In praise of the spiritual memoir (and specifically “Tables in the Wilderness”) + an art giveaway

Despite facing some recent (and valid) criticism, the spiritual memoir remains beloved among many people of faith, as it has been since St. Augustine first invented the genre. And while I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of mediocre memoirs through the years, when I think of the books that most influenced my faith, many are shelved in the spiritual memoir section of my library: Take This Bread by Sara Miles, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lit by Mary Karr. What makes a memoir worth reading isn’t so much the story the author tells, but how she tells it. Like good poetry, a good spiritual memoir excavates everyday life for beauty and truth, grabs the reader by the shoulders and says, “Pay attention! This is for you!” 

To this genre, my friend Preston Yancey has added a delightful entry with Tables in the Wilderness, which releases today. At just 25, Preston really shouldn’t be allowed to write this wisely or skillfully, and yet over and over again he surprised me with his insight, talent, and brilliant integration of literary classics into his own story.  (The “Suggested Reading” list at the end is worth the price of the book.) Tables in the Wilderness follows Preston through his college experience at Baylor University, so fans of Donald Miller’s early work will especially resonate as much of the story deals with school, relationships, and all the beauty and angst of finding one’s way in the Church these days.

To mark today’s release, Preston has shared with us an excerpt, as well as the opportunity for one reader to win an original painting made by Preston himself. (See details below.) I specifically asked Preston for this excerpt because it was these paragraphs—the first six of the book—what pulled me into the story. Enjoy! 


by Preston Yancey
(excerpted from Tables in the Wilderness

When you grow up evangelical in the South, you hear God speak all the time.

Over the mashed potatoes, under the watch of the calligraphic Scriptures on the walls, in Carl Kasell’s voice over the radio on your way to school. You invite God to coffee to study the Bible with you, and God sits beside you on the bus to church camp and laughs at all your jokes. You hear God that night on the jungle gym and that time you stood at the corner downtown with a sandwich in your hand wondering why you got up in the middle of the Ash Wednesday service and fled. And you keep hearing, years on end, even on thatSunday you sit in the parking lot of the small Episcopal church after the Baptist-based ministry you felt God call you to do has crumbled, and you are so vacant and so wavering that you tell God you’re done, you’re empty, and God tells you to walk into church.

But one September morning, when you least expect it, you’re sitting in a friend’s apartment after a belated celebration of your twenty-second birthday the night before — in which you read aloud a short story you wrote about lighthouses and champagne, after which your friend tells you you’re still in love with the girl you broke up with a year ago and you should call her, find out where things stand — and you’re reading the Gospel of Luke when you feel suddenly, keenly, that Christ the Lord is sitting beside you on the couch as you’re reading, his voice almost tangible.

“It’s going to be about trust with you.”

Eight words. Ten syllables.

Then he’s gone. And you stop hearing God speak altogether. It’s just you, the King James, and the Silence. And you think it might be the middle of something, or the end. Eventually, nearly a year later, you see it as a beginning. But the seeing takes time. For a little while, it’s just going to be you and the Silence… 


Makes you want to read more, right? 

The original painting Preston is giving away is entitled “Martha of Bethany” and is pictured below.  (I have a companion piece entitled “Mary of Bethany” and it’s just beautiful.) 

Here’s how you can enter to win:  Leave a comment in the comment section that 1) names your favorite spiritual memoir, or 2) tells us what the first line of YOUR spiritual memoir would be, and I’ll randomly choose a winner from the entries. (Be sure to sign into DISQUS in such a way that I have access to your email address so I can contact you if you win and get your mailing address so Preston can send you the painting.) One comment per person, please! 

Note: While I did receive a complimentary copy of this book for review, I was not paid by the publisher or author to review and feature it. 


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New Songs

"You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it."

-Mary Karr 

I am folding laundry, its starched, orderly scent a sort of incense, as the hymn rises to my lips. 

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…” 

I can’t remember the rest of the words exactly, and the tune meanders a bit, so I improvise, prompting Dan to shout from the other room, “Hon?  You okay? You crying about something?” which happens just about every time I burst into spontaneous song because, apparently, my version of a joyful noise remains indistinguishable from a sob. 
Still, I sing on. 

“….For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are da da da da la la la la.” 

It is a season of new songs. 

It is a season of new people, new prayers, new questions. 

At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty. The chants and collects, calls and responses were a refreshing departure from the contemporary evangelical worship I’d come to associate with all my evangelical baggage.  I liked confessing and receiving communion each week. I liked reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed together in community. I liked the smells and bells. Each Sunday I’d stuff the sandy-colored bulletin in my purse so I could go home and study the rhythm of this worship, imbibing the poetry of those holy words. 

