Not Your White Male Church Guy's Top Ten List

Tis the season for Top Ten lists. I keep noticing almost every list I read contains mostly books written by men, which I find not at all surprising, but a little bit saddening. About a year ago a conversation ensued on social media wherein it was reported that women read more than men, but men read more men than women. I thought perhaps, with this self-awareness, we’d see a bit of a shift in the Top Ten lists of men who write or blog, but alas, we haven’t. There are a few notable exceptions (I think of Eric Schumacher who is doing his tireless best to promote female writers in the church right now, or Steve Bezner (who someone needs to eke a book out of soon. He is, as someone on Twitter said recently, pure gold), Chuck Degroat, Seth Haines, and a few others.), but overall the lists are out and the men have spoken: they’re still reading (or liking) mainly men.

Though I know the sentiment isn’t as sweet from a woman, I thought I’d share my top ten books by women this year with the assurance that these are actually my top ten books this year—and not just a conciliatory nod toward my own gender. Women are writing more and better books and I’m deeply grateful.

A Light So Lovely, by Sarah Arthur. This is a book on the spiritual legacy left by Madeleine L’Engle. I first read L’Engle because my mom wouldn’t let me read The Babysitter’s Club. What I might lack in pop-culture knowledge, I gained tenfold by becoming a voracious reader of all L’Engle’s work. No other writer has had as much influence on my voice as a writer as dear Madeleine. This book by Sarah Arthur is a masterpiece.

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton. Some people find Spiritual Disciplines invigorating and natural, I find them difficult to maintain and sometimes dry. On a list of books for each Enneagram type to read, Sacred Rhythms was for the 9—my type. No other book this year has convicted me as simply and peacefully as this book has. Some people need to be sucker punched for conviction, I need to be wooed. This book has encouraged me to see the beauty in God’s design for the seasons of life.

Why Can’t We Be Friends, by Aimee Byrd. I honestly cannot figure out why more people aren’t talking about this book. Can’t figure out if it’s lack of curiosity or, worse, a reticence to be convicted by her words. This is a book, mainly, on friendship between opposite genders within the church. My copy is so underlined and dog-eared it’s probably unreadable by anyone else.

Love Thy Body, by Nancy Pearcey. This reads more like a thesis than the self-help book the title suggests. I put off reading it because of the title until I needed it for research for my book, and I wish now more people had talked about it. There are certainly points at which I disagree with her message, but it is a book that should be read by Christians.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander. I read half of this last year and half this year, over December and January, so I’m counting it for this year. This was among the most difficult reads of my year and yet I cannot recommend it more highly. You will either love this book or hate it, but you should read it and prepare your heart for honest evaluation.

Born to Wander, by Michelle Van Loon. I read this one when it was just a galley and wished I’d had a hard copy to mark up and dog-ear then. It felt like reading an exposé on my own heart, its wanderlust, and desire for home. If you feel like an elect exile, but also an exile in general, I cannot recommend it more highly. It’s not a long book, but it’s a good one.

All That’s Good, Hannah Anderson. Hannah never fails to incite thought in her readers. She’s never one to tell you exactly what to think, but is adept at deconstructing assumptions about, well, everything. In All That’s Good she talks about the lost art of discernment and how to practice it afresh in this information age.

Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. I lent my copy out so it’s not in the photo below, but the cadance you’d expect from Jackie comes through full force in this book. It’s a beautifully communicated story and I think the church needs story more than anything right now.

Courage Dear Heart, Rebecca Reynolds. Rebecca is one of my favorite people on social media today. Especially on Facebook. I rarely read anything on Facebook, but if Rebecca wrote it, I will for sure read it. She posted snippets of this book as she wrote it and it whet my appetite so much that I read the whole book in one sitting when I got it. It’s written as a series of letters to those suffering, in pain, fear, and more. It’s beautiful.

The Path Between Us, Suzanne Stabile. If you’re on the “Enneagram is dumb” train, you can stop reading now. I feel no need to convince you. And a mere identification of your “type” is unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. But an exploration of more can be helpful. In our family, we’ve found it helpful. This book addresses how to commune with and understand others in a very practical way. I’ve seen such fruit in such a short period of time, especially in regard to the 2s and 7s in my life. I have historically felt (sinfully) frustrated with certain types people and reading this helped me to understand what’s going on in their heads and why they think certain behavior is not only good, but necessary for the world.

