In the book A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, a young girl, Felicity, her mother and her sister, are moving to their mother’s Tennessee mountain hometown after a decade of travelling around, rootless. Rumor is that the town has magic, real magic. Felicity’s mom explains to her:
“The town HAD to stay secret, you see, because the people who lived there had magic in their veins.”
“Real magic?” I could barely even whisper the word.
Just the thoughts of real magic sent shivers from my nose to my toes. This time it was my heart that answered, a steady drumbeat yes inside my chest.
Throughout the book, when little Felicity hears about magic, the long painted over magic of the town and of the people of her mother, her heart beats Yes Yes YES. When an old story is about to be told, when someone gets close to talking about someone with magic and destiny, even when its just hinted at, her heart beats :
And I get that. I get the Yes Yes Yes when I come across something that hints at the presence of magic, of enchantment. When something points to the story that I long for, have always longed for, and am always looking for. Yes Yes Yes. There is something in each of us that responds to the magic in this world, to the beauty, to the mystery, to the abundance, to the longing, to the memory built into every cell that says: you are loved and this world is your good home and being with a bunch of other humans in the same room, in a community, is a gift. We long for magic. We long for God. We long for each other. We long for hope. We long for the Yes.
And this year, a year of sudden tragic loss, a year of dark, even this year held so many moments of
So many moments where my heart beat faster, and I knew to pay attention. So to close out this last year and to head into the new one, eyes wide open and ready to fight for hope, here are some of the books that turned up on my doorstep and caused my heart to beat faster and louder. Now, they aren’t even the best written books, the most acclaimed or trendy or cool books one could read – but there was something of magic in them that my soul responded to. They were significant to me, they held the touch of God for me in my dark year. And each of them are a sign of the All That He Is, I am convinced. So here is a good news post. Because we are not alone and there is still hope and that’s good to remember.
The first book I read in 2016 was Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk. It’s the story of Kinew’s father, his father’s life in residential schools, the fallout of that in the generation that followed, especially in Kinew’s life. It’s a story of the Indigenous experience in Canada, one that’s finally getting some air and light. Its devastatingly heartbreaking and you will squirm – and yet….And Yet….There is a YES YES YES inside it that I haven’t stopped thinking about. It’s the story of a son walking towards his father’s death, chronicling both men’s active search and need for forgiveness and for reconciliation. And it was this word—Reconciliation—that kept pounding in my heart YES. Kinew wrote about the reconciliation his father had to make with his own past, and then with his own legacy, with his culture, with the country and the church that built themselves on top of him–in so many ways dependent on his de-humanization for their success. Its about the elder Kinew’s reconciliation with himself and his demons . It’s the reconciliation of an angry, broken son with an angry, broken father, the reconciliation of themselves back to their own hearts and the reconciliation of both of them with their loving Creator.
“When our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again.” writes Kinew and the book is a story about how that wholeness, that made-good-ness, happens within the depths and complications of community. Reconiliation happens within culture and music and dance and all that makes us unique. Its happens in the world of real relationships, of responsibility and light being brought to dark places. It’s a story that we absolutely have to come to terms with and it carved out a deep spot to start this dark year for me.
My antennae went up with that word Reconciliation – every time we hear it – there will be something of God for us to know—its become a call to pay attention…….It caught me and shaped the rest of the year–especially when it came time to say goodbye and try to wrap my head around my mom’s beautiful life.
The second book that marked its YES on me was Emily of New Moon by our beloved L.M. Montgomery. Believe it or not, I had never read it. Madeleine L’Engle writes about how it shaped her as a young girl, and so I decided I needed it to shape me. And oh, I loved letting its words roll over me. Like Anne, Emily is an out of place young girl who loves the beautiful world around her and longs to know it, longs to express it, share it, be present in it. Right from the beginning, Emily talks about how she gets the flash. The flash is a constant in this story and its what caught me. The flash (always italicized!) was that moment when the veil was pulled back between the worlds, one of those thin places, where she knew there was something MORE breathing into it all.
“For one glorious, supreme moment, came the flash. Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn’t exactly describe it. It couldn’t be described—not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to anyone else.
It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain, she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, the wind fluttered and it was if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse, and heard a note of unearthly music.
….and always when the flash came, Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty….”
How Montgomery could express things that a suburban mom 100 years later also knew deeply, and needed deeply, meant more to me than I could express, I think. Her book was a flash for me. She named it perfectly too – the flash. We all have those blips of wondrous light, I think, and this book encouraged me deeply to remember that those moments are still SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. And the flash came incomprehensively and with killer clarity this year to me… and to mom and I was lucky enough to see it. In people, in books, in our jaw-dropping mountains, in the trees in my backyard, in the kids and their questions and their unique voices, it was there. In the man I married. In mom’s eyes, and the feel of her skin, there was a thin, thin place. Never in the same way twice, never of my own making, but it’s the stuff of the very grace, the very intention of the goodly created world being brought close by a holy, holy spirit of life. The Flash is grace and this story is too.
