Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Season of Waiting (for Books!)

Growing up Evangelical, I didn’t know much about advent. I knew there was a chocolate calendar involved, but my family didn’t really bother with because we had my mother’s Christmas coffee cake (which is better than life, let alone chocolate).

Advent, it transpires, is a season of waiting. A season of anticipation and expectation and hope.

We wait (and hope) for a lot of pretty serious things. For children to call or parents to forgive. We wait for the end of violence and for civil discourse. We wait for events we can’t imagine like Christ’s second coming and the big, amorphous ideals that are prophesied to follow: peace and justice. We wait and hope, in other words, for things that seem impossibly far away.

The waiting we do during advent is so much more accessible. So reliable. Christmas comes every year, on time. Tangible things like food and simple traditions like music like eggnog like hanging socks above a fireplace are what we ask for and what we receive.

Having our simple expectations fulfilled exercises our expectation muscles so that the big, more idealistic hopes feel a lot closer.

And so we wait.

Those who know me know I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. Besides my mother’s coffee cake, Christmas doesn’t hold a lot of joy for me. So I practice advent in other ways, waiting for something else: stories. In the past, a lot of us waited for the Harry Potter books each summer, and then it was the Lord of the Rings movies, and most recently (and perhaps with the most trepidation) the newest installation of Star Wars.

I have simple, but huge expectations for 2016. It will be the year of the book, of good books, of great books that finish amazing book series. Below, in order of how delighted I will be when these books arrive, are the final installments of trilogies I’ve read this past year:

          1.      Morning Star by Pierce Brown
The Red Rising Trilogy is fast, fun reading and the first series Brown has ever written. The author shows promise (the trilogy’s level of awesomeness is more on par with The Hunger Games than Harry Potter), and he builds some great tension soon to be resolved (January 12).

          2.      The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks
Brent Weeks writes for the movie screen: every page is action-packed, filled with hilarious one-liners and an amazing range of characters. This conclusion to the Lightbringer Trilogy (technically now a quartet) can only be as good if not better than the last three installments. Set to arrive in fall or winter of 2016.

          3.      Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
I love Sanderson’s work for his sense of humor first, depth of thought second and (in an age of G.R.R. Martins) for its amazing to just keep on coming. The Reckoners trilogy is tiny compared to the Stormlight Archives and simple compared to the world of Mistborn, but Calamity promises all the genius of a Sanderson book and comes this spring!

          4.      The Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss
      There is no release date for The Doors of Stone, but I don’t care. I will wait for this book as long as Rothfuss needs to write it, and I will be happy whenever I get it because it will be as amazing as the first two: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I believe in you, Patrick Rothfuss.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Words of Wisdom from my Mom

Today’s blog is stolen from my mother. A recent retiree, my mother now has added leading about 20 different Bible studies to her daily routine of prayer, reading her Bible, and running 5000 miles while bench pressing my weight with one arm. She doesn’t write habitually, but she showed me this short snippet she was planning on sharing with one of her current Bible studies at church.

Even at my most cynical, I can hear God speaking through my mother. I hope you can hear it, too.

Are you having a Mary Christmas season or a Martha Christmas season? Are you caught up in the preparations—shopping, baking, decorating, planning, celebrations? As believers in Christ we know what the right answer is. If you are like me, you want to sit at the feet of Christ and you know that is the right place to be . . . but this other stuff has to get done. Take it from as someone who is a Martha through and through—I know it’s hard. Often I just wanted the holidays to be done and get back to my routine.

Jesus wants something more for our lives—we are to be joyful always, give thanks in everything, and pray continually.

As you shop for each gift—pray for the person you are buying for. When you give that gift, ask God to lead you to a scripture verse that you could attach. As you do your holiday baking and decorating, thank God for his provision, and choose to be joyful with every person you come in contact with. Take time every day to sit at the feet of Jesus. Satan will try and block you, but we know Christ is stronger and will provide a way.

