Margin notes

I have an obsession with underlining and highlighting and making notes in the margin of my books.  I read with a pen in my hand, a habit I’m sure I picked up from my father, a man who was never more excited than when Post-It started making pens that are also highlighters that also come with built-in flags for his pages.  I suppose you could say we’re a family of nerds, of bookworms, of avid learners.  If there’s information to be had, we not only want to digest it, we want to engage with it.  Unlike my father, though, I have this other habit of forcing these books that I love with all these margin notes upon my friends.   And sometimes, though rare, I’ll get a book back with a note in it from one of them.

There are two books I own that have stand-out margin notes that were not made by me.  One is my Bible; the other is my copy of Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God.  To be fair, my Bible is really just marked with an underline of two word phrase found in 1 Peter 1:8 – “joy inexpressible.”   In the middle of a Sunday service, my BFF leaned over my arm as I was taking notes and underlined it.  It’s one of her favorite phrases in all of Scripture, she says, because “inexpressible joy” is one of the great gifts of Jesus, something that we’re given as Christians as an extension of God’s grace.  She’s right, of course, as she is about most things, which I kind of hate but really love about her.   When it boils down, it’s one of the reasons that she’s my best friend. Because she keeps me looking for joy.  And because she’s not afraid to lean over in the middle of a church service to underline in my Bible and remind me again that joy is deeply connected to God’s grace.

I also lent her my copy of Girl Meets God two summers ago, after I had devoured it in a two day span of time.  I was so taken with the book and so enamored with Lauren Winner’s writing that I needed my best friend to read it so we could talk about it. So, she did, because she loves me.  And when I was flipping through after she had returned it to me, I found a note in pencil, in her distinctly bubbly handwriting, in the middle of the chapter about baptism, beside a paragraph I had noted with only a single question mark.   Truth be told, while I appreciate what the note says, I’m most struck by its place in my book in the first place.  It’s another reason she’s my best friend.  Because she humors me and reads the non-fiction I love even though she’s drawn more to novels, and because she talks to me about the non-fiction I make her read, in person and in margin notes.

Thanks for the mark you left in my book & in my life.

I’m sure for a normal person, margin notes are not such a big deal and don’t actually have that much to say about friendship.  But, I’m so far from normal and spend so much time in my books that these margin notes are screaming to me that this person has, quite literally, left her mark in my life.

I hope for you that you have at least one of these kinds of friendships.   I hope you know what it’s like to have someone you want to talk to about the books you’re reading, or the movies you’re watching, or the job you love, or your kids who bring a bit of joy to this broken world.   I hope you know what it’s like to have a friend who keeps you accountable to working through pieces of faith that are hard and who keeps you looking toward God when joy is hard to hold onto.  I hope you know what it’s like to have someone come in and camp out in your life in a tangible way.  If you don’t, start doing the work to have it.  But, if you do, then embrace that friend and make sure to thank them for the mark they left in your life.

The theology of the Harry Potter Book Club

(c) 2010 Celine Choo, Flickr // via Wylio

My friend, Amy, has been begging me for the entirety of our friendship to read the Harry Potter series. Now, in the time that Amy and I have been friends, I’ve started and completed my Master’s degree and she’s gotten engaged and gotten married.  Our friendship doesn’t have a short shelf-life; we’re doing life together. So, after so many years and so many text messages that started, “Oh, and btw are you reading Harry Potter yet?,” I caved.  I caved because it’s important to Amy and because not doing so was a personal insult to  her.  Seriously.  She threatened to stop hanging out with me, and I knew it was a serious threat when I texted her a “Friends” quote which she didn’t text back to finish.  So, to save our friendship, to save the unfinished “Friends” quote, I started reading Harry Potter.  Which, you know, turned out to be okay because it gave birth to my very first book club experience.  And I’ll do just about anything to sit around, drink coffee, and laugh with my friends.

And we laugh a lot! It’s interesting to me as I get older how much I’ve come to value that piece of life – the laughing-at-it piece.  Probably because my head is now so trained to examine the broken and ugly parts of the human condition, the parts that aren’t working, that laughing makes me feel like something is still working.  Actually, to be honest, I think that laughing with people connects me somehow back to God’s creating heart in Genesis 1 and 2 – created in Love, in His image, to experience the beauty of His glory, in relationship with each other because “it’s not good for man to be alone.”  I think laughing makes me feel less alone.

It’s one of the reasons I value my book club – because we laugh together.  About the book, yes, but mostly because we like each other and we just kind of can’t help it.  It’s the natural outpouring of five women who enjoy being in the same space together.  It’s the organic result of reading the same book, but more importantly, of sharing the same life stories. So, while I may not be the biggest fan of Harry Potter, I am a super huge fan of these women and every minute that I get to laugh with them.

When I posted on Facebook that I was reading Harry Potter, another friend commented, “This is me, sighing loudly.”  I knew this particular friend would comment because we’ve talked about Harry Potter before and I know how she feels about the books and the kind of theological questions she has about its magical content. Quite frankly, I respect her opinion a whole lot and I think her points are valid. But, those aren’t deal breakers for me, so that’s why I commented back, “Then sigh AND shake your head because I’m in a HP book club. Ya know, because I’m all about building relationships any way that I can.”

