This reading group guide forWhirlybirds and Ordinary Timesincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Katie Savage. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
For many people, going to church is routine, much like going to school or work, and often it seemingly has no connection with the other six days of the week or “real life.” In Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times, Katie Savage connects the reality (and humor) of her life with the seasons of the church calendar and reflects on how these seasons provide a big-picture framework for living each day. Whether readers have grown up in a liturgical tradition or not, Whirlybirds is a collection of delightful personal reflections on the intersection of real life and faith.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Did you grow up in a faith tradition that was ordered around the liturgical church calendar? If so, how did it impact you? If not, what is your initial response to reading about life within the church calendar?
2. Do you relate more to a faith rooted in certainty or mystery? Describe what factors and influences in your life have contributed to your preference.
3. Read the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary in Luke 2:26-38 and the subsequent appearance to Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25. How do surprise and doubt factor into the season of Advent based upon these stories of the first Advent? What surprises or doubts have you encountered on your journey of faith and how have you responded to them?
4. In Chapter 2 (“Leaning In”), the author describes Christmas as “the culmination of the Christian season of Advent.” How does this view of Christmas differ from cultural and even many “Christian” views of Christmas? Has reading about Advent spurred your imagination to engage with the season differently this year? Describe.
5. What are your favorite kinds of gifts to receive? On pg. 39, the author says: “The gift of Jesus is so personal that it cuts to the very interior of our hearts…we are known.” How does this description of Jesus compare to your experience with Him? How does it impact you when you reflect on being known by Jesus?
6. In the chapter “Making Space,” the author describes her journey to see the high school their church meets in as “sacred space.” How does she describe “sacred space”? (pp. 50-51) How is this different from or similar to how you have thought about sacred space? Are there any places that are especially significant for you in nurturing your faith and life with God?
7. Reflect on a favorite memory of time spent with friends or family. How does this kind of time connect with your experience of church? How does the author’s definition of church on MS-pg. 63— “His people, living life alongside one another, giving the best of themselves to each other and to God as often as they can”—challenge and/or inspire you?
8. When you hear the word “Lent” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? How does this compare with the author’s reflections on Lent?
9. In Chapter 6 (“The Second Week”), the author discusses the gift of seasons. She says, “In the deepest parts of our souls, I think, we long for seasons.” (MS-pg. 75) Is this true for you? Why or why not? Drawing upon the metaphor of seasons in the year, how would you describe the current season of your life with God?
10. On pg. 74, the author reflects on spring flowers following a hard winter: “new life looks much better after a cold, hard, long bout with death and freeze.” Has there been a time in your life when you experienced “new life” after a difficult season? What sustained you during the difficult season?
11. Did you grow up with a view of life being more like a straight line up (i.e. one “graduation” after another) or a collection of seasons and cycles? How has your perspective (linear or cyclical) impacted how you respond to the reality of everyday life?
12. Do you agree with the author’s commentary that our culture is drawn to seasonless living? (pg. 75) What are some of the visible “unnatural measures we go through to make sure we’re always comfortable”? What are the ways that trying to live a seasonless life is costly to our humanity?
13. What do you think the purpose is of a season (like Lent or Advent) that is focused on reflecting on sin and repentance? What is the role of confession of sin in your faith tradition? Read Luke 15:11-24. What does this parable say about God’s heart toward us when we sin? How does this affect how you see yourself when you fail or sin?
14. On pg. 115, the author says: “our primary human longing is for nearness—to each other—to God.” Do you relate to this longing? How does the notion of being dependent on God and living in community with people impact you? What is the difference between co-dependence and interdependence? In what ways have you experienced the gifts of living in dependence on God and in community with others?
15. The author quotes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who said: “Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial” (pg. 102) Have you ever been the recipient of someone else’s sacrifice on your behalf? How did it impact you? For what are you willing to sacrifice your time, money, or energy?
16. What are some of your favorite Easter traditions? How would you describe the good news of Easter? How is the symbol of baptism related to the good news of Easter? Do you relate to the author’s commentary on pp. 113-114 that Christians aren’t as good at celebrating the feast of Easter as we are at talking about sin and repentance during Lent? What do you think would be necessary for Easter to be more celebrated?
