Two years ago our biggest selling book was a lovely, wonderfully-written, nuanced telling of a tale of girlhood in rural poverty, the memoir The Exact Place (Kalos Press; $13.95 -- our sale price, $11.16) by our friend Margie Haack. It is a great, gentle story, enjoyable and profound, describing how her life was, and how her girlhood story unfolded amidst rural poverty and a less than ideal home life. We still recommend it often, and hope you know it.
Margie and her husband Denis have been heroes of ours, mostly for just being thoughtful and charming and winsome and honest and for showing such support and care for us. They are solidly evangelical in the historic faith, but with the rare gift of living it out with beauty and grace and culturally savvy, low-key but caring about things that matter.
For decades they've had a ministry which has been at least two-fold: offering hospitality in a big old house in Minnesota (although they had a pad in the 1970s in urban Albuquerque which attracted all kinds of disaffected youth, young adults asking big questions about life and faith, etcetera and etcetera) and speaking, writing, and publishing resources to help Christian folks be more open to what their good friend Steve Garber calls "common grace for the common good."
Which is to say, they have a ministry of hospitality and they review movies and rock albums, TV shows and documentaries, and the occasional social or political trend, with incisive commentary, Biblical reflections, good journalism and very helpful discussion questions. They long to see ordinary church folks and evangelical fellowships and campus ministries and faith leaders learn to appreciate the popular arts and learn to be discerning about the worldviews and visions, the good and the bad, coming to us from cultural creatives. From small groups Bible studies to discussion salons to Sunday school classes, many people use their web pages and their publications.
I am not the only one to have suggested that their Ransom Fellowship (which publishes Critique journal) and their home that they nicely named Toad Hall are perhaps something like a North American version of the Swiss L'Abri (except for the real North American L'Abri's, of course, here and here.)
I suppose there are plenty of reasons this isn't exactly so, but I sometimes describe them as a postmodern or 21st century Edith and Francis Schaeffer. (And now that we have Edith Schaeffer's 1977 book A Way of Seeing back in stock, after being out of print for so many years, we think it is nice to bring them up.)
Anyway, be that as it may, we like them a lot, and they have been doing good work, serving others, thinking well, sharing ideas, doing life with others, and promoting good books and music and food and frienships.
We have long appreciated Critique and some of our best and most favorite mail-order customers are friends who Denis or Margie sent our way. They seem to understand that our own vision and inclinations and theological orientation here are somewhat akin to their own. We respect them for holding to orthodox faith and applying it in sometimes unorthodox ways. We respect them for the deep legacy of abiding in the Word, and living it out in the complexities of the contemporary context.
Yes they are all about the contemporary context -- in their publications and great website, they've done insightful album reviews, have encouraged people to watch serious films, they've aided and nurtured visual artists and poets and they have mentored hundreds of people to embody genuine, risky faith, with Biblical discernment, while living in something like a Babylonian exile. If anybody gets the "in but not of" and "already but not yet" / creation-fall-redemption vision, it is they. We have learned much from Denis and Margie, about the details of a coherent, gracious Christian orientation and approach to culture, but also about the real-world, day-to-day expression of real caring for real people in their very real home. The house they called Toad Hall.
And that, my friends, is the bare-minimum background I needed to tell to help you understand the absolutely fabulous, truly exceptional, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, always interesting newly released collection of essays and meditations offered in this anthology of Margie's monthly Notes from Toad Hall. God in the Sink: Essays From Toad Hall has been long-awaited and eagerly anticipated by so many of her loyal fans. If you order it from us, you'll see why.
Critique was a pioneering journal, offering incisive reviews before the likes of Relevant magazine or the Mockingbird website and remains an wonderful resource for anyone wanting to keep up with cultural trends, even hosting conversations on the latest important films or indie rock albums. Denis and Margie have done this together as a labor of love, and over the years many good writers have chimed in and contributed essays and reviews and discussion guides.
