Book Reviews

Advent is one of the most spiritually rich times of year for me and I crave so deeply in my spirit to give time and space to contemplate the meaning of this season; a season of light and dark, the kingdom come and not quite here, God entering time and space to inhabit the earth, to inhabit our hearts.

I've been gathering resources to guide me through this spiritually rich time. The church I attend does not structure itself, in teaching or observances, according to the traditional church calendar or liturgy. I love our church (which is to say the people) and its very modern expressions of worshipping and gathering together. God inhabits hearts not buildings or forms. And I love that expressions of faith and how we gather to teach and remember and celebrate is always re-inventing itself in culture and time.

I align most closely, in Biblical interpretation and corporate expressions of worship, with the evangelical Christian movement. That is my mother church, it's where I came to Christ as a child, in a close-knit community of family and friends, it's the "tradition" in which I feel most enlivened by the Spirit in a corporate setting.

But in my individual worship and study, in the personal expressions of my faith, I lean into contemplative practices (some of which are inspired by ideas and forms from outside the Christian tradition all together). And I am comforted by, and increasingly drawn to root myself into the cyclical nature of the church calendar and the rich history of church tradition, Catholic and Protestant.

I am a very seasonally aware person, and seasonality is a big part of my personal expression of faith, something that is not so present in the corporate Evangelical Christian forms of "doing church".

If you've read Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey, I identify a lot with her story. I didn't experience the anger or burn out she felt with the evangelical faith community but I have experienced the same broadening of perspective that comes partly with age, but also with stepping out and away from what you were "born again" into. And also like her, I have returned to small c church after some years in a spiritual desert.

Anyway, all of that is to explain that if I want to observe Advent I need to put together my own liturgy for doing so, because it's not happening within the church I attend. (Which is ok.)

This post is a round-up of a few Advent resources to inspire, guide and deepen your spiritual experience this holiday season. It may also just be an excuse to post pretty photos of lights and candles, you'll forgive me that indulgence.

Advent started this past Sunday and that is also when I had the inspiration to write this post. I'm not ahead the game like many bloggers are with editorial calendars and posts planned in advance. I would have prepared this post before Advent if I had the thought or writing time, I had neither.

Even though we're two days into this season it's not too late if you want to jump in and any one of the resources I list below will allow you to do that.

Pilgrim Year

First off, I have to say, Steve Bell is one of my favorite singer songwriters. In this post from the spring, I wrote, "Steve Bell is a Christian pilgrim, he defies the mold; his music is rich with truth, beauty, and love that transcend religious affiliation. I feel closer to God every time I listen to his music, which means I listen often. " At this point in writing I want to stop and tell you about all my favorite Steve Bell songs and what each of them means to me. I won't do that. I am working hard to stay focused here.

Point is, Steve Bell has been working for years on Pilgrim Year, which is a digital resource of "Scripture, Story, Song, Poetry and Art to Explore the Christian Calendar".

Pilgrim Year is a media-rich, devotional experience, using prose, art, song, poetry and story to journey meditatively through the Christian calendar year with its positive riot of fasts, festivals, saints’ days and rich traditions... attending to and re-membering these many and varied traditions robs nothing from our present, but only deepens and roots the present in a way that can confidently welcome the future. The Christian narrative is a way of seeing, that recognizes that we live in a meaning-drenched universe, and we’ve been invited to know and give witness to the Love that holds all things together and that will not let us go.

A couple years ago I purchased the first release of this project which was just the Advent devotional. There is now a set of digital devotionals for Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide and Ordinarytide. New material is being added regularly.

The cost of the whole Pilgrim Year is just $20. I think this is an amazing deal. Individually, the devotionals are $4.99.

This is a beautiful resource. It includes music, art, poetry, and reflective writing. Can you hear my heart beating "yes" to this invitation into the church calendar?

Keening for the Dawn

Again, a Steve Bell resource. This is some of my most-loved Advent music. The incredible story of God becoming man in the song Descent is one of my favorite Christmas songs.

