contemplative life, domestic arts, everyday parables

a room in the kingdom

There’s a room in the kingdom where your sisters are weaving.

No one’s speaking now, not after days of late-night talks and early-morning laughter, of sermons and studies and gathered meals. Instead, some read, some write, and others tend their little looms, weaving bands with colors like a winter sky. Someone at the piano recalls the song we sang last night, when the lights went out under roaring wind and thunder.  This morning, as sunshine dyes the hour gold, they hum along, “…all I have needed, Thy hands have provided…” And their hands pray with thread and rag, drawing the weft like hours and days and years, ordinary moments given form and glory by the upright cords of the warp: covenants that neither bend nor break.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where your friends are feasting.

The tables are heavy with brisket and chicken salad, fajitas and rice, lemonade and Dr. Pepper. The family could have circled close, hiding their grief in seemly privacy. But they know their father better: beloved host, he would open the doors, tell his children to bring their friends home, too. After all, who else will eat this food? And so they laugh even as they weep, telling stories, explaining the intricate display of cotton bolls, the feed-sack, the photograph, the family legend and dear history.

They eat well, affirming the resurrection with second helpings, until, as they house empties, they turn to you and say, “Tell us.” And even here, even in their grief, they listen to the hard choice. Offering no easy answers, betraying no awkward impatience, they listen deep and wide, wide with the love of those who grieved, deep with the hope of those who believe.

And so, having feasted at their father’s table, you find yourself outside, four friends holding one another against the cold. They pray for you beneath the blazing stars, upbank from the river that can bless and flood. Four friends against the cold, and then — a fifth draws near.

***

There’s a room in the kingdom where strangers are meeting.

You can hear the drums before you leave the house, and the firelight tells you where to find them. Circled already: neighbors, friends, and strangers linked by firelight and rhythm. They would burst the seams of your little house, but here around the fire there is room: room to beat a drum with jubilation or shy intensity, room to slip out for a cigarette or a dance, room to join or wait.

Bring your banjo and tambourine, your bucket or pot, your tingling bells or child’s drum. Bring your clapping hands and timid feet, surrender to something beyond your power, something beyond your right to start or end, manage or maintain.

***

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

(Matthew 4:17 ESV)

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everyday parables, faith, imagination, scripture

we journey on

Dear Friends,

We’ve been following this star for ages, it seems. When we left you at the city’s western gate, the road was smooth and the sky clear, but I confess that this last year of travel has been difficult.  Many nights cloud or smoke obscures the sky, or some obstacle impedes us.  The camels are a sore trial, and even our elder magi have found it difficult to study or discourse from a saddle. To my shame, many nights I have pined for the silks and scrolls we left behind. And each member of our small company has been lonesome, for we expected so many more companions would join us on this road.

For all that, the journey has graceful, even in its roughness. The landscape is less strange now, and we have come to know some of the language, the names of the flowers and grains. On rare days when the clouds clear, the star seems to shine more brightly than when it first arose. And while the cities have often been uncouth or cold, we could also tell of great hospitality, even from the poorest of houses. Even now, bread and honey—gift of a kind goodwife– sweetens my heart as well as my tongue.

And what of this child-king we have come so far to hail? He was not born to our people—or was he? We left palace and hall because the heavens declared that a light of revelation was coming – a wisdom to baffle all our learning. When we began, I feared that mystery. Now, its promise draws us onward with joy.

We journey on, beloved. May you, too, press on beneath that holy starlight, until the day we meet again in a common house, at the cradle of our king.

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community first! village, faith, Uncategorized

being Bethlehem

“You have the sweetest voice. I’m going to call you Bethlehem.”

My neighbor, Miss H, announced this resolution in the middle of  a soap-making workshop.

I laughed and thanked her. I almost asked what a sweet voice and Bethlehem have to do with another, but I was distracted by the potion of lye and goat’s-milk in front of me. Besides, I’ve learned to let the wisdom of my neighbors percolate for a while before offering comment or question. Most of them are my elders by several decades, and all have endured more life–both joyful and painful–than I can imagine. So I try to listen well before speaking my mind.

This was in the spring time, approaching Easter, and I was finally beginning to feel my roots break through this clay-thick, east-Austin soil. It was (and remains) a painful rooting: I have lamented my quiet academic life with tears and terrors; I have missed my students and Chickasaw neighbors fiercely; and, despite coming here to live in community I have been so lonely in this frantic city, a beautiful Babylon where everyone is friendly, but it is hard to make a friend. And yet, for all that, I could feel the roots growing, ancient instincts inching toward water.

