domestic arts, education, life together, marriage

Coffee breaks and the kingdom of God

As a scholar, a teacher, neighbor, and friend, I know who I am. As a wife, I am newborn, and my husband with me. Though already in our thirties, with coherent values and ambitions as individuals, we have just begun to understand what it means to be wedded, married, espoused, yoked. We have been at home together for two weeks, and have already spent hours discussing what it means to be with and for one another in this new, shared life.

We know, however, that we both can too easily get lost in our heads, soaring through intuitions and ruminations that may or may not come to any embodied good. And so, even in these early days, we have tried to build habits that can train our desires to love what is good, not just for the sake of our marriage, but so that we might long for God’s kingdom with our tongue and gut as much as our intellect, emotions, or imagination.

One of my favorite rituals is our afternoon break for tea and coffee. Living here at the Village, Steven can walk twenty yards or so from his makeshift office to join me for lunch at middday. He comes back, around three o’clock, for a coffee break, and I, too, set aside my writing, reading, or planning for half an hour, before we both turn to the last few hours of our daily labor.

For someone who easily develops tunnel-vision when a project is before her, this practice promises to be a delight and a challenge. Since my teens, I have been consistently guilty of valuing my work above my people: skipping meals, postponing phone calls, and even actively hiding, for the sake of squeezing a bit more work out of the day. As Steven and I have agreed to break each day, we recognize that it makes us less “productive” according to our “to-do” lists. Perhaps we both have even felt a little silly, as if we might be indulging in newlywed fondness that will fade with time.

Certainly, there will be days when neither of us particularly wants to stop for coffee at three. We may feel a special urgency or interest in the work at hand. We may be annoyed with one another, reluctant to sit face to face. We may doubt that the other really wants to hear about what we’ve been doing. A thousand thoughts and moods may interfere, and this is precisely why making it a daily practice becomes so vital: because it is the practice itself that will train and strengthen our desire to be together and to participate in the other’s work and rest.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that if we are to be people who love rightly — that is, loving God and our neighbor — we need cultural practices and habits that teach us to desire what is good. Smith challenges Christian educators, in particular, to consider how desires and habits, rather than disembodied ideas, ground a life rooted in ἀγάπη (agape, love). However, his claims have implications for Christian households, as well. Ideally, the practices we create to encourage love–love of God, of neighbor, and of one another–will attract others, who can then enter into them with us. Yesterday it was one of Steven’s friends, a craftsman doing work on the property. Today it was my friend Jenn, sipping iced chai with me while Steven savored his coffee. I have begun to save my best tea and favorite morsels for these meetings, so that my tongue will be wise enough to come to the table, even if my heart isn’t.

Too often we leave our bodies out of our spiritual ambitions, foolishly imagining that with just a little more mental or emotional  discipline, we could live up to our ideals. There is grace, however, in realizing that the habits of our bodies–even if they sometimes feel like merely “going through the motions,”–can bring us back to what is good. Today it was chai and raspberry jam that called me back to daily, difficult, glorious work of love. The recipe for the chai is below (and I’m pretty proud of it), and so my challenge to you is to make a pitcherfull, savor its sweetness, and imagine how you might let your tongue’s desire for something good draw your heart toward something even greater.

Summer-Spiced Chai

Makes approximately 2 quarts of concentrate

Ingredients

8 cups water

1 stick cinnamon

1-1.5 inches of fresh ginger, coarsely chopped (no need to peel it)

10-15 whole cloves

1/2 tsp freshly-ground nutmeg

10 tsp loose-leaf black tea  or 10 black tea bags

2/3 cups raw sugar

1 Tbs honey

1 Tbs vanilla (use the real thing! Artificial vanilla won’t give the same creamy flavor)

Instructions

Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add all the spices and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and add the tea. Let steep 15-20 minutes. If using loose tea, strain out tea and spices. (If using tea bags, remove bags and strain the rest only if desired. I actually prefer to leave in the whole spices because they continue to flavor the concentrate over several days). Add sugar and vanilla, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a jar or pitcher and chill for at least two hours.

When ready to use, mix two parts cold whole milk to one part concentrate.

Once you’ve made the basic version, play with other spices. You might try adding a star anise pod, cardamon pods, or even black pepper (about 1/4 tsp would be plenty) for more complex flavors.