But - perhaps like Edith Schaeffer - it has been Margie's home-making and hospitality, inventing recipes, teaching others to set tables and do dishes, ruminating on God's presence in the day by day, that has not only made Toad Hall a home and haven for many, but has allowed Ransom Fellowship to become a down-to-Earth, making-it-real, incarnational experience, grounded in a real place of grace. Want to know what beauty and goodness and holiness look like, beyond the good essays in Critique? Join them at Toad Hall.
Or, since few of us actually have made the trek to their big old Minnesota home, we can listen in, learning about the day-to-day stuff of life, through the pen of Margie Haack. Her Notes From Toad Hall has been a report and an essay, sharing life and ruminating, and it has been one of my favorite publications.
Each month when the mail carrier brings our packet of extra copies of Critique and Notes from Toad Hall -- we love sharing them with folks who would appreciate them -- both Beth and I dive into Margie's Notes... first. Critique is important, informative and well done. Notes from Toad Hall is powerful, moving, funny, and sometimes real as hell.
We are astonished at Ms Haack's ability to describe her life, the craziness of hosting events, the anxieties of wondering what others might think when they see the mess of her own daily life, the complex emotions when facing hard family stuff (and the complex emotions when, well, not facing hard family stuff: Margie wears her heart on her sleeve, and names what is going on, like it or not through the small and large issues of her days.) In her Notes from Toad Hall she has offered, month by month, a brave look into their real lives, and it is both stunning to see a Christian leader with such raw candor, and wonderful to see a vulnerable, funny story develop as she narrates her life and times running a household as interesting as the Haacks.
Notes From Toad Hall began as a family newsletter, the sort of ministry update written by missionaries and those who raise their own salaries from contributors; but, as she says in the first essay compiled in God in the Sink: Essays...
It was our desire to update the friends on our mailing list in a way that was informative but not so dull you would want your time back after you read it. The challenge was how to write truthfully about the place where we all must dwell -- in whatever is our ordinary and everyday -- without over-emphasizing what our culture, Christians included, defines as success.
This paragraph captures her honest style and the intent of her Notes, and the pieces that became God in the Sink. Don't you want to read something that promises to tell you about this kind of stuff? Talk about a spirituality of the mundane; listen to this:
The rhythm of ordinary life is rarely that exciting or sensational. I wanted to honestly share what it meant to be a faithful follower of Jesus not so much when a hundred people praised my spinach quiche and artisan bread or a lecture on tattoos - that part was easy - it has always been much harder for me to believe God calls us to the very place where the thistles and thorns of the fallen world creep into our vocations and callings every day. It's a place where there are painful disagreements with your spouse, where a child's vomit stains the woodwork, and where the espresso machine explodes. Faithfulness is tested and strained through the mundane, often boring, offices of life where the pantry must be kept stocked and mistakes are made when filing your taxes. These things are so ordinary we hardly consider that this is where God mentors us and gives us grace and rest and meaning and life, but these were the bones that grew into a personal essay I included in every letter. This is a collection of some of those essays gathered together with the hope that others would be encouraged, as I have been, to recognize God's presence in the ordinary.
I am sure that you will enjoy these finely crafted essays, these good pieces about a life lived with ordinariness. I am sure you'll find your own faith enhanced, your own sense of the presence of God heightened, your own willingness to laugh at yourself liberated.
These reflections are fun and good; they make for nice reading, and they make for solid spiritual nourishment. You will enjoy them, and you will be appreciative.
I wish I could cite excerpts from each of these essays but this review would be too, too long if I started. I want to press this into your hands, invite you to press it into the hands of others. I suppose women who do behind the scenes family stuff may be the primary audience, but I certainly hope you don't think that it is exclusively for women or homemakers or those involved in this kind of ministry. This book is certainly for anyone, reflections about finding God in the ordinary, the hidden art of finding the joy of living; a way of seeing, even.
But it is also about how real caring in real life mediates God's own grace and holiness, exposing our own deep need to some inner work, re-doubling our trust in God's goodness and promises, saying no to household gods and inner idols, letting go of self-importance and the attendant anxieties when we live for things other than "the audience of One."
