D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

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The Book that Changed Kurt's Life

I met Kurt a few weeks ago at my amazing Collegeville writing workshop. Kurt has the spiritual gift of editing (having both a keen eye and an enthusiasm for beauty) and it was such a pleasure to meet him. He encourages me to read well, to write "tight and bright" and I really resonated with his thoughts on Steinbeck here (about time for me to re-read ol' East of Eden). 






The Book That Changed My Life

Kurt Armstrong


When I was 23, I moved back to the family farm in southern Alberta to help my mom and dad with the harvest. I was broke and depressed and the two-year MCC program I’d been counting on was cancelled because funding had been dropped. That summer someone had stolen my bike from outside my apartment and someone at work swiped my camera. Someone else dumped me because she recognized me as a half-hearted boyfriend and knew she deserved better. (Correct on both counts.) So I moved home for a couple months, and in the evenings I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Steinbeck sets out to tell his own family’s history, but about eight pages in he gets sidetracked for about 535 tumbling pages and then, oops, he never gets back to what he supposedly set out to do. It’s moody, brooding, and dramatic, overwhelmingly masculine – very few women other than the nearly-silent Eliza and the shape-shifting, nearly-demonic Kate – and some of the characters seem more like caricatures than the more complex, layered flesh-and-blood humans you or I might be related to. It is not a perfect novel.

But East of Eden is a bold, ambitious modern midrash on Cain vs. Abel, touching on the timeless, perennial struggle of sons to honour their fathers without being damned to echo all of their shortcomings. The sins of the father run thick through the book, as in human history, and Steinbeck’s flawed novel proclaims a hard-won hope that even though inherited sin may be an unbearable yoke, even heavy yokes can be broken.

It’s nowhere near as iconic as his Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath: too subjective, too narrow, too intimate of a story. But where Grapes of Wrath weaves politics and parable into the tale of a family, thus narrating the experience of an entire generation, East of Eden reaches back to ancient, primordial myths and touches on a more universal, and much more personal story. James Joyce said that “In the particular is contained the universal,” and it is precisely because East of Eden is such an intimate, particular story that it rings true on such a fundamental level. “Here’s your box,” Steinbeck writes in the dedication, a note to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking Press. “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.” How true. It is a sprawling book, full of sin and redemption, loss and hope, suffering and love, and soaring above it all, the great, terrifying gift of human responsibility – and yet there remains ample room for readers to find themselves. Forty-seven years after it was published, it was obvious to me as I read it: a story this personal is much, much bigger than the little box contained between its covers.

East of Eden touched me more deeply than I knew a novel was capable of. Broke, depressed, and heartbroken, I was highly sensitive to it’s high drama. And being home on the farm, practicing the simpler pace of farming – more demanding and more direct than any of my city jobs had been – clarified my own thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck’s book got into my bones; the mood and images stuck in my everyday imagination for months afterwards.

It’s rare that I re-read any books, especially novels. Having wasted too much of my youth in front of the television I spend a lot of time reading because I’m already so far behind. But I’ve read East of Eden three times now, and each time I’ve found it more surprising, refreshing, and moving than the last. I know I’m in the minority, but I consider it by far the better of Steinbeck’s two “big books.”





Kurt Armstrong is the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock) and has written for The Globe and Mail, Paste, Image, and Geez, among others. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and works at Saint Margaret's Anglican Church.










Other posts in the Book That Changed My Life series:


Walking on Water

Jesus For President

With Daring Faith






The Book That Changed Our Life




I graduated with a degree in Bible/Theology in December of 2007, and a few short days later, we were married. We moved into the old farm house next to the mega-church where you were the care-taker/maintenance man. The price was right (free) and the rolling hills and llamas-for-neighbors allowed us to buy a beat-up old drum set and start a 2-person family band (sample lyrics: We're just two pork chops marinating love/we've got each other and that's enough).

You were still in school, I was working depressing retail jobs, we were young and in love and materially poor. We ate candy for dinner and never worried about anything that happened outside of our cozy house, safe and secure with each other.

At the independent bookstore on campus, that oasis within the storm, I saw a book that would not escape me. Jesus for President. Faux-battered, a precious little lamb on the cover, an intriguing political title. Although we never, ever did this, I bought the book at full price, fresh off the press, and took it home to read.