And so, in my weariness and hope, I received Miss H’s nickname as a benediction: Bethlehem, town of Christ’s birth. Let it be so for me, I prayed, Let Christ be born in me. A few weeks later, on the Thursday before Easter, I learned I was pregnant. I think babies must always be a kind of joyful terror, not to mention an interruption in practical affairs (e.g. My first thought was, “We live in an RV — which cupboard is big enough to hold the baby?”), but we had wanted a child, prayed for this child, and so we were glad in our trembling.

On Easter Sunday we had a dessert potluck for friends and neighbors. Afterward, I went for a walk, noting all the blossoms on the fruit trees (our farmers have planted over 100 on the property), laughing to think of all the peaches, mulberries, persimmons, and satsumas the year would bring.  Perhaps this is why God has called me to die to so much, I thought: to my career, my students, my parents’ hopes. Perhaps it was so something new could be born in me, in us. 

easter

Easter Sunday, 2016

But the day after Easter I began to shiver, and by Tuesday I was delirious with fever, a virulent strain of flu. On Thursday, I began bleeding, and that was the end of it. To feel, however briefly, so full of life, and then to crash back into the reality of death was agonizing.

For most of the past nine months, I haven’t thought directly about the loss of the baby. It was so early–mercifully early–that we had no time to make plans or set expectations in any particular way. We had picked no names, planned no showers, imagined no futures. And yet, the grief has infected almost everything. Feeling betrayed by the future, I have longed for the past more than ever, resenting the work at hand, resenting my husband, who thrives on dreams and future plans.

But the baby would have come right about now, sometime during Advent. I usually observe this watchful season with a careful and quiet gladness: lighting candles each morning, decorating the house little by little, sending letters and gifts to friends. I’ve done none of that this year. But I have pondered what it means to long for a savior, to cry out a God for deliverance, to demand, like Martha, why my Lord has not come sooner to raise the dead.

I have remembered Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword would pierce her heart. I’ve remembered Rachel weeping for her children, for they are no more. I’ve recalled the Magi, bringing incense for burial to a fresh-faced child.

As I walked tonight I had a strange fancy that one day, when we come to table in God’s kingdom, we’ll feast on all the food we thought was lost — bread from wheat we saw scorched in the field, fruit from the tree that fell in the frost. And the little ones gathered at the table? Only God knows. We can believe, if He will help our unbelief.

Heavenly Father, if there is a life here for my books and quiet ways, if there is water for my roots, then send your Son to pitch his tent (or trailer!) right here among us. Put honey on my tongue and make room in my heart: let me be Bethlehem, even if there is no baby in my arms. 

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faith, Uncategorized

Waiting on the Word

 

I have not been silent these last few weeks, though I have not written much. My words have been spent through early hours and late, with old friends, new loves, with my husband and my kin, my neighbors and my God.

…in the kitchen, I’ve rolled out countless pie crusts to the rhythm of our tears and tales, pondering together the joyful agony of new covenants: marriages, adoptions, vocations

…in the car, we’ve covered icy miles with hopes and fears for the future, our words blades that makes us strangers again, and  threads that bind and restore

…under the setting sun, I’ve recited the old, best stories of homemaking and creation, learning to believe again as my feet learn the contours of this new, broken ground

…in the morning, we’ve prayed and sang, “O Come, O Come…”

Today, I have no succinct morsel to offer, no pithy conclusion about life or work or the other questions of the hour. Instead, I share with you, today, my poverty: I have spent all my words, and I cannot know what good or harm they have done. I have spent them, and wait to be filled with the full and shattering hope of Advent. I am waiting to write, waiting to speak. I am waiting on the Word.

 

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everyday parables, faith, life together, marriage

dreaming for the sake of others

My husband’s love language is dreaming. The eyes of his heart are roaming and keen, restless until the day they find peace in the sight of God’s kingdom. But so long as that new heaven and new earth remain hidden, his eyes wander, gathering hope in the most unlikely of places, including his wife’s timid and fretful spirit.

