Some January writing and a few favorite things

Here in the Midwest, we are cheering on the end of January as it edges us closer to spring every blessed moment.

We all have our winter coping skills. This year, mine has centered around our new wood stove, which I wrote about for Good Letters last week. Other coping skills include spending time with a friend from church who invites me and my two littles to her house to lavish us with coffee and delicious breakfast treats, YA novels, singing songs with my family in the evening, and solitary walks around the local cemetery.

Cemetery, snow, solitude.

Cemetery, snow, solitude.

What are your winter coping skills?

Another piece of mine was published this month. I wrote a review for Christian Century about a book called Living Sustainably. Check out my review here.

As we close out the month, I thought I'd share a few books and some music that have soothed my winter blues.

Books

No heavy reading this month (there is enough in the daily newspaper). I find Jane Austen to be very comforting. But instead of revisiting my favorite Austen titles, I read a few Austen inspired books this month. 

1. Unequal Affections by Lara S. Ormiston is a slant retelling of Pride and Prejudice: what would've happened between Darcy and Elizabeth (and therefore the rest of the Bennets) if Lizzy had accepted Darcy's first proposal? A light and fun read. 

2. Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay is a story told largely in letter form. A young woman, who survived a troubled childhood by immersing herself in Austen novels, writes letters to the benefactor who is paying for her education. I wasn't completely sold on the ending but I enjoyed the reading of it.

3. Longbourn by Jo Baker. Though I actually read this in September, it is in the same Austen category. Although this is set in the Bennet house, this is not the story of our beloved Lizzy and Jane. Instead, this novel follows the servants of the Bennet house, their love stories, their painful secrets, their fears, and their joys. It is a grittier view of the Bennet household, and from the view downstairs, the sisters don't always look quite as lovely. I really enjoyed it!

4. I've just started this one: Lizzy and Jane, another Austen retelling by Katherine Reay, follows Lizzy, a high-powered chef. When her career hits a wall, Lizzy returns to the home she hasn't visited in the 15 years since her mother died. 

And any fiction list of mine wouldn't be complete without a YA novel. This month I read The Speaker, the second book in a fantasy series by Traci Chee. Set in a world where all books and words have been hidden or destroyed, this second book continues to follow Sefia and Archer, a pair of young people on the run from the Guard who hunt them for their power and the secrets they could reveal.

Music:

The Porter's Gate Worship Project, Vol 1, Work Songs

This album is a creative project that grew out of a community of artists, part of a "sacred arts collective" combining the talents of artists like Liz Vice, Audrey Assad, David Gungor, and Josh Garrels to bring a dynamic collection of songs. My favorites: We Labor Unto Glory, Father Let Your Kingdom Come, and In the Fields of the Lord.

Sergio Mendes

I've been dancing around the house to Mendes' Brasiliero for decades. But I've introduced my kids to it and we get a kick out of twisting our heels to make dinnertime and cleanup a little more interesting. 

Favorite Acts of Beauty: Volume 2

I'm linking up today with Leigh Kramer's "What I'm Into." Visit her page and read some of the other link ups. Heck, do your own if you're so inclined.

What I'm Into

Books

For some reason, I had trouble finishing a single book in November. Well, there actually is a reason: I've been reading bits of so many books that I haven't finished any of them. I nearly finished one but it was on December 1st. I'm going to count it anyway.

The one book I finished:

Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

As Toni Morrison says, "this is required reading." Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, this is a letter to Coates' teenage son. But really, it's a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, eye-opening (can I say any more cliche book review words?) look at Coates life growing up in Baltimore, and what his experience, parentage, history, and education have shown him about "a systemized, ubiquitous threat to 'black bodies' in the form of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration." (Jon Foro) Those who have wondered why so many are so heartbroken about the many recent killings of African Americans by the police should read this. I don't have anything clever to say about it because I think I just need to listen instead.