We took turns, devouring entire chapters, me impatient with your slow and careful reading. Maybe this was our first married fight. We sat together in the over-sized recliner that was there when we moved in, too large to fit through the doors. Squished next to each other, we would talk long into the night: serious conversations about what we were reading. Words like "Empire" entered our vocabulary for the very first time. You were converted intellectually and theologically to the idea of pacifism right away, chasing down the rabbit trails in your mind, finding for you a belief that mirrored your own sacrificial love, your unshakeable forgiving spirit, your sense of God as a very good father. I was captured by the immediate practicalities, casting off the cloak of the kingdoms of capitalism and consumerism. We changed all of our shopping habits, committing to second-hand and doing without, tuned out of all the political discussions swirling around us.

We were being converted, together. This doesn't always happen, and I know what a precious gift this time was. We were changed, both of us, and we decided to obey together.

The book spoke to us in a time where we could recite the Bible out of both ears yet hungered to know how it could penetrate our spirits and our wallets and our relationships with everyone we knew. The subversive nature of it was exciting, the practicalities beyond challenging. We spent a night or two hopeless at our own complicity. And we repented to one another, and held hands as we tried to move forward.

A few short months after we read that book, we made some changes. I went to graduate school, getting a degree that was slightly less theoretical in nature. You pursued your calling as a notice-er and a peacemaker. We moved into the low-income apartment complex where so many of our refugee friends lived. We said goodbye to the rolling hills and llama's and our last chance to play the drums as loudly as we wanted to, to live just exactly as we pleased.

And it has never been the same. With Jesus as our President, the world has become so much more complicated. We have been shocked at the amount of confrontation we have run into, the amount of forgiveness we have had to ask our Father for. Nothing is easier, but it has all been so much brighter.

Sometimes, if I am being honest, I still feel a little afraid of what will happen next, now that we have no Empire guidelines to fall back on. All I have is this little piece of Jesus I hold onto, believing that he can heal us from ourselves. And you are here with me, sitting right beside me as I type this out. It helps me to no end that I know we will continue to turn again, to be converted towards the Christ that brought us together, and I pray that it never stops.

And maybe someday we will buy another old drum-set, and start a band where everyone we know will be invited to sing along.

That certainly sounds like something you would do.









Other posts in the Book That Changed Your Life series:


Walking on Water






Look out for a killer guest post coming on Thursday!



Waking Up About the American Dream -- Guest Post by Jennifer Tinker

I love Jennifer. After you read this post, you will understand why. She is gracious, gentle, the best twitter-cheerleader around, and she thinks a lot about all these sorts of downward mobility questions. The more this series goes on, the more I am impressed with how many people are deciding that the American Dream is far more crushing to our spirits than we realize. But even as we find freedom in living well with less, we still find the temptation to dream about more . . . Jennifer gives an honest portrayal of living in this reality, and I love learning from her. 




Waking Up About the American Dream

Just over a year ago my family moved into a modest, old farmhouse in rural Texas. The simplicity of our home is reflected in the affordability of our rent. We have chosen to be content here, living below our means. It’s not that we’re that smart on our own, but because we learned the hard way about the cost of the American Dream.

Background: Housing Allowance

My husband is Lutheran pastor and in our denomination the expectation is that the church where he serves will provide our housing. Some congregations own a home, called a parsonage, that the pastor’s family can live in. Other churches give what is called a “housing allowance” which is just a fancy way of saying they pay their pastors more money so they can find their own housing. There are pros and cons and probably as many opinions about it as there are pastors. But the obvious issue with the housing allowance approach is that somehow the pastors have to find a place to live.

If you ask me, I like the parsonage deal because it takes the brainwork out of having to figure rents or payments or amortizations and all that. Give me a decent parsonage and I’m a happy pastor’s wife. But more than once we’ve gone to churches that have given us a housing allowance and then we had to use our heads.

Or not.

The Costly Mistake

A number of years ago, my husband signed on at a church in South Florida. The church there gave us a housing allowance. We couldn’t find a place to live before we moved. We honestly did not have an address to give to the moving company that hauled all of our stuff from our roomy four-bedroom parsonage in Northern Indiana.