We didn’t know many people then. I kept my eyes on the floor as I walked away from the Table on Sundays, afraid of exchanging too many warm smiles, afraid of becoming too familiar to these kind, religious people who, like all kind, religious people will inevitably disappoint and be disappointed. The melodies of the hymns remained largely inscrutable to my untrained ears, except for when the director of music, (raised Pentecostal),  threw in an “Amazing Grace” or “Rock of Ages” and I sang loud and badly just to hear my voice grip those solid words again.

But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine.

 I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head. And we know the people too, not merely as strange faces gathered around the Table but as the Alabama fan, the new mom, the student who loves talking theology, the quilting club, the recovering fundamentalists, the friends. Yesterday, my eyes clouded with tears as the choir sang “I Shall See,” somehow pulling every frantic, disparate prayer from the week into a single sweet plea. The music director told me  the song made her think of me. 

It is a season of new songs.

It is a season of receiving, of being loved just for showing up. 

I am holding all these gifts gingerly, like fragile blue eggs I’m afraid to break. I am holding them the way I hold that white wafer in my cupped, open hands—grateful, relieved, and still just a little bit frightened of what will happen when I take it and eat. 


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From the Lectionary: God Out-of-Bounds

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 21:23-32: 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

You can always pick out John the Baptist from a lineup of saints.

Among the dour, robed patriarchs, he’s the one with wild eyes and tangled hair, ribs protruding through sun-browned skin, hands cradling a staff or a scroll that reads, "‘Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” Or sometimes he is depicted munching serenely on locusts and honey, wearing a shaggy vest of camel’s hair. Sometimes it’s just his disembodied head on a platter. 

I’m not sure I’d have believed the guy either. 

The miracle child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John was probably expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Temple priest. There, he might have assisted faithful Jews as they washed in ceremonial baths to cleanse themselves of impurities. 

But John didn’t stay at the Temple among the baths. John went out to the rivers. 

Calling people to a single, dramatic baptism to symbolize a totally reoriented heart, John declared that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he told the people, “make his paths straight.” 

In other words:  God’s on the move. Get out of the way.  For no mountain or hill—no ideology or ritual or requirement or law—can obstruct Him any longer. Temples cannot contain a God who flattens mountains, ceremonial baths a God who flows through rivers. Repentance means leaving the old ways of obstruction behind and joining in the great paving-of-the-path, the making-of-the-way, the demolishing of every man-made impediment between God and God’s people so the whole earth can celebrate God’ uninhibited presence within it and welcome the arrival of the Messiah. 

Not everyone liked this sermon. 

Needless to say, John the Baptist was what you might call a polarizing figure, popular among those who had traditionally been excluded from the faith community and not so popular among those whose reputations and careers depended upon protective walls. 

So when the religious leaders question Jesus’ authority, Jesus made a political statement by reminding them that it was John who had first recognized his authority. Jesus was building a coalition—of tax collectors and prostitutes, of women and Samaritans, of wilderness preachers and leprosy patients, of the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the left-out—and nearly everyone could see that it was prophetic;  it "wasn’t of human origin." 

….Except for those whose power depended on maintaining the status quo. 

…Except for those who expected God to color within the lines. 

This Jesus movement just didn’t sit right with them. 

It’s easy to judge those guys in hindsight. I’d love to believe that, had I lived in first century Palestine, I’d have dropped my fishing nets or water jars and followed Jesus the moment he reached out his hand to me. But on those days when I fold my arms and turn up my nose and declare with total confidence that “this cannot be God here,” and “this cannot be God there”…well, I’m not so sure. We tend to look for God where we expect to find Him, even while God is tapping us on the shoulder and shouting, “Hey! I’m right here! Pay attention!”  I don’t like the idea of God using people and methods I don’t approve of and yet that seems to be God’s favorite way of working in the world—outside my expectations, right where I’m prejudiced, against all my rules.

You would think that after all this time I’d have given up on expecting this river-wild God to fit safely in my categories. 

You know how Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who haven’t seen and still believe”? There are days when I wonder if it’s actually easier to believe from this distance, without seeing, than it would have been to believe up-close, among all those questionable people and amidst all those radical teachings. We’ve sanitized the gospel so well in this culture, we’ve made it more accessible to the powerful than the powerless, more appealing to the cautious than to the troublemakers. 

I am too cautious. I have seen God work beyond my expectations and, like the religious leaders, refused to change my mind. 

God, forgive me. Open my eyes. Tear down the mountains I’ve built of my theology and flatten the walls I’ve constructed of my prejudices. 

Make a straight path right through my stubborn, hardened heart. 


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Why I invite guests with whom I disagree to the blog

Look for a lectionary post later today. In the meantime, over on Facebook, I'm responding to challenges I've received for inviting Julie Rodgers, a gay Christian who has chosen to pursue celibacy, to be part of our “Ask a…” interview series. Seems like an important conversation, so if you're interested in that, join us. 

(If you have been liberated from the tyranny of Facebook, check out the first comment below for my response.) :-) 



Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.