Just take a listen.

A lot of the music from this album is in the Advent and Christmastide Pilgrim Year devotions.

I've just described resources I'm familiar with, but now I'm shifting into a "I can't wait to dive into these books" type of recommendation.

I haven't read these yet but they are highly recommended by other people and feature writers and thinkers I am drawn to and whose writing and teaching speaks to me.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas

This is a book of forty-five selected readings from classical and contemporary sources, corresponding to the dates November 24th through January 7th. You can read day-by-day or simply pick-up when you have a moment, the readings don't build or depend on each other. Each selection stands on its own. There is no scripture reading involved though scripture is certainly referenced throughout.

Something interesting for me in this book is the wide cultural and historical context of the selected readings. The short essays, poems and reflections are each written in a particular time and space, by philosophers, poets, theologians, saints and sinners from the 12th Century to our modern time, yet each speak to universal belief and mysteries of the Christian faith. The unifying nature of the essence of Christian teaching - in love God created us, in Christ God is with us, in Spirit God is in us - as presented by these writers, is both deeply comforting and enlivening to me.

Not to mention, the author list is basically a who's who of many of the writers on my to-read list (on which I am making slow, slow progress.)

Speaking of authors I want to read more from, Richard Rohr is high on that list. His latest book on the Trinity, Divine Dance, looks so good. (This is a fabulous podcast by the way with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr which talks a bit about that book.)

Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent

As the title suggests this is a daily meditation for Advent but it is more like a classic devotional than Watch for the Light. Each entry starts with short passages of scripture, followed by a brief reflection. I haven't read enough of it to know if the reflections are drawn from the specific scripture for that day.

At first glance what I like about this book is that it's rooted in specific passages from scripture, the readings are short, and the reflection questions give lots of space for thought. And I like that it's Richard Rohr. I'm not a Catholic and so some of the language and nuance in the book is different to me, but I appreciate how that broadens my perspective and experience.

I don't usually read Christian daily devotionals, written reflections based on a short passage of scripture. But for Advent I like the change.

How do I plan to use these Advent resources?

It looks like a lot but they each serve a different purpose and meet a different need. The music is easy, I can just listen and enjoy (and cry and rejoice).

At some point in the day I want to read the daily devotional from Watch for the Light. First thing in the morning, or maybe when I'm eating lunch.

In the evening, I plan to pick up Preparing for Christmas, either at supper with the family or in my before bed meditations.

Pilgrim Year is not a daily reading, so isn't a big time commitment. There are 12 entries in the Advent collection that can be spread throughout the four weeks of Advent, roughly three per week.

When you consider the amount of time many of us spend checking Instagram (I adore Instagram), Facebook, Twitter, the-latest-social-media-platform, fifteen to thirty minutes a day of reading and reflection is doable and probably more edifying.

Feel free to share your favorite advent resources in comments. Also, if you want to talk about personal and corporate expressions of faith, an evolving journey of belief and practice, traditional and modern expressions of worship - and where you fit into all of that - I welcome your voice in comments (email, Facebook, or whatever is comfortable for you.)

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This is the last post in my Heart of the home series.

I've been really sick (very sick) during the period of time in which these posts were published. They were already written before I was sick so it wasn't too onerous to get them published. And showing up here made me feel human. But I have no more photos. My photography dried up in the middle of February.

Very rarely will I apologize on my blog or in life for a "state of being". Apologies should be reserved for when you do something unkind, etc. But I am apologizing for the state of the photography in the last few posts and this one, because I actually want readers to have a certain experience when they visit my blog, and the photos are part of that. Oh well. I'm sick, life and this blog are far from perfect.

In a lot of areas of my life, I'm noticing it's more helpful to focus on showing up vs. doing something right or good or even making progress.

At first glance that sounds kind of lame. Like showing up but not actively participating, or even trying to improve, which is not what I'm talking about.