Bonus: In His Image, Jen Wilkin. Again, a short book (there must be a prize out there for writing three books almost the exact same length each, Jen would get it), but powerful in its message for everyone (despite the flowers on the cover). I think one of the reasons Jen’s books are of similar length and fairly short, is because her gift for clarity and conciseness in speech flows into her writing. Anyway. In His Image is about the ways we image God’s communicable attributes. It’s an excellent read for anyone, but I especially recommend giving it to young readers or new believers who might be prone to swallowing ideals divorced from God’s character about what Christians should look like.

In 2017 I read more men than women (like most people), this year I tried to read more women than men. I hope 2019 is not the year of the woman or of the man, but the year of balance in who we read—and truly enjoy enough to put on our 2019 Top Ten lists.

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Reflections on Our Homemade Marriage Retreat

Instead of hosting unmarried friends like we usually do for holidays, Nate and I decided to use the four day weekend Thanksgiving gave us to work on some personal and marital growth. We have had two housemates for the past year and a half. One got his own place this fall and the other married two weeks ago, so we’re experiencing a tiny, tiny bit of an empty nest feeling. There’s been a sweetness to our time together that we haven’t had almost ever in our marriage. The first few years of marriage, for us, felt like holding on for dear life as we moved cross-country multiple times, began and ended jobs, tried to stay afloat in multiple new churches and communities, and dealt with some difficult blows regarding finances, safety, community, and more. Then, when we moved back to Texas into a house with four bedrooms (it’s hard to find a house with fewer where we live), we opened our home quickly to housemates. No regrets, of course. We grew and learned much about ourselves and one another in the process. There were sweet times and difficult times, as there are with every situation in which sinners are pressed up close to one another. But as we enter into a season of just the two of us in relative stability for the first time since we got married, we are excited to see what the Lord might do in us.

Nate suggested we use our four day weekend as a time to do a retreat of sorts, and that’s barking right up my alley and love for Spiritual Formation of all kind. He had some suggestions for the focus and theme of our retreat and I worked through the specifics, schedule, books, etc.. We began Thursday morning and finished Sunday afternoon in time to deck the house with swags of garland (fa la la la la, la la la la).

When I mentioned we were going to do this on Instagram, many asked for the content we’d use. I very specifically tailored it to Nate and me so sharing the content wouldn’t be super helpful to another couple, but if you’re interested, I shared a bit and saved under Marriage Retreat on my story highlights on Instagram. What I mainly want to reflect on here is the benefit of doing something like this for your marriage (Or your future marriage, as I said on my stories. If the Lord has marriage for you, what you’re doing today to invest in yourself will reap benefits in your marriage.).

We are newbs at this whole thing, both marriage and marriage retreats, however I don’t think experience is the primary barometer by which we should measure worthwhile counsel. I am not of the belief that marriage is the pinnacle of Christian maturity, nor the most important relationship of your life. I am, however, of the belief that marriage is one illustration of the gospel, and if we want to be attentive to how we are both emulating and experiencing the gospel in our own lives and we’re married, we should give our attention to caring for our marriages. Doing a marriage retreat is one way we can do this. It doesn’t have to be at some fancy place (we did ours at home), it doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars (our cost the price of a few books and the State Park day fee for an afternoon spent by the lake reading and reflecting—a grand total of about $60), and it doesn’t have to be the most meaningful weekend of your life. Ours consisted of personal time in the Word and time spent with two Biblical characters who shared many of our similar struggles personality-wise (Peter, for Nate, and Jonah, for me). We worked through Dan Allender’s Engaging Your Story (free, but would have been worth the cost if there was one—we both agreed this was the best part of our retreat). Then we worked through some chapters specific to areas we want to grow in personally and spiritually, and their accompanying questions. We’d spend the afternoon in conversation with one another using questions we printed off from various sources (easy to google). Our aim was to ask ourselves probing questions about our hearts and then to ask/answer one another honestly about how to love and serve one another better when we spot sin or growth in one another’s life.

We turned off our phones except to check once a day, didn’t use the laptop (except to find a recipe and listen to Dan Allender’s talks), spent a lot of time outside, and generally just tried to turn our focus toward one another and God. It was simple, not fancy, not expensive, not earth-shattering.

Any yet, it was so good. We unearthed some habits, sins, proclivities, and areas that have stunted our growth and our marriage. We were able to speak honestly, kindly, and faithfully to one another about the other’s sin and how it affects us. We were able to listen and repent for where we have done wrong. And we were able to laugh and enjoy just one another for four whole days. I don’t only see myself better today, I see Nate better, and I see God’s intention for us as a couple better.