In many of these gracious essays, the writer shares her own heart, inviting us (without sanctimony or cliché) to repentance and sanctification.
The first essay, by the way, tells of Margie doing dishes with a three-year old granddaughter. The child wants to wash the bobble head Jesus figurine, perched ironically on her counter. Her snarky side is on display a bit more vibrantly in other essays, but you get a glimpse of this here:
I wondered how to explain irony to her. How to say it had an obscure, but special meaning to me. I've often thought, I should put it away because people must look at it all the time and wonder if I'm a heretic of some kind, worshiping saints or idols or something equally suspicious. This is my explanation. He was a gift from a friend, Jeremy Huggins. Together we appreciate the humor and irony in Christian paraphernalia that is marketed in certain stores. Things like Frisbees that say "Flying high for Jesus." Or night-lights with the inscription: "Jesus is the light of the world."And, yes, this is a big reveal: the Haack's have left Toad Hall and their new location has generated a new name, and her beloved newsletters have a new name.
So there Jesus sits bobbling on the edge of my sink as a reminder to laugh at ourselves for the absurd ways in which we represent Christian faith to the world, and to try to push against the trivialization of such great a thing as the gospel. I mean no disrespect to a God I love. I think he knows that.
When it took too long to think of a simple answer to this dear child, she moved on to the next question.
"Can I give God a bath? He wants a bath." I gently said no. He will get all rusty inside and not bobble anymore, and I quickly moved to pack him in a box, ready for my next kitchen. Yes, my next kitchen. The words were both exhilarating and terrifying.
In another essay she shares about the new phase of their life, and their transition to a new place. It is moving stuff, relevant for many, I'm sure,
So, this is, perhaps, the winter of our lives. Or at least late fall. There is still lots to be done. I'd like to keep going with Notes From Toad Hall. Denis wants to keep writing Critique. I'd like to keep on letting you know how this aging bit goes. Is it possible to serve God well with failing body parts, Social Security and Medicare? We plan to lean into this and listen and learn new ways of being faithful in the midst of our ordinary. We'd like to be signposts of encouragement to others. We are going to avoid the advertisements of our culture that insist "You can do ANYthing you want no matter how OLD you are." Bah. Denis jokes that we're not quite ready for assisted care, but with a play on words, says, "perhaps we will name our next home "The Out House," referring to the last place we will own somewhere out there on the prairie on our way out of life. And, Bonus! he suggests I write "Sheets from the Outhouse." Maybe.
This collection of pieces written over a decade or so hangs together and chronicle their life and ministry in Minnesota. It is not a memoir, so it is not quite a sequel to her beloved The Exact Place biography. But in a way, it nearly is: these essays emerge from the exact place she has been these years, literally and metaphorically.
There is much honest wisdom here. For instance, she occasionally writes about her own lack of energy, spiritual dryness and such. As she pokes at the typical modern middle-class habit of shopping as an antidote to depression, she writes,
What I'm experiencing is spiritual dryness, and my first instinct is to do exactly what Tim Keller describes in a sermon on Psalm 42. He says that when something goes wrong for American Christians, they look for someone or some thing to pin it on. We tend to be very moralistic and think that surely, spiritual dryness is the result of un-confessed sin in our life. We haven't pushed the right button, we've neglected our Christian "to-do list." What we need to grasp, he says, is that dryness is going to happen no matter where, who, or how old you are as a Christian. It isn't necessarily because you've done something wrong, or haven't had faith, or neglected to read through the Bible in a year. It's because you're human and we live in a fractured, fallen world.
Keller examines Psalm 42 which examines the nature of our disorder. The Psalmist asks "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why are you so disturbed?" The question is not rhetorical; it isn't at all cynical, or sarcastic. It is actually asking us for self-examination. So the Psalmist searches for hopes.
