles... She ended our talk by calling my friend "my patient" saying that all Gyn Onc patients are hers, and they are why she advocates for them every day. My daughter is the why behind what I do, and all daughters, so that they might have a mom to stand at their wedding, to watch their granddaughter grow up, to hold hands and talk about the tough times we face.

When I walk among the physicians who dedicate their careers to finding a cure for cancer, or sit with the administrators committed to providing the infrastructure for the need, I am filled with a humble pride that access to advanced treatments are in our community hospitals because of the work these folks do. They give me hope for the future in the world of cancer.

 While at Laity Lodge nearly ten years ago, I heard a speaker retell the story of H. E. Butt exclaiming to Frederick Buechner, "You have had a fair amount of pain in your life.... You have been a good steward of it." That has resonated with me since, in that by continuing to work in oncology I have stewarded one of my most painful experiences. And it actually brings me joy to serve in this way.

My mom’s mother, me, and my daughter, Grace

My mom’s mother, me, and my daughter, Grace

Every day, my siblings and I chat from sun up to sun down on ways we will care for the needs of our mom’s 104-year-old mom, “Granny.”

Last Thursday a family member of mine was diagnosed with tongue cancer, and we happened to be planning a trip to stay the weekend with them. Our time together was an investment both personally and spiritually, and our daughter brought sweet laughter into the home in which my husband was raised. I spent the weekend listening, pondering God’s redemptive plan for the world, and questioning our part in it. Coincidentally, yesterday while meeting with a local medical oncologist, she shared her passion for head and neck cancers, and her story on where this passion originated.

 This fall I became my daughter’s kindergarten co-teacher at a local classical school. For two hours on two days per week, I get to be a part of her education. Being with her in this way, as opposed to previously feeling like I was directing the meals-bath-book-bedtime routine, has somehow managed to multiply the space in my heart, mind, soul, and strength for the Lord, others, and my neighbors.

Kim Akel.Kim Grace.jpg

I don’t have a building or a title, rather the work of my heart and hands is my ministry. I live and breathe and live out each day as though my citizenship is in the kingdom of God. I don’t care for bumper stickers, wearing a company’s brand on, or align with divisors or denominators in the world today. I think the definition of inclusion is asking someone to a dance. And I hope to live a life asking people to dance, inviting them in to participate in relationship, to unplug from the device (our own and technological) and converse with those right in front of us. That is my occupation.

 At any given moment in crowds or alone I am praying in spirit, silently asking the Lord for the forgiveness of my sins that morning, and over the course of my life. I also thanking God for the forgiveness of the unspeakable grievances committed against me and also against all of my ancestors all the way up to Adam and Eve. I plead the saving, reconciling, restoring, redeeming blood of Jesus over me and my family.  And thank the Lord, that because of what He did before, during, and after the cross, the enemy has no rightful legal claim to me or my family. Randomly I am sometimes called to pray these same prayers over each person if I am in the room with them. Silently and in my heart, sometimes aloud. An interdimensional spiritual shift inevitably will happen in me and around me. Joy and freedom replace fear and bondage. One cannot make this stuff up!

 As I step back and observe my paid and non-paid occupations, the common theme I see as my role is to prayerfully offer care to others. I love making connections among people, gathering information and saving it in my brain Rolodex for a rainy day (for a future connection or resource), letting people be themselves while honing in on the beauty they bring into this dusty world, interceding on behalf of them, and as I lay my head on my pillow each night, I marinate in the humble awe at how grateful I am to be able to listen to the peaceful snores of those I love the most. I get to do this!

 May the capacity of our hearts be enlarged, especially to serve those whom God places right in front of us, in a sacrificial and sanctifying way without expectation of receiving anything in return. Giving care in ways that they need, caregiving with our time, our talents, our all.

Kim Akel is a daughter of the most High God, a spouse to husband, Michael, and mother to daughter, Gracie. She serves as a co-teacher to Gracie who attends a classical school, and alongside local hospital systems and national leadership, hospital administrators, directors, managers, my counterparts on my team, physicians, advanced practice providers, nurses, and practice administrators to grow quality oncology programs.

What about your calling?

What pain in your life might be God calling you to steward in your vocation?

A song and a prayer for all of us this week

O THOU WHO compasseth the whole earth with Thy most merciful favour and willest not that any of thy children should perish, I would call down Thy blessing to-day upon all who are striving towards the making of a better world.

I pray, O God especially —
for all who are valiant for truth
for all who are working for purer and juster laws:
for all who are working for peace between nations:
for all who are engaged in healing disease:
for all who are engaged in the relief of poverty:
for all who are engaged in the rescue of the fallen:
for all who are working towards the restoration of the broken unity of Thy Holy Church:
for all who preach the gospel:
for all who bear witness to Christ in foreign lands:
for all who suffer for righteousness’ sake.

Cast down, O Lord, all the forces of cruelty and wrong. Defeat all selfish and worldly-minded schemes, and prosper all that is conceived among us in the spirit of Christ and carried out to the honour of His blessed name.

— John Baillie, "Prayer For the Making Of A Better World"

(You can read all of the Work Stories here.)

What I Read June - September 2018

I had a great reading summer. Hope you enjoy the micro reviews + publisher blurbs! Let me know if you add anything from this list to your book pile!