I participate in a devotion at Miller’s Assisted in Living in Portage, and one of the ladies there named Alice, who is in her 90s, when asked about her holiday tradition said, “The holidays are a lot of work.” When I am 90+, I want to be able to say that my tradition is to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what He says.
Christmas baking
Me and Momsie wishing you a Happy Christmas (...last year)!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sometimes Getting Out of Bed Is Too Much to Ask

On some mornings the blankets are heavy. My bed feels safe, which isn’t the same as comfortable. My blankets don’t judge me for the stupid thing I said yesterday, and my sheets don’t know about my failures. I leave my head against the pillow because putting it anywhere else seems like too much work. The world shouldn’t ask such a sacrifice of me. Not today. Not every day.

I hate myself on those mornings. I hate that I can’t just get out of bed. That I wallow for 5 more minutes, 15 more minutes, 50 more minutes. And two hours later when there is no more sleep in me, I still hate that moment when my foot touches the cold floor.

When my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered I was senseless and ignorant. I was a brute beast before [God].

On the hate-filled mornings I remind myself that everything is a gift: a full night’s sleep, a warm apartment, a cup of coffee in the morning, and an insouciant kitten who loves my feet more than I love anything. I know that life is good, but that truth breaks against the grey walls of a hatred that looks like apathy.

On those mornings it seems impossible that good triumphs over evil. Ever. If good can’t manage to conquer my petty desire to stay in bed and sleep, seriously: what is it going to do against the willful inanity of Donald Trump and his media circus? The gun violence plague? The systemic racism that binds us all against our wills?

My feet had almost slipped . . . for I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked: They scoff and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.

For the last few months, I woke up nearly every day like this. When I didn’t, when I forced myself awake after the first alarm, that same hatred rose up in the afternoon, crippling me in retribution for my earlier resistance. Trudging onward is the only option, praying in whatever desperate fashion seems to stave off the bitterness threatening to overtake you. Pray that you have not already been overtaken.

All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. . . . When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply.

I woke up two days ago, and the blankets weren’t heavy. My mind was awake, and more importantly, so was my heart.

The grief in my heart had lifted. My spirit shed bitterness like a child shedding layers of puffy clothing after coming inside from the cold. I chose to lay in bed not in obeisance to the sloth of bitterness, but in order to wallow in the happy moments that trickled through my mind: ice cream shared with friends, gifts given, and hugs received after a long time away.

As for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

All of your deeds. Even the ones that leave me wondering what it’s all about. Even the ones that leave me helplessly sad. Because as soon as my envy passes, whether by divine hand or not, so does my blindness.

When I look back on the moments that weighed on my heart, I see them differently. The stupid things I said were still stupid, but they were also well-intentioned and forgivable. My failures hurt, but they happened amidst triumphs that I hadn’t seen. And looking back, they seem a lot smaller.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Prayer Censorship

For me, the opening ten minutes of a Bible study or prayer group are the worst. Chit-chat is a trigger for minor social anxiety: what can I talk about? Who should I talk to? Where should I stand and does my arm look weird just hanging here like this? What was God thinking when he made arms like this? What was God thinking when he created humans to be in community with each other. Community is awkward.

It’s fair to say that I don’t particularly shine in times of unstructured conversation. But then we get to the meat of what we’re all there for: Bible study or prayer or a discussion over a Christian book or podcast. Everyone loosens up: ideas are shared, opinions traded, personal stories told. We learn from one another and about one another.

And the intimacy deepens.

For many of us these are the golden moments during small group time. They are the still and quiet hours of peace that keep us hungry for more Christ and more community. We need these times of deep connection to keep our hearts alive. We need to know others and be known by them.

And then the clock strikes midnight (or more commonly about 8 or 9 p.m.) and the spell is broken. The feelings of intimacy and acceptance flee when the de facto leader of the group checks his watch. He maybe nods or sits up or takes and lets out a loud breath. And then he speaks the words that are, ironically, the death knell of intimacy:

“Anybody have any prayer requests?”