Her insights about her own life, and how God in mercy deals with us, are always good, and usually refreshing in their honesty. In an essay entitled "Calm Down" she is reflecting on her own strengths as one who is good at intuition. And yet, she gets herself involved in a battle with Sudoku. Can you see it?
After supper on Wednesday I began my third Sudoku with a jaunty confidence. Two and a half hours later Denis begged me to please come to bed. I did, but I took it with me and worked on it for another hour without adding a single number. Only then did I notice five stars at the bottom of the puzzle with three of them shaded. A crack of light entered my darkened mind: Oh. This indicates difficulty factor. The one in my hand was a 3-star. The previous night's (with solution) was printed at the bottom; it had only been a 2-star. With logic gaining momentum despite intuition, it occurred to me that as the week goes by the puzzles increase in difficulty sort of like the NYT Crosswords so that by the time you get to the weekend they're so punishing you want to pay your own way to New York, find the editor, and force him to eat iceberg lettuce and Velveeta cheese until he can give you an eight-letter-word for "rugged outdoor clothing." Carhartts! Idiot! As anyone north of Minneapolis would know. And I don't want to hear, my friend, how you can do it in 10 minutes while blogging, writing a movie review, and flirting with the barista. By then I was crushed, in addition to feeling slightly crazy. But I rallied and told myself, "You've always despised logic, so why in the name of all your precious hormones don't you just intuit the solution? A few numbers should not defeat you."
Have you ever considered, even for one second, praying that God would help you finish a puzzle? Well. Okay. Maybe you haven't. But what about scoring a three-pointer from mid-court, or beating a red light? Or shooting a trophy buck? You know it's the same thing.
At 11:30 p.m. Denis raised an eyebrow at me and turned out the light on his side. I held the paper out for us to observe -- it was covered with hundreds and hundreds of teeny, tiny numbers written in patterns, grids, and graphs. Suddenly, it was so scary because there it was: A Beautiful Mind! Remember that scene from the movie when the door of John Forbes Nash's office opens and on every wall, floor to ceiling, are little papers with hand-written numbers, formulas and codes, and you suddenly understood how ill he is, even though he is a genius? This was my mind on paper and it was not well. I shrieked, threw the paper and pen across the room, and turned off the light.
She moves from there to some painful needs in her life and in her family. They've got financial concerns, health concerns, a leaky roof, ruined books. She feels convicted by the lack of joy in her life. She takes up some Psalms as she often does, and then recalls Sufjan Stevens' version of Come Thou Fount. "He completely redeems, what for me was an - I'm sorry - annoying old hymn." With banjo and simple vocals, so quiet, so profound, he sings Come Thou Fount."
"I didn't mean to cry," she writes, "to be taken by joy with a hymn I knew so well and formerly resented from my childhood. Every verse came back unbidden."
And so it goes in God in the Sink, Essays... From retelling scenes from Julie & Julia to citations from the Book of Common Prayer to honest reporting of arguments with her beloved husband, and plenty about her adult children and her grandchildren, she crafts honest, interesting ruminations. There is sadness and snark and joy. There are remedies for poison ivy, a recipe or two, and a bit about Stephen Hawking, written in the summer of 2005, right after a beautiful chapter on "Cool Cotton Sheets." These are great pieces, on all kinds of things, and I loved reading them all.
There are books described, song lyrics, natural history and nature writing, and lots of Bible and some stuff about their own sense of calling, their community, their travels. It is a collection of reflections that work on many levels, writings that should appeal to anyone who enjoys the art of the essay. And it is a glimpse into the life and times of Margie Haack, formerly of a house called Toad Hall. God in the Sink: Essays From Toad Hall is a testament of her life in those years, and we all should be very, very grateful that such places exist, and that such books tell the tale. Thanks be to God.
For what it is worth, we can send these right out, and we do complimentary gift wrapping, too. We have these at a BookNotes special price, and think they would make a lovely holiday gift.
GOD IN THE SINK: ESSAYS FROM TOAD HALL
Margie L. Haack
our sale price $11.56
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