Books for When You’re Struggling to Read the Bible

for when you don't feel like reading your bible

In the circles that I rolled in back in my on fire days, there was a method to a good “quiet time” or “devotional time” or — wait for it — “date with Jesus” (I wish I were making that last one up. I’m not).

If you were going to spend time with God, it involved “getting into the Word” or, if you were extra serious, “digging into the Word.” It involved reading through the Bible in a year or at least reading a little bit every day. And it involved coming away from that reading with some new flash of insight that you could apply in your daily life and wax ad nauseum about during student-led Bible study.

A good “quiet time” involved an uninterrupted half hour or hour and prayers that were structured around acronyms. (A.C.T.S., for example, so your remembered to get all the ingredients in: adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.) And always The Bible. That instruction manual, that love letter from God, that holy, mysterious book.

Here is a thing that I actually used to say back then.

Yeah…I’ve been spending too much time reading books about the Bible, and not enough time reading the Bible itself. I really need to get back on track.

What??

Like, really — what?!?!

My husband, Andrew, loves reading the Bible. Loves it. His favorite studies are the kind where they go through some book of the Bible verse by verse and talk through the history, the cultural context, and the theology of it.

He likes to figure out the wiring of the thing — the ways that this miracle that Jesus did over here connects to that prophecy there and that verse there. He opens the whole thing up like a surgeon, and he looks at the guts of it all working together, and he gets a rush. A high. He comes away from those times feeling full to the brim with God.

It’s taken me about a decade to admit it, but here it is: I’m not wired like that.

I love the Bible. I do. But the truth is that most of the time, I feel overwhelmed and unmoored when I’m dropped smack-dab in the middle of that big book.

I told you last week that I’ve been reading Emily Freeman’s upcoming book, Simply Tuesday over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been reading it slowly, one chapter at a time, first thing in the morning when I should be “getting into the Word,” having my “quiet time,” et cetera, et cetera.

And that’s okay.

I’m realizing that, more often than not, I need a gentle voice to guide my meditation. I someone to speak the liturgy out loud so that I can repeat it. The metaphors and insights into the Bible that other writers offer in their books make me feel less alone. And by ushering me down the roads of their own faith journeys, they give me the courage to keep moving toward God.

This past couple of weeks, Emily Freeman has been that for me. She offers her insights about God so sincerely and gently that I’m put off guard immediately. (And that’s not an easy thing to do for this long-time cynic.)  And it’s not less spiritual because I’m not opening my old, black leather Bible itself. It’s manna. It’s daily bread, offered in a way I can take it.

books for when you can't read the bible

Here are a few books I’ve been keeping on the end table in my office for when I struggle to read my Bible. A couple of other voices that have ushered me over the hump of my own baggage. I hope you find a few friends here too.

Dave Harrity’s Making ManifestI’ve written about this book before, but it’s such a valuable tool to me that I have to mention it again. This 28-study does a better job of anything I’ve ever seen at combining spiritual depth with the creative practices. Each day has a short (but poetic and poignant) meditation that invites you to respond, not by filling in blanks, but rather by free writing responses. I’m on my second read-through of this book, and I find something new in it every time I open it.

Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine HoursI love liturgy, but as a lifelong evangelical, the regular Book of Common Prayer still feels difficult for me. But Phyllis Tickle offers a contemporary version in three parts (Springtime, Summertime, and Autumn and Wintertime) I love it. It’s mostly really big swaths of text from the Bible, but it’s easier for me to read the verses when I know where and what to read and am guided through it day by day.

Denise Levertov The Stream and the SapphireI discovered Denise Levertov’s poetry a few years ago and absolutely love it. This little book is a compilation of her “pomes on religious theme.” It’s gorgeous.

Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of FaithThis book is a more intense, wise, beautiful version of this blog, back when it was “How to Talk Evangelical” and I focused almost entirely on redefining religious language. Because it’s organized by terms instead of by chapters, it’s easy to dip in and read on just one. This book played a defining role in my own faith changes, and hers continues to be a voice that helps me to disentangle the culture behind faith language with the true beauty of it.