Some of the habits I've been working on in my life over the past year and the mindsets I'm trying to establish do not lend themselves to easy evaluation and assessment against a metric. It's hard to measure progress because I don't see immediate improvement.

Learning how to manage my anxiety, meditating, writing, exercising, and even relationships - I've applied the principle of showing up to all of these.

Take writing for example. I used to sit down to write a blog post and I would be frustrated if I didn't publish those thoughts within a couple days. The hike writing sabbatical changed all of that.

And when I came back from the hike and simply could not publish my thoughts within a couple days and everything needed hours and hours of processing, I had to shift my focus from publishing to simply showing up.

Am I writing? Ok, good. Showing up to do the work became more important than finishing the work. This was a huge change for me in focus. And in showing up, over and over, I naturally progressed, very slowly.

Meditation is another example. I'm not a "good" meditator. I am monkey-mind all over the place. This can be discouraging so I don't focus on getting better, or being "good". I focus on showing up. Just making it happen in my day. Looking back I'm able to see that when I consistently show up I make improvement. I love meditating and truly feel it's made a difference in my life and my overall state of being.

My exercise/movement goal is to simply get outdoors every day. Once I'm out there I know I'll be moving somewhere - to the library, a walk around the neighborhood, etc. I'm not looking for progress in this area, I'm not training for anything. What's most important in this season is to just do it. Showing up, moving my legs, enjoying the fresh air - that's all I'm hoping to achieve.

In my relationships, I'm trying to not to get so hung up on finding resolution to problems. I am a resolution seeker and don't like ambiguity and unresolved issues, but in life with three teenagers, and a husband fundamentally different from me, there are tensions and unresolved issues. So I've shifted my focus from resolution to showing up, listening and being present for the hard stuff. We may not find the answer to the problem in that discussion, or the next, or the next but we actually do make progress in understanding each other and learning to listen.

Most of the habits I'm trying to work on seem do-able if I focus on showing up and take my eyes off "measurable progress". Progress is happening, but often it's only apparent in retrospect.

Better Than Before, a book about habits

As an anxiety-prone, perfectionist-tendency person I very rarely read self-improvement books. Anything that hints at doing more, or being more efficient, being "better", improving your productivity, working smarter, I stay away from. I'm highly responsible but also very critical of myself (working on this) and deeply insecure at times, so that last thing I need is more pressure to improve.

I'm wired to optimize so I need to learn the skills of being, not doing: which is why I love writing so much, and quiet contemplation, and slowing down, meditating, and even watching TV.

I have spent most of my adult life eschewing the time-suck of television, not because I was worried about addiction but because I don't like to squander time, it's inefficient. But enjoying a television show with my teenaged daughters is hardly a waste of time or resources. It's actually an investment in our relationship. Go figure.

(Of course my quality-time husband has been trying to communicate this to me for years. But unfortunately our media tastes are so different it's a space in which it's hard for us connect. )

I recently read Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before, even though the title grates me the wrong way. Which is one reason I avoided it for months.

The copy I got from my library is Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives which is a huge improvement over Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits--to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. Maybe it's the Canadian publication, because Canadians have more refined and less "flashy" tastes. :)

I had pretty much dismissed reading the book but when I learned it was about self-knowledge as the key to understanding habits and motivation I was keen to read it: self-awareness and motivation are two of my very favorite subjects.

My main motivation in reading this book was to gain insight about my learners, aka my kids. Habit formation is a huge part of homeschooling and Damien and I place a bigger priority on the development of healthy life habits than we do the learning of specific facts and data. Habits, like character formation, are an important part of the foundation that life-long learning is built upon.

Learning good habits is a big focus in how we raise and educate our kids. So I'm really keen to understand how different "types" of people acquire habits. Basically, I'm always trying to understand what makes my children tick and how I can come alongside that to help them be successful in learning and in life.

