And now for a long-overdue update on some exciting new books that I’ve been a part of:
Hot off the presses, Your First Year of Motherhood is a priceless gem for any woman who has recently become a mother. It’s formatted as a series of daily reflections, each one no more than a page — perfect for weary moms who are too tired and busy for some weighty tome. Each reflection contains a personal story of some wisdom gained or lesson learned, a verse from Scripture, and a suggested prayer.
Our fabulous editor, Julia Attaway, strongly encouraged us to skip the platitudes, dig deep, and talk about the stuff that is really on new moms’ minds: tension with spouses, changing relationships with friends, what to do about the utter, all-consuming exhaustion, etc. It also includes the perspective of adoptive moms and moms of twins. It was an exciting project to be a part of, and I am confident that every new mom will love it. Put it at the top of your gift list for your next baby shower! (The astute reader may say: “But wait, you were an atheist when your first child was born! Are your reflections going to be a bunch of vitriolic rants denouncing God?!” Don’t worry, I wrote from the perspective of my first year of motherhood after I came to faith, which, in many ways, was like being a mom for the first time.)
I was honored to be asked to share my story in this book, which includes the conversion stories of science fiction author John C. Wright; former militant atheist blogger The Raving Theist (back when his blog was The Raving Atheist, he was one of the most popular atheist bloggers online); New York University professor Dr. Paul Vitz; author and blogger Karen Edmisten; and other fascinating folks. From the book summary: “The former atheists in this book…include: a university professor unexpectedly attracted to the faith when a student describes her retreat at a monastery; a young woman impressed by a colleague’s Mass attendance, who writes, ‘I wanted to find her ridiculous, but quite unexpectedly, I felt like the ridiculous one’; a Polish immigrant who shared Communism’s disdain for religion. These seekers ended up some place they never intended to go — the Catholic Church — and yet went there and found that they were home.”
The format of brief essays makes it a light read, yet it’s a book that packs a punch. It’s fascinating to see how each story is completely unique, yet the same themes run through almost every one. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a book that’s easy to read yet deeply thought provoking.
I got so absorbed in this new book by Matt Swaim that I was almost late on my deadline for the foreword. It’s a fascinating look at how the digital age has transformed our relationship to God and others — for better and for worse. It’s not a rant against all technology or an exultation of blogging and Facebook as the solution to all the world’s ills; rather, it’s a deep look into how the constant flow of stimulation and infinite amount of information that comes with modern life shape our personal and spiritual lives. Swaim addresses questions like:
- How does modern culture tempt us to know the facts about God more than actually knowing God?
- How does our desire to be entertained interfere with knowing God as he really is, rather than just as we want to perceive him?
- What are the distinctions between employing media and information as tools to aid evangelization and spiritual growth while avoiding a purely consumer approach to the faith?
- How can information overload deaden our ability to listen?
I think you’ll enjoy this look into our relationship with God in the age of constant distractions.
(Not yet released.) This is another great little book that takes a look at a weighty issues in the form of brief personal essays, making it a fun read with information that’s easy to digest. I wrote the chapter about sharing the spiritual journey online, and was humbled to be in the company of such an amazing list of contributors, which includes: Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Fr. Robert Barron, Mark Shea, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Shawn Carney, Lisa Hendey, Matthew Warner, Taylor Marshall, Scot Landry, Thomas Peters and Marcel LeJeune. Under the guidance of editor Brandon Vogt, each chapter takes a different look at the face of the Church in the middle of the digital revolution, and ponders what it means to harness new tools of communication effectively to share the Gospel in the 21st century. I hear that it will be released sometime in the Fall of 2011 — I’ll let you know when it’s out, and you can also check Brandon Vogt’s (wonderful) blog for updates.