51ViHdI1ZtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_
51ViHdI1ZtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Other books

I'm usually a fiction kind of a girl. But I've been on a Saint kick lately. Can you be on a Saint kick? I think so. It's a bit like a food craze except it's a lot healthier for you.

What led me to the saints? Well, really, it was the coloring pages my daughter brought home from school and possibly a garden statue.

IMG_2900
IMG_2900

I'll explain.

My 1st grader goes to a Catholic School. We are not Catholic. We didn't grow up Catholic. But I love the Catholics. And I'm growing to love their saints. When my daughter brought home a coloring page for the celebration of Therese de Lisieux, the "little saint," I was hooked. What a lovely celebration of the minutea, of the small life, of the little flowers that are at the back of garden. After that, I found an old wooden statue of St Francis in my grandmother's garden (we were cleaning out her home) and I adopted him, both as a garden ornament and as my patron saint.

In that vein, I wrote a piece at Good Letters, an Image Journal blog about trying to be a mystic and a mom. Spoiler alert: it's not going well.

But still, I press on. Here are the saints and mystics I am reading about. I'm not promising to finish all of them: sometimes they can be a bit tedious. After all, they didn't have anything else to do right?*

Francis of Assisi: the Essential Writings by Jon M. Sweeney

41bYyh5z1NL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_
41bYyh5z1NL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_

Waiting for God by Simone Weil

51VTTzld+uL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_
51VTTzld+uL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_
51RveEhhljL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_
51RveEhhljL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_

The Interior Castle by St Theresa of Avila

51HBehsa6SL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_
51HBehsa6SL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

*Just kidding. I know the saints did a lot of stuff like nursing lepers, pilgrimages, preaching naked (St. Francis at least). And depriving yourself of food takes away a lot of your energy too.

TV

We don't watch much around here. Not from any moral stance but really, the only free moments for TV are at bedtime. And then, we just fall asleep. Having said that, my husband and I can usually sneak in one or two episodes of our recent favorite British import:

Doc Martin

I've read the terms "socially awkward," "socially inept," and "rude" to describe the brilliant surgeon who's sudden fear of blood leads him to a small coastal town where he becomes the GP (General Practitioner) and encounters all manner of quirky but well-meaning locals. But really, my favorite term is "dyspeptic." Not sure what it means but the word sounds like a belch. Doc Martin would be disgusted.

Unknown-1
Unknown-1

Music

Sara Groves' album "Floodplain": can't say enough about this album which covers depression, anxiety, children growing up, marriage, doubts, second guessing, and more.

The Liturgists' "Oh Light": The Liturgists are a collection of many artists but this particular song is sung by the members of the band Gungor. A welcome addition to the small selection of albums just for Advent.

Judy Collins' (feat Willie Nelson) "When I go": seriously, listen to it. It's beautiful.

Year End Favorites

Year-end lists are fashionable among my writerly friends. So, I thought in my free moments, I would add my own small voice to the fray. Here are my top five in two categories:

Music

1. Advent song: Amanda Palmer's version of The Angel Gabriel

I'm not a fan of Amanda Palmer. Don't get me wrong; it's not that I actively dislike her, I just don't know much of her music. From what I have listened to though, she's less of a singer and more of an artist. Her voice is shaky and deep, which works for a certain style but not usually for choral hymns. However, her version of The Angel Gabriel is haunting and hypnotic and reminiscent of the chanting of medieval monks.

I do find Palmer interesting. Her TEDtalk was inspiring and her art is weird and, like this hymn, fascinating. Plus, her husband, Neil Gaiman has written some of my favorite books. The pair of them are equally weird and wonderful.

2. Worship music: All the Poor and Powerless by All Sons and Daughters

I used to loathe most worship music played on the radio. And truthfully, I still find most of it too saccharin and unchallenging to be worth my time. But I discovered All Sons and Daughters while working on leading a worship service with a friend.