I can't give a blanket endorsement to the book mostly because there's no angst, really no personal struggle at all. Gretchen is quite clinical in her pursuit of better habits (to help reach goals): she sets a goal, she determines a strategy to acquire that habit and then she does it, or she determines matter-of-factly she didn't need really want to reach that goal in the first place. The only person who seems to struggle with her habits is Gretchen's sister Elizabeth, whom Gretchen tests her ideas on.

I don't jive with that sense of emotional detachment because a lot of things are angsty and emotional for me. I wrestle with things I'm not good at, wondering if I should be. That's a lack of self-confidence I guess.

Also, I'm an Upholder with strong Questioning tendencies so I don't need someone telling me what to do or keeping me accountable, and a self-improvement book can feel this way to me. "What do you know about what I need? I can manage myself, thank you very much."

But once I got over these insecurities (and some others that I won't get into) I started to really enjoy the book and gained insight about how I can help my kids with habit formation and goal setting. And I'm also learning a bunch of stuff applicable to myself. I think the Power Hour could be a great tool to help me get done some of the tasks I just keep procrastinating. I think I'll start, next week (ha, if you've read the book you'll catch the irony).

My concluding thoughts about self-improvement projects, including habit formation, is that if you feel better about yourself doing those things, if your health improves and you have more energy, you feel more capable, you feel "better" than before, than those seem like worthy pursuits. And if you keep running into a wall with the things you want to change in your life, you just can't make it happen, Rubin's book might help you understand why.

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I had one big goal for this month. One. My goal was to get supper on the table by 6:30 each night.

At the end of the month I can say I succeeded at this goal. I mentioned this in my last post, how using my freezer and the skills I learned in Whole Foods Freezer Cooking have been a game changer in this regard.

I don't think I could have done it, reached this goal, without taking that class.

That feels nice doesn't it? To start off a blog post with a success story. Yay me.

If my small triumph in this area of home management makes you feel less-than, not "enough" in the kitchen department, I assure you this is my one big "success" of the month. You've totally beaten me in other areas, I'm sure of it.

(I know. I know. This is not a competition, though everything conspires against us to make us believe it is.

This is an attempt at humor. I do not want you to feel bad about your supper making skills. But most of you are probably more mature than me, so when you read that someone has succeeded at something they set out to achieve you respond with kudos not insecurity. Yay you.)

Most days it feels like I can only be "good" and on the ball in just a few areas of life but certainly not all of them.

This month I was on the ball with cooking supper and getting it to the table on time. Which made for great evenings of cozy-ness and chill. I really loved that.

On the other end of the day, I meditated maybe three times this month, soaked in God's presence about the same, and completely stopped drawing. Totally dropped the ball. It wasn't intentional. I just really wanted to write. And I stole that morning time from myself to squeeze it in.

Evenings may be cozy as all get out, watching Gilmore Girls and reading in bed; knitting and listening to podcasts but I am also crawling out of my skin somedays about the state of my writing career. "Writing career?", you ask. Exactly.

I want to write. And this desire, and the words that keep coming, hijacked my carefully constructed early morning routine.

And here's the worst of it. All that stuff I've been feverishly writing in the morning, in lieu of the soul-care practices I worked hard to cultivate last fall, none of it is worth publishing (yet). I refuse to publish something that does not ring true and I'm having a hard time finding the resonance in that writing. It can't simply be that I want it to be true, it must be true.

As Anne Lamott would say it's the shitty first draft. The real kicker is that it's not the first draft.

I take issue with most January blog posts I read that focus on productivity, goal setting, and self-improvement projects in general.

I'm not trying to make myself into a better version of Renee. I'm trying to live in the head space and the heart beat of my true identity.

I'm wired for efficiency and productivity and so my areas of growth are to move away from being driven by those motivators, to venture into the messy and ambiguous terrain of learning how to accept situations I can't change, develop emotional resiliency, that kind of stuff.

But I don't find a lot of January blog posts about those topics. Honestly, I'm not looking. I don't want someone telling me what to do. I'm stubborn and prideful like that.