An update on my memoir
Yes, I’m still working on it. I finished the second version (after scrapping the first) in November of 2010. My literary agent got back to me with his thoughts in December, and I was caught off guard at the scope of the changes. Though he had many good things to say about it, he pointed out that there were some problems with the basic structure — and, unfortunately, fixing that kind of thing involves a lot of rewriting. As frustrating as it is for all of this to take so long (I started writing it in the summer of 2008), I’m grateful to have an agent who is guiding me to write something of really top-notch quality. This is also why I don’t have a title or a release date yet: though multiple publishers have expressed interest in the project, we’re waiting to have any formal conversations with them until the book is in really good shape — this takes the pressure off of me and gives me as much time as I need to make this a really good book. I’ll keep you posted!
I’m reading the astoundingly good book God’s Smuggler, which is the memoir of a Dutch Protestant missionary who smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. At its core, the book is all about trusting God. On almost every page there is some example of how God comes through when we place 100% of our trust in him and hold nothing back.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was when the author, Andrew van der Bijl (a.k.a. Brother Andrew), talks about a unique type of missionary school he attended in Scotland. As Brother Andrew explains, this school didn’t set up traditional church missions: they didn’t wait until they had money or even had sources of funds secured in order to start a mission. “If they thought God wanted a man in a certain place, they sent him there and trusted God to worry about the details,” he writes.
At the two-year school the students studied theology, homiletics, world religion, linguistics, as well as practical skills that could aid native people in need, like brick laying, plumbing, building huts out of palm fronds and crafting mud jars that can hold water. But here’s where it gets interesting: they were also given a crash course in trust.
Students were sent out on several local missions in which they’d learn to rely on God’s providence in real ways. They were given a one-pound bank note and told to go on a missionary tour through other areas of Scotland. They’d have to pay their own transportation, lodging, and food, as well as any expenses related to mission work such as event refreshments and location rental for meetings. And there’s more: they were not allowed to ask for collections or even mention money at their prayer services or at any other time. Though they were allowed to accept gifts, they could not specifically ask anyone for anything. And they had to pay back the pound note at the end of the trip.
The stories of how God provided for their missionary work are just astounding. Here’s one of my favorites:
Brother Andrew and his friends had had a successful meeting with some young people in Edinburgh, and they suddenly felt prompted to invite them to a tea party the next day, despite the fact that they had none of the materials people would expect for a proper tea (cake, bread, butter, cups…even the tea itself) and they had no money. Without being asked, the invitees volunteered to bring almost all of the ingredients, down to the plates and cups. But Brother Andrew and the other missionaries still didn’t have cake, an absolute requirement for a tea party in Scotland. He recounts what happened next:
That night in our evening prayer time, we put the matter before God. “Lord, we’ve got ourselves into a spot. From somewhere we’ve got to get a cake. Will you help us?” [...]
Morning arrived. We half expected a heavenly messenger to come to our door bearing a cake. But no one came. The morning mail arrived. We ripped open the two letters, hoping for money. There was none. A woman from a nearby church came by to see if she could help. “Cake,” was on the tip of all our tongues, but we swallowed the word and shook our heads.
“Everything,” we assured her, “is in God’s hands.”
The tea had been announced for four o’clock in the afternoon. At three the tables were set, but we still had no cake. Three-thirty came. We put on water to boil. Three-forty-five.
And then the doorbell rang.
All of us together ran to the big front entrance, and there was the postman. In his hand was a large box.
“Hello, lads,” said the postman. “Got something for you that feels like a food package.” He handed the box to one of the boys. “The delivery day is over, actually,” he said, “but I hate to leave a perishable package overnight.”
We thanked him profusely, and the minute he closed the door the boy solemnly handed me the box. “It’s for you, Andrew. From a Mrs. William Hopkins in London.”
I took the package and carefully unwrapped it. Off came the twine. Off came the brown outside paper. Inside, there was no note — only a large white box. Deep in my soul I knew that I could afford the drama of lifting the lid slowly. As I did, there, in perfect condition, to be admired by five sets of wondering eyes, was an enormous, glistening, moist, chocolate cake.
Neat, huh? And that’s one of the less amazing stories at Providence at work for Brother Andrew and the other missionaries — I chose this one because I didn’t want to spoil any of the real jaw droppers for those of you who plan to read the book (which is everyone, I hope!)