3. Alternative: Shovels and Rope: The Devil's All Around

I heard this unusual married duo on an NPR interview. It's just the two of them, pounding on drums and a guitar about as hard as they pound out their voices.

4. Throwback Country: Randy Travis' Deeper than the Holler

My husband and I were listening to a Pandora station recently and discovered our mutual love of 90s country music: Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Martina McBride, and Deana Carter. These folks sang the soundtrack of our high school days. And how can you resist listening to this classic love song, sung loud with your husband about how our love is "longer than the song of the whippoorwill?"

5. Folk rock: The Staves' Dead & Born & Grown

I love this entire album from a trio of English sisters. Their harmonies bring me back to singing hymns with my own two sisters.

Books (in no particular order)

1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

4. Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns Trilogy (see Karissa Know Sorrell's reflection on this YA fantasy with a strong heroine)

5. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys Quartet (though only three are out so far)

6. Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries beginning with Still Life

7. Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl

9. Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark

10. Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant

and one to grow on...

11. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

How can I keep from singing

photo-3

I'm not going to lie.

It's been a rough winter.

From dog bites to anxiety attacks to the harshest winter anyone can remember (seriously, the farmers whose ancestors immigrated here from the northern parts of Scandinavia are sick of this winter), I have found myself wallowing in the darkness, wandering in cold places, lost in the wilderness.

My husband did a sermon recently on the temptation of Jesus. He noted that Jesus didn't choose to go into the wilderness, he was lead there (I would venture to guess he might've been dragged). For some reason, the knowledge of Jesus' unchosen time in the wilderness was a comfort. That he didn't desire any of this death or pain and that he understood my own little version of wilderness because he'd been through it, big time.

When my five-year-old came inside today from playing in the melting snow (more like mud, really), she was gloriously happy, red-cheeked and dirty, making her mother breathless by talking a mile a minute about how she'd collected rotten vegetables to feed the bugs in her ant house, how she'd helped Daddy fix the tractor.

After she ran back outside, she left some of her spring behind.

For months, I've been begging for life, crying out for spring, searching for one bright spot of green poking through the wintered earth.

My daughter brought life right to me. Her hands were filthy with it, her eyes sparkling with it, her voice a song to life anew.

I felt so grateful. And I began to sing and cry because I couldn't help it:

"No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging; since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?*
*I used to think this was an Enya song. But then I discovered that it's actually an old Quaker hymn. And Love is Christ the Lord. Beautiful!

Out of the Darkness

DSC_0004 After a strange and long winter with flurries even in mid-April, we entered into the heat and rain of spring on bended knee, nearly kissing the green earth in thanks and praise. When our monthly community worship time approached, I decided to plan it as a praise time for the rebirth of spring. But as I planned, I was a little lost and distracted by the sense that the joy I wanted to convey wasn't the only thing I was feeling.

With bombs, explosions, factory collapses, stories of abuse and pain, friends that are struggling, I can't seem to shake the grief from my shoulders.

When I was three, I started asking my mom where children go when they die. A few years later, my nighttimes were so plagued by fears of the dark and of the faces on the woodgrains of my closet door that my mother, out of desperation, did a sort of exorcism of the evil from my room. In Jr. High and Highschool, I refused to go to parties where they would show horror movies.

Clearly, I thought about death and dark things quite a lot from an early age. And gradually, I'm ashamed to admit that I began to hole myself off from bad things. I tried to focus instead on beautiful things, good things, funny things, pleasing things, lighthearted things, all in an effort to keep those bad thoughts from my mind.

You're way ahead of me, aren't you, knowing already that it doesn't work to avoid the brokenness of the world, mainly because so much of it is inside me already.

Eventually, I realized  that instead of shutting away or hiding from the darker things of the world, I needed to find a way to cope with them to write about them and most importantly, to lament and grieve the brokenness in our world.