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education, faith, homelessness, life together, scripture

A pint of misery

“What do you do with a pint of misery?”

When John asked us this question, we were sitting on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH, the downtown homeless shelter in Austin, Texas. The ARCH had closed its doors for the night, and we were among those who would have to find another place to sleep. Behind us, an argument was mounting, finally erupting in a full-blown fight, one combatant kicking the other in the face. The security guard had conveniently vanished. John eyed the brawl warily, then turned back to us. He was in his late forties or early fifties, lean and brown from the sun. As he spoke, he crouched toward us, blue eyes looking directly into our own.

“You go down to that University of Texas, where they know it all, and you ask them.” John swung his arm wide, gesturing to all the men and women crowded on the sidewalk, “These people have known nothing but misery most of their lives. Ask them what to do with it –with even a pint of misery?”

I had no answer for his stark question, and so I looked from John to Steven, my fiancé, who has worked for and with the homeless for years. Steven simply nodded, then, noting John’s frame and posture, asked, “Were you an athlete?” John said yes, he had been a football player in west Texas, years before. Soon, he was telling how he came from Odessa to the streets of Austin.

While they talked, I wondered what I would have said to John had I been alone, had I been there without Steven. I had no answer for this question either. In fact, it occurred to me that without Steven, I wouldn’t be outside the ARCH at all. I would be back in Alabama, tranquilly preparing for a normal week of school. I would be sitting in my office at the university, where the terrible question, “What do you do with a pint of misery?” might remain safely conceptual.

But I was not in my office. I was here, sharing a “street retreat” with Steven and several others from around Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which employs Steven, hosts the retreat, and the goal is simple: to live on the streets for a day or more, seeking the face of Christ.

I was already footsore and hungry before I began to wonder, “How will I know when I see his face? What sign will reveal that Christ is here?” There are a thousand answers to such a question, but that night, I only needed one. When you look into the face of Jesus, he often asks a question that turns your world upside down. Christ’s baffling queries fill the gospels. When his family comes to see him, he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” radically linking kinship to obedience, rather than to blood (Matthew 12:48). When a man asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells a story that discredits pious prejudices and exalts mercy. “Who of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?…Go then and do likewise” (Luke 10:36). Knowing Simon betrayed him in his hour of need, the risen Christ asks, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), and then makes this humbled, failed disciple the rock upon which the church is built. None of these questions or answers made sense to the world that crucified Jesus. To many ears, they are still hard sayings, shattering certainties.

And so, I knew I was seeing Christ’s face when I heard John ask a question I could not answer. What do you do with a pint of misery? It haunted me as I fell asleep that night–curled up on the edge of a parking lot–and found me early the next morning. Steven, his friend Alan, and I had risen well before sunrise and found a coffee shop. As we enjoyed the consolation of hot coffee and tea, another homeless man approached us. Perhaps because we carried backpacks and looked far grubbier than the rest of the clientele, he saw us as his people. His face was bandaged but still bleeding, his arms covered in red and black marker like some kind of self-inflicted stigmata. We invited him to sit with us, and for the next half hour he did, spilling words as incoherent as the writing on his arms.

Unlike John, this man had no hard edge or argument. His words were a jumble of pain and fear–a heart condition, demonic temptation, attacks in the night, visions of the end times–and yet, again and again, he would return to the name of Jesus, the only anchor against the tempest of his words.

I had no balm for this man’s agony, and so I did the only thing I could in that moment: I listened. As I strained to catch the mumbled words, I thought about Steven’s talk with John the night before. Steven had not evaded John’s question — what to do with another man’s sorrow–but had asked to see more of it. He had asked John about himself, and his life, returning the man’s challenge with an act of loving curiosity and concern. He listened to John’s story, accepting the glimpses of misery–addiction, depression, divorce–that John was willing to show us. Steven did not turn away.

As our morning guest rose to leave us, he asked me my name. When I said, “Bethany,” he nodded. “I know that place, and I have been like Lazarus–dead and raised again.” With that, he left us.

When I move to Austin, my friends and neighbors will come from these streets. They may be men like John, and they may be men like this latter-day Lazarus from the coffee shop. Most of them have known so much pain, and I, who have known so little, am afraid I will be too stunned, too scared, to know how to love. How can I learn but by looking at the wounded face of Christ?