We visited Yale's  Text and Textiles exhibit  at the Beinecke Library in July. This piece intrigued me (from an Austin artist!).

We visited Yale's Text and Textiles exhibit at the Beinecke Library in July. This piece intrigued me (from an Austin artist!).

You can see my 2017 reading list here. | You can see all my reading lists since 2006 here.

One other note: Last year I began using Amazon affiliate links as a way to bring in some pocket change from the books I share on the blog. I was challenged by an independent bookseller to reconsider this strategy as Amazon has a poor reputation in its dealings with authors and other members of the book industry. I want to champion local business and humane working relationships and so I've included an IndieBound link that will direct you to purchase any of the following books from an independent bookseller near you. I've also included the order link for one of my new favorite booksellers, Hearts and Minds Books.  Using the link I've provided you can order any book through heartsandmindsbooks.com, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. They even offer the option to receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check! Brian and I've been delighted with the generous attention we've received from owners Byron and Beth Borger. We feel like we've made new friends! (I also highly recommend subscribing to Byron's passionately instructive and prolific Booknotes posts.)


21. Behold the Dreamers: A Novel
By Imbolo Mbue (Random House, 2016. 382 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice."

Micro Review: Mbue balances plot movement with occasional contemplative reflection at just the right pace for my taste. It also ticked the box of characters I can sympathize with while simultaneously honoring their complexity and choices that are outside of my ability to imagine. I was also drawn to imagining the experience of the very wealthy and the very marginalized as the recession hit Wall Street. Mbue wrote characters who carry both good and horrible qualities - no pure villains, no pure heroes - and all worthy of attention and care. This is a good novel and I highly recommend. (I also loved that the author and I shared the same insight of young immigrant dreamers through the lens of a familiar Old Testament account.)

22. Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2014. 292 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

" 'Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.' So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another."

Micro Review: I wish I could remember who recommended all my summer novels to me, but I've got it narrowed down to either Byron at Hearts & Minds Booksellers or Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy. Either way, it was an excellent recommendation. The pace of plot and character reflection was a good fit for my taste, and I enjoyed the 1970s setting. I felt disheartened by repeated decisions the parents made to require their children to operate out of pre-determined roles they had set for them. I know well this temptation and it grieved me to watch it play out to such disastrous results. I was grateful for the small touches of redemption at the close of the story. Lord, help us all.

23. Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel

By Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2017. 217 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town--and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs. 

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster."

Micro Review: Another excellent story with characters that I cared about. This novel felt more mystery-driven than family-dynamic driven as Ng's previous novel. I enjoyed watching the story unfold and understanding the motivations for the crisis that plays out. There were a few plot twists that surprised me,  as well. A good read!

24. A Fatal Grace: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel

By Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, 2011. 320 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"Welcome to winter in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, where the villagers are preparing for a traditional country Christmas, and someone is preparing for murder.
No one liked CC de Poitiers. Not her quiet husband, not her spineless lover, not her pathetic daughter—and certainly none of the residents of Three Pines. CC de Poitiers managed to alienate everyone, right up until the moment of her death. 

When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Quebec, is called to investigate, he quickly realizes he's dealing with someone quite extraordinary. CC de Poitiers was electrocuted in the middle of a frozen lake, in front of the entire village, as she watched the annual curling tournament. And yet no one saw anything. Who could have been insane enough to try such a macabre method of murder—or brilliant enough to succeed?

With his trademark compassion and courage, Gamache digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life to find the dangerous secrets long buried there. For a Quebec winter is not only staggeringly beautiful but deadly, and the people of Three Pines know better than to reveal too much of themselves. But other dangers are becoming clear to Gamache. As a bitter wind blows into the village, something even more chilling is coming for Gamache himself."

Micro Review: Still loving this series (even though I inadvertently read out of order). Also: still wishing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation turns this into a televised series with a perfectly-casted Inspector Gamache.)

25. Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2008. 320 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge.

At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love. 

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. 

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires."

Micro Review: Elizabeth Strout’s skill in writing characters and setting kept me reading even through plots emphasizing despair. I’m glad I kept reading because by the end of the episodic novel (sometimes feeling more like a series of short stories, but always including in some part the titular character), I grew to love Olive Kitteridge. As much as she broke my heart, I wanted her to continue embracing life. Throughout the whole book, I kept hearing Thoreau’s (ironically, written from another New England town), “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. The repeated themes of marriage, parenting, family systems, midlife, and community all circle the themes I’ve devoted my life to learning and supporting and I so much wanted to reach into these quietly desperate lives and say “Stop hiding! There’s help!” Signs of good writing even if I left the book kind of like I leave a sad dream.


26. An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
By James Carroll (Mariner Books, 1997. 304 pages)

Amazon | IndieBound | Hearts & Minds Booksellers

"An American Requiem is the story of one man's coming of age. But more than that, it is a coming to terms with the conflicts that disrupted many families, inflicting personal wounds that were also social, political, and religious. Carroll grew up in a Catholic family that seemed blessed. His father had abandoned his own dream of becoming a priest to rise through the ranks of Hoover's FBI and then become one of the most powerful men in the Pentagon, the founder of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Young Jim lived the privileged life of a general's son, dating the daughter of a vice president and meeting the pope, all in the shadow of nuclear war, waiting for the red telephone to ring in his parents' house. He worshiped his father until Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, turmoil in the Catholic Church, and then Vietnam combined to outweigh the bond between father and son. These were issues on which they would never agree. Only after Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer and husband with children of his own did he come to understand fully the struggles his father had faced. In this work of nonfiction, the best-selling novelist draws on the skills he honed with nine much-admired novels to tell the story he was, literally, born to tell. An American Requiem is a benediction on his father's life, his family's struggles, and the legacies of an entire generation."

