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I watched my mailbox every day for two weeks, eagerly anticipating the arrival of Sarah Clarkson’s new book. Finally, finally, it came. I set aside the book I was reading for my book club (hardly a sacrifice as I found it tedious and annoying) and happily ensconced myself on the sofa with a cup of tea and Sarah’s book. Very little in life is better than tea, a good book, and a sofa. Throw in a fire in the grate on a rainy or windy grey day, and life is practically perfect, even when it isn’t.

And that’s a large part of the point of Sarah’s book. Co-written with her mother, Sally, The Life-Giving Home: Creating a Place of Belonging and Becoming is all about home as a refuge from the storms of life. It’s about living well by loving well. It’s about creating a corner of beauty and peace and hope right where we are. It’s about making home a beacon of love and light to which we can always return no matter how far we travel…or stray. And it’s about welcoming others into that circle of light and love.

Though Sally and Sarah didn’t use the term, what they’re talking about is what Elizabeth Goudge calls The Monastic Ideal:

“That’s the monastic ideal,” said Judy, “and I’ve always thought it rather selfish—a creeping away from life.”

“Then you have misunderstood it,” he said. “The monastic ideal is a core of sanity in a loathsome world, a core of sanity that spreads. Again and again men have gone into solitude to create beauty, and the beauty, created, has revolutionized a whole country.”

Judy was still unconvinced. “But if nothing can get through the mountains to contaminate your Utopia, how can the beauty you create get out into the world?”

“If you light a bonfire in a sheltered valley the protection makes such a huge blaze of it that those outside see the whole sky lit up.”

Long before I read Goudge’s words, I had tried to live in this manner. Partly that is temperament: I am an introvert, I process change slowly and with difficulty, and I become easily overwhelmed by too much sensory stimuli. But partly it is the loveliness of the vision: to create something so good, so beautiful, so desirable that people will see it and want to be part of it strikes me as the very heart of the Gospel.

And it is this picture of home that Sarah and Sally so compellingly paint in their book.

In a culture that worships efficiency and idolizes volume, it is easy to think we are wasting our time when we make a meal for our family. After all, it’s only feeding six people. It is easy to dismiss family reading time as unimportant; we’d reach more people if we televised it. And it’s tempting to banish beauty to the ash heap as a frivolous waste of time, energy, resources, everything.

But God does not give a rat’s hind end for efficiency and volume. In fact, I’d bet ready money that God cares more for a rat’s hind end than He does for the ephemeral nonsense we (myself included) waste our lives chasing. We don’t need to “expand our influence,” friends, or “reach more people” or run our lives like “lean machines.” That is not what life is about. And it’s certainly not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about love, and love both requires and creates relationship.

Christianity is a religion of relationship: the relationship of the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Godhead; the relationship of God and each human soul; and your and my relationships with each other and everyone who crosses our paths. And since relationship is the core of Christianity, it of necessity forms the core of Sally and Sarah’s book, for the whole purpose of creating a refuge from the storms of life is to foster relationship, a place for human flourishing, a place for belonging and becoming.

What Sally and Sarah do in this book is to cast a compelling vision of what a home can be. I have always loved Sarah’s writing for the way it expands my vision, freshens my spirits, renews my resolve, and fills my soul with both longing and determination. She paints a picture that I want my life to reflect. And that is as true in this book as in her others. In her sparkling prose, home becomes a living thing, an outpost of beauty in an ugly world, a haven of rest in a culture of hurry, a beacon of hope in a firestorm of despair. And I want it. I want it badly enough to work for it.

And work for it we must. I work hard to keep our home from being overrun by screens and hurry and hustle and the harried pace of the broader culture. I often feel like I am the little boy holding back the sea with his fingers. I sometimes wonder why I insist on living this way. It is lonely here by the dike.

Then I read a book like this and I know that I am not alone. There are others like me, people for whom the Monastic Ideal holds a beautiful place in their hearts, who are working to create a small oasis of beauty and peace, a home culture of kindness and goodness and love, who choose to live slowly and intentionally. I am grateful to Sarah and Sally for writing this book. It helps me feel part of something larger than my one little house with my small circle of friends and smaller family. It puts words to the path I have instinctively chosen and provides a map for further travels on this road. It splashes color and life and joy across the canvas of home and says, “See? This is what it can be like! Join us!”

