Guest blogging

I've spent more time on other blogs than my own lately. But I've been enjoying writing for other folks about fairy tales, children's literature, and Madeleine L'Engle. And another post on Art House America about the importance of fairy tales; instead of viewing them as escaping reality, they actually point to a deeper reality that is beyond our limited understanding: http://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/eliminating-the-darkness.html

Check out my post at DL Mayfield's blog on the book that changed my life (Madeleine L'Engle, hint hint). While you're there, read some other great posts about life-changing books.

Round-Robin Blogging

I have always hated chain-mail (not the kind knights wore during the Crusades though I imagine it was quite heavy and itchy). The kind I'm talking about is what used to be passed around in the back of Jr. high classrooms on lined paper (yes, I'm old), and then got its foothold during the rise of the email (yes, I said "the" email...that's how it felt when it first started). Now it's kind of a joke or can be debunked by snopes.com but you still sort of like to read it to know what exactly will make you die and/or lose everything in epic Job-style if you don't pass it on. This is not that kind of chain-mail.

My friend and fellow writer, Amy Peterson, recently tagged me in this uplifting "round robin blogging tour" prompt. This is fun. And you won't die from it. At least not directly.

Below, I will answer a few questions about my writing process. It makes me sound like a fancy writer. So I like it.

But before you read my answers, check out Amy Peterson's blog about her writing process. She is writing a book. I've already read some of it and it's going to be awesome.

1. What are you working on?

Well, my body is currently in the process of creating a human person. What more do you expect from me?

Seriously, though, the muse flits about where it wills-between poetry, YA fiction, music, and essays. Which is probably why it's been a while since I've written anything longer than 2,000 words. Recently, though, I've forced the muse into a computer screen hoping it will inspire me as I write a non-fiction memoir  about spiritual lessons I've learned since moving to an intentional community on a farm five years ago.

I've started with lessons about death.

Nowhere to go from here but up.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Truthfully, I'm not sure yet what genre I'm writing in: spiritual memoir, Christian non-fiction, fantasy with undertones of reality...

I do think that what makes my current project unique is that it's set on a farm and an intentional community. There are lots of farming memoirs, a few even in the Christian genre. But I've seen very few authored by women and even fewer that include the crazy element of intentional community.

I'm hoping the craziness works in my favor. Or else putting up with it for five years will have been worth nothing.

Kidding. I love my neighbors.

3. Why do you write what you do?

In general, I write to articulate meaning. Through writing, I am able to better understand my own narrative and the stories of others.

I write poetry because it's like prayer for me. There's a special inner focus, a meditative sort of streamlining that happens when I start to write a poem. Hearing the sounds of the earth, seeing the differing shades of green in spring, watching my children learn the world...that is a focus that helps me remember our Creator and be thankful for all the beauty and messiness of the world.

I write music mostly for worship with our small band of brothers and sisters in community. I am on the music team and I've been able to teach some of my songs to the congregation. This, for me, is the most selfless form of my writing because it is for the church and all the pleasure I get from it comes when we sing the songs together in worship.

That's not totally true, though, because I would like to be a famous folks singer ala Joni Mitchell. But only if I don't have to perform onstage.

Fiction for young adults is my first writing love. My novel Rising Star is set in a small Texas town where the children can fly. To tell you anymore would be spoiling...unless you are an agent or publisher. In that case, you can email me at christiananoelwrites@gmail.com and I'll tell you all about it. I've written 2.5 novels in the genre (I will finish the .5 novel when the first one in the series is published and they beg me for the sequel...still waiting).

As for the current non-fiction memoir, I've been writing about life in our community ever since we moved but I didn't get the sharp focus for this book until I began to face my own spiritual understandings of death.

4. How does your writing process work?

This is different with everything I write. When I was writing my first YA novel, I was single and living overseas. My life is very different now. To actually get pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I have to steal moments when the kids are outside, during nap time, or hire a babysitter to get writing done.

My process for poetry usually begins with an image or metaphor. The image can appear when I'm at the creek with my kids, lying on the grass under the maple tree, or differentiating bird calls. This word-picture is the beginning of a poem and I write it whenever I have paper nearby. Then I edit and edit and edit.

Writing music is similar except sometimes it begins with a short set of notes hummed together that become a song with paper, a guitar, and the right key.

As for writing longer pieces, it's mostly about reading the smart things other people say, then sitting my backside down in front of the computer and writing until something relatively good comes out.