The broken ground of this new life means that my own ability to dream–once such an enormous part of my life–has been shaken out of sleep. This awakening has been both hard and sweet: hard because I have realized that most of my dreams over the past decade have been for myself. I have imagined any number of happy scenarios for my own future, but I have not dreamed much for the sake of others. This has been a failure of imagination, a failure of love, and I have repented of it. With that confession, though — such sweet relief. Dreams that once seemed too grand for “real life” suddenly glimmer with real possibility. And why? Because my private hopes no longer need to be enough. The little garment of my ambitions are not enough to keep anyone else warm, but just imagine how much more they can do if I see my dreams as one strand that I weave into something much larger. Alongside this man I’ve married, I am learning to dream not only for myself or our household, but for and with others.

This task–learning to dream for others–is one of the great and difficult works I’m undertaking in wisdom’s workshop. How can I dream with and for you in this season? If you will, use the “connect” tab and let me know on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or an old-fashioned letter.

Finally, if you’re in the Austin, Texas area and would like to continue this conversation face to face, I’m leading a seminar entitled “Crying for a Vision: Reclaiming Imagination for the Common Good.” It will be a four-week series, beginning Tuesday, September 15 at 7 PM. Sponsored by The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, we will meet at 1611 West Ave. Austin 78701. I would be honored and delighted to see some of you there.

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faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

Washed and worn

We weep because we’ve lost the road that once rolled clear before us. Because we see pain we can’t allay, or because we know we caused the hurt and harm. We weep when we feel ourselves pregnant with sorrow, admitting that we are heirs to robbers and thieves. We cry ourselves to sleep, and the tears fall like rain over battlefields in our dreams. We weep stones and jewels and seeds, so hard even in their beauty. We weep because a new day is coming, and we don’t know what its name will be. We turn to stone, and still the tears fall, washing away the proud outlines of our faces and pedestals.

But sweet, oh how sweet, when, washed and worn, flooded and found, we find ourselves small again, able to glimpse a peace that no dry eye has ever seen.

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baking, faith

tiny oven, full table

The oven is tiny. Each use requires that I crouch down try, often unsuccessfully, to kindle the pilot light. I don’t really ever know what temperature it has reached. And yet: from this little heat-cave comes good food. Even better: we have friends, nearly every night, to come and share the feast with us. Not once has there been too little to share.

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faith, life together, marriage, photography

So hard, so sweet

Hypocrisy is like saccharin: no real sweetness, but mixed into something good, it might fool your tongue into relishing the taste you crave. In my communication with friends, my status updates or Instagram posts, I’ve been veering between hypocrisy and silence lately. I don’t mean to say that what I’ve posted is untrue; merely that, for the first time in many years, the most cheerful updates have been the exception, not the rule, to my general mood.

My intellect keeps insisting that I need to snap out of my sadness, but my spirit knows better than to obey. My spirit knows that change is hard, and that is entirely possible to be full of joy and hope, full of gratitude and awe, but dreadfully homesick at the same time. I know how to share the joy, the hope, the gratitude, but I don’t know how to share the sadness. I don’t want maudlin status updates that sound like pleas for pity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my sadness, blame my husband (who is, next to Jesus, the greatest bulwark to my joy right now), and come riding in on a white charger with sword drawn. I simply want to tell the stories of these days: truly and in full color, but tempered and measured according to the truth.

Thus, my September experiment and challenge. Each day I will share a picture of one thing about life right now that feels hard, and one thing that is beautiful and sweet. Some of these glimpses may be profound, others will certainly be silly. Some days I will explain the pictures, other days I won’t. My purpose is not to provoke pity or solicit solutions, but rather to train my own eyes to the truth.

Today’s picture has to do with the world right outside my door. I grew up in a green place, a city of tall trees and green canopies. In Alabama, I owned a house in an old neighborhood, and three enormous live oaks shaded roof. Given my love for green ground and tall trees, it’s been really hard living on the edge of a parking lot, on ground that has been upturned for so much building. I know that once the Village has all its buildings in place, landscaping will begin again, restoring the green. But still, the concrete and the bare dirt are hard for me to love. And the sweet? Just outside, there are a thousand promises of growth and green. Last week my husband brought home a parched soapberry tree. It’s leaves were all scorched from neglect, and we worried it might not flourish. But after a week of watering, its branches have sent forth so many hopeful shoots. Even sweeter? The tree was a gift, serendipitious generosity from the man at the nursery. We were not looking for a tree, but it came to us without striving or seeking. Our tree is, in more ways than one, full of grace, and that grace is very sweet indeed.