Kelly O’Dell Stanley’s Praying Upside DownThis is a new book, just out this year, but I love the creative way that Kelly approaches prayer. This isn’t a “dip-in” kind of book, but you can definitely read one chapter at a time…and each one has unique, beautiful exercises to get you approaching prayer in different ways. As someone who has always struggled mightily with prayer, the playful, creative, faith-filled way that Kelly writes about it is inspiring.

Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life: Frederick Buechner is one of my all-time favorite spiritual writers. (His Telling Secrets is one of the books that pushed me toward memoir writing.) This is a compilation of his work, broken into bite-sized bits — one for each day of the year. I’ll be honest, the excerpts of his novels that appear along the way don’t resonate with me like the essays and memoirs…but that could be because I’ve never read them. Still, he has been a faithful guide to me through the years, and his voice is one that I trust to lead me toward God.

Heather Caliri’s Unquiet Time (not pictured above): This is a quirky little book is almost like a little homemade art journal. The questions Heather asks are insightful and get beyond the typical churchy questions, and the format of the book invites doodling, free writing, and figuring out.

Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (not pictured above): I love everything that Henri Nouwen writes, but this little reader features little bite-sized bits of his letters and writings that are perfect for reading over a cup of coffee. His stuff on community, silence, and vocation have been game-changers for me.

What about you? What voices bring you closer to God?

The Truest Thing About Me

pain is not the truest thing

The depression came back a few weeks ago. It was sudden and sharp, and it knocked me off my feet.

It wasn’t totally unexpected — I’d started a new medication and I knew that it was possible that it might throw off my fragile emotional balance. But when it happened, when I found myself flat on my back at the bottom of that dark place, unable to move — AGAIN — it surprised me anyway.

I’m tired of being a person who struggles with depression.

I’m tired of these fallbacks and setbacks. Of the mornings that come with a bleak sense of dread. I’m tired of the wary, watchful way I have to approach my sad days, waiting to see if it’s just sadness or if it’s something more sinister and dangerous. I’m tired of the way that these normal, negative emotions don’t pass for me…but rather pool into a sort of sludge that I find myself stuck in time after time after time.

I’m not trying to be overdramatic here. There are plenty of times when things are fine, when everything feels tentatively okay. Mostly, the medicine helps. Mostly, things are manageable.

But a couple of weeks ago, the depression came back, and lately, it feels like it might be the truest thing about me.

*

I’m reading an advanced copy of Emily Freeman’s beautiful upcoming new book, Simply Tuesday. When the depression comes back, it feels almost impossible to open my Bible, so I open books like this one — the kind that can take my by the hand and gently lead me toward Jesus. And right now, in this hard, dark space, Emily’s words have been exactly what I needed.

There is a part in the book when Emily describes an interaction between her friend Fil Anderson and theologian Brennan Manning at a conference. During the conference the two men met, and Emily tells a beautiful story about their interaction. During the meeting, Brennan gives Fil some Bible verses to read — the ones about coming weary.

After he read these verses,” Emily writes, “Brennan offered Fil this simple instruction: ‘Sit with these words until they become the truest thing about you.’”

The truest thing.

What is it about pain and struggle that makes it so defining? You lose someone you love. You get the diagnosis. You can’t get the job or crawl out of debt or find that person to spend your life with….and this pain, whatever it is, is ever-present and sharp and dominating. It feels like the truest thing about you.

*

I got up at three in the morning the other night and went into my office. I’d been lying awake for half an hour, listening to the voice of self-loathing whispering in my ear, reminding me all of the ways that I am failing. And then finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I got up and sat on the daybed and looked at the Bible on the end table next to me.

And I’m not sure if it’s the depression, or if it’s all of my Bible baggage, but it’s so hard to reach across that infinite gap between the bed and the end table to pick up my Bible.