Many books of the Old Testament chronicle the lament of Israel, the prophets and even, occasionally, the lament of a king or two. When I began reading Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination with Kelley Nikondeha's book club, I was struck most of all that those who speak prophetic words often must energize a community or a society into action by speaking directly to the pain and mortality in all of us. For someone like me, it's easy to pretend that if we just ignore the bad things, they will go away.  But it ain't gonna happen. And those prophetic voices are laboring to do the very opposite: to shake us out of our complacency and open our eyes. And what's more, I'm realizing that the more I peer into the darkness, into my own brokenness and the pain others endure, looking for some glimmer of hope or redemption, the more I'm seeing the God of all light.

Brueggemann's book inspires me to listen for those prophetic voices who are speaking into the cracks in our hearts, urging us into compassion and action.

I think this song, [audio http://thebeautyofthishour.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/01-trouble-and-woe.m4a] by Ruth Moody is a beautiful take on facing the darkness and letting a song bring light, transforming it from trouble and woe to mystery and joy:

This world is full of trouble and woe/All I see is trouble everywhere I go/I'm gonna sing the trouble that I know

This world is full of sadness and tears/They fill us full of sadness and full of fear/I'm gonna sing until my eyes are clear

I'm gonna dig deep down into my heart/I'm gonna dig deep down, I'm gonna do my part/I'm gonna sing, sing a brand new start

This world is full of promise and love/Promise of a new day with no dark clouds above/I'm gonna sing that world I'm dreamin' of

This world is full of joy and mystery/ This world will be of joy, I believe it will be/ When we know what it is to be free

This world is full of trouble and woe/All I see is trouble everywhere I go/ I'm gonna sing, sing my way back home

Music and theology

My spirit is moved by the frenzy of a good Mumford and Sons song.  Though their lyrics are quirky and literary, it's not the words that necessarily that move me (frankly, Mumford's mixed metaphors and topic switching in the middle of the song irritate me just a bit).  In Winter Winds, the song announces itself with trumpets, banjos and other instruments.  It quiets during the first verse, accompanied at first by just a voice and a guitar.  Then, it builds to a swaying chorus, both with various voices and musical instruments.  It seems rather like a worship service.  And in fact, the Mumford of the group grew up as a minister's kid in the Vineyard church. A recent article on NPR pointed on just this, that the sound of Mumford and Sons comes from years of cutting their teeth on religious music. The music of  Mumford and other bands like it, the writer says, have "unmistakably churchy overtones... Many pop fans are or have been churchgoers, and the comfortable feeling of singing along, nurtured in many during childhoods spent in the pews, allows for a form of release that's edifying without proving too scary."

It's certainly possible although the writer's claim that rock music and and a search for goodness have nothing in common seems really cynical to me: "How can anyone who's dedicated to loud, raucous music — the stuff that's supposed to rip through life's dull normality — employ it in the service of such commonplace, even orthodox, hopes and dreams?"

I'm not making any assumptions about the group's religious affiliation (as they've said publicly that they aren't making religious statements with their music).  But what I do find interesting is the feeling that music itself, apart from the lyrics, can be moving in theological and even worshipful ways.

My childhood church tradition tends to be wary of heavily emotive Praise music.  Such music is sometimes viewed as emotionally manipulative rather than spiritually rich.  The words, the words, the words, we say.

And while I do agree that the lyrics to a song are very important, a well-written piece of music can give us something apart from the words. And sometimes the emotion we feel from a piece of music is part of the worship.

Take Bach, for instance.  His purely musical pieces were all written for the glory of God.

In his book "Theology Music and Time," Jeremy Begbie, both a fine musician and a theologian, writes that "Hearing music can mean the 're-ordering of our sympathies...The great triumphs of music...involve this synthesis, whereby a musical structure, moving according to its own logic, compels our feelings to move along with it, and so leads us rehearse a feeling at which we would not otherwise arrive.' Music can therefore not only reflect an emotional disposition already experienced...but can also enrich, nuance and even re-shape our emotion, affecting subsequent emotional experience."

