One of the reasons I’m so happy to be done with the manuscript for Improvising with Godis the chance to consume art, and read books, and generally get the tank filled up after expending so much energy writing. I also realize I’ve had my head down so much I haven’t had a chance to promote the really great work that’s already out there, written by friends and colleagues.
In no particular order, here are some recent books you should know about:
My friend Elizabeth Hagan’s memoir Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility dropped last month! You got to meet her here at the Blue Room in her Q&A, but check out her book, which is not just for people struggling with infertility–the story is much broader than that and resists easy answers.
Elizabeth was a member of my Writing Revs group, as was Ruth Everhart, whose memoir Ruined is her harrowing account of a sexual assault that took place in college and the healing that occurred in the long aftermath of that trauma. I got to read both of these books in earlier stages of the process, and it is heartening to see them both loose in the world.
I had the chance to read Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess and is a great companion for anyone who’s tried to live more lightly on the earth, only to discover that simplicity is anything but simple. Lee is a trustworthy companion on this journey, offering just the right blend of deep wisdom and disarming authenticity.
On the topic of love and relationships, I haven’t picked up Katherine Willis Pershey’s book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity, but it’s also making a big splash. Eugene Peterson has called it the best book on marriage he’s ever read. Holy endorsements, Batman!
I have a lot of friends who’ve written books recently, and I hope to highlight many of them over the coming weeks.
To get us started, here’s my good friend Elizabeth Hagan, who wrote the book Birthed: Finding Grace through Infertility. I read parts of this book in various stages of development, and am grateful for Elizabeth’s honesty and nuance on this topic. We’ve all heard infertility stories with a nice pat ending–the treatments worked, or the couple got pregnant when they “relaxed and stopped trying so hard” (ugh). Elizabeth cuts through the treacle and gets to the heart of things, without the predictable ending to the journey.
What led you to write this book?
I am among the 1 in 8 women in US who are infertile. When this unthinkable thing happened to my husband, Kevin, and me, I felt overwhelmed in my grief. I didn’t know how to make it in a world where friends seemed to be announcing their pregnancies on social media almost every day. I didn’t know how to process my own shame. I didn’t know how to keep pastoring especially during joyful seasons like Advent and Christmas.
One of my coping tools was Amazon. I ordered all the books on infertility that I could find. I desperately wanted someone to give voice to our deep sense of grief, loss, and frustration with God, our bodies, and our community. I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t crazy for wanting to be a mother so badly. I wanted a spiritual guide to tell me not to just “pray harder.” But most of the time with these books I was disappointed. Many times I did not find the author making progress in their journey. I did not read of a how infertility could be connected to a spiritual journey. Most of all I did not find what I needed. So one day almost 6 years ago, I knew I needed to start writing. I needed to write that book I was always searching for and never found. Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility was slowly born.
What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
To my knowledge, I am the first pastor who has shared their infertility story ever! How fun to be the first! But there are so many take-aways I believe readers will find (no matter if they’ve lived through infertility or not) such as:
When life doesn’t go as you plan, something greater might be emerging beneath the surface. Live through the pain and you will get there!
It is ok to live into the mystery — the mystery of not knowing how your dreams will come to fruition, when or if at all
A long season of grief doesn’t have to destroy your marriage or friendships. It can in fact bring you closer.
Hope springs eternal even when the worse case scenario happens and happens again.
Share one idea, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
So much of this story is about friendship and how grief can be transformed with loyal people by your side. Here’s one part of my story that I am so glad that happened while on a retreat with a friend in Arizona:
With really wet cheeks by this point, God and I had a moment. With Meredith’s gift of secure presence by my side, courage came to go there—to a very deep place of self-reflective honesty. This is what I knew: I wasn’t just a little afraid; I was deathly afraid. I was afraid to love. I was afraid that who I was made to be was not acceptable. I was afraid to use my voice to say what I wanted to say. Instead, my life game plan consisted of becoming the best imitation of me that could be deemed socially acceptable. I did not send emails I wanted to send. I did not kiss dear ones goodbye on the check. I did not call people when I thought of them. I feared my love was too much. I feared I wasn’t good enough at being me. But, what if? What if, like the therapist said, I held back no more? I was dying inside and had been for a long time. But, instead of continuing to carry the grief, hope came over me. I stared ahead to the canyons, keeping close to the therapist’s truth-telling words. I knew I was in love. I was in love with the idea of life without the gates I’d built around my heart to keep me safe. I was in love with how much joy might be rising up to meet me. I was in love with a future I couldn’t control, even with dreams of motherhood set aside for a moment. In this love, I wanted to be a woman who didn’t fear telling people how much she loved them. I wanted to be a woman who didn’t fear getting close to those who seemed to love her most. I wanted to be a woman who could confidently claim that her voice was powerful, even in the midst of trouble in baby-making land that rendered her powerless in that aspect of her life. In all these things, visions of joy I did not yet know sprung from me. Maybe, just maybe, the world was missing out on some of the greatest contributions I could offer? Maybe there was light in my voice? Maybe others needed to hear what I had to say as much as I needed to speak it?