Last month, on Epiphany, we prayed a blessing over our home and marked our door with chalk:

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Christus Mansionem Benedicat. Christ, bless this home. In this new year, bless all who enter, all who leave. May it be a shelter and a haven for everyone who crosses this threshold. May it be a place of love and faith, where Your Spirit sheds abroad the hope of Christ.

Those chalked numbers and letters over the door remind me that home is where we start from, and if home is full of loving welcome, we carry that loving welcome with us wherever, and to whomever, we go.

~

If you want to create or deepen a culture of belonging and becoming in your home, I highly commend Sarah and Sally’s book to your reading pleasure, and it is a pleasure, a delight. I do have one caveat, though. This book is the culmination of 30 years of lived experience. Please do not expect to replicate it in the next month, okay? Life-giving homes, like anything else worthwhile, aren’t built in a day or a week or even a year. They take time.

The book is laid out in twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. I strongly recommend reading one chapter a month; there are so many wonderful ideas in these pages that you will quickly become overwhelmed if you try to truck through in a week or two as I did. If you’re like me and want the lay of the land, read the introduction to each chapter and save the “In Our Home” sections to read slowly, one each month.

However you choose to read it, I do hope you will read it, especially if you still have children at home. To increase the odds that you will, I am happy to say that I have a copy to give away. Leave a comment over the weekend and I’ll enter you in a drawing come Monday.
 
 

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Lent begins early this year, almost the earliest it can begin, on February 10, which means it is just around the corner.

Even when Lent begins at a normal or latish time of year, I am usually not ready. Ash Wednesday finds me unprepared. This year, for some reason, I began thinking about Lent before Epiphany. Oddly, I’ve celebrated Epiphany more fully this year than I usually do, and I wonder if that has something to do with looking ahead, the realization that this season is short, and I want to enjoy every moment of it.

But I also want to be ready for Lent. So over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how I will live differently during this somber season. One of my Lenten disciplines, I’ve decided, will be meditating on the Psalms.

Now, I read the Psalms daily and have for twenty years, ever since I bought a Book of Common Prayer (the 1928 edition; of course) when I was studying in England for a term. The Psalms have been my constant companions for my entire adult life. No other book has shaped me so deeply. No other book even comes close (not even Pride and Prejudice!).

Since the Psalms are a big book—there are 150 of them—I’m going to take a smaller chunk, the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), upon which to meditate. These seem particularly appropos during Lent, for the Psalms of Ascent are pilgrim songs, sung by the people of Israel as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the three major feasts of their liturgical year: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. So these psalms are songs that Jesus and His disciples likely sang as they walked the roads of Palestine on that fateful final journey. They are called Psalms of Ascent because Jerusalem is built on a hill, Mount Zion, and all the pilgrims had to ascend the hill to reach the city, and the temple at its center.

As Christians we are a pilgrim people—this world is not our home—and we serve a pilgrim God who was not content to remain at home in Heaven but came to us, lived among us. He tabernacled with the Israelites as they sojourned in the desert, and He tabernacled in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth as He sojourned on this earth, His feet dusty from the roads of Galilee in the north to Judea in the south.

During Lent we get to journey with Jesus as He makes His way to Jerusalem for the last time. What better songs to sing in this season than these Psalms of Ascent, sojourning songs of the faithful? What better way to prepare for the Triduum than to meditate on these pilgrim songs, songs our Lord Himself sang as He climbed the mountain of the Lord, to offer Himself as our Passover lamb?

~

If you would like to join me, I will be writing about the Psalms of Ascent every Friday from now until Trinity (May 22), one psalm a week. You can follow along:

February 12: Psalm 120
February 19: Psalm 121
February 26: Psalm 122
March 4: Psalm 123
March 11: Psalm 124
March 18: Psalm 125
March 25 (Good Friday): Psalm 126
April 1: Psalm 127
April 8: Psalm 128
April 15: Psalm 129
April 22: Psalm 130
April 29: Psalm 131
May 6: Psalm 132
May 13: Psalm 133
May 20: Psalm 134

Photo by Sabrina M, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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The sky was grey as I jaunted down the hill to my favorite little park…and I do mean little: two benches and some ground cover sloping 20 feet down to a chain link fence on the edge of a bluff. But while the park is small, its view is not. Between the houses and their surrounding trees on either side of this small piece of City real estate I have a wide vista of water, Whidbey Island to the northwest, and the peninsula and its mountains to the southwest.