The current manifestation of this non-fiction book I'm writing is due in large part to the encouragement of the ladies of my amazing writer's group and the inspiration they gave me recently at a writer's conference. Having writerly friends has been essential for the days when you feel like lying back on the couch and watching hulu instead. Just reading their words and hearing them speak not only about the writing process but about their lives encourages me to keep at it.

Also, my husband and family believe in me. So that helps.

And here goes the final part: the chain. I'm tagging two writer friends so they can also answer these questions and populate the world with more art and beautiful words.

D. L. Mayfield is an inspiring writer and friend whom I am so glad to know. She and her family recently joined a Christian order amongst the poor in the Midwest. Check out her blog where she writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. She has also written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator, and Conspire! and most recently, Christianity Today.

Kelley Nikondeha is a writer, reader, and deep thinker. I've had the great pleasure of meeting her and talking about recipes, Walter Brueggemann, chickens, and the song "How I love a rainy night." With her unique perspective as a woman who has been adopted and has herself adopted two children, Kelley is writing an upcoming book about the theology of adoption. She is a SheLoves and Deeper Story contributor.

 

 

Top eleven signs that the polar vortex is driving our family crazy

IMG_0516 1. After reading a kid's book about it, my five year old daughter wants to talk about Hawaii...a lot. I think it's in her dreams.

2. I heard myself say (and kind of mean it), "Wow, it's a balmy 18 degrees outside."

3. My three year old son nearly tears up when I start describing spring.

4. When I go to scrape the ice off my car, I'm confused when it won't come off. And then I realize that the ice is on the inside.

5. I encourage my friend who is visiting California to describe the weather. In detail. For as long as she wants.

6. I start missing Texas summers.

7.  Even though they are outside in the barn and I have to layer up like I live in Alaska, I volunteer to do the chicken chores at night...just so I can get out of the house.

8. I spend most of the movie Frozen wondering why Anna and Elsa aren't dressed more warmly.

9. My husband spent his birthday money on snowshoes.

10. I can't wait to see what my buddies all think of me...when I finally do what frozen things do in summer.

11. My five year old takes a lot of selfies

IMG_0229 IMG_0228 IMG_0227

You stay hidden within that misery

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann: God, holy, sovereign, faithful, generous--
   that is the first thing we know and affirm at the break of day.
 But then, from these old hard texts we notice
      that your holy, sovereign, faithful generous way with us and
         with our people is in this endless tale of violence...
         war, plunder, rape, incest, deception, and death.
 You stay hidden within that misery,
               at work even against such circumstance.
 We notice that our long-term narrative is just like every other tale,
   wreaking with violence, just like every other...
   except for you...holy, sovereign, faithful, generous.
 We trust your hidden ways today in our narrative
      and in all the narratives of violence in force today.
 Work your good will,
         give us eyes to notice what can be seen of you,
         give us faith to trust what stays hidden of you
         give us nerve to obey you this day,
               even where we do not see.
We pray in the name of Jesus who confounds all our tales of misery.
Amen.
--From "Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth"

A courageous artist

I read Rachel Held Evan's book Evolving in Monkey Town at a time of spiritual doubt.  I resonated with her struggles through doubt, questions, spiritual crises and new ways of reading Scripture. As she releases her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, I join those who support her courage and graciousness, her ability to disagree with civility, and her willingness to engage with the difficult questions.

May we all be so brave in our writing and our search for truth.

'Tis the season for entitlement

In the past few years, I've approached gift-giving season with a bit of anxiety.  While I enjoy both giving and receiving, motherhood has added new perspective and unanswered questions to birthdays and holidays.

On Tuesday, gift season commences in our household when Dandelion turns four.  Blessed be the day when my first baby was born!

As I sit on the floor of our basement assembling her play kitchen, even as I connect the nuts and bolts and screws of her shiny new toy, I worry about how to keep her and her brother from a sense of entitlement.

I love giving gifts to them, material and otherwise.  I delight in my daughter's squeals of joy, her shouts of 'woo-hoo' when she thinks about her special day and the presents she'll receive and cupcakes she'll eat. I hope she always gets so excited to receive, and that this overflowing feeling is just a glimpse of the glory that will fill her when she truly takes hold of those life-affirming gifts called grace and love.

Perhaps the grime of the "gimmes" hasn't muddied her little spirit yet. But I worry about her future spirit because my own sense of entitlement has proven rather difficult to extricate from my heart.

As a mother, I wonder how to help her see that gifts and blessings aren't the trinkets underneath the puffs and mounds of tissue paper that will litter the floor of our large family gathering at Christmas?

How do I help her weave those non-material moments of joy more intricately into the knots of her spirit: dancing at sunset under a double rainbow, spending a week with Nana and Papa, crunching through the leaves of Autumn, sharing a meal with others in our home, inviting a friend over, learning to crack an egg perfectly into a bowl, playing with other kids at community meals?