What has been hard and sweet for you lately?  Would you your pictures or juxtapositions? You can do so leaving a comment, or by posting photos to Twitter (@bethanyjoy) or Instagram (@bethanyjoyful). Tag your posts #sohardsosweet

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cooking, domestic arts, everyday parables, faith, marriage, recipes

Tasting hope

“This,” said my husband, putting down his spoon, “is really Tom Bombadilish! It’s the ideal that every jelly tries to be, and fails!” Of course I smiled. How could a lover of Plato and Tolkien–not to mention a new wife–fail to be pleased by such a comparison? Taking another bite myself, I knew he was right. The taste could only be called wild: richly flavored, baptized with sweetness, vivid with the memory of tree-high vines, spider webs, and early-morning sunlight.

Grape jelly is not a food I’ve spent much time or energy pondering. Lacking the symbolic heft of bread, for example, it seems, at best, a marker of childhood lunches, peanut-butter-and-jelly days of untroubled desire. As an adult, I’ve kept my love of peanut butter but tend to skip the cloying jellies in favor of honey, cinnamon, or apple butter.

Why, then, did this jelly mean so much? Why did my husband taste in it something of Middle Earth? And why did I come back to my six little jars of it five times yesterday, simply to look into its purple depths? Because when I savored its wild sweetness, its complex goodness, I knew I was tasting hope.

Hope can be complicated when everything is new. On the one hand, new doors open all around, inviting dreams and desires. But you also lose the settled expectations of the old order. The relationships you can rest in, the view out your window, the nature and value of your work — all these can become impossibly fragile. At least, that is how I have often felt during these first months of my new life. How can I hope towards a beautiful home, when my house is an RV, pretty enough on the inside, but nothing compared to the beautiful old house I owned in Alabama? And how can I hope into my vocation, when I am not teaching –the one expression of my calling which I was sure I did well?

When questions are too big to run away from, sometimes the wisest course is to run into them. When my narrow walls make me fretful, I rise early and go run. I watch the tiny homes go up, play with the kittens, say good morning to the chickens, bless the gardens, and remember that I am living in a beautiful place, so much larger than my private domestic aspirations. I run through the gap in the fence, into the neighboring subdivision. Passing house after house, I find an unexpected nature trail. The serendipity of this discovery makes me love the canopy of green, the steady sound of crushed granite beneath my feet.

Last week, Steven came with me to see the trail. As we walked, he noticed a vine of wild mustang grapes. “I can’t believe they’re still here so late in the season,” he said, plucking one. The skin was thick and sour, but the pulp inside was tantalizing and sweet. We continued our walk, dreaming together. The next morning, I returned. The vines tangled far deeper into the thicket than we had realized the day before. They climbed high into the trees, and with their purple fruit they hung like beaded curtains between the trail and the little clearing within.

The foraging was sticky, scratchy, spidery work, but after an hour I returned home with five pounds of fruit. Over the next two days I worked with the grapes, my hope growing with each step: soaking, washing, pureeing, cooking, preserving. When it finally came time to taste, I was wide-eyed, ready to eat spoonful after spoonful straight from the pot. Such goodness, waiting among forgotten trees. Such grace, bought without coin or credit. I remembered God’s call in Isaiah 55.1:

Come, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price

The greatest enemy to hope is the idea that the fulfillment of hope depends on my power. I should know better, really; my dissertation, if nothing else, taught me that hope empowers my work and self-sufficiency, not the other way round. We can and must work toward the objects of our hope, but in the end, God’s abundance supplies all the goodness we can bear.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food

(Isaiah 55.2)

Last week, God’s grace came in the form of wild mustang grapes. Surprised delight made my hands wise, and they created something beautiful. This is the wildness of hope: it gives us so much more than we could ask or imagine.

***

Wild Mustang Jelly

Ingredients

(adapted from the PickYourOwn.org instructions, here)

5 pounds wild mustang grapes

4 cups sugar

3 Tbs + 1 tsp Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin (this is important! Use regular pectin and you’ll end up drowning out the tang with too much sugar)

Instructions

Wash the grapes. I did this by placing them in a large dishpan of cool water, letting them soak for a few hours, then draining them. Sort out any grapes that are wrinkled or rotten.