While he was still at the missionary school, Brother Andrew had begun to worry about having enough tuition money to get to graduation, and this brought him to a turning point in his relationship with God. While taking a long walk one night, he pondered his stress about where the funds would come from for him to do this work he was sure God wanted him to do. And he realized:
The question was not one of money at all. What I was worried about was a relationship.
At the chocolate factory [where he worked before going to missionary school], I trusted Mr. Ringers to pay me in full and on time. Surely I said to myself, if an ordinary factory worker could be financially secure, so could one of God’s workers.
I turned through the gate at the school. Above me was the reminder “Have Faith in God.”
That was it! It wasn’t that I needed the security of a certain amount of money, it was that I needed the security of a relationship.
I walked up the crunchy pebblewalk feeling more and more certain that I was on the verge of something exciting. The school was asleep and quiet. I tiptoed upstairs and sat by the bedroom window looking out over Glasgow. If I were to give my life as a servant of the King, I had to know that King. What was He like? In what way could I trust him? In the same way I trusted a set of impersonal laws? Or could I trust him as a living leader, as a very present commander in battle? The question was central. Because if He were a King in name only, I would rather go back to the chocolate factory. I would remain a Christian, but I would know that my religion was only a set of principles, excellent and to be followed, but hardly demanding devotion.
Suppose on the other hand that I were to discover God to be a Person, in the sense that He communicated and cared and loved and led. That was something quite different. That was the kind of King I would follow into any battle.
And that, in essence, is what Brother Andrew learned in all these exercises of trust he went through at his missionary school: that God is not a King in name only. He is a present leader, here among us, leading each of us in battle at each moment. Once Brother Andrew internalized this truth, his life was never the same again, and he set off on a mission that would change the lives of countless people across the world.
As I reflect on this idea of trusting God as an active, involved leader rather than a set of impersonal principles, I keep thinking, “I need to go to Trust School!” I think it would be good for someone like me to have an experience like Brother Andrew’s, where I was forced to stop trying to control every single thing and actually put real trust in the Lord. Naturally, I keep fixating on the idea of spending a week at some faraway “trust bootcamp,” but I know that that’s just me avoiding taking real action again. Something tells me that I’m already in Trust School, but I’ve been sleeping through the classes.
So how do I wake up to a more clear understanding of God as a real leader, whom I can trust with matters both large and small? That’s the question that’s been fascinating me lately, one that I’ll probably be writing about more. But meanwhile, what do you think? How can we transform daily life into Trust School?
Ash Wednesday is just around the corner (March 9), so I wanted to share my suggestions for great Lenten reads, and get your suggestions as well.
Also, based on some emails I’ve been getting with questions about Lent, I wanted to say: If you’re considering observing Lent but aren’t familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to go ahead and do so! If you’re not sure where to start, just give up some small thing that you like (e.g. listening to the radio on the way to work, sugar in your coffee, a certain TV show, etc.) and try to do a little more praying. You can find out more here at Marcel LeJueune’s excellent “All About Lent” post.
I first observed Lent a few years ago, before I was Catholic or Christian — in fact, I wasn’t even sure I believed in God! — and it was a very transforming experience. I hadn’t read up on any of the theology behind it. I just heard people on Catholic radio talking about how they were giving something up, so I decided to give up something too (a food item I enjoyed). The impact of that tiny “fast,” along with trying to read more spiritual books, ended up leading to more spiritual growth than I could have imagined.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my recommended reading list:
To Know Christ Jesus by F.J. Sheed
No other book has brought the Gospels alive for me like this one. Sheed offers all sorts of interesting thoughts on the life of Christ, without veering into unfounded speculation. He mines the Scriptures and comes up with gems that I’d never seen before. It is a bit dense (I almost gave up on it about 40 pages into it), but it really picks up around page 50. If you can stick with it, you’ll be richly rewarded.