I’ve been really surprised by the depth of conversation that’s come out of this book club, because while these women have great depth, we are reading a kids book about wizards.  It’s not like we’re breaking down Tolstoy or Kurt Vonnegut for that matter.  We’re talking about the Imperius curse and how creepy it is that Mad-Eye Moody’s magic eye can see through clothing.  We’re talking about how weird it is the the Sorting Hat has a brain and how gross pumpkin juice has to be. We’re talking about house elves, and trolls, and three-headed dogs.  But…we’re also talking about the non-negotiables of friendships, and heartbreaks we experienced as teenagers, and how, like Harry, we’re not meant to do life alone.  We’re talking about how pride and ambition and personal flaws can get in the way of relationships and successes.  We’re talking about good versus evil, and what makes someone a “bad” person, and how “good” people can make a difference in the world.  And we’re laughing. We’re always laughing.

So, okay, I don’t know what Jesus would do with Harry Potter.  I don’t know if He’d read it or demand its burning.  But, I do know that He applauds the building of relationships, and eating together, and laughing together.  I know that when He walked the earth that He met people in unusual ways that often ticked off the religious leaders of His day.  I know that those religious leaders sighed and shook their heads a lot when they were around Jesus. I know that all the head shaking and sighing didn’t stop Jesus for one second from building relationships wherever He was.  It didn’t stop Him from turning conversations to things that were for God’s glory.  Like, in John 4 when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, I think there was probably a lot of head sighing and shaking from the religious leaders.  I think if the disciples hadn’t been off getting food, if they had been with Jeus when He started walking toward the well, that John might have been in Jesus’ ear saying, “Um, Jesus, we don’t go there.”  And I imagine they would’ve been like some of my friends saying to me about Harry Potter Book Club, “Um, yeah, we don’t go there.”

But, I am going to Harry Potter Book Club. Because I enjoy these women and because I need to laugh with them.  I’m going because it’s kind of like going to my own metaphorical well, and because I believe that talking about good versus evil, and the foundations of friendships, and sharing our own stories of heartbreaks with each other is talking about things that are of God.  And because, you know, I think Jesus is also about building relationships any way that we can.

Good writing changes me

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Shauna Niequist is my new favorite author.  Alright, to be fair, in my life that’s a not a very bold statement; I have a lot of favorite authors: Donald Miller, Lauren Winner, Rachel Held Evans, and now Shauna Niequist.   I loves these authors, they’re my favorites, because they’re who they are on paper.  They’re people with authentic hurts and authentic joys who share their experiences in their books, well, authentically.  They’re real people who aren’t afraid to be real in print.  I aspire to be one of these people, the kind of person who from the first sentences of their work is saying to you who read it, “This is the story God and I are writing together, and I just want to share it with you.  Because I think maybe it’ll help you share your own story. And I think God’s pleased by this exchange.”

I think really good books are written from this place, this want to share an honest story.  I think that books like that change lives. Or if they don’t change lives, at least they cause us to think differently about our own lives and the stories our lives are telling.

Shauna Niequist’s book, “Cold Tangerines,”  is changing my life.  Its met me in a season of great transition, and it’s causing me to think differently.  Sidenote, I also think that’s the mark of a really good book, that it makes you think differently.  How this particular book is making me think differently, though, is that it’s inspiring me to live in the moment.  Shauna (who I just can’t call “Niequist,” as I would ordinarily address an author, because her story has now had too much of an impact on my own) challenges her readers to celebrate.  Essay by essay, she shares the significant moments that she’s experienced with significant people in her life, and by sharing these moments she’s encouraging readers to challenge themselves to see God at work in those moments, to see Him in the vibrant red of a tree as it changes colors in the Fall, or to see His grace working in the friends we interact with and community we create, or to see His redemptive nature in the action of turning left-over turkey bones into soup.  At least, that’s what she’s encouraged me to do.  And she’s encouraged me to do it right now. In this very moment.

Today is Memorial Day, and I am where I have been for many Memorial Days, at my oldest friend’s house with her family, who is my family too now, eating burgers and hot dogs and watermelon and corn.  To prepare for this event, this morning my oldest friend, Beth, and I ran out to the grocery store  for her mom, and that’s an errand we don’t get to run together anymore because Beth lives in Scotland and isn’t usually around to run to ShopRite with me.  And in any other day I would hate this errand because I hate the grocery store.  I hate being banged into with shopping carts, and getting stuck behind that Extreme Couponer who has a wallet full of what she’s clipped from the newspaper that will save her 48 cents on canned peas, which I also hate.  But this morning, I loved going to the grocery store.  Okay, to be fair again, I still hated that we were going to the grocery store, but I loved that I got to steal an hour of solo-time with Beth. I loved that we laughed on the way to the store about our friends having babies and the way this weirds me out.  I loved that we fought like the sisters 15 years of friendship has made us because I thought she was taking way too long picking out an onion. And I loved that when I was talking to her about what God and I are working through at this juncture of my life that she reached over and rested her hand on my arm and told me that she thinks I’m an even better version of myself than I was when she was home a year ago.

I think this is the kind of thing Shauna was talking about through her book.  I think that this is what she hopes people do, that they “suck the marrow out of life,” as another favorite author of mine, Henry David Thoreau, would say.  I read “Walden” in high school and I have carried that phrase with me since my sophomore year, but I think 12 years of life and a thousand added experiences have given it new life and new meaning.  To suck the marrow out of life is to find joy in an errand that you hate.  And for the rest of the day, it’s for me to laugh with these people who aren’t my blood relations but who are my family.  It’s to eat corn and watermelon and enjoy the flavor of these simple summer foods.  It’s to be all in, where I am now, with these people.  In this moment, it’s about embracing the ways that I’m changing, and to praise God for them…and for good writing and good books that have the power to make me think differently.