Crickets and silence. Silence as everyone studiously avoids the questioner’s eyes. Each person begins to gaze into themselves, curating their answers, tailoring their prayers by the standards of those listening.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to recognize that we’re part of the problem. We make the standard by how we respond to that question. Safe answers spring forth after the initial silence:

        ·         I have a test coming up that’s worth most of my grade.
        ·         Prayers for my great-grandma’s knee-replacement surgery.
        ·         A coworker is being difficult. Pray that I can handle the situation well.

These requests are safe because they are simple. A clear problem exists; the need for God, obvious. Sometimes I imagine these requests as mini intimacy-shields: we guard our deep wounds and hungers by offering safe bait. If you offer a request for prayers about a coworker situation, no one will look for the deeper problems like bitterness, rage or malice that are eating you up.

The curvature of small group intimacy: we start with small talk and then go deeper, curving into communion . . . and then curving right out of it by offering requests on topics as intimate as those covered in the first ten, awkward minutes.

We want intimacy, but we don’t want to be “that guy” who burdens others with our problems. We don’t want to “overshare” and make people uncomfortable. And we don’t want to talk about “trivial” things that would take away from the intimacy, either.

What can we do?

Admit it’s an awkward social situation and lean in. Awkwardness does not preclude holiness, but rather is its prelude. Take off your shoes at the burning bush. Even if it’s weird.

Honor the unstated prayer requests. No one should have to stamp their statements as “Official prayer requests” to get them prayed for. If someone mentions during informal chit-chat time that they have a test, pray. And then text them the day of the test to ask how it went.

Confess and praise. By confessing your heart and sharing what joys God has brought you during the week, you can share in intimacy even if you’re not going through a dark time.

Be prepared, be brave and be merciful. Some prayers are hard to put into words. It takes preparation to describe why something that seems trivial is derailing your faith life. It takes bravery to admit you’re struggling with depression, and it takes mercy to live alongside small group members whose depression is ongoing or whose faith life is incomprehensible to you.

Be what you need others to be to you.

Don’t back away.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Nimona: A Review

Nimona graphic novelI grew up thinking of cartoons as the tempting but sinful fruit that kept my neighborhood friends inside when I wanted them to be outside playing. As I grew older, various friends tried to point out the merits of cartoons, video games, graphic novels and the like. I persisted in my disregard for such genres, even after professors assigned award-winning graphic novels like Spiegelman’s Maus and Gene LuenYang’s American-Born Chinese to me during undergrad.

Next came Ender’s Game in graphic novel format, which I bought and cherished. By the time I got my hands on the Avatar comics, I was finally ready to admit that there is something enchanting and gleefully fun about reading a graphic novel. And so:

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.

The audience: People who like to laugh. People who like good stories and heartwarming, budding friendship. People who will get a kick out of the name “Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin” and a bloodthirsty, shapeshifting young woman who teams up with a villainous scientist with a soul of gold named Lord Blackheart.

The content: Goldenloin and Blackheart were great friends during their time at the academy for the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. But after a “training accident” that left him maimed, Blackheart was labeled a villain and cast away from the academy. Ambrosius was knighted, and an arch-rivalry was born. Nimona, a feisty young woman with the ability to shapeshift, appoints herself Blackheart’s sidekick, and together they fight to expose the Institution’s corrupt practices.


My analysis: Nimona reads like a fairy-tale bed-time story for modern readers. Stevenson’s characters are whimsical but deep, her plot fast-paced and fleshed-out. Modern elements pepper the dialogue and drawing style. Classic tropes of good and evil, knights and villainy give Nimona its lighthearted tone, but the institutional corruption driving the plot hints at deeper meaning.

Nimona shark
Yesssssssss, it's a girl-shark.
A confession: I’m only on chapter 8! I try to limit my reading of this book in order to stretch it out as long as possible. Perhaps I should wait to judge Nimona until I have read the entire thing, but I couldn’t wait to write about how full of delight this book has been for me.

Useful for: Reading together.