We drove south, arriving in the new town just ahead of the movers, and signed a lease on a tiny, one-bedroom apartment. We then rented a storage unit for the rest of our belongings. When the movers arrived, we had them put the bare essentials in the apartment and cram the rest in storage. Our son was less than a year old then, so we put his Pack-n-Play in our room and that was his bed for those months that we lived in the apartment.

I was smitten with the houses in the area and I wanted to use our housing allowance there to get a house of our very own. But remember the part where I said South Florida? Well, houses there came with price tags that far exceeded those of their Midwestern counterparts. Still, the church was willing to loan us the down payment to help us get into a house. And by my calculations...

Here were my calculations: 3 people + 1 bedroom apartment = Please don’t make me stay here!

Nice, Big Dream

I grew up in a nice, big house and I’ve always wanted to live in a house like that or even better. I’m a homebody. I like to be at home. I like to invite people into my home. I like to have overnight guests in my home. And the nicer the home, the bigger the home, the better off I felt I would be. So I let my dream of a big, nice home cloud my thinking about the (lack of) reasonability of us getting into the housing market in South Florida.

And there was this house...and it was in a less-expensive part of town...and I fell in love with it...and one thing led to another...and suddenly we found ourselves making an offer on the house.

Our offer was accepted, we got the loan from the church to make our down payment and we were fulfilling the American Dream! We were first-time homeowners! Of course, “ownership” in this case was a bit of an illusion. We borrowed money from the church so that we could borrow money from a bank so that we could have the opportunity to move into a house we signed a lot of papers about.

Barely Making It

In the months ahead we made big payments on our American Dream. And somehow there was always more month than money, as they say. The best I can say about that time in our lives is that somehow we squeaked by. We had to be creative and we dipped into resources that we didn’t want to deplete. But we got by. And for a combination of reasons we were not in the house very long before it was time for my husband to serve a new church in Ohio.

Selling the house was a trial because, not only had we bought our house in a seller’s market, we were then trying to sell it in a buyer’s market. We were fortunate that a friend saw the home as an investment opportunity and made an offer that would allow us to be free from the ownership of that home. We further depleted our reserves to take care of all the extra expenses associated with selling, but we were free.

Recovery and The Next Round

The church in Ohio where my husband served had a 3-bedroom parsonage that felt just right for our family--it was bigger than our American-Dream-home in South Florida, but smaller than our big parsonage in Northern Indiana. Again, we appreciated having the guess-work taken out of housing, especially after having judged so poorly in South Florida. We were in Ohio for a few years and restored a sense of homeostasis about our family finances.

When it came time to move to Texas for my husband’s current pastorate we were once again coming into a situation with a housing allowance. The church is in a small town and we worried about how exactly the housing situation would work. If we learned anything from our move to South Florida, it was that we needed to have appropriate housing in place before we even made our next cross-country move.

Some church members come from as many as 20 miles away for Sunday services at our church. Still, most live quite a bit closer and it is important for us to become a part of the community our church is in as much as possible. To do that we felt it would be best to live within 3-5 miles of the church. Fortunately, the church leadership resonated with our ideas about proximity and helped us find our current home:

Texas Farm House

Finally having made important progress on our financial situation we did not want to move backward again. And part of what we want to do with our finances is to be generous with others when needs arise. And that’s what downward mobility means to me. Trying to be content with what we have, not overextending financially beyond our means, allows us to freely part with means to partner with people, causes, and organizations that make a difference for others beyond our immediate ministry context. We want to be fully invested where we are while also supporting those who go places we are not currently called to go.


If we were still reaching for the nicest, biggest house, despite our financial limits, then we’d once again be owned by the American Dream. I still dream of a nicer, bigger house. But I’m awake enough now to realize the folly of our past decisions. I see now that overextending ourselves financially makes it nearly impossible to see needs beyond our own, let alone respond to them.

And so, this time we have chosen to live within our housing allowance. We are renting now, which itself seems like a downward move since we were homeowners once before! But the house we live in is quirky and cute and roomy and it works for us. There’s that little voice that says, “what about equity?” But I’m finding stability and generosity to be just fine.