10 Prayers God Always Says Yes To by Anthony DeStefano
This slim little book is packed with all sorts of interesting thoughts about what God’s will is for you, and how to grow closer to God in times in silence. I found it to be particularly helpful in the discussion of the age-old “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” question. This is the perfect read if you’ve been feeling angry with God, wondering why he’s silent, feeling like he hasn’t been answering your prayers, etc. (I first discovered it through this recommendation from a mother whose only child was murdered in the Virginia Tech shootings.)
He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek
This stunning autobiographical account of Fr. Ciszek’s wrongful imprisonment in Russia is one of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read. I read it more than a year ago and yet I still find myself thinking about it almost daily.
What was most surprising to me was how applicable the lessons he learned are to modern American life. His insights about everything from suffering to discerning God’s will to trusting God in all things — which he learned the hard way during five years of brutal solitary confinement and fifteen years in a Siberian death camp — are amazingly inspiring, whether you’re experiencing great suffering or just feeling numbed by the daily grind. I particularly loved his thoughts on how to maintain a lively spiritual life even when life feels mundane or boring. I highly, highly recommend this book.
Journey to Easter by Pope Benedict XVI
Based on a Lenten retreat he gave for John Paul II in the 1980′s (hosting a retreat to help John Paul II grow in faith — how’s that for pressure?!), Pope Benedict XVI walks us through a series of meditations based on Scripture readings for Lent. I admit that there were two or three chapters that were just way over my head, but the rest of the book offered powerful insights on everything from prayer to the Paschal mystery to conversion to the Church. I find myself going back to this book over and over again for inspiration. An excellent read for Lent.
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
When I first read the 17th century classic Introduction to the Devout Life, I didn’t feel like I got that much out of it. When I reached the last chapter I felt like I’d enjoyed reading it but couldn’t point to anything specific I’d taken away from it. Then I picked it up off my desk one day and, as I flipped through and re-read the various passages I’d starred and highlighted, I realized just how much I really had taken away from this book.
Now that I’ve gone through it again, I count it among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s the ultimate how-to manual for conforming yourself to Christ. Also, perhaps because the books is based on de Sales’ letters of spiritual direction to his sister and other women who wanted to grow in faith, I find that his advice perfectly fits the things I struggle with on a day to day basis as a wife and mother. Just know that you may have to read it more than once to have the lessons really sink in.
Finding God’s Will for You by Francis de Sales
How do we know what God wants us to do? Should we try to discern God’s will even for little decisions like what to eat for dinner? What if we pray and it seems like God is telling us nothing at all? These were the questions I had when I decided to get a copy of this book. I found good answers to those questions and a whole lot more: the book has lots of practical advice for daily living that you can start applying to your life right now. It’s also a little bit less dense and more readable than Introduction to the Devout Life.
What are your recommendations for Lenten reading?
Recently I’ve come across a few books that I picked up just for fun but that ended up having a very positive impact on my spiritual life. In general, I prefer to read books for Christians and by Christians if my aim is spiritual growth. However, these three books taught me valuable lessons that I hadn’t seen covered (or, at least, not covered in quite the same way) in the Christian market. Since each of them has had a lasting, positive impact on my spiritual life, I thought I’d share.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
This is a powerful book. It’s a field guide to spiritual warfare, written by bestselling author Steven Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire). In it Pressfield lays out everything he’s learned about fighting what he calls Resistance, that mysterious force that tries to prevent you from creating anything great (which Christians would call the Devil). Pressfield points out that whether you’re trying to craft the Great American Novel, start a business, or simply begin a new exercise routine, “any act that any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity…[will] elicit Resistance. He starts by describing what it feels like:
A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.
Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing.
Pressfield emphasizes the importance of work. Just do it. No excuses. Once you’ve discerned what you’re called to do, stay focused on getting the job done. Resistance is a powerful, cunning force, and you’d be a fool to mess around with it. Referring to someone who’s committed to overcoming Resistance as a “professional,” he writes:
The professional…respects Resistance. He knows that if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
He then offers a wealth of practical tips, such as this one on taking criticism:
The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.
Remember, Resistance wants us to cede our sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.
