The Wonder Report: June 4, 2021
Gathering Across Differences
Happy Friday! I’m glad we’ve gathered together in this space once again, especially this week as we wrap up our gathering theme. To finish out our month of conversations about moving out of a difficult year of isolation and back into the many complex social interactions that are part of our “normal” lives, I’ve invited Michelle Ami Reyes to share a few thoughts.
Michelle serves with me on the board of the Redbud Writers Guild and is the Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the Co-Executive Director at Pax. She is also the Scholar in Residence at Hope Community Church and author of the recently published book Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, which offers a poignant discussion of the challenges surrounding cross-cultural relationships in America today.
I asked Michelle if she would write about the art of gathering people together from different backgrounds, specially answering the question: How can we be intentional about bringing people together and making everyone feel welcome? Here’s her answer.
When I think about hospitality, I think about my mother.
My mother grew up in an Indian village in Uganda, Africa. Her mother was a skilled cook who catered out of their home for extra income, and who also taught my mom the secrets of Indian cuisine.
I am blessed to have grown up cooking with my mom and to have had her pass down her knowledge and recipes to me. Just as special, though, are the stories my mom used to tell me while we cooked, of her own childhood and the times she used to cook with her mother.
One of the stories I heard repeatedly from my mother was how her family always kept their doors open to travelers. It was very common for men and women to drop in, rest and enjoy some delicious food before going on their way. No matter if it was late in the afternoon or the middle of the night, my grandmother and mother were ready to cook for the stranger knocking at the door.
Even as a young girl, I would replay stories like that over in my mind, imagining what my mother looked like as a child, the space of her home, and the smells of chapatis and dal. I also dreamed of doing similar things for strangers “when I grew up.”
As an adult now with a family of my own, I still think about my mother’s stories of hospitality, and I wonder about how that sort of open-door policy could translate in America today. Our suburbs are nothing like African villages, and the possibility of a traveler in need of shelter and food coming to our door is also rare.
Nevertheless, I still think there are rich applications to be found in my mother’s stories of cooking for strangers in Uganda to our own context fellowshipping and gathering as Christians in the U.S. today.
There is a biblical precedent to holding an open hand to the concept of time. Think of all the times that Jesus broke bread with men and women, from the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 where Jesus says, “I’m coming to your house today” to accounts like Luke 2 where Jesus eats in the homes of “tax collectors and sinners.” If we learn anything from these stories, it is that Jesus valued spending time with people and eating together, and he did so not just to care for both their physical and spiritual needs.
Jesus knew that one of the best ways to minister to people was through relationships and over meals. If we want our relationships to emulate Christ, then we must follow in his footsteps. No matter who we are engaging with, we should hold a fluid concept of time and place a high premium on eating together. An open-handed approach to time and gathering may feel uncomfortable at first. It may not be easy, but the reward is great. If we can live out this sort of Christ-centered approach to relationships, we will not just be good neighbors, we will be living out the gospel, and our relationships can only be strengthened by it.
I began our theme of gathering by saying that we weren’t going to talk about the logistics: about the decorations or the invitations or the food. And then we ended here, with food. Seems confusing, doesn’t it?
It’s because gathering is not just about the decorations or the invitations or the food, but it does include those things. Maybe especially the food, because eating together— offering what we have to nourish and welcome others—reminds us that we always have more in common with whoever’s across the table from us than we might realize. When we break bread, we can just be human together, despite whatever differences might normally separate us. And when we are reminded of our shared humanity, it’s just a small leap to remembering that we are all image-bearers of God, people for whom Christ died.
How can you offer an open-handed approach to time to those you are gathering with this week?
For most of my life, I’ve rushed from one thing to the next, usually showing up a few minutes late to gatherings and often leaving a few minutes early to get to the next thing. My flurry of restless comings and goings usually leaves those around me a little out of sorts, too, with apologies and explanations stirring up the peace of whatever gathering I’ve disrupted.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always remembered the story of a very important man who also was very busy but never gave anyone the impression that he was too busy for them. As a former boss once described it to me, the man of great importance would show up when promised, take the hand of his host and greet him warmly, he would sit and ask questions, listening with his full attention, and then, when it was time to go—which often was just a few minutes after he’d arrived—he’d say something like, “Well, I’m going to have to leave now, but it was a pleasure to be with you.” And everyone believed him.
Here’s the challenge: Regardless of how busy you are or how quickly you have to rush from one thing to the next, how can you truly give the time you have to those you are with? How can you make your host or your guests believe that despite your busyness that you are not too busy for them?
A FEW NOTES ABOUT SUMMER
Before we go on (and please do go on, there’s some great stuff below), I wanted to mention a few things about what’s coming up here at the Wonder Report over the next couple of months.
First, as we’ve talked about gathering people together over the past few weeks, and more specifically, when we talked about gathering people in virtual spaces, it got me thinking about this space right here, where we gather week after week. I hope to make this a more meaningful place to you by continuing to offer resources to help you think and grow and believe, by inviting people to join me in the space more directly (like Michelle above), and by fostering meaningful conversation among those who’ve gathered.
