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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faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

The work of the gods

“To organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.”

I first read this somewhat obscure line when I was a freshman in college. It was comforting to a clever girl who liked things just so, who wanted the books on her shelves and the essays she wrote to be as ordered as the stars in the heavens. I would quote it blithely to my roommate, who never seemed to catch my enthusiasm for straightening up our dorm room. And yet, this insight–from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane–is not some cant about tidiness being next to godliness. Rather, it means that the way we create and inhabit physical spaces tells a story about how we see the world: who is welcome and who isn’t, what is valuable and what rubbish, what secure and what dangerous. Architecture provides some of the best examples: a house dominated by its enormous garage, for example, tells a very different story from a house with a wrap-around porch.

As my husband and I unpack our tiny new home, I’ve been struggling to articulate what story we are living into in this corner of space and time. Eliade’s line has been a motto of mine for years, and with every apartment, classroom, and office I’ve inhabited, I have tried to organize–even to consecrate–spaces that bear witness to the image of God. In these first days after the honeymoon, however, I have often felt found my efforts to “repeat the work of the gods” frustrated at every step: not enough cabinets in the RV kitchen, disagreements about where the skillets should live, no way to put up curtains. I could no longer rely on muscle memory or habit to tell me where the trashcan was, where to find a dishtowel, much less how to drive to the post office or grocery store. Having to switch to a new cell phone felt like the final insult. “I can’t find the exclamation point on this stupid keyboard!” I sobbed to my bewildered spouse. “It feels like everything is broken!”

These frustrations, though trivial in themselves, have been emblematic of a much larger disorientation. I still feel myself bewildered on this new ground. From our little window each morning, I watch parades of workers roll into the village: construction crews laying cement, volunteers building tiny homes, future residents coming to tend the gardens, even my own husband walking and dreaming about the best way to make this place home. I watch, and I envy them. I envy their purpose and certainty, their knowledge of what to do now, and next.

To organize a space is to repeat the work of the gods.

But we are not gods, none of us. Our ability to order the world, creating that gives our lives meaning, is painfully, blessedly fragile. The job falls through. The long-awaited pregnancy surprises everyone. The house burns. We fall in love. We walk through days, each looking much the same — routine hours, tasks, and dreams. We might proceed for ten, twenty, thirty years, secure in our own vision of the world, until — something breaks.

This summer, instead of simply quoting Eliade, I have gone back to read the rest of his argument. In his spare, calm prose, he asserts something I had forgotten: that before a cosmos can grow into life and order, the old order must break. This break might be terrible or beautiful, climax or tragedy. Regardless, it interrupts our path, interferes with our clocks, leaves the well-ordered room in shambles. No longer can we claim that time and space are all one thing, predictable and uniform. Eliade argues that this break is what allows us to really see the world, to enter into a story bigger than ourselves, a story that does not leave us broken, but re-orients us according to the true center of the world. By shattering the old certainties, the experience of rupture “reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

Of course, like all deep truths, I actually learned all of this long ago in Sunday School. It was there I first heard the thrilling injunction, “Your life should make no sense without the Gospel.” Christ has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this Gospel is both εὐαγγέλιον — “good news,” and σκάνδαλον — a stumbling block. In our first month of marriage, I have felt my heart tearing and growing in this tension. Our house is an RV–it trembles under heavy footsteps, and looks–to my fretful eyes–terribly transient. And yet, it is a space we have organized, consecrated, for the sake of a mission that makes my heart rise up: to repeat–in our trembling, tiny way–the work of the God we worship, who “settles the solitary in a home,” and who created earth as a beautiful garden for mankind to cultivate and keep. We are living here because I fell in love with a man who proposed by saying, “Let’s be ministers of homemaking,” and we have set up our household on the broken, hopeful ground of a place called the Community First! Village. Here, side by side, among the chronically homeless and the people of Austin, we hope to set a table, provoke conversations, plant gardens, make books and babies, find and share good work in ways we never could elsewhere. This space–our home– has high windows and sunflowers on the table. From our door, we step out to join the countless men and women who arrive daily, giving their hearts and hands to help build a true community for those who are alone. It is a place where my husband can walk home for lunch, where friends and future neighbors have already stopped to sit, laugh, and walk with us. It is a space where I can write, and it is perched on beautiful ground: home already to trees and breezes, hares and goats, chickens and children of God. To the extent that I notice and name these things, it is a place where every morning, my envy gives way to hope.

The homes I organize will never again embody my private vision of what is lovely or good. They will be far more complicated, in turns deeper and more demanding. In marriage and in community life, my work will take place in communal, vibrant, maddening, inspiring place, grounded on the fear of the Lord and centered around the love of his living Word. I am terrified and thrilled, grieving and in love, timid and hopeful all at once. I cannot do the work of the gods, but I know how to tell a story. Believe me, friends: this is going to be a good one.

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everyday parables, faith, glimpse, marriage, photography

After the rains

As the rains fall, don’t rush to name them, “blessing” or “curse.” Allow yourself to look on nourished fields and grace-green trees, but don’t forget the floods that have washed away homes and hopes.

It is good to cry when it rains, to feel at home with the sky’s weeping, to remember that you are not alone in whatever sorrows have filled your eyes.

But after it rains, dry your eyes. Sew for yourself a skirt the color of Texas wildflowers, and walk down a road you do not know. Ponder the names of the trees, and look out on new fields, wide-open spaces. Don’t be afraid.