Begbie goes on to say that this emotional response allows us to enjoy the same piece of music repeatedly.  This kind of reaction to music actually allows us to be "emotionally exercised and educated."

I think this idea is fascinating, that music (and Begbie's book focuses mostly on the structure of instrumental music) educates our emotions, that it helps us experience and reshape feelings by its structure.  No wonder music is such an integral part of worship.  But it's more than just the lyrics that teach us and move us.  A really good musician has the power to guide us into new experiences of eschatology, the eucharist, temporality and much much more.*

*see Begbie's book for discussions of these topics

For those of us who are broken and love broken people

All My Favorite People by Over the Rhine All my favorite people are broken Believe me, my heart should know Some prayers are better left unspoken I just want to hold you and let the rest go

All my friends are part saint and part sinner We lean on each other, try to rise above We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners We are all late bloomers when it comes to love

All my favorite people are broken Believe me, my heart should know Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward You can stay right here, you don’t have to go

Is each wound you’ve received just a burdensome gift It gets so hard to lift yourself up off the ground But the poet says we must praise a mutilated world We’re all working the graveyard shift You might as well sing along

Cause all my favorite people are broken Believe me, my heart should know As for your tender heart, this world’s going to rip it wide open, It aint gonna be pretty, but you’re not alone

All my favorite people are broken Believe me, my heart should know Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, you’re welcome Yeah, you’re safe right here, you don’t have to go

Cause all my favorite people are broken Believe me, I should know Some prayers are better left unspoken I just want to hold you and let the rest go

Longing for light

IMG_3073 My friend Ang and I are planning the first monthly community-wide worship service this Friday.  We are also involved in a small church but many people who are our neighbors on the property don't attend church with us.  This has been heartbreaking for many reasons.

But as we ask God to help us reconcile with him, with one another and with creation, we are moved to see that our community is growing in unexpected ways.  The church itself is not growing.  But our community meal-times are nearly bursting with life.

I don't presume to know what God is doing in our church or in this community or beyond us because I believe his glory isn't often visible by our narrow sight.  But we must try to follow where He leads.  So we hope that all of our neighbors will join us in worship this Friday in a time of reflection and longing for the light of Christ, the light that is coming.

In preparation, I've been moved by the hymn Christ be our Light, one that I've sung before but hadn't listened to in the time of Advent.  It is a song of hope and lament, that the world is not yet new, that people still suffer and despair, that the kingdom has not yet come.  In my best days, I believe the church is a mystical place where God is glorified in ways we don't understand and often don't see.  There is God's power and love in our gathering, and I pray that he shines in our hearts and that he moves among us with his light.

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness. Longing for truth, we turn to you. Make us your own, your holy people, light for the world to see.

Refrain Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled. Longing for hope, many despair. Your word alone has pow’r to save us. Make us your living voice.

3. Longing for food, many are hungry. Longing for water, many still thirst. Make us your bread, broken for others, shared until all are fed.

4. Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone.

5. Many the gifts, many the people, many the hearts that yearn to belong. Let us be servants to one another, making your kingdom come.

Advent traditions and resources

Celebrating Advent is fairly new to me as I grew up in a tradition that was decidedly un-liturgical.  While I love my lay-led tradition, both the Church of Christ and the Mennonite denominations, there is a richness and mystery to this time of waiting. We're creating our own traditions in our family and congregation and the root of both seems to be a tree.  Ann Voscamp has an excellent (and free) Jesse Tree resource.  You can download and print ornaments for every day of Advent, each with an accompanying scripture and meditation.  That's what we'll do in our worship services this year.

In our home, I've sewn a simple Advent calendar with twenty-five pockets, each holding a tiny bell inside.

DSC_0014

I've ordered a few kid-oriented Advent books and I plan to read a story and let the kids put a bell on the tree that day.

Patience is the spiritual discipline of the season.  My habit of starting a Christmas playlist on Thanksgiving Day is being challenged because most of the songs we sing during this time aren't actually Advent songs, but Christmas Day songs, celebrating the end to waiting.