And how do I wrestle with the Christ-amnesia of Christmas that winks at her in books, movies, and music, where Santa and presents are favored over the waiting and longing of Advent, and the great fulfilment and gift of a barn baby who would be king?*

I believe the answers lie in love, in service and in giving.  Those are vague words that I try to put into practice.

What are your gift and holiday practices or words of wisdom that might tackle this sense of entitlement?

*I don't think the tradition of incorporating Santa into Christmastime is bad in itself but the Santa suit and toy bag is a lot more glamorous than the dust and hay of a manger born Jesus, even when we emphasize the true "reason for the season." **

**I hate that phrase...

Bad religion

When I was in high school, in an act of theatric piety, I destroyed all of my "secular" CDs. I understand my teenage self and what I was thinking.  I felt at the time that "Christian music" was holier than anything else and I hoped to guard my heart from anything "unsavory" in non-Christian music that might infiltrate my spirit.

Guarding our hearts is truly necessary but my views on music and art and how they intersect with faith and Christianity are very different today.

When I first read Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, her words were a revelation to me and changed the way I thought about making art as a Christian.  She said that

"art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story.

If it's bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

If it's good art...and there the questions start coming,

questions which it would be simpler to evade."*

I think this idea, that "bad art is bad religion" is the reason that so many of us, Christian or not, are turned off by much that is marketed as "Christian art" whether it be music, writing or the visual arts. Certainly the idea of "good" or "bad" art is hazy and subjective. But the truth is, much of the "Christian art" we encounter simply doesn't ring true.

I heard a conference speaker talk about approaching and critiquing film as a Christian.  When asked what made a film "Christian" by his estimation (and here he was speaking not specifically about films marketed as Christian but what L'Engle claims is all "true art" in general) the speaker said that a film was Christian when it either told the truth about what life is or showed what life could be.**  By his estimation, true art shows the dirty, ugly, lovely parts of life with a robust honesty.  True art also expresses a longing, reaching beyond itself for meaning and otherness.  L'Engle says this a different way, that "all art is...cosmos found within chaos."***

Maybe this is why "Christian art" often feels false.  In many instances, it seeks to gloss over the pain and struggle of life, painting a pretty picture of a neat and lovely God or of tidy, sweet Christians who never doubt or feel angry or question the darker parts of life. Certainly we behold many beautiful parts of life and creation.  But the whole narrative has twists and turns and dark endings, sad beginnings and hopeful climaxes.

I've had many moments when I've tried to conform my writing to some Christian ideal, spotting it with didacticisms rather than approaching and digesting the reality of the world and God.  And I'm quite sure my writing was the worse for it.

That's not to say that Christians can't make good art as Christians.  On the contrary, many Christian artists are makers of worshipful art in all its forms. And I hope to be one of them.****

I wrote in a recent post about L'Engle's view that an artist should be open and "obedient" to the work she is engaged in.  As artists who are Christians, this obedience enables us to be more open to the spirit of our God and his guidance, giving us a longing to tell the truth, to show what is outside ourselves. All kinds of writing can reveal truth about the world and about who God is in the world.

I think of art as a lens through which to look at the world.  Hopefully this lens gives the reader, the listener, or the watcher a picture with new arrays of color, a new focus on the way of our world, or on the truly mysterious ways of our God.

Do you agree with L'Engle that "bad art is bad religion?"

* L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 5.
** this is very paraphrased from a speaker at the Calvin College "Festival of Faith and Writing."
***L'Engle's Walking on Water, pg 8.
****added to the original post.

An open letter to small town America

Please don't be offended rural/small town America.  You see, I have fallen in love with you and I don't know if I ever want to go back.

Having been weaned on big city life, I had no idea of your charms.  And I want to share them.

Do you remember the first time I went to your bank to deposit a check and take out cash and no one asked to see my ID?  Yes, that was unexpected and a bit wonderful.

What about the time when your librarian called me at home to tell me my books were overdue and did I want her to renew them?  That was truly awesome.

Didn't we laugh together when I first said I was "going to town" and that meant the place where Walmart had spread out its talons, where the population is 7,000?

I can still recall the first time I went to a children's tractor pull on the weekend, not because it was the only thing to do but because it was an exciting thing thing to do.