Marriage, for me, has felt more like trying to find a stabilizing place than it has ever felt like thriving. I have felt rocked since the day after we said “I do.” Don’t get me wrong. I love our marriage. I think we have a really, really good marriage and it is all a gift from God, not from anything we’ve done, just grace from Him. But, for me, marriage has felt like getting knocked off a cliff again and again. Like I’m Wiley Coyote and I never learn my lesson. I have felt less like myself since we married than I’ve felt in my life. One of the reasons for that, though, is my desire for fusion between the two of us overshadowed the fact that I am still very much a whole person apart from Nate. This weekend reminded me as much as I’m grateful for the ways in which we’re similar, we are still very, very, very different people. And that’s okay.

This is just my short reflection on our marriage and our marriage retreat. It’s not really counsel or advice of any kind, except to say if you can do it (trade kids with another couple, ask your in-laws to keep them for a weekend, ask for help), do it. You have the rest of your lives together together. You and them and nobody else, not really, not in the same kind of covenant.

One way to avoid having marriage, your spouse, or your family become an idol is by taking time regularly to intentionally see it/them rightly. So take a few days, print off a few lists of questions from the Google, get a book or two, make a schedule and mostly keep to it, check technology minimally, and get outside. Get a reset on how you see your spouse, clearly or foggily, and how you see your marriage, and how you see you moving forward together in God’s kingdom. You won’t regret it.

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Book Recommendations and a Thank You

Before I begin, in the past few months I haven’t been writing on Sayable much and I’ve gotten so many sweet messages from so many of you saying you’ve missed my words here. Thank you. Truly. Thank you. I am hard at work on the book and it’s due at the end of January. My aim is to be giving my best writing toward that project, to write a book that’s faithful to the craft and to the message, but most of all to God. Writing can be a lonely occupation sometimes and writing a book is much lonelier than writing a blog where there’s lots of feedback, comments, and interaction. Your emails have meant the world to me when they’ve come and they’ve always come at just the right moment for me, just when my energy is waning or I’m thinking, “I’m the LAST person who should be writing this book!” Thank you. You guys make the work worth it. Hopefully I won’t have used up all my words by the end of January. Your prayers are appreciated.

~

I am a very bad, no good, horrible secret keeper when it comes to Christmas gifts. If a secret has nothing to do with gifts, I’m champion at keeping it quiet, but if I’ve bought a gift I’m excited about giving (which, what other kind is there?), it’s tough to keep a lid on it. A few weeks ago I put one of Nate’s gifts on my desk to hide later, intent on him being surprised by it and hopefully forgetting its existence myself until Christmas. But time got away from me that day and he came into the kitchen that evening saying, “That book on your desk looks really good!”

Fail.

I’m still not giving it to him until December 25th though. He can wait.

The first few years of our marriage felt more like survival than thriving—because of the moves and all the other things—so we’d curve, most nights, to one another in bed with our laptop open and watch a few episodes of West Wing or some Masterpiece Mystery show. But since this summer we recommitted to not making a practice of show-watching in our bed anymore. I wish we were disciplined enough to make statements like, “We never…” but either we lack the discipline or we lack the hyperbole. Generally, though, we reserve our bed for reading, sleeping, and other bed activities. What that means is we’ve become voracious readers again and it’s been good for our minds and souls.

I wanted to recommend a few books for you to put on your Christmas list or to fulfill the list of someone you love. I hope you’re better at secret keeping than I am.

Non-fiction

Sarah Arthur released A Light So Lovely, a beautiful book about the life and tension of Madeleine L’Engle. It was one of my favorite reads this year.

Amiee Byrd’s Why Can’t We Be Friends is a book I want to give to everyone this year and I hope many will take me up on this recommendation. I think the Church needs this book.

After receiving (and loving) Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Retreat from IVP, I purchased her Sacred Rhythms and I had no idea how this book would feed and nourish me. If you struggle (like I do) with habit making and need a more compelling reason than the glory of being disciplined (like I do), I recommend this book.

I first heard of Ragan Sutterfield on a podcast interview he did with Renovare on Wendell Berry. I immediately bought his memoir This is My Body and read it in one sitting. I loved his perspective on so many aspects of the body, the church, farming, exercise, and eating.

Hannah Anderson released her newest recently and it might be my favorite of her three. All That’s Good extols the lost art of discernment and does so beautiful.

We walked one of our favorite couples through pre-marital counseling this fall and used the book our church generally uses, Catching Foxes by John Henderson. I was reminded of what an excellent resource this book is, not only for new marriages but for old ones too.

Fiction, with this caveat: I love good literature, but as I lay me down to sleep is not the best time for me to read great literature. These are good stories and most are well-written, winners of Pulitzers or other book awards.