Micro Review: As much as I try to limit my intake of the memoir genre, when I read a good one I always come back to the truth that it's my favorite. I am captivated not only by a story well told but also by the work a good memoirist does to connect the dots between all the influencers in their context: generations of family members, religious and educational backgrounds, word events and socio-economic factors. I'm fascinated to watch not only the facts of one person's life play out by also by their work in interpreting meaning. James Carroll has a good and hard story. I kept reading sections out loud to Brian. Much of the story felt especially timely, in the light of daily reports of conflict and scandal in both the political and religious spheres. I appreciate the way Carroll made meaning, grieved loss, and sought reconciliation with his ideals and his reality. Two thumbs way up.

27. Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes
By Elizabeth Bard (Back Bay Books, 2016. 384 pages)

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"Ten years ago, New Yorker Elizabeth Bard followed a handsome Frenchman up a spiral staircase to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now, with a baby on the way, Elizabeth takes another leap of faith with her husband when they move to Provence and open an artisanal ice cream shop. Filled with enticing recipes such as stuffed zucchini flowers, fig tart, and honey-and-thyme ice cream, PICNIC IN PROVENCE is the story of everything that happens after the happily ever after. With wit, humor, and a scoop of wild strawberry sorbet, Bard reminds us that life-in and out of the kitchen-is a rendezvous with the unexpected.

Micro Review: Easy, enjoyable read! As much I liked the author and her community, I really read this book for the vicarious pleasure of food descriptions. Sentences like the introduction to a recipe for Stuffed Tomatoes and Zucchini (ala, Légumes d’Été Farçis in Provence) for example” “This dish instantly transports me back to Jean’s garden - big, bright beefsteak tomatoes and croquet-ball-size round zucchini stuffed and baked to sagging perfection. Lovely for a casual dinner in the garden.” Reading this kind of book is my little voyeuristic vice to compensate for what I don’t actually attain in my own kitchen!

28. Travels with Charley: In Search of America
By John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 1980. 288 pages)

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"An intimate journey across America, as told by one of its most beloved writers
To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.

With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and  the unexpected kindness of strangers."

Micro Review: A bit uneven with some chapters reading like a quintessential man-on-a-journey book and then a few places just a bit rambly and somewhat forced. Still, a sweet read and Charley is a dear.

History / Non-Fiction

29. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010. 640 pages)

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"In this epic, beautifully written masterwork, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life. From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.
With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an “unrecognized immigration” within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic."

Micro Review: WOW. The work Isabel Wilkerson has done for us to understand not only the epic scale of the unrecognized great immigration in our nation’s history but also the nuance represented in the stories of individual lives is worthy of our collective, national gratitude. This is a history we need to know and understand at every level of our social infrastructure so that we can both honor the good and jettison the evil in our history. Read this book.

30. Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

By A. O. Scott (Penguin Books, 2017. 304 pages)

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"The New York Times film critic shows why we need criticism now more than ever

Few could explain, let alone seek out, a career in criticism. Yet what A.O. Scott shows in Better Living Through Criticism is that we are, in fact, all critics: because critical thinking informs almost every aspect of artistic creation, of civil action, of interpersonal life. With penetrating insight and warm humor, Scott shows that while individual critics--himself included--can make mistakes and find flaws where they shouldn't, criticism as a discipline is one of the noblest, most creative, and urgent activities of modern existence.

Using his own film criticism as a starting point--everything from his infamous dismissal of the international blockbuster The Avengersto his intense affection for Pixar's animated Ratatouille--Scott expands outward, easily guiding readers through the complexities of Rilke and Shelley, the origins of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, the power of Marina Abramovich and 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' Drawing on the long tradition of criticism from Aristotle to Susan Sontag, Scott shows that real criticism was and always will be the breath of fresh air that allows true creativity to thrive. "The time for criticism is always now," Scott explains, "because the imperative to think clearly, to insist on the necessary balance of reason and passion, never goes away.""

Micro Review: I’ve seen mixed reviews for this book but for this autodidactic student of the arts, I’m indebted to the work of critics to train me in discernment. I really enjoyed this book.

A favorite quotation:

“The origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” 
― A.O. Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth


31. The Last Shift: Poems

By Philip Levine (Knopf, 2016. 96 pages)

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“The final collection of new poems from one of our finest and most beloved poets. 

The poems in this wonderful collection touch all of the events and places that meant the most to Philip Levine. There are lyrical poems about his family and childhood, the magic of nighttime and the power of dreaming; tough poems about the heavy shift work at Detroit's auto plants, the Nazis, and bosses of all kinds; telling poems about his heroes--jazz players, artists, and working people of every description, even children. Other poems celebrate places and things he loved: the gifts of winter, dawn, a wall in Naples, an English hilltop, Andalusia. And he makes peace with Detroit: "Slow learner that I am, it took me one night/to discover that rain in New York City/is just like rain in Detroit. It gets you wet." It is a peace that comes to full fruition in a moving goodbye to his home town in the final poem in the collection, "The Last Shift."