And oh, what about your children's rodeos?  Where everyone from every small town in the county congregates to thumb their noses at PETA, to watch little kids chase greased pigs, unsuspecting chickens, calfs with ribbons tied to their tails and ride muttons.  Yes, the mutton rides, where heavily armored 6-8 year olds attach their bodies to terrified sheep that are let out of the gate at breakneck speed until said and sad child can no longer hold on.  Didn't we watch with joviality as the child ran crying from the mutton to her parents?

I feel the rhythm of the seasons in your life, where everyone knows the weather because their livelihood or their neighbor's livelihood depends upon it.   Your people gather together with gusto at festivals year-round.  And some would say it's because there's nothing to do in a small town.  But really, it's because your people know how to have fun without all of that big-city hullabaloo. They know how to fight isolation and commit to community.

Small town, I love you.  Farm life, I don't ever want to leave.

My children love you too.  Right now, they're watching their Daddy load hay into the barn.

Who needs television?

Committing small acts of art

Recently, a newly formed artist's collective/group (we're not sure yet exactly what we are) that I'm involved in had a discussion about art in the life of a Christian.  When we began discussing our personal goals for our art, I shared a goal of mine that has remained unmet for many years (something common among many kinds of artists, I'm told): Publication.

But, as I told the group, I've recently accepted that publication might not be my highest goal.  I've taken up writing music again in the past year and I've found great satisfaction in sharing that music with my small church group and community.  I still have grandiose and mostly unrealistic desires of future success but I'm trying to remain focused on creating for the church, being open to something beyond didactic or formulaic writing, hoping to be a vessel for art that shows the truth and beauty of God.

I have many artist friends who, while some having had commercial success, are committing seemingly small acts of art in their homes and communities.

I am so moved by their visual art, their music, their poetry and essays.  There are streams of light and color that are released into the world of my mind's eye when I encounter such true art.

And so I wonder.

Is there something just as significant in works of art that are only seen by a few if any at all?

I was very moved by just such an act of art done by a neighbor, a visual artist who spent hours taking apart his small store-bought sketchbook, dyeing it with tea and reassembling it into a beautiful aged-looking book of his card-sized sketches and drawings.

No one but his wife and the rest of us have seen such a book.

And yet, there is something important in that creation.

Madeleine L'Engle speaks about this act of art in her book Walking on Water.  For L'Engle, the true artist must be willing to be one thing primarily:

Obedient.

For L'Engle, the artist becomes a birth-giver, a vessel for the work of God or the work of God in the world.  And here L'Engle's picture of obedience is like Mary, the mother of Jesus in her obedience to the Spirit of God, who asked her to be his bearer of the Messiah.

When the "work of art...says, "'Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.' And the artist either says, 'My soul doth magnify the Lord.' and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses."

L'Engle says the artist should be "obedient to the work...whether it is a work of great genius or something very small."**

And so in these seemingly small acts of creation, obedience is a worthier goal.  For if obedience is our job, the rest is up to God.

If we have publication, adulation and awards in our future, God help us through it.

And if smallness is His goal then maybe His are the only eyes and ears we need to worry about.

*The painting at the top was done by my grandmother, who took up painting in her sixties.  Though never sold or seen by an audience, her works of art are priceless to her family

**quotes from Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, 2001, Waterbrook Press, pg 9-10.

This peace

"It's something so elusiveSomething close but far away It's the home that I can't live in yet somewhere in outer space And sometimes I barely miss it when I walk into the room The curtains are still swaying and I feel the air move" --Sara Groves

I love the image in this song of this mysterious, whispery, spirit-like thing that eludes us.  I find it to be so.  It seems I'm on the cusp of taking it in, this thing like wind, when a single thought or moment or heavy breath whisks it away like it was an apparition in my periphery.

Today I needed this song.

I needed to be reminded to always to be reaching for it even when I can't always grasp it.  I needed to be reminded that we are always on the edge of that place, that state of becoming.  And that sometimes we are given a glimpse of it.  Sometimes we are given even the weight of it, the feel and taste of kingdom life.  And it is glory, an earthly sense-filled glory when we touch it.

"It's a whisper in my ear It's a shiver up my spine It's the gratitude I feel for all that's right It's a mystery appeal that's been granted me tonight This peace."

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGu8L6CqL78]

The force of thankfulness

I have two reactions when I look at this picture of my children, both with black eyes.

First, I wonder what to say when I accept the trophy for Mother of the Year.

But in all seriousness, I think of the tiny moments that could change our lives but that don't. And I think of what gratitude really means.

I had two moments this week.  The first involved Dandelion, a spiral slide and a stick she was holding.  When I heard her scream and flew across the gravel to her, I didn't realize how potent in my mind was a television show I'd seen recently (a very fictional bit of silliness) where the cops were tracking a biological disease in which the victims died with blood in their eyes.