Puree the grapes in a food processor. (You can do this by hand with a potato masher or food mill but a processor will do a better job of releasing the juice from the skins and fruit).

Put the puree (pulp, skins, and even seeds) in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and add just enough water to cover the grapes. Heat with high heat, stirring often to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the grapes. You can do this in a number of ways. Jelly purists use a very fine strainer, such as a jelly bag or even a muslin pillowcase, to obtain a clear juice. I actually prefer having some of the fruit pulp in my jelly, so I simply poured the puree through an ordinary kitchen sieve. (I also set aside the already-strained pulp in a bowl, and found that once it cooled, I could pour off even more juice). Altogether, your five pounds of fruit ought to yield 5 cups of juice. If you have less than this, you could always make up the difference with some organic grape juice.

wpid-wp-1440780978867.jpg

Return the strained juice to the pot and add the pectin. Bring to a full boil over medium or high heat.

Once the mixture has begun to boil, you can test the jell by dipping an ice-cold metal spoon in the jelly. If the jelly becomes really thick as it cools to room temperature, you’re ready to proceed. If not, try adding a bit more pectin.

Preserve the jelly. Pour your jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process in a water-bath canner according to the directions on the jars or the pectin. Once processed, remove the jars, let them cool, test the seal, and then find a friend with whom to share your treasure.

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faith, homelessness, logic, marriage

The first day

By late August, summer exhaustion has settled in: all the vacation reading has been devoured, and it’s much too hot to enjoy being outside. Even in Indiana, where I grew up, late summer feels parched and sluggish, bug-ridden and overripe. I feel it now as strongly as I did as a child: it’s time for a new season, a change, time to rouse from the sluggish summer haze. For twenty-six of my thirty-one years, this new season began on the first day of school.

It might even be more accurate to say that every summer of my life has eventually given way to the autumn joy of returning to school. My parents have been parachurch ministers to college students for more than thirty years, and so the rhythms of an academic calendar oriented our entire household. Even as I toddler I began “playing school” with my dolls. I would pull all the thickest books from my parents’ shelves, arrange my classroom, assign impossible amounts of reading, and then end the lesson with a tea party. When I actually began kindergarten, in 1989, I cried at the end of the first week because mama had to tell me that I didn’t get to go back on Saturdays.

For a naturally shy child, the structure of a school day felt secure. There were rules about where to sit and how to play, there were instructions about when to talk to the other children. I loved the order of it all: having a special hook for my backpack, knowing that today was the day for playing with the blocks but not the play-dough. And I was good–really good, I later realized– at the schoolwork itself. Anything related to words and stories came naturally to me, and I had enough curiosity and respect for my teachers to work hard at the other subjects. Little introvert that I was, I even loved the quiet, workmanlike intensity of standardized test days, the feeling of being surrounded by a roomful of friends, hard at work even as I was.

There were, of course, hard days, even years. Graduate school tested my love of school in deep ways, but no matter how stressful or disheartening one semester might be, sometime of my child’s faith in that first day of school lingered. A fresh start. new habits, new goals and hopes. When I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time, the delights of the first day only increased. Now I was able to welcome the hope of a new year not only for myself, but for others. I could bring students into the world I loved, sharing with them the knowledge and practices that I knew had value.

But this year, for the first time since I was five years old, there’s no first day of school. There could have been: I have said no to three part-time teaching positions in the three months since I moved here. According to professional logic or our household budget, this choice makes no sense. It feels risky, even foolish. And yet, I made this choice out of hope. Hopes for a marriage in which my husband and I are deeply involved in one another’s work, rather than supporting one another as spectators. Hopes that I can answer the call to write, both as a scholar and a storyteller, with unprecedented intensity and purpose. Hopes that my skills as a teacher and writer could become a part of what the Community First! Village is doing to revolutionize the church’s response to homelessness. Hopes that I might live the sort of stories I’ve always loved to teach.

Already it has been hard. I am like a child again, unsure of where to sit, timid in the face of the other kids and the games they play. And apparently there are no report cards or degrees, no confirmation that all the work has been worthwhile. And yet — I have brought my hopes to the workshop of this new life. The dreams are half-formed things, and the tools to refine them feel awkward in my hands. I have neither syllabus nor schoolbook to guide my days, but I am wide awake, and there’s work to be done. Today is the first day.

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