Micro Review: I wish I could remember where I heard this poet mentioned. His name was new to me, so it’s a bit ironic that I’m starting with his last book of poems, published posthumously after his death in 2015, to explore his work. I might make this a habit. There’s something crystallized in a writer’s words when they know they are reaching the end. There’s an essentialism that makes me take notice and wonder about my own. With much of his life spent working in Detroit factories, Philip Levine is often described as the poet of the working man. This slim collection of poems made the perfect companion to my own recent reflection on the nature of calling in one’s work.

Here’s a few favorite stanzas from “Office Hours” (p. 16):

Midnight on Grand River, and the car barns

are quiet, the last truck left hours ago.

The watchman dreams through his rounds.

If you entered the office now you’d find

all the old upright Smith Coronas sheathed

in their gowns, the pencils tucked in drawers,

the fountain pens dreaming of the epics

they’ll never write, the paper clips

holding together reports on nothing at all.

32. Take, Eat, Remember, and Believe

By Brett Alan Dewing (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. 88 pages)

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In this volume of poetry, Dewing explores liturgy, both common and cosmic, domestic and demonic. Words are actions. Nothing is spiritually neutral. How do we reconcile these truths in our lives?

Micro Review: Brett is a friend of mine and he is a fine poet and playwright. I’m a fan of Brett’s balance of liturgical themes, Scriptural phrases, and everyday references. This is a good collection. I recommend reading out loud for full enjoyment of cadence and language.

Here’s a favorite from the collection, “A Mary Heart”:

Your children are of vocal stock

One thing that they can do is talk

And fill their face with laughter lines

That overlap and intertwine

But I was born to stand apart

And ponder these within my heart

To wander in the yard and see

To dream, to get to know a tree

And so amid the word-filled air

You may not have known that I was there

But sight may be a thing we shared

And you indeed may not have cared

That I was somber, staid, and terse

And slow of tongue and filled with verse

You may have known something at least

About a heart that holds its peace

But in the end you had not choice

When sickness took away your voice

And I would sit beside your bed

And not regret the words not said

While all around were laughter peals

While words were whittled, wheels in wheels

But in that raucous holy place

A Martha practiced Mary grace

Within, your deep would call to deep

And you would blink and drift to sleep

And I would note the cherished depth

Of holy secrets that you kept.

Apostles Reads Selections

33. Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

By Amy L. Sherman (IVP Books, 2011. 271 pages)

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"Imagine the scenarios:

  • a CEO successfully negotiates a corporate merger, avoiding hundreds of layoffs in the process

  • an artist completes a mosaic for public display at a bank, showcasing neighborhood heroes

  • a contractor creates a work-release program in cooperation with a local prison, growing the business and seeing countless former inmates turn their lives around

  • a high-school principal graduates 20 percent more students than the previous year, and the school's average scores go up by a similar percentage

Now imagine a parade in the streets for each event. That's the vision of Proverbs 11:10, in which the tsaddiqim--the people who see everything they have as gifts from God to be stewarded for his purposes--pursue their vocation with an eye to the greater good. Amy Sherman, director of the Center on Faith in Communities and scholar of vocational stewardship, uses the tsaddiqim as a springboard to explore how, through our faith-formed calling, we announce the kingdom of God to our everyday world. But cultural trends toward privatism and materialism threaten to dis-integrate our faith and our work. And the church, in ways large and small, has itself capitulated to those trends, while simultaneously elevating the "special calling" of professional ministry and neglecting the vocational formation of laypeople. In the process, we have, in ways large and small, subverted our kingdom mandate. God is on the move, and he calls each of us, from our various halls of power and privilege, to follow him. Here is your chance, keeping this kingdom calling in view, to steward your faith and work toward righteousness. In so doing, you will bless the world, and as you flourish, the world will celebrate."

Micro Review: We read this in our church’s reading group for the liturgical season of Pentecost. During Pentecost, we celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit to equip each one of us to live out the gospel. One key way we get to do this is through our work, and this book helps us explore the intersection of faith and work. It’s a theologically-sound treatise on the goodness of work with inspiring examples of the ways Christians are working for the common good of their communities and workplaces. One glaring omission (as is the case for so much that’s written on the subject of faith and work) is the kingdom work in “blue collar” jobs. We need to continue more robust research and conversation on all forms of labor!

If for nothing else, read this book for the preview passages in which the author skillfully and eloquently integrates her research and premise with Tim Keller’s teaching that the “righteous” (Hebrew tsaddiqim) is the just, the people who follow God’s heart and ways and who see everything they have as gifts from God to be stewarded for his purposes. Sherman beautifully calls us to the Scriptural vision of a “rejoiced city” where the two, closely related features of the consummated kingdom: justice and shalom. I love that I am called to work in this kingdom!

Prayer / Spirituality / Spiritual Direction / Bible Study

34. The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence

By Henri Nouwen (Ballantine Books, 2003. 112 pages)

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"Since it was first published more than twenty years ago, The Way of the Heart has helped millions of men and women cast off the anger and greed that trouble the world–and find love, compassion, and peace in the heart of God.

Inspired by the ancient teachings of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers, The Way of the Heart clears before us a spiritual path consisting of three stepping-stones: Solitude (learning not to be alone but to be alone with God); Silence (the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive); and Prayer (standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart).