Amy Grant's Breath Of Heaven (Mary's Song) and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (this version by Enya) are notable exceptions.

Do you wonder as you watch my face, If a wiser one should have had my place, But i offer all i am For the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.

When I listen to this song, I can see this girl Mary, burdened by the physical and spiritual weight of an unborn baby, weary on a donkey on a dusty road, only half-knowing that she carries a King.

Some days

I love this song.*  I like the beat, the unapologetically full-voiced declarations and the many-voiced chorus.  But I also like this song because I understand the angst of being pulled between two parts of myself. Some days I'm caught between the beauty of a this recent global vision, where those without voices can finally be heard, and between the voices of those next door.

Some days the words on the screen are a cacophony and I feel my spirit shrinking a little into the sense that I'm not doing enough.  I'm not serving enough. I'm not writing enough. I'm not loving my children enough.  I'm not disciplining them enough.  I'm not strong enough.  I'm not meek enough.

Some days I listen to those I don't know and I ignore the knock at my door.

That's the pity of my excess.  Why can't I love where I'm needed and support those who love where I cannot? Why can't I weep for the women and children in the Congo and care for my hurting neighbor?

Some days I cannot do both.  Somedays I don't have the heart for it.  Maybe my spirit is too selfish.  Maybe no one has the heart.

Some days I do.  When I let go of that which I cannot control.  When I dig deep and turn to face my church, my neighbor, my community, my family, the widow, the orphan and the stranger down the street. When I seek to know where God is creating new things in me rather than wishing He'd do it a little more like He does it in someone else.

But those days are covered with intentional prayer, with action, and with the force of my own will, all the while hoping for a will that's not my own.  Thy will be done.

Some days I know what I stand for.  Those are the days that God and those around me keep my legs strong.

*there is strong language in this song

A Christmas playlist

You might think it premature to do a playlist of Christmas music.  You might think that but you would be wrong.

I could play Christmas music all year long.  But as this would make said music a little commonplace and I can't have commonplace music about Jesus' birth, I give myself permission on Thanksgiving Day (our traditional day to decorate a tree) to start my holiday playlist.

My college roommate Amy can regale you with terrible tales of Manheim Steamroller, a group which made her run screaming into her room. Or Mariah Carey's "All I want for Christmas is you."  Hey, don't judge, it was the late '90s.

Hopefully my musical tastes have matured since then (although I still love me some Michael W. Smith Christmas music).

Here are my top Christmas albums of years new and old.  Happy Thanksgiving!

11. John Denver and the Muppets Christmas by John Denver and the Muppets: Fun for all ages. Smooth Denver vocals with Kermit and the gang.  Twelve Days of Christmas

10. It's Christmas time by Bing Crosby:  His deep voice drips with nostalgia. No one could deliver a note the way Bing could. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen

9. And winter came by Enya and An Irish Christmas by Moya Brennan: Fun fact: Enya and Moya are sisters.  Enya's album is good but I actually like Moya's better.  It has more depth to it. One Toy Soldier (Enya) The Wexford Carol (Moya)

8. Winter song by Sarah McLachlan: The most depressing Christmas album ever.  But it's Sarah.  And she's beautiful.  And she was going through some difficult times.  And it really grows on you.  And if the holidays are painful for you (which I know they are for a lot of people), this might be cathartic.  Song For A Winter's Night

7. Christmas by Michael W. Smith: Like I said, I love me some MWS.  This album is pretty classical.  Not Christian-pop.  "All is well" is gorgeous.

6. A Christmas Collection by Amy Grant: Another album from my youth.  I can't decorate a tree without "Tennessee Christmas."