What has been the biggest surprise about getting a book written and published? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
You are really your best advocate. And with the right fit of a publisher, you’ll have a lot of say in the direction your book takes. Just hang on for the ride!
I would tell other aspiring authors, never give up on your dream of publication. Keep writing. Keep re-writing. And believe in who you are as a writer. Your day will come. I started drafting this book in 2010 and never would have thought it would have taken me to 2016 to reach publication. Yet, I learned so much along the way and I am so glad I’m here now.
Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered?
I would love to sit down for a chat with Krista Tippett on On Being. It’s my favorite podcast that I listen to every week.
I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.
I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.
Here’s a bit of the proposal:
In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.
The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.
From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.
This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.
It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.
It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.
It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.
It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.
But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?
This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.
When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”
That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.
Every so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on—especially if you think the culture has “moved on” from Christianity and religion in general. There’s life and transformation in the old girl yet.
In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this–or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.
That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,
I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.
On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination – PC(USA) – and took their church with them. Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.
That agitated me.
Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong. We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”
2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership – a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. As I put it in the book,
I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place.
But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick. I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical. I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.” Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas. My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”
Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine. Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.
A love note to the church? I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!
3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?
Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me. That was the easy part.
After that, things were a bit more work. I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline – not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church – and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders. This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.
Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking. This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down. When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch. I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.
4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
You are going to make me pick!?
Each chapter shares pretty much the same format. I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.
Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it. It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.
Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:
With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real.
“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.”
She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.
Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA …
5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)
Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!
I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire – like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.
Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you’ll check it out.
What would happen if a golem and a jinni (genie) found their way to turn-of-the-20th-century New York City? That’s the question at the heart of Helen Wecker’s lovely novel, The Golem and the Jinni.
I came across this book thanks to Glen Weldon of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast–a personal favorite. Like him, I like that Wecker doesn’t make an allegory out of these mythical characters, nor does she lapse into the haziness of magical realism (not that I object to that genre). The golem and the jinni just exist in this world, without a lot of dreary explanations as to how.
The book is lush and slow. I don’t mean that it’s boring. I mean that it’s quiet–it’s not one I want to take in large gulps. I want to skim it quickly because I’m curious what happens to these two creatures, but the world Wecker describes is so rich, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m in my first renewal cycle at the library and hope to finish it before I’m forced to turn it in.
Golems are beings formed from clay, created to be slaves, but the master of the golem in this story dies early on, so she finds herself trying to find her way on her own, aware that if her identity is discovered, she will be in great danger. Meanwhile, she hears the desires of everyone around her, and in the absence of a master, these yearnings claw at her constantly.
As for the jinni, he is sprung from a lamp early in the story, but has no recollection of how he got there or who bested him and imprisoned him in the first place.
It’s not a heavy handed book, but I did appreciate the wisdom in this exchange. Here the jinni is talking to the golem about the tinsmith who took him in and gave him a job:
The jinni sighed. “I’m less grateful to him than I should be. He’s a good and generous man, but I’m not accustomed to relying on someone else. It makes me feel weak.
“How is relying on others a weakness?”
“How can it be anything else? If for some reason Arbeely died tomorrow, I’d be forced to find another occupation. The event would be outside my control, yet I’d be at its mercy. Is that not weakness?”
“I suppose. But then, going by your standard, everyone is weak. So why call it a weakness, instead of just the way things are?”
We are not in control. And we are bound to one another, no?
What are you reading right now?
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