Guess what was coming out of my three year old's eye when I got to her? And guess what my first thought was?  Death by biological disease.

In fact, she had cut her eyelid and it healed very quickly.  But the long stick was found and thoughts of what could've been haunted me for a few days.

Two days later, while cleaning up a broken glass, I heard the sound of furniture falling to the ground.

Which was actually my son falling down a small (thankfully carpeted) flight of stairs.  He was lying face down, his sippy cup of milk close beside him.  And a massive knot already forming under his eye (I believe the cup was the culprit).  Maybe it's the things we associate with falling down the stairs, but this one shook me up too.

He was back to his rascaly self in no time. I knew when he started pulling his sister's hair that he was going to be alright.

These are moments for me when I wonder what thankfulness really is.  Do we allow ourselves to imagine what could've been so that we can be thankful that it wasn't?  How much imagination do we give to the almost future?

I've heard prayers that set us against other people's pain while concluding, "thank God that's not me." Is it right to feel 'blessed' that we don't have the pain that other people have?

That doesn't sit well with me.

There is so much pain in the world and I've limited my news reading because it can become overwhelming.  But I wonder about the balance.  Because I think we aren't supposed to separate ourselves from the pain of others but instead, to take it on as best we can.  While there might be less I can personally do about the violence across the world, I can do something about the pain in my own community.

I don't think I can alleviate another person's pain most of the time.  But maybe I can help her live with it: by a cup of tea, by babysitting her child, by writing a poem or a song, by sharing music or giving money or making a meal.  Maybe it's only a start or maybe it's the best I have to offer.

Maybe compassion is part of gratitude.

Could it be that empathy can only flow out of a life that is lived in thankfulness?

Loving the church

I've never been much of a big picture person.  It is the details that engage me, that I write about, that make the bigger pictures make sense to me.

But there is one big "issue" I feel I can talk about with great love.

The church.

I know that calling the church an "issue" is odd but from the reading I do on internet blogs and articles, in books about and against Christianity, in poetry and the conversations I have and hear with neighbors, friends and family, the church (and the way it fails) has become a popular issue to discuss.

I have tried to enter this conversation.  But I find myself at a loss to speak about the church in such a general way.

But here, in my heart, I have a feeling about the smallness, the details, the minutuae of the church that I would like to give voice to.

And here is what I want to say.

Sometimes, it hurts to love this church.

It hurts when people criticize. When they are angry or in pain and my congregation becomes collateral damage.

Yes, indeed, people in this church and other churches have caused each other pain.  Sometimes while pounding their fists on the Bible.

But the words from those who have left, they hurt.  They tear at our hearts.  And when you hear their anger, even though it might be justified, there is always another side to the story.

And that doesn't mean our congregations shouldn't be criticized or that people should stay quiet when something needs to change.  But it hurts.

This Mennonite church is very small.  But that has forced me to be involved more than I ever have.

People who know me well or the tradition I grew up in would laugh or perhaps be appalled that I help lead worship.  I teach adult Bible classes.

This is not something I sought out but it has opened my eyes to the love and beauty that I was so quick to dismiss when I was younger.  Being on the other side of worship makes me realize how difficult it is to hear people verbally abuse the thing you love.

I know my parents' generation fought against the "hellfire and brimstone" theology they grew up with.  And in many ways, my generation is trying to differentiate itself from the lack of compassion and social justice we think we see in the churches we grew up in.

Each generation must do this.

But.

It hurts when it is something you cherish.  I have criticized arrogantly and I hear the same judgement from others, not just here but all over the place.

It is easy to forget that, in many ways, the churches we grew up in have benefitted from the change our parents fought for.  We forget that we are young, that we have a short past behind us, that we are not as wise as we think we are.

All of us as Christians, as members of a congregation, have failed others.  But we have also failed our churches.

My friend Angela led me to a quote recently:

"Yes, the Church is a whore; but that whore is the bride of Christ and your mother, and you have no right to abandon her."*

So please, let's yell at the church.  Let's tell about how the church has failed us.  Let's reform the hell out of her if we must (literally).

But how 'bout we keep our mouths shut a little longer before we do. And do a little less yelling and a little more loving.

Let's find the beauty in the moments the church cared for us, when she encouraged us, held us up, served us.

Forgive the church because she is Christ's church.  He knew she'd be unfaithful.  But he loves her anyway.  

Let us forgive the church because we are the church and we have needed forgiveness too. 

*I couldn't find a definite answer about the author of this quote.  Some say it was Augustine.  Regardless, I go the quote from: http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/2007/05/church-is-whore.html