5. Joy: A holiday collection by Jewel:  Yes, I said it.  I love Jewel.  She got me through some lonely moments in the early 2000s.  Her voice is clear and lovely here. O Holy Night

4. Songs for Christmas, Vol 1 by Sufjan Stevens: I have listened to a few snippets of his new Christmas album, which I will most likely be adding to my collection. It sounds a bit like his first holiday album: spot on in places and way weird in others (please, Sufjan, never again do a techno version of "It came upon a midnight clear." Maybe you're being ironic but I don't get it...of course, I did like Mariah Carey in my teen years so maybe I'm not the best judge).  My favorite versions of two of my most cherished hymns are on this album: "Holy Holy Holy" and "Come thou fount of every blessing." Worth wading through the Sufjan quirkiness for these gems.  Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing

3. Classical choices: Handels' Messiah and Choir of King's College Cambridge and Sir David Wilcocks.  Sussex Carol by King's college

2. Christmas songs by Anuna: Angelic! Pie Jesu

1. Sweet Bells and While Mortals Sleep by Kate Rusby: These albums are the first ones I listen to every holiday season because they are so joyful and fun.  Rusby places her English folk Celtic spin on music for this season. Awake, Arise Good Christians and Diadem

A long long song

I tried to respond to DL Mayfield's question "What are you listening to?" and I ended up with a whole blog post. So, here is what I'm listening to these days.  This is the soundtrack of our family dance parties, what we sing at the top of our lungs, what makes me close my eyes and hear a part of my soul that only God knows.

Gungor Ghosts Upon the Earth: I like that they call themselves 'liturgical post-rock.' Not always sure what that means but it's a welcome change to some of the soulless music on the radio. Let There Be

Kate Rusby The Girl Who Couldn't Fly: an English folk artist I discovered during my years in Scotland. Celtic bluegrass folk.  Elfin Knight

My Brightest Diamond All Things Will Unwind: a quirky, weird and adorable artist some call twee.  Her classically trained voice combined with interesting lyrics and alternative pop makes for a fun listen. "I hear a quieter voice/ It says, love binds the world." Beautiful!  We Added It Up

MaMuse All the Way: "What a meadow would sound like if it could sing." That's what their website says...a little dramatically self-important perhaps...but their music speaks for itself. A "sweet soul, folk revival." Glorious

Bryan Moyer Suderman Detectives of Divinity and God's Love is for Everybody: I had to put in an album for kids because let's face it, that's what I listen to most. This is for anyone with faith like a child. Worshipful, solidly Jesus-loving biblical stories and verses. Peace Meal and The Fruit Of The Spirit

Mary Chapin Carpenter  Ashes and Roses: I knew her as a country singer.  Now I know her as a poet, singing in her deep cello-like alto with melancholy and emotion about the isolation of plane travel, global warming, and divorce.  So poignant.  The Age of Miracles

Julie Fowlis Cuilidh: A folk artist singing in Gaelic from her native ScotlandAn T-Aparan Goirid 's an T-Aparan Ùr Òran Do Sheasaidh Bhaile Raghnaill

David Mead Indiana and Almost and Always: He is one of my husband's favorite songwriters. Unflashy singer-songwriter.  His lyrics and his easy voice hooked me. Indiana

Wailin Jennys (can't choose one album...they're all wonderful): A trio of talented musicians (all of whom happen to be women) whose harmonies are so tight that even live, they are pitch-perfect. Deeper Well (this is an Emmylou Harris song...I also love her).

Patty Griffin Children Running Through, 1000 Kisses and Downtown Church: She hails from my home state of Texas...but don't hold it against her (I can say that 'cause I love Texas).  This lady's got soul. No Bad News

What music do you love?

Old Love

Before I married Farmer, I didn't know any songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter except "Shut up and Kiss Me." I thought she was a silly country singer.  Then one day he played "The Age of Miracles" for me and it made me cry. Her voice is like a strummed cello, vibrations deep and melancholy.  Her lyrics are like Psalms of lament: searching, sometimes hopeful, the poetry of pain to words. Her newest album is one of Farmer's favorites, Ashes and Roses.