I’m on a perpetual mystery novel kick, but I took a detour this fall into the German invasion of France during WWII. I read The Nightingale, The Alice Network, Lilac Girls, and Charlotte Gray. (I listened to Code Name Verity last fall and loved it, and also recommend All The Light We Cannot See.)

I reread Lila by Marilynne Robinson this year and it remains my favorite of her Gilead townspeople novels.

Leif Enger recently released his newest, Virgil Wander. We are big fans of Enger’s work in our house. Peace Like a River is on both our top-ten lists.

While I tend to the lighter sides of fiction, Nate tends toward the more difficult. He read Go Tell it on the Mountain, the semi-autobiographical work from James Baldwin (as well as a number of other works by Baldwin this year) and recently bought The Gates of November from Chiam Potok. (He will want me to mention that he doesn’t only read great literature, he’s been reading his fair share of Brad Thor spy novels recently.)

Poetry

We always have Mary Oliver laying around the house, but in 2018 Nate took up writing poems and her Poetry Handbook is a staple next to his journal and Bible these days.

My friend, Rachel Welcher, is releasing her newest book of poems into the world and I wept reading them. Keep an eye out for details on getting it when it releases.

We keep Billy Collins in the bathroom and I’m not even embarrassed to tell you that.

I’ve been refreshed by Rilke again this year. (Fun fact: did you know Sayable is named after a Rilke poem?)

~

This is just a smattering of the books that have been laying around our home this year. I enjoyed them all and hope there’s something in here you’ll enjoy too.

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Seeds Become Fruit and Fruit Becomes Seeds

Writing is like speaking a language and writer’s block happens when you’ve gone a while without speaking it. It’s like any other exercise, to be strong, one must practice. I’ve been flexing my writing muscles over in another place on my laptop the past few months, watching chapters take shape, quotes find place, and points be made. I share an illustration in one chapter that a friend told me a few months ago, a story about his grandfather. His grandfather was whittling wood from the pile. “How do you know what it’s going to be,” my friend asked him. “Well, son, this block of wood you see is an eagle. My job is just to take away all the parts that aren’t eagle.”

Writing is a bit like that, taking a big block of wood (or cheese, for you West Wingers among us), kind of knowing what you want it to be and then stripping away the words that don’t belong until you’re left with a halfway presentable piece.

Sanctification is also like this and sometimes we get out of practice there too. I forget who I’m supposed to look like (Christ) and stop submitting myself to the whittling away process of sanctification. I react rather than respond. I succumb rather than submit. I falter rather than have faith. And then one day I wake up and realize my muscles have atrophied and responding in right action feels more difficult than before. The old “two steps back” adage applies here.

I tell a friend last night (incidentally the same friend who told me the story about his grandfather months ago) that most of us are just walking in the faith we have for the day, but sometimes the Spirit makes a thing clear to us, we ignore it, and our path begins diverging from God’s best. We’re not hopelessly lost, of course, grace, grace, upon grace. But we begin to carry that seed of rebellion or disappointment in our pocket, caressing it, secreting it away, and sometimes it becomes so hidden we even forget it’s there. But it’s still clinging to our every day just the same. Bitterness. Resentment. Fear. Doubt. It begins to inform every relationship, decision, and season of our lives. It still seems like a tiny seed hidden away, but it’s actually become a monstrosity in our hearts.

I’ve had some realization about one of these seeds in my life the past few weeks. It startled me with its presence and the clarity with which I first saw it. I felt shocked that such a thing existed and was informing nearly every relationship in my life. Every friendship—even with my husband—was teetering on a question of trust. My trust had been tried in a friendship and I carried that distrust with me everywhere, trying to sense if a person was trustworthy, could handle my true self, and would respond kindly. I’ve had to stop, reflect on what God’s word says about trusting flesh (my own and others), and reorient my heart toward the people I love and the God who will never harm me.

All of life for the Christian is spent hearing, listening, reading, and knowing God’s word and then also doing it. But our culture, even our Christian, culture, doesn’t really make a lot of space for that. We appropriate our culture’s verbiage for everything and then wonder why simple obedience in the face of hard things is so hard. Simple obedience is hard. It causes us to flinch from its pain. “Anyone who says differently,” as Wesley, dear sweet Wesley said, “is selling something.”

Our culture is selling us something, ease, success, cheeriness, perfect abs, airbrushed images. But most of us, if we’re honest, are just a block of wood getting chiseled away at by the Master Maker. There’s an eagle in there somewhere, but not yet, not today. Not until we see Him face to face in glory.

