Christian Bookstores and the Joy That Keeps Me Awake

Last week one of my students asked me to lead a Bible study. There was one particular book which she wanted to go through, written by a local youth pastor’s wife. With play rehearsals on top of senior thesis grading on top of the rest of my job, it wasn’t until today that I got around to finding a copy to read. First I went to Barnes and Nobles, but they didn’t have it in stock, so I called my dad. I asked him what other big bookstores there were in town. He told me none. So then I asked him where that Christian bookstore was, and let him tell me, although I already knew. And then I went.

From the moment I pulled up, I was, as my pastor during college would have said, profoundly uncomfortable. I am a follower of Christ and I have spent my whole life in Christian community. I love walking into churches. I love books. Quite obviously, I think it is a good thing to read and write about Jesus, and I know full well that if the contents of this blog were ever to be really published, that is the sort of store that would sell them. And yet.

There were posters of smiling women all inside the display windows, and when I walked in it smelled like potpourri and both cashiers shouted hello.  But potpourri doesn’t bother me, and I am definitively in favor of smiles and people who give them to me.

I was probably inside for a total of three or four minutes. I can find books very fast when I want to, and they had the one I needed. It was just past the Christian board books section, in the women’s section, where most of the covers were pink or had pictures of rushing water on them.

When the lady rung me up she asked for my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. I wanted to say, Please don’t send me things. I don’t want your things. You have an entire wall devoted to Beth Moore, Karen Kingsbury is displayed with your “Best New Reads,” and your open sign is shaped like an ichthys. Why can’t it just be shaped like an open sign?!? But instead I told her my phone number, my full name, my mailing address. Then I walked out with a bag which said “Biblical Solutions to Life” on the side. I drove away and tried to figure out why that had been such an unpleasant experience.

Sometimes I lie awake at night because I have too many thoughts. They don’t  have time to be thought of during the day, so once I turn out my light they tumble around and around in my head, delighted to have my attention at long last. Sometimes they are angry and bitter thoughts. More than once this year I have decided with great certainty that whoever dreamed up the idea of teaching as an actual career is a sadist, on level with Rasputin or Iago, and ought to be taken out and shot.

But other nights are different. Other nights joy keeps me awake. Joy that I bought stickers at Target to put on a rough batch of tests, joy that high schoolers like to laugh and like to laugh at themselves, joy that I have people I love enough to miss, joy, to be honest, that students want me to lead a Bible study. This is the sort of joy that makes me feel very small. Small and loved and promised and clean. The greatest lesson I have learned in teaching is the hugeness of my own inadequacy and and the irrelevance of that inadequacy in the face of God’s abundant grace.

I think that there are fair and wise criticisms to be made of the idea of a Christian bookstore or of a Christian culture in general. But I don’t think I am the person to make them. I walked into that place this evening as a female teacher at a Christian school with plans to lead a Bible study for teenage girls. I knew I was their ideal demographic and I resented it. I did not want to think they might have anything to teach me. I wanted Jesus to reassure me that no, of course, he would never have come to a place like this. I was prepared to remind myself that he was my God and not theirs.

But the God of small joys, who pries open my fingers and teaches me to hold my palms out empty before him, is far wiser than I. If he can change me through cheap princess stickers and flubbed blocking in a high school drama rehearsal, it is faithless of me to claim he cannot be present in books that cry out his name on every page. Perhaps I will lie awake tonight thinking about that.

You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy.


I don’t usually write these things late, but I haven’t been able to sleep much lately, so here I am. Hello. I haven’t had much of an appetite either. My gut has been full of pointless nervous energy and I feel like I’m in pieces. I do not feel whole.

Today I got up and boiled some chicken for later, and put on a favorite dress from freshman year, and went to chapel, and came back to finish studying for my Civ Arts test and wander around my little apartment in concentric circles. Finally I headed up to campus, and took the exam, and went to an English-major-tea, and came back to cook dinner for some friends. (Well, really, they did a lot of the cooking. And all of the cleaning up.) They made me play my cello and I like them anyway. Afterwards one of my dearest friends came over and told me something very hard and I sat and listened and hurt for her. Then I read a chapter of Elizabeth Enright aloud and hugged her.

Those were the pieces of my day and I cannot put them together as I would like, or at least, not yet. So I’ll just tell you what else I’ve been thinking about.

We’ve been studying Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Civ Arts, and Dr. Munson says that Philip is his favorite. Jesus has announced that one of his disciples will betray him and Philip has risen from his seat and pointed to himself. He has seen the blackness of his own heart, and he knows the traitor must be he.

I have a very clear memory of one day in fifth grade walking back from PE class. After we filed past Mrs. Hedgecock’s room, she emerged, irate. She claimed that one of us had pounded on the door as we passed and disrupted her lesson and she was determined to find out whom. Nobody fessed up. I cannot remember why it was so important, but Mrs. Hedgecock, Mrs. Thomas, and Coach sat us all down very seriously and told us to put our heads down. They told us to raise our hand if we were guilty. Even if, perhaps, they said, we thought we could have done it on accident and had a slight lapse of memory. If there was the smallest chance it was us, we were to raise our hand. Well, I reasoned, I didn’t remember what I had been up to when we’d been walking that part of the hall. I was sure my mind had been wandering, though, so I put my hand in the air. When we put our heads up, all three teachers were hiding smiles. We immediately asked who it was. (So much for anonymity…) Ah, well, they said, only one person had raised their hand, and they were quite sure this person wasn’t the culprit, so best just to move on… The issue was dropped, and I sat quiet and red-faced in the corner.

I haven’t learned my lesson, though. I am still strangely eager to take blame. And I don’t want to let go of it, either. I cannot speak for Philip, but I still snap my eyes shut tight, and thrust my hand in the air. It is easier to take the guilt than to learn love, to learn mercy, to give, to take, to crack open my chest to the elements.

And here, at the solution, is where I am stuck, and the cursor just blinks at me. I will hazard a guess into the white space, though. I need to stop raising my hand in response to a call for confession, and instead start bodily throwing myself at the feet of the Great Blame-taker. I need to stop saying morosely, “I did that. I did that thing.” and start crying, “YOU TAKE IT. I CANNOT! I CANNOT!” Then He, in His goodness, will take not only my guilt, but me. And He will make me…whole. I cannot conceive of it right now, but He will mend pieces of which I can make no sense.

 I am so weary.