Distinguished theologian Henri Nouwen brilliantly illuminates each of these disciplines. In reflections that are beautifully clear and practical, as uplifting on the fourth reading as on the first, he helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in our spiritual lives–and reconnects us with what truly matters.

Within this one small book lies the most relevant and inspiring challenge that we shall ever face: to surrender the compulsive noise of the world for the way of the heart that leads us to God." 

Here's a favorite quotation:

"In the context of our verbose culture it is significant to hear the Desert Fathers discouraging us from using too many words: 'Abba Macarius was asked 'How should one pray?' The old man said, 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hand and say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer say: 'Lord, help.' He knows very well what we need and shows us his mercy." (p. 80)

35. Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings

By Janet K. Ruffing, R.S.M. (Paulist Press, 2000. 183 pages)

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"Explores issues that arise in the advanced stages of spiritual direction from both a practical and theoretical perspective.”

Micro Review: I’m behind in reading for my certification work. I found this book uneven in its helpfulness to me, but the parts that were helpful were excellent and uniquely helpful to me particularly on the subject of making space for people’s experiences of God that differ from my own.

 Here's a favorite quotation:

"I find it is helpful (in my personal prayer and as a suggestion for directees) to pray for the desire to forgive or to pray for the desire to let go of the anger. The basic principle is emotional congruence. We uncover and express our honest desires. If we can want to release anger, for instance, we have become open to a possibility in grace that is not yet ours. Eventually, we can choose to release the anger. wE can only pray from our actual feelings, coming to prayer from that honest fundamental desire which leaves us open to an unpredictable outcome. Praying with this kind of emotional congruency gives great freedom. We can pray out of our anger, our weariness, our discouragement, our fear, our loss, our joy, and so on. We express those feelings to their conclusion or until we’re tired of them. When we’re finished, we wait for a response. Gradually, we discover changes in us." (p. 20)

36. The Stories We Live: Finding God’s Calling All around Us

By Kathleen A. Cahalan (Eerdman’s, 2017. 150 pages)

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"‘Christian vocation,’ says Kathleen Cahalan, ‘is about connecting our stories with God's story.’ In The Stories We Live Cahalan rejuvenates and transforms vocation from a static concept to a living, dynamic reality.

Incorporating biblical texts, her own experience, and the personal stories of others, Cahalan discusses how each of us is called byGod, to follow, as we are, from grief, for service, in suffering, through others, within God. Readers of this book will discover an exciting new vocabulary of vocation and find a fresh vision for God's calling in their lives.”

Micro Review: A slim but substantive read on the subject of what it means to know our calling in life. The author used individual stories skillfully to illustrate the wide scope this subject requires. I highly recommend.

Here's a favorite quotation:

"The work that you do is inherently good when it aligns with God’s purposes, when your work is a service given for the common good. You may experience a deep resonance between who you are and what you are able to do. Your competence and excellence in your work is a sign of God’s work in you." (p. 73)


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37. When Spring Comes to the DMZ

By Uk-Bae Lee (Plough Publishing House, 2019. 40 pages)

Coming March 2019

"Korea’s demilitarized zone has become an amazing accidental nature preserve that gives hope for a brighter future for a divided land.

This unique picture book invites young readers into the natural beauty of the DMZ, where salmon, spotted seals, and mountain goats freely follow the seasons and raise their families in this 2.5-mile-wide, 150-mile-long corridor where no human may tread. But the vivid seasonal flora and fauna are framed by ever-present rusty razor wire, warning signs, and locked gates—and regularly interrupted by military exercises that continue decades after a 1953 ceasefire in the Korean War established the DMZ.

Creator Uk-Bae Lee’s lively paintings juxtapose these realities, planting in children the dream of a peaceful world without war and barriers, where separated families meet again and live together happily in harmony with their environment. Lee shows the DMZ through the eyes of a grandfather who returns each year to look out over his beloved former lands, waiting for the day when he can return. In a surprise foldout panorama at the end of the book the grandfather, tired of waiting, dreams of taking his grandson by the hand, flinging back the locked gates, and walking again on the land he loves to find his long-lost friends.

When Spring Comes to the DMZ helps introduce children to the unfinished history of the Korean Peninsula playing out on the nightly news, and may well spark discussions about other walls, from Texas to Gaza.”

Micro Review: My parents and siblings lived and worked in Seoul for several years. I was not able to visit but through their experience have become more aware of the fractured Korean Peninsula. My sister-in-law’s own family has lived in that split, and the memory of it is a painful part of her family’s history. This book, When Spring Comes to the DMZ, is a simple but stunning opportunity to notice the way grace and beauty insist on interjecting even the most pervasive schisms of our world. I recommend this beautifully-told story to all ages.


Go to my reading lists page to see my reading lists from 2017 and previous years.

Here's my Goodreads page. Let's be friends!

Linking up with another good reading resource: Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!  

What are you reading these days? 


p.s. This post includes affiliate links in this post 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!

Weekend Daybook: the welcoming each other edition

Seven days of collecting what I've been up to lately: places, people, books, podcasts, music, links & more for your weekend downtime.