When we began the retreat, Steven did not say, “We’re going to plot a solution that will answer all these problems. “ Nor did he say, “We’re going to find someone to rescue.” Rather, he told me, “We’re going to seek the face of Christ.” And so we did, and when we found Christ, he asked, as he has asked for two thousand years, if we would take and drink from the cup that is filled with his “blood of the covenant, […] poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27).

What do you do with a pint of misery? You take it, and you drink.

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education, life together, marriage, singleness

An Apprentice Lover: The Wisdom of Saying, “Yes”

There are so many ways to tell a story. I could begin in medias res and describe the moment, mid-July, when I stepped out of the shower and announced to God and to my hound-dog, “I want to marry Steven.” Or I could render our tale as an allegory. I would call it, “The Romance of Farsight and Tender-heart,” and there would be a ringing bell, a garden and an ivory tower and a dark but lovely path between the two. Narrating by mere arithmetic might cause a scandal, but the numbers are true, too: he proposed the second time we met face-to-face; I said yes after knowing him for only seven weeks.

I’m over-thinking this task; as usual. Then again, how could I change my entire life, my name, for something that could be easily summarized? This love, this coming covenant, is too much for any single telling.

I’ve always had trouble saying what I want: not because I don’t know, but because I have an instinctual, irrational conviction that being a bother is somehow the worst of all sins. When I was a little girl, six or seven years old, a lady at church came up and asked me if I wanted one of the cookies she had baked for the children in the nursery. “No,” I replied. In fact, I wanted a cookie quite badly, but it seemed greedy to say yes.  As I pondered marriage through my twenties, it felt greedy to ask God for any further blessings. The lines had already fallen in such pleasant places for me. Even more, some part of me felt that desiring marriage would somehow betray all the people who had helped me build such a beautiful single life.

I mention this to emphasize how remarkable it was that I knew so quickly, and so surely, that I want to marry Steven. We met on eHarmony (I had only had an account for a week, and that simply to prove to my aunt that it wouldn’t work), and the messages we exchanged in the first two days delighted and fascinated me: he mentioned both Bonhoeffer  and Anne of Green Gables among his favorite books, one picture showed him with a chicken on his head, and his first words to me were engaging and good-humored. That first weekend, I was checking my email every ten minutes, hoping he had responded to the next set of questions so I could read more about the friends he loved, or his dreams of living in intentional community. By the time we first spoke on the phone–only forty-eight hours after our initial contact–I already knew he was handsome, interesting, hardworking, and funny. By the end of our first conversation, I knew he was smart, visionary, easy to talk to, and far from shy. I said to my mother, “Even if I were a nun, I would still want to meet this guy. I’m just so glad people like this exist!”

When, at the end of our first phone call, he asked if I would meet him in New Orleans two weeks later, and I said yes, I knew that something strange was happening to me. The girl who hates to change her plans, the girl who hates to drive–here I was spontaneously agreeing to drive to a city I do not know to meet a stranger.  New Orleans was a weekend of serendipity and conversation, and the day after I returned he asked if I would like to come to Austin later in the summer. I did, traveling down the last weekend of July. By the end of that weekend, I knew that Steven is a man who loves Jesus and wants to live his life in a way that only makes sense because of the Gospel. I knew that he loves his friends and wants to serve others not only in marriage, but in community with others, and always among the poor that Christ loves. I knew that he can take charge of a situation but that he is not vainglorious. I knew that he can ask questions that provoke and clarify, but also that he longs to be challenged and drawn out, too. I knew that his boss, his friends, and even strangers on street respect him. I knew that he reads wise books and ponders Scripture. I knew that he prays well. I knew that he dreams but also put his dreams in to practice. I knew that he had begun to care for me, and that he wanted my trust, perhaps without entirely understanding why. I knew that each time we were in the car together, I would hope that the ride would be a long one, simply to prolong the pleasure of being near him and talking with him. I knew that I liked his friends, and loved the trusting, sincere way they would laugh or debate together. I knew that I felt safe with him, and that sometimes, when our eyes met, there was a tenderness in his that overwhelmed me.

And so on the last day of that visit, after a long walk in the Texas sun, lunch in a soup kitchen, and a swim in the river, we sat on a bench and he asked me about my fears and hopes for our relationship. He asked if I could see myself in Austin. I said that I felt a strange kind of homesickness — strange because it is longing for a place that is not, and has not been my home. I thought the conversation would continue much longer, perhaps months longer, but I already knew that a season would come when he would ask me to marry him. My heart was abiding in that kairos time, waiting. And yet, in chronos, I was still shocked when I saw him before me, on his knees, asking me to marry him.