We share movies and TV shows with our friends and family, YouTube videos and Vines. We view and share pictures with one another. In middle and high school we were forced to read books that few of us actually enjoyed and then, for a torturous half hour, discuss them. By the time I finished school, I realized how precious that activity would be with books I actually loved and friends I wanted to spend hours with. But how many people have time to read full books? How many people—after working a full shift, getting the kids fed, or slogging through chemistry homework—have the energy to discuss a novel?
Nimona graphic novel review

Graphic novels like Nimona are the perfect compromise. A chapter is perhaps ten minutes: 30 pages with an average of only 50 words to a page (and 6-7 pictures). The reading level is low and the content is engaging. Read this with a friend, a spouse, a child, or a grandparent. Or simply read it and drop me a message; I promise you won’t be disappointed (at least with the first eight chapters).

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. $10 on Amazon Prime, $13 at Barnes and Noble, $7 as a kindle (but I would highly recommend the physical copy; it is a beautiful book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Pursuit of God (by A. W. Tozer): A Review

I once wrote a blog about how I was going to blog about books. For roughly two months I did not do that thing. Now I shall do that thing, starting with a lovely little book by A. W. Tozer entitled The Pursuit of God.

The audience: Tozer writes for Christians of any age or level of spiritual maturity, but The Pursuit of God will directly appeal to the men and women who find themselves in a pew week after week hoping to be fed. They have prayed for a convicting sermon, words that reignite their passion for Christ’s mission in the world and force them to rethink their approach to faith. For those who have ever ditched church on Easter Sunday because the sermon will be a fluff piece of an altar call for the ChrEaster church-goers, this book is for you.

The layout: Each chapter stands alone, and yet read in order, each builds off the previous. Tozer’s discussion of “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” (chapter 2) informs the next chapter about “Removing the Veil.” At the beginning of each chapter is a Bible verse that encapsulates the chapter to come: “O Taste and see” from Psalm 34:8 heads up chapter four on “Apprehending God.” Ten pages (or 15-20 minutes) later, at the end of each chapter, stands a simple prayer.  “Apprehending God” ends with “O God and Father . . . the world has been too much with me. Thou hast been here and I knew it not. I have been blind to Thy presence. Open my eyes that I may behold Thee in and around me.”

The content: Grounded in simple Biblical truths, Tozer’s writing doesn’t feel mind-blowing. His words are comfortable and familiar, reminding me of a thousand accessible sermons I’ve heard before. And yet each chapter prodded me to focus in on what faith mean to my daily life. In chapter six Tozer writes of God’s “speaking voice” admonishing the rationalists among us: “The Bible will never be a living book to us until we are convinced that God is articulate in his universe.” In chapter seven he defines faith as “the gaze of the soul upon a saving God” and gives a practical outline of how to get your soul pointed in the right direction.

My takeaway (adapted from Tozer’s 9th chapter: “Meekness and Rest”): Pride is the burden born by man, and it is a crushing thing. The labor of self-love is wearisome. The meek woman of God knows that she is a little speck on a pale blue dot, but recognizes that she is somehow higher than the angels in God’s regard. A man of God knows well that the world will never see him as God sees him, and he has stopped caring. This is the rest that Christ offers. He calls it a yoke, but it looks a lot like freedom.

Useful for: small group (3-8 people) discussion or a private quiet-time devotional. Each chapter is roughly 10 pages and can be read in less than a half hour. $7 on Amazon; free on Kindle for Prime users.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Little Soul in a Big World

On my first day we found poison ivy in a flower bed I’d already finished weeding. On the second, my left wrist swelled up and I had trouble exerting force upward. On my third day I whacked my ankle against a car door frame, and on my fourth I jammed a walk-behind mower into my hip. Both incidents resulted in smallish bruises that accompanied the thin welts that rose on my arms from working in the tall grasses on my fifth day.

I started work at Eagle Creek Nursery last week as a maintenance crew member. This isn’t my first experience with this kind of work: I worked on a grounds maintenance crew for two summers for the Duneland School Corporation when I was in college. Most Mother’s Days have found me laboring in my childhood home's garden as mom’s indentured mulch-schlepper.

