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In praise of Rabbit Trail Reading

My friend Persis wrote yesterday about "rabbit trail reading." I love how she describes this process. You do need to read the post, but in a nutshell, it's basically finding good books by following rabbit trails. Like Persis, I have found some of my favourite books from reading the footnotes. My habit has become to actually begin reading a book by first checking out the bibliography if there is one. I love it when books have a bibliography because not only does it tell me what has influenced the writer's views, but it gives me ideas for more books on the subject at hand.

There is a time and a place for reading what we are told we must. As a student, I read books because my professors say I should. This semester, my Penteteuch prof has provided a generous list of recommended reading, which he encourages us to make use of. These years of seminary, where I read a lot because I must have been very productive. At the same time, my reading has yielded a wonderful selection of books from the footnotes and bibliographies. That is what the summer reading is for: to follow those trails.

Every New Year's day we take down our Christmas tree and put everything back to its normal position. This year, we decided to move a book case to the other side of the room. That meant taking all of the books out. We took the opportunity to re-evaluate whether or not to keep them or give them away. We gave away quite a few. And this is after I already had two boxes from when I moved the other book cases upstairs to my study in September.

We had company for dinner that evening, and I showed one of my guests, also a book lover, my boxes and invited him to take what he wanted. As my guest sifted through the books, I took note that many of the books were ones that I know I bought because "everyone" was talking about them. On occasion, doing that has introduced me to good books, but in the past couple of years I've had occasions where the books were actually quite mediocre and in some cases, badly written and poorly edited. The books I have found via the rabbit trails have been more enduring. I have had good experiences when friends recommend books, but followng the suggestions of the masses is not always a positive experience.

One of the benefits of reading good books is how it helps us make connections between the various things we read, think about, and experience. Reading with a rabbit trail fosters that practice. Following rabbit trails can have us reading books which are challenging. We may read something which makes us a little uncomfortable. That is okay, too. If we're looking for comfort reading, we're better off reading Christian romance novels, where nothing is a surprise.

We can tend to read in a bubble. As I read people's "favourite reads" posts, I took note that some people had similar titles on their lists (and interestingly, from a common group of publishers). What I loved was reading lists that contained books I'd not heard of before. I read one list where I was not familiar with one title. We need to read because it attracts our attention, not because we want to follow along with the crowd. When I see everyone saying "read this!" my passive rebellion kicks in and I resolve to never read it. Yes, that is cutting my nose off to spite my face. I look at it this way: if such books eventually show up in my rabbit trails, I'll give them a try.


Prepare yourself for "New Year's Goals"

I remember when my dad quit smoking. It had become our habit as a family once my brothers and I became teenagers, to go out for a New Year's Eve dinner early in the evening so that those of us who had plans later could still have time with family. My parents always chose a really nice place.

The year I was fifteen, after dinner was over, and we were having our dessert and coffee, my mother noticed that my father's after dinner cigarette was on the table, and he was merely rolling it back and forth with his fingers. 

"Aren't you going to smoke that?" she asked.

"I haven't decided," my dad said. "I haven't had a cigarette since yesterday, and I'm thinking I may not have this one."

That was it for my dad. He quit smoking that day. He had told no one of his goal. I don't know if he ever had any relapsed, but I have not seen him smoke in almost forty years.

I wonder if the goals we keep to ourselves have more of a chance of being met than the ones we reveal. If we tell others that we're dieting, inevitably, people will asks us the dreaded, "How's your diet going?" Or if we've decided to read the Bible in a particular amount of time, people may ask us which plan we're using, and may in an effort to help us, ask us how it's going regularly. When we end up not being able to stick to our resolutions, and someone asks us about it mid-February, we may feel like we blew it. At least, I would feel that way. When we make goals privately, and challenge ourselves without sharing with others, we can focus on the goal, not wondering if someone is going to ask about it.

I am not much of a resolution maker, but I am goal-oriented, and I do have goals set for myself for the year. Or rather, I'm continuing on with goals I have already set. And I'm going to keep them to myself. That will eliminate the possibility that I may end up spending more time talking about them than pursuing them.

Whatever our goals may be, let us as Christians have the over arching goal to live to the glory of God. And whatever our goals our, let us include making knowing and living God's word our priority. 


My Top Ten List

This is my top ten list of the stupid things I did this year. I think it's always good to be reminded at the end of the year how much of a dufus I can be. It goes without saying that there were infinitely more than ten: 

  1. Binge-watched The Innocent Man on Netflix instead of studying (with the result of a C+ on that week's quiz).
  2. Ate potato chips after 8:00 p.m. (when you're over 50 and have GERD, this is bad; I knew better).
  3. Didn't pay attention to my mug of ginger tea when I helped my classmate plug in his laptop (he felt bad and went to get paper towels for me to clean up the mess).
  4. Engaged with someone on social media to no avail (no specifics here; too many to count).
  5. Went outside in Birkenstocks during freezing rain on a newly painted deck (fortunately, no bones were broken).
  6. Cooked pork tenderloin in a cast iron skillet, but left the glass lid on (we did not eat pork tenderloin that night).
  7. Neglected to check the dog's paws on a rainy day before letting him "help" me make my bed (I'm thankful we have automatic washers).
  8. Posted something on my blog without thinking it through clearly (again, no specifics, and too many occasions to narrow down to one)
  9. Talked too much (ditto)
  10. Ignored the fact that a pencil had fallen on the floor near the dog's crate (I found half of it; I don't want to know where the rest is)


We all have moments we call watersheds. Sometimes, they are brief moments and other times, they run the course of a period of time. I think being in seminary is a watershed for me.