If you have the time today, I encourage you to get a moment of quiet and ask the Lord if there’s a seed you’ve been carrying in your pocked. Maybe it’s from the fruit of a disappointing relationship, maybe it’s what you dream about planting to make a name for yourself, maybe it’s a bitter root forming, or maybe you don’t even know it’s there. Ask him how it’s been informing your day, your actions, your view of him, your view of others. And ask him if he’ll remove it and plant in its place a seed of faith for a different outcome. That’s what I’m praying for in place of the seed of fear I’ve had: Would you plant in me faith for a different outcome? I know he can and so I’m asking him to.

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Not Many of You Should Become Writers, Readers, Publishers, or Editors

I read this quote from Tim Challies this morning and then I had a thought this morning and wanted to share it with you. Here’s the quote:

“It has long been my observation that there are two kinds of books being marketed to Christians. There are some whose foundational message is what you need to do and others whose foundational message is what Christ has already done. The first make a model out of the author, the second make a model out of Jesus. The first place the burden for change on personal power while the second place the burden for change on Christ’s power.”

A few years ago when Nate and I were still living in DC, we were really struggling to find a church home. Most of that is on my and Nate’s shoulders. We came to DC feeling bruised and a bit jaded with the practices and structures at play within the theological camp we aligned. A few years out from then, we still have pretty firm objections and strong opinions on how some of the power structures play out in the circles in which we run. But within our year in DC we were not members of a local church. We attended a church for a few weeks where there was some pressure to become members quickly, but I objected because membership—to me—is a very serious thing. It’s not just signing my name on a paper. I believe it’s a sacred act. We finally landed at The Falls Church Anglican about nine months into our time there, but at that point we were sure we wouldn’t be in DC long, and didn’t entertain an attempt at membership.

During my year in DC, a publication I had written regularly for for years reached out to me with a few pitches. I said no a few times, and then finally, I thought, I need to give them a more clear reason. I communicated my hesitation in writing for them was due primarily to the fact that I was not a member of a local church currently. I was still very connected to our church family in Texas, I had good community, albeit far away, and I was earnestly in search of church home—but as a couple, we were not covenanted with a local body of believers.

Here’s why I want to share this with you today:

In the digital world we’ve fashioned for ourselves, it is very, very easy to have all the right answers and look the part you want to play. Much has been written on the ease of self-promotion and the lack of realness (In fact, Catherine Parks releases her new book Real today. I endorsed it for the publisher and I endorse it here for you, too. Buy it here.) , so I don’t want to overstate anything. However, my concern is for you, dear readers.

Last week my friend Lisa Whittle talked about “inspiration addiction” that many have. We hop from one inspiring blog to an inspiring post to an inspiring podcast to an inspiring image to an inspiring quip to an inspiring book . . . you get my point. We can be addicted to the beauty around us so much that we forget these are real people creating real content with real stories in their lives. And because much of the promotion is done by self, there’s no check or balance. Unless we trust people to self-check themselves, we have no idea if the words we’re hearing or reading are reflective of a faithful life or a sham.

When my editor reached out to me with a pitch, she assumed that because I’d been a faithful church member and church staff in the past, that I had continued in that vein. It was my heart to continue in that vein, but the truth was another matter. I wasn’t a faithful church member, I was currently a wounded, wandering Christian without a church home. I feel no shame about that season of wandering, it was necessary for my good and God’s glory. But I also knew I didn’t want to pretend to be something I wasn’t. And I wanted my editors to care about the fidelity of the writers they publish. And I wanted readers to trust this publication wouldn’t publish writers whose lives weren’t faithful representatives of what they wrote online.

This isn’t a war anyone will win on their own. It is up to writers to be honest about their lives, publishers to be unwilling to publish people who say one thing and act another, editors to ask and not assume when pitching pieces, and readers to be truly discerning readers. This is a job for all of us. If we want integrity and fidelity in Christian publishing, it’s on everyone’s shoulders to get there.

I know you’re a reader because you’re reading this. And I think I can safely assume this isn’t the only thing you’re reading. My encouragement to you today is to be a discerning reader. That’s going to play out differently for each of you, so I can’t say how exactly, but I want to encourage you to expect more from writers. These days it is so easy to submit work to an online source and get published, and once you've tasted the (lackluster) glory of being published, it doesn’t take long to build yourself a platform and taste more success. Anyone can do it. And that’s exactly why everyone shouldn’t.

Every single time I press “save and publish” on Sayable, I think of James chapter 3. I encourage you to go now and read the whole passage:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Discerning Readers