JenniferTinkerJennifer Clark Tinker is a Lutheran Deaconess living in rural Texas. She's contemplative and discerning, yet bursts out laughing at a good joke--sometimes even in church where her husband is the pastor. Jennifer homeschools their kid and tries to bring out the best in him. Occasionally Jennifer ventures out of her small town to speak or preach at churches near and far--even churches that aren't Lutheran! Jennifer's blog is called Living Faith and she is a Spirituality Editor at Life & Liberty. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.










For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

Scenes from the Mall

Today I have a rather long piece up at The Other Journal, detailing some of my experience in that bastion of American consumerism--the shopping mall. 


It is one of the few pieces I have written since moving here in September that talks about my day-to-day life. I feel like I am constantly learning and growing in my ability to discern what is valuable and truthful, and what just feels good to write in the moment.  


In any case, this is a piece that spells out a certain arc in my life--the one that brought me to a place of realizing my own story was irrevocably tied up with the poor.


Here's an excerpt:


I never used to know the poor, and this was such a comfort to me. I could envision how I had helped them, in so many small ways, just based on what I had bought that day, the kind of grocery store I frequented. I didn’t know their names or heartbreaks or triumphs or dreams or visions. But then I started to read the words of Jesus, and he kept talking about them all the time; David too, and all the prophets many times over. And they all said the same thing, in so many words: blessed, blessed, blessed are the poor.

And conversely, to everyone else, to those with their boots on the necks of the poor, the rich and ruling, to those who wined and dined while suffering and misery was outside their door, those who offered sacrifices to God but did not treat others with mercy or kindness, it was all woe, woe, woe. And there came a point when I couldn’t ignore it away anymore: in the hierarchy of economics, I most certainly was at the top. And scripturally, this wasn’t the safest place to be. I found Jesus telling me to sell everything, give to the poor, devote myself to a king and a kingdom that was not going to come through the normal, powerful channels. And in return he promised me real relationship with God, the blessings of seeing miracles, and the heartaches and joys of community based in mutuality.



Click here to go to The Other Journal and read the rest. 



black friday: the apocalypse is coming

There is a certain element of doomsday prophecy about Black Friday, isn't there?

The name is reminiscent of plagues, death, blotted consciousness. Then there is the day itself: the frantic ads, the capitalistic society clawing for dominance. Stores pitted against each other, shoppers doing the same. The lines outside the door, the crush of people wanting to snap up resources first, the trampling of those too weak or too old or too tired. Are we in an apocalyptic novel, or has our carefree shopping day become something else?

The ironies of these juxtapositions are not lost on me. I think the time has come to go beyond the tired arguments against Black Friday (and indeed, an entire month dedicated to relentless consumerism). Yes, our goods are most likely made by underpaid, overworked individuals from fragile economic situations. Yes, it takes away from the true meaning of Christmas, dulls our senses towards the spiritual. Yes, it fractures our relationships, dehumanizes people, commodifies love. Yes, yes, yes. If you are here, reading this blog still, I am assuming you know this.

But this sense of panic, this horror of amped-up consumerism, is interesting to me. Our society at large is obsessed with the apocalypse, and the issue has been explored in length in both literature and cinema. Christians too, have a history with being preoccupied with the end of days. I myself was raised with consciousness, and was certain that I would one day be martyred by the anti-christ (ok, who am I kidding? I still do). But when I was a children, raised on 1970s Christian films such as A Thief in the Night, the end-times always came about with a convenient, evil, dictator-like antichrist. Everything was easily identifiable, and we all knew how it would end. This sort of language has always been a part of evangelical Christianity, and I think in small doses can be even quite helpful. It keeps our eyes to the sky, after all, waiting and straining for Jesus to return in all his glory and justice.

But Black Friday is the opposite sort of apocalypse. It is obsessed with the here and now, with getting by with more than your fair share. But as I have been reading and researching our dependence on the things that make this kind of economy go 'round (see: oil), I have had to face the shaky realization head on: this way of life won't last forever. Oil is a limited commodity; we don't have the technology to sustain current American standards without it. Things will change, probably sooner than later.

A part of me wants to laugh the day off, take part in Buy Nothing Day, perhaps wander around a mall dressed like a zombie (a la Occupy XMAS) if I am really feeling radical. I just want to sleep off the excess of yesterday's pie, just roll over and let another American absurdity live it's best life. But this year, I can't. It feels too real.