But that night, I managed it somehow. I reached across that heavy gap, and I picked up that concrete-heavy book, and I managed to open it to Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

And here in the slimy depression, the sinking mud feels like the truest thing about me.

But, of course, it’s not.

The truest thing is that there is a rock — a firm place to stand. The truest thing is that new song that God is weaving into the empty dark of my life, even when I can barely hear it.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, Psalm 42 says, and this is the truest thing — not the thin stagnant water of my pain, but these breakers, these waves, this sea-song of love, love, love sweeping over me.

And in the end, I suppose, the truest thing about me isn’t about me at all.

It’s Jesus.

*

I’m in the middle of switching medications again. I’m off that one that sent me sinking back in despair. I’m about to start a new one, and I’m nervous and wary and this is not something I’m going to minimize to make a neat point. I struggle with clinical depression. It is a hard, defining, true thing about me.

But it’s not the truest.

Sit with these words until they become the truest thing about you, Brennan Manning said, and so I am sitting here.

If I close my eyes and stay very still, I can almost hear the waves crashing, true and clear and constant, like love, love, love, love.

A Complicated Eulogy for Elisabeth Elliot

complicated eulogy elisabeth elliot

You died on Monday.

I confess, I’d forgotten about you until I started seeing your name flash by in my social media feeds. Elisabeth Elliot, Tenacious Missionary to Ecuador, Dies at 88.

All week, I’ve been thinking about you…about the way your story, already romanticized into evangelical lore by the time I started high school, collided with mine: You were the woman whose husband was killed by a tribe in Ecuador while you were missionaries there in 1956. You were the woman who stayed there anyway and kept doing her work.

It was an epic kind of faith story, and it had already been shaping and defining American evangelicalism for nearly fifty years by the time it began to shape me.

My sort-of-boyfriend at the time had Africa-shaped stars in his eyes…and what was it about stories of martyrdom that appealed so strongly to him — to all of them — that whole burning-for-Jesus bunch?

Whatever it was, he wanted to be Jim Eliot, living fearlessly in some jungle somewhere, which in my mind, mean that I was supposed to be you.

You — the woman who waited five years in patient purity for Jim to decide whether or not God wanted him to marry. You, who followed him to South America (though you had wanted to go be a missionary in Africa), who made a home among the South American Indians for your small daughter, who went back to the tribe that murdered your husband to complete the task of sharing the beautiful story of Jesus.

Yours were impossibly huge shoes to fill, but I wanted the missionary boy to love me…and so I tried. I read everything you wrote and underlined big swaths of text. And much of what you wrote was about relationships, purity and gender roles.

When I was fourteen, wavering in my own purpose and identity, hopelessly in love with an older missionary boy, I read your books, and you pointed me into the Garden of Eden when God created man, and then, from one of his ribs, woman. “You can’t make use of a thing unless you know what it was made for,” you wrote. And a woman, you said, was made for man.

And maybe if I’d been older or wiser or less desperate, I would have read something different in those words. But at fourteen, I took them to mean that I ought to devote myself to the boy, submit to his dreams and plans, nod and acquiesce and wait as he tried to discern whether God wanted us to be together…or, finally, not.

I’ve been re-reading those books this week. Somewhere, either in transition or in spiritual angst, I lost (or gave away, or destroyed) Passion and Purity, but I still have Let Me Be a Woman and Quest for Love. And your words still raises all sorts of complicated feelings in me.

You took the hard line on gender roles. You believed that the meaning of womanhood excluded women from church ministry. You had nothing but contempt for the Woman’s Liberation Movement, set yourself up against a “Them” that you believed were set on turning woman into “a caricature, a pseudo-personhood.” You did not particularly want women in “the workplace” and were appalled that they were being let into the army. You wrote in certainties and absolutes that make me bristle now.

“The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on all speak loudly about what you believe,” you wrote to your daughter in Let Me Be a Woman. “‘The beauty of Thy peace’ shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.”