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life together, marriage

Cradled in Free-Fall

A man, standing on the edge of a cliff, holding a woman in his arms. Their summit is high, so high it’s impossible to see what waits below. He gives her one kiss and then–they leap.

This is the image that races through my dreams: man and woman, loving security and unfathomable risk. We do not  see what happens to the reckless lovers. There is no glimpse of what waits at the bottom, no rubric to measure those depths. Is it death or flight? Suicide or kenosis? One kiss, and then–

Like most amateur intepreters, I gloss the scene as commentary upon my own uncertainties: the delight of a future with him, the terror of leaving so much behind, the fall from prestige and profession and certainty. Counting the costs together, he can only say, “We cannot know God’s will in the ways we’ve known before.” And though I have heard the Spirit say, “I will go ahead of you,” I cannot help crying, “Yes Lord, but the way is still so dark.”

God, let it be not a fall from grace, but a vault into faith, a leap into hope, a descent into love.

***

Listen, and you’ll learn it isn’t just your story that matters. You dream–the man, the woman, the fall–and the next day you hear the words of a martyr. Imprisoned by wicked men, she smuggles letters beyond her prison walls. She dies, but the words ring out: “By God  and by your prayers, I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall.” (Kayla Mueller).

“Tenderly cradled in free-fall.” With the clarity and authority of one who suffers, she puts words to the baffling, hopeful image of my dreams. Her words are not about me, and yet their consolation reaches farther than her own brave witness. My dream is not about her, yet in that image I see her hope: strong arms and a fall that ends in loving mystery.

For our sins, we do not often see the patterns of God’s words and acts. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Eternity is within us, hidden in the rhythms of our time-bound hearts, but we cannot find it out. Only sometimes does it find us. With a still, small voice, it echoes through the dark hour, translates the chronic pain, kisses us at the edge of a cliff.

Only the One who emptied himself, who descended from the heights to the depths, can hold us safe against the terror of falling. Having plunged into flesh for our salvation, it is now he who cradles us, so tenderly, in free-fall.

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faith, life together, marriage, scripture

Merry Apocalypse

For Christmas this year, I’m hoping for the apocalypse and sewing my own wedding veil.

I know, it sounds bizarre, like the teaser for a movie about zombie-brides or nuclear winter. Even without zombies, the image is still alarming, isn’t it? What sort of bride hopes for the end of the world?

“Apocalypse” comes from the Greek noun “ἀποκάλυψις,” meaning “an unveiling, a revelation.” Every wedding is a kind of apocalypse. As the bride unveils herself and holds fast to her husband, they become one flesh, revealing, says the Apostle Paul, the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:29-32). When Christians speak of “the Apocalypse,” we usually mean the ultimate unveiling of God’s Kingdom: Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead (but as foreverstrong people, not zombies!), the reconciliation of heaven and earth, the redemption of the whole created order.

Christmas celebrates this revelation, too. When we remember that the Son of God was born as a wee baby, we see God’s hidden plan writ large among the stars. We believe that he came among us, and we hope he will return.

Hope. That’s a hard word, even for a girl sewing her wedding veil. In fact, preparing for marriage has burdened me with a paradox: that it is much harder to wait for a certain hope than a vague wish. Before I met my fiancé, the thought of marriage inspired neither joy nor despair. As I moved through my twenties and into year thirty, I didn’t think about the prospect of marriage with much hope, but neither did I feel its lack very keenly. I arranged my life in ways that did not require a husband, and I was content.

Now the situation is quite different. A man I love has promised to marry me in the summertime, and so I am spending this long winter waiting. Engagement, I find, feels a lot like Advent. It is a season of dreams and deferral, of smiles and sighs, a time when I must make decisions that include a spouse who is not here. I live, each day, in the confidence that our wedding will come. And yet, that hope unsettles me. Steven lives in Texas, while my home is on the Alabama coast, and missing him hurts more than not knowing he existed. Phone calls and letters offer partial revelations, beautiful but utterly insufficient. Could I have dreamed it all? But no — bright diamonds on a ring of gold say that the bridegroom will come.

In the same way, I think Christmas would be easier to celebrate if we didn’t believe that it heralds the apocalypse, if we didn’t, with all creation, wait “with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). Most of us could manage a successful Christmas if the holiday meant only decorating a house and swapping a few gifts. After all, there’s nothing cosmic at stake if Christmas dinner isn’t perfect. But when Christmas asserts our hope in a new heaven and a new earth, redeemed and restored, it hurts to see how much of God’s kingdom remains hidden, even on December 25. It kills us to watch the news, to read the history books, to walk the streets, to listen to our friends–even to look in the mirror–and to realize that the world is still so deeply broken. Should we be preparing wedding veils or donning funeral shrouds?

If we’re like the wise virgins of the parable, we keep our lamps trimmed and burning, announcing our certainty that Christ the bridegroom is on his way. By that light, I’m sewing a wedding veil this Christmas. Mine is a little lamp, and it doesn’t give much heat in the dead of winter. And so I am doing what sad and hopeful people have always done: I’m spending Christmas with those who share my hope, gathering strength from our gathered lights.

Merry Apocalypse, everyone. Some people call it “the end of the world,” but I’ve heard wiser voices call it “the beginning.”

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life together, marriage, poetry, singleness
My heart is like a singing bird
                  Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
                  Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
                  That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
                  Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
                  Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
                  And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
                  In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
                  Is come, my love is come to me.

A Birthday (by Christina Rossetti)

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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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