I have been reading Shannan Martin’s writing for a few years now, starting back when she went by the moniker, “Flower Patch Farmgirl.” So I am THRILLED to bring to you an excerpt from Shannan’s forthcoming book, The Ministry of Ordinary Places. As you’ll see, Shannan has the ability to spin pictures from words and to see in ways most of us are blind. If you like what you read, you can pre-order her book here, and when you do, you get some GREAT bonuses including discussion guides, a piece of art, and a calendar with photos from Shannan’s neighborhood. Plus, of course, you get her book, which is the biggest gift of all. The paint was already flaking off the baseboards before I realized it was time to stop calling our house new.
The signs were everywhere. Mature grass finally blanketed the postage-stamp yard. The tree we’d bought with 2013’s tax refund was large enough to produce a spot of shade exactly wide enough for one person to enjoy. And the clincher—we had returned home from an out-of-town trip and the house didn’t smell new. Somewhere along the slow rush of time, when we were distracted by other things, the lumber, paint, and drywall had absorbed the precise essence of us.
My new reality still took me by surprise.
I had evolved from the fresh-faced farm girl living my version of the American Dream with a side of Jesus. I’d become the gutsy, subversive, city-loving advocate. The new neighbor. My kids went to a new school. We lived in a new house.
On and on it went, my fists closing around this latest rendition of my identity, just as they had before.
But as people came into our lives and left us, as the carpet wore down in the sorry way carpet is prone to disappoint us, it became harder to ignore. We were no longer new. We were just here. The headline had faded. The sparkle dimmed.
Our earlier questions—Where are we going? Why are we going? and Will we ever fit in?—were replaced with just one: Now what? Surely God did not lead us here just to live. Surely spending our lives for his sake would mean more than attending PTO meetings and allowing the neighbor kids to conspire with ours in tearing up the yard. Wasn’t there some grand, specific thing he wanted and needed me to do here?
One late August morning, right in the middle of this heightened spiritual unrest, I decided to walk my kids to school rather than driving the short distance. I’m not sure what flipped the switch. It might have been the hissing shame that I was modeling an odd brand of privilege and laziness for my three young kids. But I had seen enough to understand that growth often requires death, and sometimes death looks like losing that extra fifteen minutes of sleep. Sometimes it asks us to surrender our softest pajama pants and lace up our walking shoes for the greater good, even if we’re not quite sure why it matters.
We set out with no grand or holy awakening in mind. I simply wanted to be a more positive presence for the three quirky kids who greet each day with gusto and would surely benefit from their mom at least trying to do the same.
And so we began. We walked almost every morning that year. Day after day, my feet traced the path south, then home again. Rain, shine, under what was often still the cover of night and through the driving snow that makes us ask deep, philosophical questions like, “Does summer really exist? And if so, why does it allow winter to happen to good people?” We walked like a small assembly of sturdy postal carriers saddled not with junk mail, but with backpacks, a violin, and widespread concern over the daily cafeteria menu.
I still didn’t know what was next for us here on Fifth Street, but my feet had committed a three-block stretch of it to permanent muscle memory. At the point that you instinctively know where the sidewalk buckles like a compound fracture, existential crises about belonging begin to evaporate. Though I enjoyed the slower start to our day, it would take months before I began to see this routine as significant. In what seems to be a defining pattern of my faith, God was disguising his heaviest lifting toward the health of my soul as mundane, repetitive grunt work.
My Now what? was answered in the wail of the train, in the whip of the wind, in the storm-weary oak tree jutting like a mangled arrow straight into the sky: Pay attention.
Two little words, light on action, or so I thought. I scanned my perimeter, certain the back half of the message had slipped into a mud puddle or gotten lost in the leaves. Pay attention to what?
Our first few years in our neighborhood had proven that love in action is the natural outpouring of the weighty grace we have been given. My joints were still a bit creaky from the impact of this truth. I waited for a to-do list, an ironclad set of instructions, complete with cross-referenced scriptures.
I trusted God to clear a path, then sat shell-shocked when he showed me my seat.
I asked for a shovel, or maybe a hammer. He handed me binoculars and my worn New Balance tennis shoes.
God got busy shrinking the world as I knew it down to a pinhole, one solitary shaft of light. “The soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness,” wrote Mary Oliver. Rather than feeling stuck in a problem-sodden world I would never be able to fix, God was caring for my soul by pointing me toward my corner of it and asking me to believe it was enough.
For a while, life became uncharacteristically quiet, and I was forced to slow down. I thought about growth patterns, observed the life cycle of decay and rebirth, and drank endless cups of tea. I searched for the story existing on the underarc of everyday life, where sizable change so often goes unseen. I noticed battered things and contemplated shadows, secretly judging God for his questionable time-management skills when there was so much work to be done.
Under the light of each new day, I walked. And I saw.
Two years later, this unspectacular, all-weather walk continues to give depth to my desire to love God more and put skin on his command to find kinship among my neighbors. Observing the changing of the seasons, I came to see with certainty that this daily practice was holy, a liturgy cut into busted sidewalks as we followed the clouds and thanked God for the trees. The larger world still felt impossibly complicated and overwhelming. But I was beginning to realize that it wasn’t my concern in the first place. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate.”
Simply put, we cannot love what we do not know.
We cannot know what we do not see.
We cannot see anything, really, until we devote ourselves to the lost art of paying attention.
Shannan Martin, author of The Ministry of Ordinary Places: Waking Up to God’s Goodness Around You and Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, is a speaker and writer who found her voice in the country and her story in the city. Shannan, her jail-chaplain husband, Cory, and their kids, live as grateful neighbors in Goshen, Indiana.