What works for me is stories. Well-written and humorous stories of people's failures and heartaches. And how they are learning to love themselves in that mess and how they love others. And then, then, if I read something that intrigues me and doesn't scare me too much or make me feel terribly insecure, I will go looking for the help I seek, and usually desperately need, from something I gleaned in those stories.

This isn't going to be one of those posts, a well-written and humorous story, but there is failure and heartache.

I recently fell back into the writings of Anne Lamott. For years she's been one of my favorite Christian-spirituality writers but I haven't adored all her books and I think I must have taken a break after a disappointing read a couple years ago. It happens.

Last week I found myself all out of reading material. I looked through my Goodreads to-read shelf while simultaneously scanning the available digital downloads at the library. Small Victories showed up on both.

The essays are new and "selected", which means old and previously published. I think I may have read some of them before in her previous books. I don't remember, which makes them new again to me. I devoured this collection of essays about grief and resiliency and love.

And then I googled "podcasts with Anne Lamott". I just needed more. And I found two author readings and Q&A sessions from former book tours.

I listened and I alternately laughed and then bawled my eyes out, one seamlessly transitioning into the other.

In one of those lectures she received the following question from an audience member. How do you foster resiliency?

Here's where I tell you that what I've been trying to write through this month is the truth of my own weakness in emotional resiliency and tolerance. And the pain and anxiety that has caused me and others.

Here's her answer to the question. Don't quote me, I scribbled these down while listening and some of these are my own paraphrases:

  • do all the things that make me alive and awake
  • stop hitting the snooze button (on life)
  • get outside
  • find emotionally healthy people (she said sober people since her past is alcoholism)
  • read the best books I can
  • read great spiritual masters
  • read more poetry
  • have impeccable friends
  • live the grace of not trying to fix other people
  • keep hiking
  • never stop trusting that I am loved ~ I am chosen ~ I am safe ~ and more will be revealed

Here's what I appreciate about this. Anne is over sixty years old. She's lived some hard knocks. She not a "look how I've turned my blog into a business" thirty-year old writer who dispenses self-help, without wisdom, for a living. I feel she's someone who's advice I can trust.

And I feel my cup filling once again; with love, a wee bit of wisdom, a wee bit of equanimity, itsy bitsy understandings that help assuage some of the frustration of failing and falling. Because listening to Anne, reading Anne, I know I'm not the only woman who feels needy and neurotic.

I just want to know that someone else's forward momentum, healing, spiritual growth, self-awareness journey, meditation practice, (fill in the blank with your own thing) is as herky-jerky as mine.

I got what I needed, and just like Anne says, help is always on the way.

In the most recent podcast I listened to, an old recording from the Free Library of Philadelphia, Anne said this,

The more you make yourself get less done every day the more glorious and sweet and expansive your life is going to be. I really recommend that every single day you figure out one thing you realized you’re not going to be able to do and in the morning you take it off the list. You say "it’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a good day. I’m going to get less done and I’m going to get it done less efficiently." And that is the secret of writing.

Ok. I'll take it.

I wanted to link to a couple of blog posts I really enjoyed reading this month. And some wisdom shared with me on Facebook. I thought I might weave them into the post but it didn't work out that way. So here they are:

And for those of you not jiving with the usual January groove, the one in which you must re-boot your life, yesterday, I thoroughly appreciate this idea shared with me on Facebook from Erin Curran:

I want to officially claim January as the "wrap-up/recover/renew order" month. I may use Candlemas/Imbolc (instead of New Year) as the day to commit to making an important change and then use the roughly 40 days until Spring Equinox to nurture and establish the change.

If January hasn't been the raging success you hoped it would be why not start with Candlemas/Imbolc, which this year is February 2nd, as your "fresh start". My preference is that January is for organizing my thoughts, ideas and plans for the New Year. It's not so much about making the radical changes, or even small changes. I totally jive with a wrap-up/recover/renew order protocol for the first part of winter. And when that feels kind of in place I like to start the intentions for the year. Just a thought.

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