This day as I turned the corner into the park and the view opened up before me, I felt suddenly off balance, as if the natural order of things had been turned upside down, or backward: the water in the Sound seemed to be rushing away from me. I gripped the back of the nearest bench for support.

The next moment I realized it was no mere seeming: the water really was rushing away from me. The wind was streaming down the hill at my back, sweeping down the bluff, and pushing the water out to sea!

I stood transfixed. The water flowed out in endless ripples that grew ever wider, ever longer as they moved toward the far side of the Sound and out to the sea—the light and the clouds were such that I could almost see the curve of the earth in the misty distance where the waves met the sky—and kept on rolling, out, out, ever out.

I suddenly felt like I was standing before that Rublev icon of the Trinity, with its reversed perspective. I on the bluff was the vanishing point and the water racing toward the far horizon, shrouded in mist and mystery, was an icon of eternity opening out from a single point in endless possibility.

~

Last fall, my dear friend Jody Collins and I hosted a writing retreat, which we both felt was a little glimmer of Heaven. I’m happy to announce that we’ll be holding another retreat this year! It will be different than last year’s, of course, but we’re going to try to keep the same spirit of waiting on God and communing with one another.

Our theme for 2016 is Dwell.

We dwell in Christ—and He in us. How then does He live through our art? Over the weekend we will prayerfully consider this question and explore a variety of possible answers. Our key Scriptures will focus on Christ indwelling us, and our dwelling in God.

For me, this word dwell calls to mind Emily Dickinson’s poem about possibility, which in turn reminds me of that moment on the bluff with the water racing away from me toward the horizon:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
 
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
 
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

Dickinson’s words encapsulate Jody’s and my hope for this retreat: that we’d spread wide our narrow hands to encompass more—more possibility, more creativity, more beauty. More God. We hope and pray that this retreat will be the beginning of that wider embrace.

As with last year, our desire is to create a quiet, relaxed retreat for women writers—space to write and create, to pray and worship, to connect at a heart level with other women writers, and to enjoy the beauty of the natural world.

For those who want to be social, there will be plenty of time for connection over meals, over an art activity, and during the sessions. And for those who want to be quiet or alone, there will be lots of time to simply be (or write or hike or sleep)—we are intentionally keeping the retreat slow-paced and contemplative. We want you to come home refreshed and rested and energized for the work ahead.

If you’re interested in joining us, here’s everything you need to know:

Who: YOU, we hope. (And Jody and me, of course.)

What: a weekend of worship, laughter (and maybe some tears), and camaraderie among women writers of faith

When: Friday, September 9 – Sunday, September 11, 2016. We’ll start around 5 on Friday evening and finish up around noon on Sunday.

Where: Grunewald Guild near Leavenworth, Washington

How much: We have several options for lodging that affect the price. All prices include 5 meals (dinner Friday through brunch on Sunday). Early bird pricing expires March 1.

Option 1: Dorm-style room (up to five roomies): $159 early bird; $199 regular (after March 1)

Option 2: Shared room (one roommate): $219 early bird; $259 regular (after March 1)

Option 3: Private room (your own slice of silence): $259 early bird; $299 regular (after March 1)

All shared and private rooms have a sink in the room. Toilet and showers are shared among all residents on a floor. Towels and bed linens are provided. (Toiletries are not.)

Please note that there are a limited number of private rooms and limited beds in the dorm. We’ll be handing them out on a first-come, first-served basis. For that matter, there are a limited number of shared rooms, too. We’ve got room for 20 people, friends, so get your registration in ASAP to reserve your spot!

How to register: Shoot Jody an email with your Yes along with your name, snail mail and email addresses, phone number, and room preference. She’s got us set up with a Paypal account this year, so payment will be easy. Your spot is reserved once we’ve received your email AND your payment in full. (Keep that early bird deadline of March 1 in mind!)

If you have questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to ask!

And please prayerfully consider whether Dwell is a place that God would like to meet you. It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you?
 
 

Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, c. 1425.

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