“Are you really asking this? Are you really asking this now?” And he was. Then we were standing, I saying, “I want to say yes, I want to say yes, but I need more time.” And clinging to him, as though we were still in the river, battling a strong current. “Bethany,” he said, “I cannot always trust my heart. What I feel right now I may not feel tomorrow, or next month, much as I want to. Feelings come and go, especially when what the heart desires is far away. I cannot trust my heart, but I can trust my will. And my will is this. I want to marry you, to love you, to build a life with you.”

For me it was just the opposite: my heart was there, had been there for weeks, but it was my will I doubted: did I have the strength to say yes, to make such a choice? I do not mean I doubted the strength of my will simply in that moment. I realized that all this time, for so many years, I have doubted whether I have the strength to say yes to something as deep and lasting as marriage at all.

We moved from the bench to the tree, and laid ourselves down side by side. I was silent, wondering, “What more do I need?” Information? Proof of character? Proof of his willingness to commit, to love?” I had these things, and more. I had said weeks before, that I wanted to marry him, had asked God for this. And now it was before me. And so I said yes.

I’ve told this portion of the story (from first meeting to proposal) so many times in the last few months that it has started to feel patterned, even normal. But it is far from normal, and we are now living in a strange time of transition and change, learning to dream together and to bring our stories into concord.  We talk, every night, for two or three hours, and every conversation raises more challenges & hopes. We have so many questions and so much still to learn about one another. As we discuss the work I will do in Austin, our differences in temperament, our hopes for children and community, indeed, as we puzzle through the point of marriage itself, we realize that we have made a choice that is simultaneously wise & reckless.

***

In his essay “People, Land, and Community,” Wendell Berry writes that “as a condition marriage reveals the insufficiency of knowledge, [and…] I take it as an axiom that one cannot know enough to get married, any more than one can predict a surprise. […] We can commit ourselves fully to anything–a place, a discipline, a life’s work, a child, a family, a community, a faith, a friend–only in the same poverty of knowledge, the same ignorance of result, the same self-subordination, the same final forsaking of other possibilities. If we must make these so final commitments without sufficient information, then what can inform our decisions? In spite of the obvious dangers of the word, we must say first that love can inform them…”

When it comes to knowledge, I’m something of a professional: PhD, assistant professor, author of such-and-such articles, etc. When I completed my doctoral work, the presiding official at the commencement ceremony said, “By the power vested in me, I confer upon you these doctoral degrees […] and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” With those words, I became a Doctor of Philosophy, with the full rights of my craft. The next time someone uses that phrase–by the power vested in me— it will be my wedding day, and the title I receive will be that of a wife. But whereas my degree required that I prove myself more than an apprentice, my marriage will make me an amateur again. Amateur. The word comes to us, via French, from the Latin amare, to love. While a professional works for pay or praise, an amateur works, learns, fumbles, fails, and persists out of love. The greatest masters and professionals, I think, never really lose their love, but at the beginning, just now, it is love, not skill, that I feel in my small and trembling hands.

I began my first blog because I wanted to start conversations about the beauty of single life, and so it seems fitting that I begin this new venture as I learn to practice the new crafts of marriage.  I have called this blog “Lady Wisdom’s Workshop” not because I think of myself as Lady Wisdom, but because if I am going to be an amateur again, I want to be  an apprentice in her workshop. In my marriage, in my teaching, in my writing, and in all the work ahead, I want to echo the cry of Wisdom’s maidservants, who call the simple and the hungry to come and feast at her house (Proverbs 9:1-12).

What, you might ask, have been my first lessons as an apprentice lover? What wisdom have I gained amid the whirlwind of saying yes to Steven? It goes something like this: In the Iliad, a text I teach each fall, Homer describes Aphrodite, goddess of love, as “strong with eternal laughter.” Before this year, I never had much patience for Aphrodite (or Venus, as the Romans called her). I thought her frivolous, far less interesting than the stern virgin Athena. This year, however, I’ve heard that strong laughter echoing in the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, who “laughs at the days to come,” and–what strange grace!–I have heard it, again and again, on my own lips.

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