(1) photo from this week

October.Seaside Park1.JPG

After a difficult weekend that knocked me out emotionally for a couple of days, I felt deeply restored by my walk along the Long Island Sound in Seaside Park, Bridgeport. This park is two blocks from our apartment, but sometimes I get going in life and stop paying attention to this space. If some time goes by without me mentioning the park or sharing a photo here, you have my permission to bug me about it!

(2) new posts in the Work Stories series

  1. Work Stories: Christie Purifoy's placemaker calling (What a joy to share my online home with Christie this week, and lots of you have told me you’re grateful, too.)

  2. An unexpected cost of our calling (Continuing to reflect on the winding pathways Brian and I have taken to get to a place better than we ever expected that cost us more than we ever imagined.)

(3) links about the beauty of gathering around a table (in honor of Christie Purifoy’s encouragement to us as placemakers)

You also might enjoy my Pinterest board: Liturgy of Life

  1. Why Do We Feast? by Sarah Hauser via The Rabbit Room (Anyone who quotes Robert Farrar Capon while suggesting feasting is a spiritual practice gets my full attention!)

  2. Learning To Cook, And Why It Matters by Andi Ashworth via Comment (An older post that never gets old because when Andi Ashworth speaks, I want to listen.)

  3. How To Start A Cookbook Club by Tara Austen Weaver via Serious Eats (Filing this idea away!)

(4) excellent insights into parenting

You also might enjoy my Pinterest board: Liturgy of Life

  1. 10 Dangerous Things for Kids and One True Danger, A Quiz by Rachel Pieh Jones via A Life Overseas (This topic represents some deep concerns Brian and I have about current parenting expectations, and there’s no better instructor than those who’ve broken their kids out of our national bubble.)

  2. An Encouraging Word for Mothers of Small Children by Anne Kennedy via Preventing Grace (You know, in case mothers of small children might need encouragement.)

  3. When Your Kids Won’t Bow to Your Idols by Jennifer Phillips (Another post I’ve held on to awhile and so in line with much of what I hoped to share in the parenting series I wrote a few years ago. This is excellent and worth re-reading often.)

  4. Families, Discipleship, and the Church by Rev. Dr. Emily McGowin via Churches For the Sake of Others (Parents, you and your children need the Church. I promise.)

(5) personal responses to the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation

Some day I will say more. Kyrie eleison.

(6) informative and restorative links since the Kavanaugh hearings

  1. When Justice Fails by Peter J. Leithart via First Things (“We can shatter the idols that bind and blind us, and turn to God in prayer. That may seem a priss-pious response to what R. R. Reno has called a “political knife-fight,” but prayer is in the arsenal of spiritual weapons, one of the church’s primary ways of pursuing justice.”

  2. The Kavanaugh Hearings Have Demonstrated How Desperately America Needs Restorative Justice by Lara Bazelon via Slate (We’ve been holding a conversation about what it means to navigate life on a middle road. Restorative justice is a great example of middle road thinking.)

  3. Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney as recorded by Katherine Moore (A friend shared this song with me on social media in response to my tears. It’s a favorite song, but I tend remember it only during Advent. This is a lovely recording at the perfect time.)

  4. Discerning the tune: Two new poems for our times by Malcolm Guite (Another friend texted these poems to Brian and me this week. It was a rough week, and these were good, beautiful, and true words. God bless Malcolm Guite.)

  5. Daily Prayer for October 12 via Plough (I was grateful for the timing of this prayer prompt. May I encourage you to print this prayer based on Matthew 6:12 and say it out loud from time to time? I’ll be doing the same.)

  6. Into Your Hands: Retrieve Lament (Still rehearsing the power of confession, forgiveness, and redemption that I’ve learned through my own experience with sexual wounding and shame.)

(7) blog posts from this week in the archives

  1. 2017 - My top 14 favorite art & faith books (I want to keep reading this over and over again!)

  2. 2016 - You Are Here to Kneel [sharing at Art House America] (Might not have been the most restful part of our trip to Ireland, but there’s no memory I hope to remember more!)

  3. 2015 - Autumn Daybook with Pumpkins [look.listen.make.do.] (Autumn brings out all the nostalgia.)

  4. 2015 - {pretty, happy, funny, real} in a briefly quiet season (Still amazed at this timeline.)

  5. 2014 - 7 melancholy blurbs (Sometimes it’s the smaller, bittersweet memories worth recording.)

  6. 2013 - The meaning of your name [tiny stories] (Gah! My niece!)

  7. 2011 - Top 10 When Company’s Coming (A guest post from my Mom that will never get old!)

7 years ago

Marble Falls, TX

May your weekend include some time at home and some time with friends that welcome your tears as well as your laughter. 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!

An unexpected cost of our calling

During this blog series on Work Stories, here’s some stream-of-consciousness reflections about our journey of calling/work/vocation. These are reflections in the rough and subject to change as I continue to grow up to be more like Christ and more like the Tamara he’s always intended for me.

folding chair.jpg

The path to discover our calling has brought us to a place better than anything we’d imagined and has cost us more than we ever expected.

This is the sentence I blurted to my friend over a church potluck. I didn’t know I believed it until the words came out of my mouth. I’m not sure my friend heard me, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

I think about it when I’m facetiming with my kids across the country and I realize it’s been months since I’ve been able to give them a real-life hug. I think about it when we try to fit 28 years of possessions into an apartment with two closets and no storage. I think about it when it’s Easter or Thanksgiving and there’s no immediate family nearby to pile into the house carrying pies and side dishes.