One song called "Old Love" is just such a psalm-like poem of longing in sadness and hope, for a love that lasts. Knowing that Chapin Carpenter had herself recently gone through a divorce when she made the album, gives the song an even greater connection to a lament.

This song, of course, makes me think about my relationship with Farmer.  But it also makes me think of the church, the longing we have for reconciled relationships with our brothers and sisters.  The hope that we have that God will connect us in those moments so that love "holds on/ when it's told, love, that all hope is gone."

I want old love, the kind that holds on When it’s told, love, that all hope is gone Against all odds, wagers and prayers To the wall love, to the furthest somewhere

I want old love, the kind that takes years To turn to gold, love, burnished and seared On the high wire, by rain, wind and sun With the hard times forgiven and done*

lyrics from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/marychapincarpenter/oldlove.html

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]

Peace Meal

A year or so ago, a friend gave us a cd of children's music from a Canadian Mennonite by the name of Bryan Moyer Suderman. Those of us who are around children very much know how awful kid's music can be: cheesy, out-of-tune, patronizing, theologically lazy.

But Moyer Suderman is a true talent.  His lyrics compress the deep message of Jesus into simple beautiful words with catchy and engaging tunes.

He has an interesting way of sharing his music.  Instead of the typical tour, promote, sell sell, he has a CSA music program that you can join through his website, getting music downloads of new songs four times a year.

We were able to see him play at a local Mennonite summer camp.  The adults were singing along.

If you have any children in your life with whom you want to share music that adds beauty to the world or if you have the heart of a child, you should support Bryan Moyer Suderman.  We listen to his album "God's love is for everbody" almost every time we get in the car. Our kids love him!

This is one of my favorties.  You can hear a snippet of it on itunes:

Peace meal

It's a peace meal, a peace meal

The table's set, don't you hear the call

A peace meal, a peace meal

A table set for us all

Add to the beauty

Sometimes things that are beautiful take a long time to become so.  And sometimes we don't see their true beauty until we love them. I long for beauty.  I always have.

But it hasn't always been a search for things of meaning.  I've been caught in the ugliness of that search before, crippled by worry about my physical appearance, sucked into a glossy view of beauty only to be shocked at the dirtiness that soils its underbelly.

For a while, "beautiful" was a word worth spitting out.

But now, I see that beauty is something of God.  It is sometimes hidden underneath the grime of years, buried beneath pain.

Real beauty reveals itself gingerly. Sometimes it looks ugly at first and sometimes it takes years and lots of love to discover.

My effort is thankfulness and joy: to have my sight, my hearing, my taste and my heart changed to see beauty where God sees it.  I long to "add to the beauty/ to tell a better story/ shine with the light that's burning up inside."*

I want to share the obviously beautiful things I encounter, like music, writing, photos, art.

But I also want to highlight those things that don't always get recognition.

So, here is where I see beauty today:

In a husband who plants and waters, who mows and grows, who provides good, traditional food when that's a scarcity.  Who cares for the earth by doing the inconvenient, the counterintuitive, spending days planting an acre of strawberries that could be planted by a big machine in twenty minutes. Who serves by doing something meaningful for very little in return besides the satisfaction of witnessing the earth doing what it was created to do. Who uses his free time to serve on leadership teams and prepare a sermon for Sunday. Who fights for truth and honesty.  Who loves his children. And loves his wife.  And serves those around him.

He adds to the beauty.

*Sara Groves' song "Add the beauty:"

We come with beautiful secrets We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls We come to every new morning With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces  Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty To tell a better story I want to shine with the light That's burning up inside

It comes in small inspirations It brings redemption to life and work To our lives and our work

It comes in loving community It comes in helping a soul find it's worth

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty To tell a better story I want to shine with the light That's burning up inside

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful This is grace, an invitation

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces Calling out our best

And I want to add to the beauty To tell a better story I want to shine with the light That's burning up inside