In February, Pastor Heather and I sat down to talk about the women’s retreat and she asked me what I had been catching me about God lately. And what came immediately to mind was the word hospitality. I had been completely blown off my feet by all the food brought to us after mom’s diagnosis by friends and family but also by the other mom’s at my kids’ school. That I didn’t expect. And it was hospitality when they gave me food and in so doing, created space for me, to help me walk through what I had to walk through. And so we decided to explore this at the retreat. Heather suggested I read Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl. (and just a note–Pastor Heather knows a lot, reads a lot, knits a lot, prays ALL THE TIME and is truthy and kind and perfectly, lightly sarcastic—everyone needs a Pastor Heather).
This book set me loose in the best possible way and gave me a framework from which to understand ( or maybe better, to stand under), even more, this Jesus that keeps haunting me. In an age where being a Christian seems to mean (if you pay attention to the interwebs) doubling down on black and white, who’s in and who’s not, this book took a previously benign concept to me (hospitality as the purview of middle aged women, committees and Tupperware) and showed the completely subversive, topsy-turvy, upending nature of WHO and mostly HOW Jesus is. Can you IMAGINE if every one was ACTUALLY welcome in our churches, in our homes, in our hearts and not just the people who looked and thought exactly like you? (she asks herself knowing she is very far from this….) Can you imagine what making room like that that would do within us? To the fabric of the world? Welcoming the Other, any and all “THE OTHERS,” making room for them, and needing to be welcomed ourselves, THIS is the center, center point of the gospel – good news, indeed.
And this has changed me and changed how I look at church, why we do church and what my role is in this strange, strange group of people who keep meeting together. This book was a deep fountain of energy for me. And made me SEE those ladies who organize potlucks in a gorgeous, big way.
Related to Making Room was another book on the church and what we do with it. Eugene Peterson’s Practicing Resurrection was his lifetime of reflections on Ephesians and I looked it up to help me lead a study for our women’s group. And again, maybe there are more culturally timely, trendy books on church, but THIS one blew something apart in me. I think because there’s something in Ephesians I can’t look away from and Peterson manages to say it in the exact right way for me to grab a hold of.
And the biggest idea that I keep coming back to from the book is this: Church isn’t something we do – its God’s work. That is, we are God’s work, because we are his body. However God wants to save this world, its going to be done within US, within its people, progressives and conservatives alike—all the community (see hospitality above….). “I realized that this was my place and work in the church, to be a witness to the truth that dazzles gradually.”
And we can be witnesses to God’s work in the world and we can even participate in it. But we do not start it and we do not end it. We will do it, church, imperfectly. That is, we will participate and be a witness to it imperfectly and this in no way nullifies the actual action going on – which is GOD BRINGING ALL THINGS INTO UNITY (as that Ephesians likes to keep saying). All things into unity—us with our own selves, us with others, us with God. This grounded my understanding of all we DO as Christians and then also all that we do not need to do. Because it drew me to what those NT writers started to suspect – that God bringing things into unity is his putting back together what was broken. The hospitality piece very much fits here because how else do we respond to “being brought back together” other than by being together. This has shaped what I understand (or stand under) to be my call as a leader in the church, as a spiritual director and as a writer-y type person. And I am different now. This book and Ephesians helped give shape to this story that I have lived out alone for so many years and made me love those weird churchy types just so much more…so much that I actually am ok with being one of them. It placed me within a big, big story that I am strangely very excited about.
Those two big theology power books made a deep impact in my spring. And for some reason, this very deep sense of my call being sharpened was happening at the same time as my mom was rapidly dying. And then she passed away. In the time after, I found George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872) on my dad’s bookshelf. I remember (barely) my dad reading this book to me when I was little and I’ve remembered it in bits and pieces over the last couple years.
When I reread it in the weeks after mom’s death, one chapter stuck out for me.
The Princess’ (magic) Grandmother told her that when she was afraid, she was to reach under her pillow and what she would find there would help her. And one night the princess was afraid so she put her hand under her pillow and found a thread, a nearly invisible thread that she held onto with her thumb and forefinger. It led her out of her room, down the stairs, out of the castle and into the woods. The thread led her into a hole in the ground and then down through the rock into cavern after cavern:
“Every moment she kept feeling the thread backwards and forwards, and as she went farther and farther into the darkness of the great hollow mountain, she kept thinking more and more about her grandmother, and all that she had said to her, and how kind she had been and how beautiful she was, and all about her lovely room and the fire of roses, and the great lamp that sent its light through stone walls. And she became more and more sure that the thread could not have gone there of itself, and that her grandmother must have sent it. But it tried her dreadfully when the path went down very steep, and especially when she came to places where she had to go down rough stairs, and even sometimes a ladder. ..in a hundred directions she turned, obedient to the guiding thread…..
“When shall I awake?” She said to herself in agony, but the same moment knew that it was no dream. At length the thought struck her, that at least she could follow the thread backwards and thus get out of the mountain and home. But the instant she tried to feel it backwards, it vanished from her touch. Forwards, it led her hand—backwards it seemed nowhere. “
This spring for us, and all that came after, was one big walk in the dark–One that I couldn’t try to back out of. All of us could only go forwards even though it only led us to darker and harder depths. But in MacDonald’s old story, the thread led the Princess through the mountain in order to save the captured Curdie and then led them both out again. Her fear led her to trust and her trust, even in the dark, saved someone else caught in the dark and they saved each other. Seems easy, like a children’s story…. But I think about this story a lot and I deeply hope its true.
