Mar 28, 2011

Good Things Come to Those Who Sit: Book Review

For the next several weeks, we are pleased to partner with the Englewood Review of Books to bring you some fine book reviews. We are delighted to feature some of the members of our community whose work Englewood has highlighted. Today we feature L.L. Barkat’s God In the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us. L.L. has been featured in Christianity Today’s “Who’s Next”.  She is also the Managing Editor here at The High Calling.

 …we disquiet our minds by I don’t know how many devices;
we give ourselves a world of trouble…to attain a sense of the Presence of God.
Brother Lawrence, as quoted by L. L. Barkat

 “There’s a part of me that feels pinched in this life,” L.L.Barkat says in God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us. She remembers finding solace in the woods, to help her survive a difficult childhood. But she doesn’t live near the woods in her adult life. She craves a pilgrimage, citing Annie Dillard’s life-changing journey to the Galapagos—but the pilgrimage Barkat finds begins on a red plastic sled going nowhere, in an unkempt urban backyard. She sits. Perhaps she chooses the sled because she is just that desperate. She proposes a spiritual practice for those who need respite—for people who feel busy and a little crushed. For people like me.

My church school classroom houses a 30-foot long history of the Jewish people. Each time we unroll the timeline, I note how much biblical history passed before the written word, before written scripture was available to the common person. How did they worship, before these stories could be read from a page? They built altars from the stones they found, as a way to say thanks to God, and they talked through the stories by firelight, under the open sky.

Barkat suggests we return to the open sky for a daily pilgrimage, without an agenda for ourselves or for God. She commits to sitting under the edge of the trees of her backyard for the better part of an hour, no matter the weather, every day for a year. She proposes that the reader wait for God in some corner of nature, an hour a day for 12 weeks. This is the “spiritual practice for the rest of us,” those of us for whom a daily spiritual practice seems unlikely. Her simple suggestion echoes Frederick Buechner’s words, “pay attention.” Barkat pays attention to the way the steam curls from her teacup. She sees the way forsythia buds open, the way trees are shaped, the way a neglected patch of urban dirt still tells the glory of God. She finds a way to Sabbath rest.

And that might be enough, but L.L.Barkat doesn’t “just” sit there. She is a reader’s writer, pulling wisdom from both ancient sources and modern sources in her examination of what spiritual practice is, and what it might become in order to meet our needs in this exceedingly demanding world. She talks about Wendell Berry’s study of small fields, and Gerald May’s look at “the dark night of the soul.” From Sister Wendy Beckett, she wonders if our frustrations and irritabilities might provide a prayer of “inchoate unhappiness” that matters infinitely to God—what a wonderful, freeing question. She looks at the Jewish festivals of Sukkot and Pentecost and how these festivals drew people out from under their own roofs, out into the sky and vulnerable to the elements. She wonders if might see Christ’s work better if we played toward God instead of making our devotion into serious work and serious guilt.

Barkat knows how crazy this looks. “Someone who has the athletic view of spiritual life is going to question my lack of discipline and tell me if only I’d tried a little harder, penned more lists, spent more time, I would have been made more ready for the game. I want to say, ‘Let’s talk about the sky’” (43).

I am one of “the rest of us,” for whom L.L. Barkat has written. I resist well-meaning suggestions that I “do more” to pursue God in this frightfully busy life. I especially avoid books on personal journaling. I’m a writer—I write already. I find nothing more spirit-killing than writing prompts, since I have enough to consider without outside suggestion. I don’t like to be steered. The idea of a daily spiritual discipline sends me right to the kitchen to find the half-eaten bag of chocolate chips. I would generally be repelled by a book titled 12 weeks to anything.

Three things draw me beyond my wariness, though: poetry is a puzzle. Good poet that she is, Barkat describes God in the yard. My yard? My ugly yard? The second subtitle suggests playing toward God, which returns me to my own experience of solace as a child. I believed in a God who played, and that playfulness sustained me. And third, this is L.L. Barkat, whose writing voice is like the soothing whisper of a best friend. Go ahead, she says. She writes with the tone of a seeker, not a conqueror. Try this; if it doesn’t work, adapt until you find what you need, but for God’s sake, rest. She tells me to do exactly what I find I want to do.

As a part-time writing teacher at a Christian college, I struggle to convince students to stop writing in the style of the sermons they’ve heard. When Barkat describes the process of freewriting, she understands how frightening honesty might be. If you are fearful of someone seeing it, she suggests, write with such messy penmanship that you yourself can’t even read your writing—if that’s what it takes to write the truth of your life without fear of judgment. She titles these freewrites “Sabbath on the Page,” linking honesty with worship, rest and respite. Write about what keeps you from thriving, she says. Take an hour each day to build a temple where you can meet God—build it physically if you wish, or metaphorically, or in the written word.

I find myself strangely compliant to her writing prompts, strangely curious about what direction she’ll take next. And Barkat takes some surprising turns! She quotes Parker Palmer, who says an awareness of psychology can “ground” us and keep our contemplative practice from becoming too otherworldly. (I find this insight infinitely helpful, for my college students and for myself.) Barkat writes about Jesus’ true submission to God’s will, in contrast to smothering pseudo-submission so often exhibited by well-meaning Christians. She looks at the link between family history and our difficulties with vulnerability to God. She links Song of Songs with lament, and she links sexuality with prayer and precariousness. She’s a poet, proposing odd juxtapositions and pairings. Even her table of contents exhibits a poet’s sensibilities, with the careful use of punctuation and the careful stoking of curiosity.

Poor Brother Lawrence would marvel if he saw the myriad of ways we disquiet ourselves while seeking God’s presence in this age. I could probably listen to his words on audio book while peeling potatoes in my own kitchen. Daily devotions or The Daily Office—there’s an app for that. (Seriously.) I could pray with someone on the other side of the world, or pray in 140 characters on Twitter. iTunes will be happy to find Gregorian chants for me. Work is never farther away than my cell phone. L.L. Barkat does not ignore this modern world in favor of an otherworldly practice; she struggles to be “gone” from her online commitments, and she confesses to addictive tendencies in her blogging life.

Barkat offers a way to loosen one’s grip in order to listen to God. She offers a way to pay attention by seeking a quiet space, by walking away from busyness. “I wish I had a formula for promoting trust between a person and the sky,” she says (46). She is not embracing some sort of pantheism, but a vulnerability to God, who works in the tangible world, where we live. How funny and how true it is, the difficulty of choosing to be inaccessible, from time to time. By wishing for a formula, she almost gives me one: Leave the phone behind and walk out to the sky to see the hand of God at work.

I find myself leaning into Barkat’s book, wondering but does this work for you? Does this process bring return your energy and momentum? I’m greatly relieved when she writes that she starts “feeling more like God’s Beloved,” and I think that’s what I’d like to feel, too.

If we risk walking out of our doors, we may see the way God has always worked, from the beginning of time, through the real things of the world. It may take several attempts to shake free from responsibility, but perhaps in this way we can become more attuned to God’s work, which can be a path to personal restoration from a pinched life.

I think I will go outside. I think I will sit, and wait, and watch.

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Book Club Announcement: We are excited to announce that the next book club book is Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki! The start date is Monday, May 9th. Order your book soon and get ready for some enchanting conversation! 

Photo by Kelly Sauer, used with permission. Review by Denise Frame Harlan.

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