After four years of teaching, however, my body has gone soft. I have to regain the calluses under my ring fingers and muscles in my forearms, shoulders, and back.

But those are just the physical adjustments. There’s a different language here, different names, and a different rhythm to everything. Almost everyone has a one-syllable name: Kim, Ron, Rob, Dave, Kate, Tom, etc. There’s one guy we called “The Dude.” I have to ask them constantly who they’re talking about and, because Eagle Creek is a family-owned business, who is related to whom.

The rhythm is my favorite part of the transition. Left to my own devices, I go 100% on whatever it is I’m doing until I drop from exhaustion. In graduate school Saturdays were 14-hour marathons of writing and reading and crossing items off lists. On my teaching evaluations the most common remark is a variation of “Ms. Schnabel has lots of energy.” I spent my entire month of unemployment nagging myself endlessly to figure something--anything--out.

Landscaping rhythm is more measured, mature and staid. Sometimes it takes us an hour before we leave the property on our first job. We have to load the truck and make sure we all have water to last till lunch. And most importantly, we have to touch base with one another. “What are you up to today?” “Heading over to that mulch job?” “Have you heard Donna is out again today?” Stories are shared, repeated, reported. Ron tells jokes that end in puns. Denny slaps people on the back as he walks by.

I’m still learning the rhythm and the language just like my body is relearning how to do work. It turns out I didn’t touch the poison ivy and with the help of ice, my wrist is back to normal. The bruises will fade like the welts from the grasses. Eventually my muscles will come back.

This process reminds me of a moment on “Safe,” an episode of Joss Whedon’s tragically short TV show Firefly. In this particular episode the crew of a spaceship has just transported a herd of cattle from one planet to another. River Song, a passenger on the ship who often has an infirm grip on reality, leans over to pet one of the cows and says, “Little soul, big world. Eat, sleep, and eat. Many souls.”

The captain, Malcolm Reynolds (played to perfection by Nathan Fillion) remarks to another crew-member, “ Cattle on the ship three weeks and she don’t go near ‘em. Suddenly we’re on Jianying [a planet] and she’s got a driving need to commune with the beasts?

“They weren’t cows inside,” River explains. “They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.”

The captain blinks and wonders, “Is it bad that what she just said made perfect sense to me?”

It makes sense to me too. I love this landscaping job. The cool breeze of the morning and the sun shining like a challenge, asking if I can bear up under its heat. The plop of water as it bubbles up in the pots of plants I water. The warm smell of mulch.

Sometimes when I see the sky I remember what I am: a little soul in a big world.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


This is Lightsong. She is 16 weeks old, about 5 pounds, and fluffy. She hates the rain and adores head scritches. Her hobbies include farting in my face, attacking my toes while I sleep, and getting her head suck in things that she’s fighting (usually plastic bags). She is currently busy training me how to be a cat owner. There are many stages to this training. The first six are carefully recorded here:

Stage 1: The Infatuation Stage

At the veterinarian’s office, Lightsong wooed us with her frisky skipping and fluffy paws. It was love at first cuddle and as the paperwork was signed, many nuzzles were had. Veterinarians and vet assistants told us how sweet she was, how beautiful, and congratulated us on our adoption. We were proud and naïve.

Stage 2: The Car Ride Home

Pathetic mewling. Howling. Scratching. Attempts to get her 5 pound body in the way of the brake pedals. 20 minutes later, relief.

Stage 3: Worry

Will she be scared of the apartment? Will she pee on the rug? Or scratch up the sofa? Does she need x? What about y? What kind of food would be best and where should I buy it? What does it mean when her tail wiggles like that? Does she know that purring traditionally means contentedness? Because she seems kind of peeved. Does she know how to use the litter box? What if she hates me?
Fun fact: Lightsong's name comes from a
character in Brandon Sanderson's

Stage 4:  Mrowr? Eyes in the Dark

“Lightsong, it’s 2:30 in the morning. You don’t really want to play. You want to sleeeeeeep. Ouch! Those are my toes. No! Argh. I’ll lock you out of the bedroom if you don’t—ack!” She meows for 15 minutes, waits for two, and then starts caterwauling again. Then she throws her body at the door and thuds to the ground. “Lightsong if you get a concussion, I swear—”

Stage 5: Cuddles

In an attempt to keep my bedroom as a sacred space, free from kitty craziness in the wee hours of the morning, I come out to the living room in “her space.” I cram myself onto the couch and she joins me. Caterwauling has ceased and cuddles once again commence. She flops all over my arms, my chest, my legs in an effort to cuddle more. One of us is purring and I’m not so certain it’s her.