When things change (and let me repeat: they will have to) I will find myself in one of the most vulnerable places: amongst the urban poor. So I am making changes now, weaning myself off of my ridiculous dependencies because I am finally starting to get a small glimpse of how holistic love thy neighbor as thyself really is.

I fear that history will not look kindly on this day, nor the cavalier attitude the church in America took towards it. In decades to come it might be looked upon as the ultimate symbol of excess and hubris, of a country committed to frantically buying $2 socks at 4am, too harried to realize that the human costs were so very high. This is no longer a day to ignore, but one to plead against.

This isn't a rant to tell you about how you are supposed to be pursuing justice in your own life; thank goodness I am not the Holy Spirit and that is not my forte. But this is a reminder that we are all called to justice, and we are all currently sitting at the richest table in the world. We live in a place where we are entirely dependent on corrupt economics, where Black Friday has become patriotic, where both the haves and the have-nots are crushed both by debt and by consumer goods that reflect no heavenly value.

For me, the day was celebrated earlier in the week, when I bought a share in my local co-op. It will be celebrated later, when my toddler receives very few presents for Christmas (but the one doll she will get comes from an economy of justice). It looks like thrift-store clothes and hand-made presents made with love (nevermind how wobbly they may be). It tastes like beans and rice and tofu and squash; it tastes like chocolate every once in a while, of saving the splurges for the celebrations, and inviting everyone you know.

I guess the apocalyptic part of me is here to stay; I guess a few more prophets calling out woe wouldn't hurt any of us. But even those dreary old truth tellers knew what we don't believe: being attentive to the most vulnerable in a society brings the blessing of God.The opposite of Black Friday isn't doing without; it is living life as we were always called to: with prayer, celebration, and community in mind. It is living for the gaps in how our children live and how the children in India live, of the privilege of seeing justice roll down like waters.

So, let's use our prophetic imaginations here. Let's move beyond boycotting this one utterly depressing day and start living like it is the end--the end of living life at the expense of our world, and our neighbors.

I shared a few thoughts: won't you share yours?

Note: I am indebted to the ideas in Sharon Asytk's books--which introduced me to such topics as peak oil, and I would highly recommend that you read them. 

lord, i believe

lord, i believe someone shared this scripture with me (from Mark 9:24) in the past several weeks and it has stuck in my craw. what a beautiful example of us frail people believing in the kingdom. i got a ginormous old painting half off at goodwill and painted the words right on. (p.s., is it me or does it seem like a patronus might burst out of the woods at any second?)

New Column: Women's Work

New Column: Women's Work

Hey. My new column at Mcsweeneys is up. 

I want to be clear that I am not upset or against men or any of that nonsense. I just have had to struggle with some issues in my life. I just hate to see people barred from using the gifts they have been given by God by the people of God. I just recently realized that not a single theological book I read (either as a part of a course or on my own studies) at my Bible college was written by a women. At the time, it didn't even register. Now, it just breaks my heart.

There is no one reason for this, of course. It is a complicated issue. I would like to believe it is because all the cool girls are out there bringing the kingdom. We just need more of them to write their stories down. 

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Holy Week(end) playlist

This is D's (just slightly) more technologically savvy husband, posting the Holy Week(end) playlist that I put together. It is complete with the Michael W. Smith, Keith Green and Rich Mullins ya'll grew up with. Lots of Welcome Wagon because I just can't appreciate them enough during the season of Easter. Enjoy!

Holy Week

Super Short

An update:

Since I wrote about the baby not walking here on the internets, she has decided to prove me wrong. For the past several days she has been taking a few steps every day. We are still not running around, but that image is now a distinct possibility. Yay!

Also, after I got all spiritual about our ghetto workout room, of course my Somali friend had to come and egg me on when I was running the other day. She stayed and talked to me for 20+ minutes, about anything that popped into her head. My favorite: "You are getting too skinny. Your husband is going to run away from you. You will get so skinny he doesn't even know you, so that is why he will run away."

Thanks, I guess?


All in all this has been a pretty anxiety-filled week. Which leads to sleepless nights and bleary mornings and possibly eating-entire-pans-of-brownies (I'm just saying). Our future is still as uncertain as ever, and I get a little despondent when I don't know what it is exactly I am supposed to be dreaming about. 


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