I picked up Tara M Owens’ Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh and Bone a while back. Part of me didn’t want to read it because it seemed like everything I wanted to write a book about. I was weird and insecure about it. But in the end, it was a book that led to a lot of things falling into place for me and was a big part of the embodiment retreat I led in the fall. How we inhabit our bodies and understand God to be a part of that has become another huge life touchstone for me. And this book helped me dive into it, giving me new questions and ways to explore it. In some ways, it wasn’t a book that opened something new – it was a recapping of all the things I have been living through. It was the next step on my path of pulling the beauty of the Incarnation from up there in the sphere of idea and down into this real life. And it gave me the courage to start telling the story of my own body as part of The Big Story. The big story of reconciliation, of bringing all things into unity, of doing that through the deep hospitality of real life, incarnational, in-the-flesh living .
These big three – Reconciliation, Hospitality and Incarnation were made very clear to me this year and have become the thread through the darkness that I seem to have to follow no matter where they lead.
“We kneel, we receive, in our bodies, with our bodies, and we open ourselves to the bodies of those around us, filled with the breath of God, formed as they were before time began by the One who chose and called them by name. We begin to make room for the things that don’t seem to fit into the world’s perfect picture (the broken world’s idea of the perfect picture—God’s perfect picture is probably just so amazingly wild)—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed (the bleeding woman, the orphan, the widow, the prisoner, the cold, the refugee just wanting a safe place for their family)—and in making room, we feel the heartbeat of God begin to thrum through us all, a pulse that invites us to create safety, dignity, trust in community. In our bodies, with our bodies, through our bodies, together we are the body of Christ.”
In the fall I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. A friend posted a picture of it on the Facebook and since I love that friend and want to be as smart as her, I picked it up too. I read it in three days. Mostly at night with my can’t-sleep-flashlight. I don’t know how I had gotten this far in life without reading it. This book was a balm. It was everything I needed to feel God, feel the enchantment of our good world in my exhausted fall. It was one big YES YES YES pounding in my ribcage. It’s the writings of an old man to his young son and it’s the story of all the threads one’s life tends to snaggle up. Reconciliation, hospitality, incarnation and all the tanglyness of them were all so present in this story and it was so beautiful. The story, the narration, the images struck a deep chord in me. It was intensely beautiful to me, the story and the writing, and its beauty was deeply healing.
“There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”
Beauty is a sign, I think.
This year was full of really hard stuff, for me, but for many other people too. It asked a lot of us; us in our groups, our churches, our communities, cities. It asked a lot of our assumptions and our values. It asked a lot of us and I’m not all that sure we responded in a way that kept the door open to the real lives of other humans.—and when that happens the door is definitely not open to God – and that terrifies me. At least, that’s how I felt reading the headlines, the comment sections and all those lovely fb posts…… But in these last couple months of this year I read Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise……and friends, she’s amazing and this book gave me a gift that I am holding onto very tightly—hope. Roll your eyes if you must—I probably would too—and I know it sounds so cheesy but reading her words made me feel like the grass at the bottom of a drain spout—so much water, needed water, poured out and I can’t help but grow stronger and healthier, greener and fuller.
“Mystics and monastics (and I would add artists, prophets, preachers, and school teachers) pray on embodied behalf of those who can’t. In a century of staggering open questions, hope becomes a calling for those of us who can hold it, for the sake of the world. Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably in the light of light and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is not as we wish it to be.”
She also talks about people who know the deeper ways of the world, the ways of God, not as being solutions or even as having all the answers, but how they are signs—signs of the actual truth of our world. And this struck me as a deep desire. I generally do not trust anyone with all the solutions – but wow, could we be signs of the hope that is the actual fabric of this world? Could somehow this life lived in community, with the deep knowledge of reconciliation, of deeply subversive hospitality, and deeply rooted in God’s model of incarnated, fleshed out, lived-in truth be a sign? Could this happen?
Tippett writes, “Treat the margins as seriously as the noisy center. For change has always happened in the margins, across human history, and its happening there now. Seismic shifts in common life, as in geo-physical reality, begin in spaces and cracks.”
Tracing the thread and following the YES, through these books leads me back to my real life—the life of spaces and cracks, where HOW we choose to live this real life out is always more important than the end product, or the stand we hide behind. I feel deeply hopeful in the process of this real life with my husband and two thunder-strong kids and my dad, my brother, my friends and church and all the rest (oh and the bunny of course….) And I’m exhausted and its hard and my kids have ate more pb and j sandwiches than should be legal…and within all of this year, there have been no solutions but so many, SO MANY signs of His truth of love is love is love is love. And it’s eternally inviting us to be a part of it.
And so yeah….we keep going. And we keep reading. We keep paying attention to the
And its a bit magic, I think.
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