Fan Mail

Every now and then my brother and I have this conversation.

Me: “Charles, have you written that letter yet to Eugene Peterson?”

JM: “No, Charles. Have you written to Philip Yancey yet?”

Me: “No, I really should.”

JM: “I know, me too.”

I have been declaring my intention to write a letter to Philip Yancey for over a decade now. I ate up his books in the years that church was not feeding me. Soul Survivor – how my faith survived the church is THE book that, along with a handful of people in my life, helped MY faith survive the church.

I remember reading it in the mornings on the patio at home, in the summer of 2001. It was the first book that I read with such relief, and such thanks. In it he writes about 13 unlikely mentors who helped shape his spiritual autobiography, and in doing so he became my first unlikely mentor. This bushy-haired American writer of my parents’ generation was the first person that gave me that sense of “Me too!” and of “Phew”. This was the first book that gave me permission to have the kind of faith that I do – to think my thoughts and engage with my questions and to find inspiration in some unlikely places. Frederick Buechner, one of the 13, refers to himself and the others as an assortment of “odd fish”, and I just loved their stories. And I loved Yancey’s story and I loved that someone had written a book like this.

The words that reached me on the patio were thoughtful and hopeful and honest and interesting. All of the things I wished church was. It kind of was church, sitting outside with my tea and toast, running in every now and then to read this sentence or that sentence to my mum. No clichés, no tidy answers or churchy phrases … none of the quick, easy, surface stuff that was leaving me feeling empty those days. No bullshit.  This book satisfied my mind, as well as my soul, and gave me the one thing I was really craving, spiritual company.

Soul Survivor was full of inspiration, but more than anything what it said to me was Don’t Panic, hold on to your odd little faith. It kept me company, along with a few of my favourite people, when I didn’t feel like I had a lot of company. It was enough.

And slowly, my bookshelves expanded.

fan mail

About 6 years ago I was bought Traveling Mercies. A good book is about the best present you can buy me, but this wasn’t just the gift of a good book, this was the gift of Anne Lamott. As my 3-year-old Charlie & Lola fan would say…  she is my favourite, and my best. I immediately borrowed more of her books, while I filled my Amazon wishlist with her back-catalogue of novels and non-fiction until I had the entire works of Saint Annie. If life, or the people in it, is at all difficult or stressful….  if I am in any way anxious or crazy or wound-up…. if faith is a little murky or beyond all imagination… then there will be one of her books on my bedside table. She keeps me company so much of the time, sometimes I forget I don’t actually know her. You know when people talk about their ideal dinner guests? Well she would be my number 1, if it wasn’t for the fact that that scenario would stress me out and I wouldn’t be able to speak to her, or eat my dinner.

I know Donald Miller wrote a post this year about how his faith has changed since Blue Like Jazz, and I’m sure mine has too, but I have no words for how much I loved this book. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a find.  I bought it for my favourite people. I read entire chapters out loud to Chris. It was so good for me. Donald Miller became the second person I should never be seated beside at a dinner party. When Chris and I started to look for a church to call our own, I started to look for one with people like Anne Lamott and Donald Miller in it. Or, at least, people who read Anne Lamott and Donald Miller. This did not go well. But when I longed for spiritual company, I just read Blue Like Jazz again.

Introverts in the Church (Adam McHugh) was an impulsive buy – in my Amazon basket almost as soon as I had read the title, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I’ve bought it, lent it and yammered on about it to my favourite introverts, and extroverts.  For me, this book gave me a better understanding of myself and a lot of help in how to live, work and practice faith in ways consistent to my personality.  It reminded me of who I am and how important that is. It has taught me to advocate a bit more for myself and people like me, and our way of being.  For me this book also gave a lot of insight into some of my struggles with church, and finding a place there.  Now that I understand why I feel like running for the door so much, I am actually doing it less.  Insightful, thoughtful and healing, I found both peace and a lot of power in the pages of this book. Around the same time I watched and loved the Susan Cain TED Talk and added Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking to my essential Introvert Collection.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead is the book that is changing my life right now. Sometimes my sister-in-law and I just say to each other: “Brené Brown”.  I’m on my second read. I haven’t even begun to process it all yet. This book was written for me.

(As for Peterson, my brother calls him The Godfather. I would say he’s his mentor and spiritual hero. He hasn’t found the words yet to capture his influence, so I certainly won’t try to do it for him.)

I am wondering… who are your spiritual mentors? Who most deserves your letter of thanks? Who are your go-to-people or one-off reads that have saved you a time or two? Who makes you too starry-eyed to ever be sat beside at a dinner party?

12 thoughts on “Fan Mail

  1. I am a friend of JM’s who pointed me to your blog. Really enjoying it, thanks for sharing your story and thoughts.

    I would love to read some Anne Lamott after your recommendations and after reading your blog I went straight to to download some to my Kindle. Alas, none of her books are Kindle-able!

    • oh that seems like a small tragedy… a shame for kindle readers everywhere! are you local to JM and Debs? I’m sure they would let you raid their bookshelves?

      thanks for the encouragement…

  2. This is great. I’d forgotten how important Yancey was for me – both Soul Survivor and What’s So Amazing About Grace? There are lots of others for me – John Stott, Frederick Buechner, Lesslie Newbigin, Tom Wright…

    But the Big Three have no rivals: Wendell Berry, Eugene Peterson, C.S. Lewis. And the greatest of these is Lewis. I should really write a letter to the two who are alive – though I did have my gibbering-like-an-idiot moment with Peterson already. As for Lewis, I’m off to write a blog post now…

  3. Deb I’ll lend you travelling mercies tomorrow when you come to dinner…deb mullan hooked me up a few years back. This post has got me all stirred up about significant books in my life and come to think of it most recommended by a Mullan! Eat this book, Peterson. Mere Christianity, lewis. Home, Robinson. Hannah Coulter, berry. The gospel as comedy, tragedy and fairytale, beuchner. Justification, wright. There are many more. Wee frizz thank you for the gift of leading me to a place of reflection on all the words that have shook, steadied and kissed my soul.

    • thanks lorraine. i love your list. hannah coulter is my favourite wendell berry too, and one of the only novels i have read multiple times, for some reason. but actually have never read eat this book, somehow… I just read the intro on amazon and have added it to my christmas wishlist!
      …. and it’s a beautiful thing to facilitate the gift of anne lamott… thanks! x

  4. this is great hon, this got me thinking.
    In the great black hole of bible school, on the worst of the “ladies retreat” weekends, i lay on my poky wee bunk bed reading Yancey’s “what’s so amazing about grace”, with tears pouring down my face. that was the thin line i clung on to.
    and then, after, when i couldn’t read my bible anymore………..i read Lewis. the genius. his books were my safe place, where “normal”, calm, rational thinking reigned, and his dry wit and unbelievable grasp of the human heart made me smile and breathe out again and again.and yeah, i lived in narnia for a while, and learned the truths i’d almost stopped believing in a new way.
    and these days……………well Sarah Bessey and is teaching me that this whole thing is about a real live relationship, and its ok to feel. and im so grateful.

  5. I appreciated your post. I’m an introvert too. Philip Yancey is, by far, the most influential author in my life. His down-to-earth and honest way of approaching tough issues has been so helpful to me. I’ve read at least 7 or 8 of his books and have yet to be disappointed. While a completely different style of author, JI Packer has had a big impact on me as well.

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