Oh Elisabeth. If you could see my house right now. There are so many crumbs on the kitchen floor that I have to wear shoes in there so they don’t stick to my feet. Also I have been wearing the same sweatpants for two days because our dryer is broken.

Also,  I have come to terms with the fact that my soul is in total disorder, and that the beauty of God’s peace is still there, floating above it all, like the dust from my living room bookshelf swirling around, catching the light.

I read your words, and they sound stern and unyielding and a little obstinate. There are things that I don’t agree with. Often, your words make me angry, and I’m tempted to write you off altogether.

But then…you had the most contagious smile.

Photo from elisabethelliot.org

Photo from elisabethelliot.org

Your photos tells a different story than your books. You are dimpled and braided hair and gap-toothed, standing next to Jim. Then, later, you are holding your daughter, and your face has taken on a kind sad strength as you hold your baby girl. You are wearing those sensible shoes and that dress in the jungle, still doing your work.

Then, you are older, then older still — still gap-toothed and grinning. You look like you might be a little sassy, but that could just be wishful thinking.

The way you spoke of feelings in your books, Elisabeth, feels cold, detached, and absolute. “Keep a tight reign on these emotions,” you wrote to a twenty-four-year-old woman who had sent you a letter about the man she liked. “A life lived in God is not lived on the plane of feelings, but of the will,” you wrote, and I remember, as an emotional teenage girl, trying hard to shove my feelings again and again into submission like you seemed to do so easily.

Reading now and looking at your photos, I see a different version of that story — a woman who I expect felt everything deeply. Who woke up every day in a tsunami of grief, and had to find a way to stand up and keep going.

I can imagine you then: You are a young widow, a single mother, living far away from family, helping to birth babies in the jungle. You are afraid; you are lonely and sad, and you’re doing it anyway.

You say the creeds when you do not feel them. You learn, year after year, to “hang [your] soul on those strong pegs, those ‘I believe’s’” and to find strength and shelter.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” You learn to say it like the orthodox Christians, like breathing — in, out, in out — until the wave of emotion had passed and you were still, miraculously, standing.

And maybe I’m creating a kind of fan fiction, reading things into your life that weren’t there so that I can make sense of you. Or maybe you were every bit as complicated and broken and untidy and emotional as I am.

Either way, as I look at your soft, time-wrinkled face in your final pictures, it occurs to me that we’d both say the same thing:

The most important thing about your life is not what you said about God or women or marriage or purity. It’s what God said about you. Beloved, beloved, beloved.

It’s what he says about all of us. What he’s still saying as you wander through the gates of splendor toward Him. As you smile that beautiful, gap-toothed smile, and make your way home.

 

(Bird Photo by Jonathan Ashcraft at CreationSwap.org)

Why I’m Coming Back to Blogging

Why I'm Blogging

Last Monday morning, I dropped my youngest off at a friend’s house, went over to my favorite coffee shop, and finished the second major revision of my book.

I have been working on my second book obsessively since I got home from Armenia in March —  every day, working through paragraphs, restructuring sections on card stock using Post-Its, crossing out and underlining and inking big green questions on my draft: What are you really trying to say here?

Writing. Deleting. Writing. Deleting. Getting a refill of coffee. Deleting, deleting, deleting. Yes, Pandora, I AM still listening.

Writing in this way doesn’t allow much space for the very different work of writing blog posts — at least for me. At least now — with small kids still around most of the time, still needing so much from me, still climbing on my shoulders while I sit at the kitchen table, writing.

So I let myself off the hook for the last several months. For most of the year actually. I wrote a post here and there, but mostly, I let myself be pulled under into the depths of this new work.

But on Monday morning, I finished that second major draft. Hopefully the next batch of edits will be smaller, simpler. Hopefully the deep underwater work of this story has been completed.

I closed my computer and brought my empty coffee cup to the counter. I wanted to tell someone, but the baristas were all in the back, and the counter was empty. The two old farmers who have coffee next to me every morning weren’t there, and neither was my pastor friend, Rick. So I just grabbed my stuff, slung my purse over my shoulder, and quietly made my way back into the world.