So this summer, I’d like to switch things up a little bit. I’m offering our first official Wonder Report book club. For eight weeks starting June 21, let’s read Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, A Habit Called Faith: 40 Days in the Bible to Find and Follow Jesus, together. I’ll be writing about the book here in the Wonder Report, our Monday conversations will center around the themes in the book, and in July, we’ll have a Zoom discussion for anyone who wants to talk more about the book. In next week’s Wonder Report, I’ll post the reading/discussion schedule, and I also have five copies to give away! Stay tuned for details!
Finally, as much as I want the Wonder Report to be a place where we gather digitally, I also want it to be a catalyst for helping you engage more meaningfully in your analog life. So during the summer, I’ll be sharing two new series about exploring nature in your own backyard and writing from the details of your very own life (even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer).
I’m excited about all that’s in store! I hope you will be too.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. You Are a Network by Kathleen Wallace for Aeon. There’s a lot wrapped up in this article on identity, much of which fits well within my Christian concept of self. I particularly related to the ways the author described the various components of who we are as always changing and evolving because “we don’t have fixed and immutable identities.” Mostly, I think this essay represents the complexity we face when we attempt to gather with other people.
From the essay: “Rather than seeing our multiple identities as separating us from one another, we should see them as bases for communication and understanding, even if partial.”
2. The Grace Period Is Over (Or Is It?) by David Zahl for Mockingbird. I began our gathering theme thinking about the strangeness of reentering “normal” life following a year and a half of quarantine. But what we’re doing now doesn’t feel normal anymore either. This article does a beautiful job of explaining why.
From the essay: “The wasting away of the past year has led to an increase in grace. The danger as we re-enter the old normal will be, in our collective trauma, to abandon the clemency gifted us by disruption. For the sake of control, we’ll be tempted to revert to the flattering ethos that drives us so reliably into isolation and despair. If early signs are any indication, I doubt we’ll be able to resist it fully.”
3. Rise and Shine: What kids around the world eat for breakfast from The New York Times. Speaking of food, this article made me smile (and wish I’d lived in Paris when I was growing up!). It also reminded me of my own breakfasts as a kid: oatmeal with brown sugar and cream, Rice Krispies with sugar and milk, toast and jam, and French toast with butter and syrup on the weekends.
From the essay: “Americans tend to lack imagination when it comes to breakfast. The vast majority of us, surveys say, start our days with cold cereal — and those of us with children are more likely to buy the kinds with the most sugar. Children all over the world eat cornflakes and drink chocolate milk, of course, but in many places they also eat things that would strike the average American palate as strange, or worse.”
More from The Wonder Report
Articles, discussions, and newsletters you might have missed from The Wonder Report Substack page.
from the Gathering Theme
In this section, I'll highlight visual and performing artists and talk about how their work inspires mine. I'd love to hear about artists you love and whose work you admire.
Over the past month, I hope you’ve enjoyed the work of Amy Grimes, an artist who calls herself a story painter. This week, I am giving away a print of one of my favorite of Amy’s paintings. I shared it here back on May 7. It’s called, simply, “Wonder.”
If you’d like to be entered to win a copy of the print, simply leave a comment on this post about what this painting makes you think of. Don’t overthink it … but give yourself a minute or two to enter the story Amy has painted. Leave your comment by midnight ET, Tuesday, June 8, and I’ll draw a winner next Wednesday. (Amy ships only to US and Canada, so unfortunately only residents of those countries will be able to participate.)
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
Thinking about writing a book but feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of those words? Imagine how a reader might feel, staring down the pages that house 40,000, 80,000, or even 100,000 words?
That’s why books have chapters: Not only to make the reading easier, but also to make the writing easier.
In a recent blog post, Austin Kleon writes about historian and author Robert D. Richardson, who wrote biographies of Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. (Richardson also was the second husband of Annie Dillard, which I only just learned.) According to Kleon, Richardson had a method of writing that involved drafting 100 chapters of 5 pages each. He learned it from his mentor Walter Jackson Bate.
“I had a wonderful teacher at Harvard, W.J. Bate, who wrote very great biographies of Keats and then of Johnson, and his advice to me when he discovered that I was daring to write a biography was to write in short takes; if at all possible, to write in short pieces so that the reader feels that he or she is getting somewhere. I mean, that’s a big, heavy book. And people have busy lives and they have lots else to do, and if you can sit down and read four or five pages and feel like you’re getting somewhere instead of these big 30 or 40-page or 50-page chapters, it makes a book readable that might not otherwise seem so.”
Kleon says that Richardson passed the same advice along to his students and to other biographers, urging them to “write 100 pieces of one to two thousand words on the parts of the life you care about the most, and don’t worry about what order they’re in until you have the pieces.”
This method works not only for biographies, but just about any long form of writing. It’s the same principle behind Anne Lamott’s famous Bird by Bird.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Wondering where to start with a long writing project? Just pick one thing, write five pages about it, and then do the same thing every day until it’s done.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report! Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,