It still shocks me.

For generations both Brian’s and my family have lived in the same small collection of towns in the center of New York state. We moved between towns several times as we were getting established, but always within the same county and always close enough to hang out with family at a weekend bonfire. It never crossed our mind we’d need to live anywhere else until my husband’s job was downsized in 2010. Since the early 1980s, the economy wobbled in our little post-industrial part of the northeast, but with Brian’s graduate degree and job experience it never occurred to us we’d have to look anywhere else for work. In fact, Brian had always been offered jobs at new places before even considering leaving another. He’s a sought-after employee with great leadership, team-building, and administrative skills.

Looking back, I’m not positive what came first: Brian’s agonizing vocational discontent or the economic recession that tipped our area’s quaky economy over the edge. Either way, we found ourselves with four kids, ages 12 - 18, and only my part-time church income. After our severance ran out, Brian picked up a job as a long-term substitute high school teacher in the district that had given him his first job back in 1996. It was a backwards career move for certain.

That painful year proved to be invaluable for Brian’s sense of calling and purpose while simultaneously using up the tiny buffer of money we’d saved up to that point. After the economically-backwards way we’d started our family, we’d just barely begun to feel like we’d gathered some security (and by that I mean a tiny amount!).

Here’s where I want to talk a bit about what I mean when I say that pursuing calling has cost us more than we ever expected. Because, of course, I mean that in so many intangible ways: long distance from family and friends, unfamiliar cities, and exhausting cross-country moves. But I also mean costly in a technical way - as in dollars and cents.

For us, the cost has been literally everything we own. That’s not to say we’ve ever been homeless exactly, but we have been often without a home. It’s taken me almost twenty-eight years to say this without even a smidgen of shame: in the course of navigating our calling we’ve had to live within the sheer generosity of other people’s homes at least five times. By this, I mean, we had no other roof to cover our heads than the one offered by a kind friend or family member. On a couple of occasions, even the term friend is a misnomer, more like acquaintances really. To be clear, these were good-hearted people who allowed us (and our ever-expanding family) for a certain period of time to live with them without paying rent.

This is sheer, abundant, undeserved gift. I want it to be proclaimed as part of our family story, rather than hidden in the wrinkled folds of memory.

(This doesn’t even account for the two occasions our mobility muscles were developed when a fire and then a flood evacuated us from our home at short notice and we were housed by our community.)

When I look back on our journey with this in mind, it begins to dawn on me that God seems almost insistent that our family develop the skill of mobility. That’s not to say we’ve never made a wrong move, nor is it to blame our occasional poor financial decisions on God! It is to recognize the unexpected gifts we’ve received along this crooked pilgrimage.

With each move, I’ve tried to get lighter, hold onto fewer things, and to let go of my inborn fear of scarcity. Nothing has weighed heavier, though, than my wish-dream for a family homestead - one that my children and their children could return to every holiday and season of life. Now we have one bedroom for them all to squeeze into and wonder what we’ll do when grandchildren arrive. (and what a blessed dilemma that will be!)

Moving to Connecticut has turned the crank of this deep desire in almost painful ways. Yesterday I drove the long way from Fairfield to Norwalk, through quintessential New England neighborhoods with oak and maple leaves just starting to land on the porch steps, and accumulating in little multi-colored piles around lampposts, mailboxes, and American flags. At one point, a quick glimpse driving by a yellow-canopied lawn surrounding a cedar-sided colonial, actually caught my breath and stung my eyes.

That is what I’d always imagined for my life.

The beautiful, undeserved glory of our lives is that for a couple of years in the middle of all this mobility, we lived in the kind of spacious, rambly, leafy real estate that will always be “home” in our collective family memory. We lived in a place and time when a 3,000-square-foot home with three floors of living space could be purchased for under $100,000.

We do not live there anymore. And we can no longer count that property as an asset to hand to our children as is the American custom.

It’s a good gift to own a home and to be able to preserve that as a financial gift to hand on to the next generation, but it is not the global normative. As our living spaces have become smaller, I’ve been reminded that to live in a completely private home - not attached to the walls and rooms of someone else’s living quarters - is the way of most of the world. (For millions of people, having walls of one’s own is an unimaginable luxury!) I take an odd sort of comfort in knowing this fact every time I want to bang on my bedroom wall to ask the neighbor to please turn down his television. (Despite how it might sound, I actually feel lucky to live in our current arrangement, and I’ll share more about that story another time.)

Without a smidgen of shame, I want our children and grandchildren to know that we have followed God with abandon on this downwardly-mobile path. We have done it badly, at times, always trying to learn what financial stewardship means in each place and season of life. Imperfectly, and sometimes ungratefully, we have depleted every bank account, sold every asset, used up retirement, while simultaneously, and ferociously waging battle against recurring debt. Unless the Lord builds the house, we may never have one.

There are a few items we carry around with us on each move as sort of Ebenezer stones to God’s care, provision, grace, and mercy. One of those items is a simple metal folding chair. It’s a generic fixture, kind of nice as far as folding chairs go, although the padding’s a bit rumpled and stained. Without a story, it would easily be sent to Goodwill.

The folding chair is what my husband received at his father’s death. He helped his brothers clean out his dad’s apartment and they split up the few items worth saving. Brian got a folding chair.