Stage 6: Serfdom

She has become my overlord.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Some Fantastic and Always New

I don’t have a lot of faith, but fantasy keeps alive what little God gave me.

Each genre has its boundaries, some more stringent and strange than others. Fantasy has plenty of hallmarks—impossible beasts, names with lots of x’s and y’s, swords and magic and so on—but those are no what make the genre so enticing to cynics like me. What draws us to fantasy is the common narrative of overwhelming odds stacked against goodness.

Some people will always see the problems and the pain more clearly than wisdom and solutions. That’s me. I am a glutton for the pain and anger of the world, dismissing hope as trite and inspirational messages as cliché. In my eagerness to see the worst and understand it, I lessen my capacity for seeing that which is best.

There is something good in the world, the fantasy genre says, and it is being stamped out. Crushed. Destroyed by the masses, most of whom are not particularly evil. In fact, for a quality fantasy narrative, simple evil is rare and usually well-hidden behind the smokescreen of evil’s natural-born children. Apathy, selfishness, greed, and pride are mixed up in the same people who sacrifice and love and share.

The mixed-up people have mixed-up options and they make mixed-up decisions, but the best thing about fantasy is that good options aren’t pure ideals or pristine values. The cleanliness of obvious goodness is just another smokescreen for real goodness. Restoring relationships or honor. Telling a truth or giving up the one thing she wanted so that he can have what he needs. Even when people make a mess of its pursuit, we all see for a few hundred pages of relieving clarity what goodness can be.

Redemption is always possible, for any character at any moment. If they choose to break themselves for the sake of that which is good.

When I step away from the pages—reluctantly closing a book about epic battles and return to the muffins I’m baking or the latest job application I’ll never hear back about—the story remains. That which is good remains.

I still don’t know what to do with the pit of worry in my stomach or the fear in my heart or my failures and the mystery of unhappiness. But fantasy stories clarify what I want. I want that which is good, and that goodness, I think, is God.

So, I have a lot of pastors and preachers to thank:

Brian Jacques and Juliet Marillier. Megan Whalen Turner and Brandon Sanderson. Patricia C. Wrede, Patrick Rothfuss, Tamora Pierce, Orson Scott Card, and Sherwood Smith. It’s hard to put into words what these people have done for my faith, but I do love a good challenge. And I need some subject matter.

The game plan: a series of short author and book reviews/love letters to authors. I hope not only to show my admiration, but also share some reading options for you (and in return ask for your suggestions). I don’t enjoy “difficult” books and authors who write them never make my lists: I read page-turners with deep characters written by authors that can create a serious situation that makes you both laugh and cry.

Start me off right: what books and authors am I missing? What do I still need to read (within or without the fantasy genre)?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tread Softly

I never knew humiliation could be so quiet.

The apartment building is noisy around seven thirty when everyone who has a job goes to it. I stay comfortable in pajamas with coffee, my books, my couch and sun slanting through the windows. During the last two years of an exhausting graduate program this would have been a slice of heaven: the quiet stillness of an empty to-do list. So, too, my inbox. A mere three emails nestle there, patient.

Now the apartment is still, the hum of traffic muted. I fill the silence with keyboard tapping, clicking on links that ask me to write a new cover letter, tweak my resume, and fill in my name, my education, my credentials and references which will die quietly in the black hole that is online applications.

This post is continued on the Post Calvin . . .
These closed doors are a subtle metaphor for how the job hunt is going . . .