I did not grow up in a Christian home. I was not given reasons for why we were encouraged to choose one moral code over the other. My parents were not unlike many other parents: we did what we were told because we feared punishment. My parents led a good life as an example, and our consciences were suitably developed. My parents showed love and compassion and taught it to us. But there was no real "why" involved. When I became a Christian, I encountered the "why." The reason we treated others a particular way was because of Christ and what his word taught us.

The problem is that when we live by simply taking at face value one set of truths without question, we often end up embracing another in the same way. I did that early in my Christian life. As a young adult, the sin in my life was all too fresh in my memory, and I wanted to be as far away as I could be from that. It's similar to the whole idea of "cage stage Calvinism" (I also went through that). I rejected a lot of what I thought would keep me from living the way I didn't want to. And, unfortuately, I didn't think through a lot of it. I'm sad to say it took me a long time to start really thinking about things. It is only when my kids became teenager that I had to confront big questions.

Being in seminary has kept that activity going and it has been valuable. Specifically, being able to talk to and listen to people from different backgrounds has been very helpful in getting me to worry less about having my own presuppositions confirmed and learning to be sensitive to others' views. I started reading Alan Jacobs' book How to Think, and one of the things he discusses is the fact that we never learn to think strictly on our own; we think in relation to those around us. That is what seminary has been giving me, and it has been challenging, difficult, but freeing.

A few years ago, when I really began to consider seminary, I was talking with a friend about the possibility. She was not in favour of it. She believed that ultimately I would end up being more loyal to my professors than the spiritual guidance of my husband. She believed that I would be like many women before me, and I would become "liberal" in my thinking. I dismissed that internally while remaining polite about her concerns. 

I understand now what she means by changing our thinking and seeming "liberal." What happens is not necessarily embracing liberal thinking. What happens is that as we begin to think and learn, we realize that many of the things we were strident about were not all that important. We realize that many of our previously held "musts" were better looked at as "maybes". We realize that sometimes, our faith was more about other people than God. At least, that has been my particular struggle. In short, over the years, much of what I embraced and promoted was simply part of feeling the need to "fit in." 

I love being in school. I love learning from others; from hearing what they have learned. And it includes more than just the professors. Being in school with people of a wider variety of age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and personal experiences has helped me to look more closely at where I have wrong thinking; where I am uncharitable; where I have blind spots. It also forces me to see Christians from different backgrounds not as "the other," but as people; as my sisters and brothers in Christ. So, yes, I can roll my eyes at the person who thinks all fiction is bad, but I can love her as well, and understand that she is just like me: trying to live her faith with integrity. Those are lessons that you can't get by never straying from outside our particular circles.

Some day, this watershed of seminary will be over. Not for a while, but it will be. What will happen then? I trust another will come along.


Let's warn mom and dad, too

Last week, while I was waiting to leave the parking lot of the grocery store, I saw a little girl who couldn't have been more than eight years old, looking at her cellphone as she got into the car. I'm so glad there were no cellphones when my kids were younger. Yes, we had other distractions, but I'm thankful they weren't expected to have cellphones at eight. The articles warning parents about over use of cellphones is apt.

But what about parents?

My dad is a hard worker. He always has been. His job was demanding, and put in the hours. But the weekends were his. He did bring work home, but there was no one at work clamoring to speak to him on the weekend. My husband regularly gets texts and emails from employees, clients, and co-workers. One of his bosses texted him just as we were going to bed one night, and I looked at my husband and said, "Really?" When we went to the staff Christmas party, I said jokingly (although not so jokingly), "I guess I know what you and your wife weren't doing the other night." Yes, I'm a little irreverent like that at times. He got the point. I know he did, because later, he came to me to chat and he expressed how wonderful my husband is at his job and how thankful they are for him. When it comes to my husband's job, I'm not ashamed of pointing out when it's encroaching on his much needed down time.

How many people will eat Christmas dinner with their cellphones at the table? How many men will be sitting in the living room "watching the kids," while they look at their social media feeds? How many people will wake up on Christmas morning and check Twitter before they even get out of bed? Or will make sure their kids' pictures with their gifts get on social media before 8:00 a.m.?

We all hear the cry to "be present." It's a good cry. It's one I wish I had been given when blogging and social media was really taking off. I was not often present. And I was a stay-at-home mother. It's not just teenagers and young adults who are on their phones all the time. Just show an older person with a new iPad funny cat videos on YouTube and see how they find a new hobby.

In the past few months since I moved my office upstairs, my phone, more often than not gets left downstairs because when I come up here, I leave it. I don't really need it. If it rings -- which is seldom does because my kids don't call; they text -- I can either get up to answer it or I can let the voicemail pick it up. I don't need it by my side. I don't need it when I watch television or read a book. 

And I certainly don't need to check social media on Christmas Day. And if I wanted to, I couldn't, anyway, because I (like most women, I suspect) will be the one doing the cooking tomorrow.

If no one Tweeted, updated their Facebook or Instagram feeds or wrote a blog post tomorrow, the sun would still come up, Christmas would still come, and life would go on. And maybe we'd all be a little better for it.

We can tell kids until we're blue in the face not to be on their phones all the time, but the example starts with us.