(We save the chair because it reminds us of the mysterious, backwards way God turns sad things into reminders of good things.)

When my mother’s mother died, she left a tiny sum of money to each of her five daughters. My mother used the total of her inheritance to take her kids and grandkids to dinner at one of my grandmother’s favorite barbecue chicken restaurants. One of my most prized possessions is the glass-enclosed bookcase my grandmother’s foster mother left to her. Needing a home is part of my family heritage, it seems.

My dad’s parents are still living, but they have generously shared their resources over the years they’ve been alive, in the form of a tiny, beloved family cottage that now belongs to my beautiful cousin. When my grandparents moved into their retirement home, they invited kids and grandkids to split up their household goods. I have a beautiful, sunshiny-yellow Pyrex bowl on my kitchen shelf that I’ll treasure forever. If you visit our home, you’ll notice these little treasured items, not worth much in economic terms, but priceless in the way they literally connect us to our heritage.

We’ve moved into areas of the United States with ever-increasing (and burdensome) costs of living at the same time our family expenses exploded with four kids entering the college years. It’s a terribly inefficient timeline, and my children have had to navigate the social awkwardness of our downward mobility. Of all the important lessons I’ve learned, I’ve become increasingly aware of the benefits for those able to participate in the American custom of transferring wealth. This means inheritances and other sorts of transferable assets, yes, but also college funds, down payments on real estate, and other sorts of help for the next generation to be able to obtain appreciable assets. It’s a fine custom, and, given the opportunity, one I’d heartily embrace. I’ve lost track of the number of times, in my exasperation, I’ve harumphed “We don’t even have a rich uncle!”

I’ve learned that this is a kind of wealth that a portion of our culture’s population seem to take completely for granted. It’s the bit handed down from generation to generation. I’ve lost count the number of times someone’s mentioned to me in a conversation their anxiety about “tightening their belts” and I nod my head, yes, knowing they mean that one source of available revenue is a bit sluggish and I mean “I’m hoping we can make rent”.

Coming from my financial naïveté I’ve grown a healthy respect for the kind of good this tradition of transferring wealth from one generation to the next can generate. I’ve also had more opportunity to grow in relationship with families who possess this kind of wealth, and to understand the kind of commitment that stewardship requires. When it’s done well, it’s a beautiful thing. God bless and and bring blessing through all who steward their wealth for His purposes.

God has asked us - the Brian and Tamara Murphy family - to the same stewardship in a different way. I’m learning to not only be grateful, but to embrace the abundance of His care for us in the process.

There have been seasons of our journey that we’ve been able to pull a healthy, double income, and seasons when we’ve lived off one part-time income. We’re currently in the part of our vocational journey where we pay for continuing education for me without me bringing in income. This mobility God’s required of us has made us scrappy and resourceful. We’ve been uniquely trained for this work by our industrious parents and grandparents, and we’re grateful for their example.

While we’ve usually had jobs that earned us enough to fit the description of the middlest of the middle class, we haven’t always had those jobs. We’ve also cleaned houses and corporate offices and cars, We’ve delivered pizzas and poured coffee from behind a counter at 7 AM. All of this work was and is good. We also do not take for granted the privileges automatically afforded us at birth by the sheer luck of our ethnicity and family networks. We’ve always been wealthy in relationship and community. We receive these assets with open hands and pray God will expand beyond them beyond just our own children, but also across the socio-economic, racial, and national borders of our lives. (I also pray clear words to God that I’m counting on Him to cover every expense that our particular vocational journey has cost our children and grandchildren.)

In the past few months, I’ve been invited by more than one family to use their home space to study and work, and to treat the property as if it were my own, as in “come and go as you please, and here’s a key to the back door”. Each invitation has been gift-wrapped in the most exquisite simplicity. There’s been no strings attached, and nothing required of me other than to show up and receive unearned hospitality. (By the way, if you ever want to bless the socks off an introvert, offer her the use of your home while you’re not even in it!)

This kind of hospitality is how I ended up spending a couple blissful mornings this summer lounging lakeside in a backyard hammock that was not my own. And this week, sitting in a rocking chair on one of those quintessential New England front porches, reading and praying and collecting a pile of autumn leaves the wind kept blowing onto my book pages. On a regular basis, I’ve accepted rides when our shared vehicle was not available to me, and shared meals I didn’t purchase.

Along the way we’ve also received more care than can be accounted from our community. Brian’s seminary degree, donations made to my tuition, jobs and gifts for our kids, and a massive investment of prayer and encouragement from those around us all belong to the overflow of the goodness of God and his people. All of it unlocked by our own desperate attempts to discover our truest callings.

This is the abundance I’m discovering in downward mobility. It’s an unexpected, unlimited return with an unexpected, limited cost. It is God’s manna for this pilgrimage.

In the meantime, I’ve begun the spiritual practice of thanking God for the homes that other people own. The ones I visit and the ones I drive by as I wander through Connecticut. I believe each pang of longing is a reminder that we are made for homes and beauty, and that one day we will welcome each other across the thresholds of eternal dwellings not made by human hands.

I ask Jesus to please make sure mine comes with a front porch.

I’ll write more on our vocational journey on another day. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about what you’re discovering as you pursue your life’s calling. Drop me a line?