*

I gave myself a week away from my computer. I cleaned and went to IKEA. I learned to use a drill, re-did my kids’ new shared room, and made Liam’s old bedroom into (gasp) my office. (We’ll see how long this lasts, but I’m beyond excited. I’ve never had an office.)

I had a last-day-of-school water fight with my family, spent a few days at the beach, washed the windows, and read novels on the deck. I closed my eyes and paid attention to the summer breeze and watched the baby ducks trek up, single-file, to eat seed from our bird feeder. I went to sleep early and slept in as late as the boys would let me and didn’t worry about wasting writing time.

I sat in a sand chair at the edge of the Lake George, and I let myself brainstorm essays I might want to write, new writing projects I might want to pursue, new blog posts I might want to share.

It was a good week.

*

The first post I read when I logged back into the Internets yesterday morning was an insightful article by Amy Julia Becker at Christianity Today about “Why Bloggers are Calling it Quits.”

Becker’s points were solid and familiar. I too, struggle with what she calls “tyranny of the present” and the pressure to “to remain beholden to the constant information cycle of blogging and tweeting and posting photos online.”

I get that. There is nothing that stresses me out quite like a Major Cultural Event and the sudden, intense response of the blogosphere — a thousand megaphones shouting at me from my Facebook newsfeed, demanding my outrage. It makes me feel like a failure when Facebook reminds me that I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve never figured out, really, how to be “awesome” on social media, and that stresses me out.

And yet, at the same time, the blog world is still where I get my favorite book recommendations, my favorite recipes, my best IKEA hack ideas.

The Faith and Life blogs that I read regularly have a way of helping me to orient my heart around what matters. Where else but the blogosphere can you read something called “Go Forth and Be a  Little Jacked Up” by Glennon at Momastery? Where else can I read along as  Micha gently processes spirituality and motherhood and as Leigh works through life transitions for herself…and for all of us who find ourselves in transit?

Where else can I get glimpses of insight into things that I don’t understand…but want to?

I click over to Humans of New York and read the small, enormous stories of regular people. I read Emily Freeman and find permission to be unremarkable. I read Brené Brown and find permission to be vulnerable.

Where else is there such a powerful reader/writer connection — a conversation, a call to interaction, a buffet of topics and ideas and thoughts and insights? It’s an invitation into the living, breathing, fighting, wild, loud, raucous international family of humanity. It’s the coolest thing.

Listen — I believe in the long works. The memoirs and novels and essays and collections. I am passionate about them…and I’m a mom in her Tired Thirties, so I barely use the word “passionate” to describe anything in my life.

I just finished that second draft of that second book, and I am grateful for the time I spent away from the Internet, letting my mind orbit around the  questions I was asking, letting the words and sentences stretch long into places that I didn’t think I was going. I love writing books. I hope that I will continue to write them (although I’m about ready to take a break from memoirs, because holy smokes.)

But also, I love the experience of blogging. I never thought I would, but I do.

(Granted, I’ve never been one for writing about stuff that is newsworthy or relevant. I’ve had very few posts go “viral.” I don’t touch “hot-button issues” with a six foot pole. But still.)

It turns out that I actually like being a Blogger. Who would have thought.

*

There is a verse in the Bible about how God is working, all the time, in us. About how, in light of that, we should continue working out our salvation. (Philippians 2:12).

I don’t really know what that means, but I think this is where I do that.

This is where I take hold of the edges of my ever-changing faith and hang on tight.

This is where I write it out, where I find people who get it, where I feel less alone, where — sometimes — I even feel God in that way that we always hope we will. Where, when I don’t feel God, I can still find a way to engage, to move forward, to write toward the wholeness I so desperately want.

And I hope, somehow, that this blog does some of that for you too.

Anyway — all this to say, I’m back. It seems a little like I’m walking back into a room that everyone else is leaving. But I’m back anyway.

Talk to me.