In the end of the book, he muses about the source of the inspiration for all great endeavors. “Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us,” he writes. “This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.”
Needless to say, as a Catholic, I saw a few parts where I thought Pressfield missed the mark. I kept thinking that I’d love to sit down over a cup of coffee and tell him all that I’d learned about the role of grace and the power of Christ in the spiritual life — I couldn’t help but think that he’d find that it jibed amazingly well with what he’s experienced in his battles against Resistance. All in all, though, this book is fantastic. It is an absolute must-read.
Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson
I actually discovered this book through Steven Pressfield’s excellent blog, and I’m so glad I did. I read the slim little volume over one weekend, and it really inspired me to make some positive changes in my life. Madson is a theater professor at Stanford, and shares what she’s learned from her decades as a teacher of (and participant in) improvisational acting.
In one chapter, for example, she talks about how important saying “yes” is in the improv world — if you’re up on stage and your acting partner starts taking the show in a new direction, it’ll ruin the whole thing if you fold your arms and refuse to go along with it. Applying that to life, she writes:
Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin — blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation rather than accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. [...]
The spirit of improvising is embodied in the notion of “yes and.” Agreement begins the process.
(Was any one else reminded of Ann Voskamp’s year of Yes?) At the end of each chapter Madson offers practical exercises for putting these ideas into practice. I loved the one at the end of the Say Yes chapter:
Support someone else’s dreams. Pick a person (your spouse, child, boss), and, for one week, agree with all of her ideas. Find something right about everything he says or does. Look for every opportunity to offer support consider her convenience and time preferences ahead of her own. Give him the spotlight. Notice the results.
The book is full of gems like this one. I found it to be a great source of inspiration to work on paying attention to the present moment, cooperating with others, and, ultimately, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work stuff out when we let go of control. Like with Pressfield, there were moments where I thought that her advice could be even more powerful if she know about the work of grace, the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ, etc. But, overall, I think Madson hit the ball out of the park with this book.
Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
The author of Never Eat Alone is a dear friend of ours, so it’s hard for me to separate what I learned from the book from what he’s taught me in person. Keith is a master at networking, and his view of building social networks and involving other people in your projects has had a huge impact on the way I see the world. The three biggest principles I’ve taken from him, which he details in Never Eat Alone, are:
- When you discern something you’re supposed to do, think of the path to get there in terms of other people: As a typical American, when I used to set out to accomplish something, I’d think of it in very isolationist terms: I am going to do this all by myself. Keith encouraged me to involve other people in my projects, to look around and see whom I know who might enjoy helping me through this process. Since my conversion, this advice has really helped me embrace being part of the Body of Christ, all of us working together to support one another.
- Don’t hoard your personal connections: Too often, when people know someone who might be able to help someone else, they hesitate to put the two people in touch — especially if the person whom they’re asking for a favor is in a position of power. “I don’t want to bother Mr. Important,” the thinking goes. “I need to save my connection with him for a time when I really need it!” Keith’s view is that building a social network and getting to know people isn’t about hoarding impersonal connections so that you can amass more power for yourself — it’s all about generosity, and getting to know people on a personal level. Be generous with your Rolodex, and everyone will benefit.
- Don’t be afraid to connect with people who seem “out of your league”: Over the past couple of years I’ve had wonderful conversations with a few well-known authors (one of whom had recently been on Oprah), simply because I emailed them and asked if they’d mind sharing their wisdom with me. I saw each of these folks as way out of my league, but, thanks to what I’ve learned from Keith, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot — after all, the worst case scenario is that they’d say “no.” In these conversations I was able to get some excellent advice about my book, as well as to offer these authors encouragement in their own work. In the end, I think we both benefitted.
Never Eat Alone is written for ambitious business professionals, and the specific advice Keith gives often makes me feel like I need to go take a nap — the fast-paced way he lives his own life is way more than I could ever take on. However, underneath it all are solid principles for breaking out of an isolationist mentality and learning to involve other people in your life and your dreams. Definitely worth a read.
What about you? Have you found any surprising gems that helped you in your spiritual life?