17. Do you identify with the author’s reflection on pg. 125: “The problem is no longer that we merely love our stuff, but that we find our meaning in it, our being”? What “things” or “stuff” are you tempted to trust instead of God? What is the difference between enjoying the “things” in our life and trusting them?
18. Does it surprise you to know that the word “nice” isn’t used anywhere in most translations of the Bible? Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets with the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) How does love contrast with niceness?
19. In the last chapter, the author discusses watching whirlybirds fall from trees and describes the experience as a miracle. How does this use of the word “miracle” impact you? From this perspective, think about some of the miracles in your life each day. How could this perspective transform “ordinary time”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Pick one season from the church calendar and do some research on the historical practices or feasts observed during this season. Discuss what you learned about the season during your book club meetings and consider collectively implementing some of the practices or observances this year during the season.
2. Consider attending a liturgical church service as a group. Pay attention to the visual symbols and physical movement throughout the service. Notice how you are impacted by the various parts of the service and take note of what aspects either draw you closer or move you away from connecting with God. Go to lunch afterward to discuss your various experiences.
3. A related practice to the liturgical church calendar is liturgical prayer. Select a prayer book like The Book of Common Prayer, The Divine Hours, or the Celtic Daily Prayer and use it to “pray the hours” or choose one of the prayer times each day for one month. Discuss your experience with this way of praying at your next book club.
A Conversation with Katie Savage
What was the inspiration for writing this book?
In my very first graduate writing course, I wanted to write about the experience with the chin whisker—it was a funny story, but for me, it needed to be more than that; so, for a very long time, I thought about how the story might be significant. The church I was attending at the time was pretty faithful to the liturgical readings, and since it was the first time I had participated in using the church calendar, I was very interested to learn as much as I could. Somehow, the whisker and the church calendar were mingling together in my mind. (Is it weird that a whisker was the inspiration for this book? I know what you’re thinking: “Absolutely. Yes.”) I remember talking to my friend Emily during our hour-long commute to school about how I wanted to do a whole book of essays about Advent. So it began there, but it was a tad limiting to write within only one season—so I expanded it.
When did you first encounter the liturgical church calendar? Do you have a favorite season? If so, what makes it your favorite?
I’ve gotten familiar with the church calendar only recently—maybe within the past five years. But even though I couldn’t necessarily name the church seasons or tell you much about them, belonging to the church for so long has helped me feel that I’ve been experiencing the seasons my whole life. Last year, my cousin Ayme said that she’d decided to celebrate Advent with her family for the first time and was looking for ideas about how to do that. I told her she’d been celebrating Advent for years—she was teaching her boys the stories and living in the reality of what Jesus’ birth meant. Maybe she was naming it for the first time, like I have been, but that’s only secondary to knowing deep within yourself the truth behind each of these seasons.
My favorite season changes all the time. I can’t choose just one. It’s like asking if I like Billy Madison or Shakespeare in Love better. I can’t choose! They’re both favorites. (Sorry that you now know about my somewhat questionable taste in movies. But I would rather watch Adam Sandler draw a blue duck fifty times than pop in The Godfather. It is a character flaw. I know.) I will tell you that I’m generally more drawn to the seasons in which we’re to celebrate: Easter, Christmas.
You talk about the expectations often placed on preacher’s wives. What practices or guidance have been influential in helping you maintain your own identity, apart from your role as the wife of a pastor?
My mother-in-law is such a great example of what a pastor’s wife should be. I just try to do whatever she does—although I never sing “specials,” which I’m sure my church appreciates. I also owe a great debt to my parents for never letting me believe there was something I couldn’t do. They sometimes balk at the word “feminist,” but they raised me in such a way that I never felt constrained to gender expectations.
Beyond that, I think I have begun to feel comfortable in a very honest sort of faith. By that I mean that I know I’ve written things and feel things and do things that other people will disagree with. Sometimes they will disagree with me because they don’t think the ideas or the actions or the feelings are holy enough. Lots of times, they will be right. But I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend that we don’t all struggle with how to live up to the name “Christian.” It’s unhelpful. I have learned the most about how to better love God and humanity from people who try to live transparently and humbly. Even (or perhaps especially) in positions of prominence in the church.
Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times is a collection of stories and at various points throughout the book you talk about the importance of storytelling. What have been some significant influences in your formation as a storyteller?
We are all storytellers. I just happen to write mine down because telling them to actual people who are actually listening to me actually move my mouth is not really my thing. My comedic timing and sense of detail and pace is much better when I get weeks to agonize over it all.
That being said, I think there have been a few people who have strongly influenced the way I think about the art of story. When I first read Anne Lamott, for instance, I felt this incredible light bulb moment. This was a way that I could talk about God, which is something I’ve felt called to do for a very long time. It’s in a style that is not necessarily formal or trained. It’s definitely not platitude-filled or false sounding. It’s brave and deep and pulled from experiences that are so normal.
One of my first writing teachers, Dean Nelson, once said this (well, probably more than once): “Nothing kills your writing faster than thinking you’re writing big, grand ideas. Just tell the story.”
Scott’s grandpa was a wonderful storyteller, too. He was a preacher, and during his “retirement years” he filled the pulpit at many different churches in California. After he died, we found a little book with a list of what stories he told when to which congregations. He didn’t want to retell a story he’d already used—even though he never had the same respect for his family. We heard the same family stories over and over and over. I loved his repertoire of stories. Everybody knew which story he was about to start in on. Nobody, not even his wife, tired of hearing them. He showed me what the Scriptures must have been like for your average ancient Israelite: Nothing to read, just stories to tell and retell, to love and hold in your heart, to help you understand God.
How did you make the shift from high school teacher to author? Do you miss anything about being in the classroom?
Oh yes. I miss the classroom. My first year, I taught seventh grade English. Most people say something along the lines of “Bless your heart” when they hear that, but it was so rewarding. Middle school kids are crazy cool—they are funny without meaning to be, they still think their teachers know something, they let you mold their ideas about literature and life a little. Sometimes they smell bad because they haven’t yet figured out the benefits of deodorant, but that’s a small thing.
The transition to writing as a career (it still feels strange writing that!) did come at a perfect time for me, though. Miles and Genevieve are so young—I love not having to teach during these years. Teaching English is more than a full-time job—it is a lifestyle. If you’ve never done it, you don’t realize how much time and energy grading essays and planning lessons takes. (I don’t miss grading essays, by the way. Not ever.) I feel very lucky to have gotten to teach, and I feel very lucky to have gotten to write.
You talk about life as a mom in various places throughout the book. Has becoming a mother impacted your life with God and your writing? If so, how?
Motherhood has taught me how difficult it is to love someone well. The kind of love that sacrifices everything: the last bite of ice cream, the morning shower, the time to yourself, the sanity during grocery shopping, the safety and well-being of yourself above anyone else, the pride that comes with being able to “handle” everything. I would do anything for my kids—I feel that in the deepest parts of my soul. And yet, I come so short of loving my kids perfectly. I do things wrong daily. It makes me so grateful to know that God loves me perfectly. And them perfectly. It is a wonderful gift to be able to realize that in a new way.
As far as in writing, that’s sort of a double-edged sword. Miles and Genevieve give me tons and tons of material—they have helped give me another perspective with which to look at life and God. But they also give me very little time to actually write that material down. So I’ve had to learn to “protect,” as they say, the writing time. I’m not very good at that.
There seems to be a movement among the current generation toward liturgical church traditions. What factors do you think are influencing this trend?
While I can’t speak for the whole generation, for me the liturgical church traditions offer a sense of structure that I love. I mean, I enjoy the willy-nilly on occasion, and I enjoy babbling to God in whatever honest, free way that I want to pray some days. Other days, however, I find that I don’t have the words, or maybe the energy to find the words, to say to God what I am feeling. The Book of Common Prayer does. The church seasons help me contemplate different aspects of Christ’s life, they challenge me to reflect on sorrow and repentance as much as victory and gladness, they give me the gift of movement when I feel stuck. There’s also the added bonus of solidarity with other Christians of all sorts of backgrounds from all different time periods. There’s room for these practices in my faith journey, and I like learning from all sorts of denominations of Christians.
When did you begin to know that you were a writer? What do you enjoy most about the writing process? Is there anything you don’t enjoy?
I think I have known my whole life. In fifth grade or so, I decided to write a novel on our family’s first computer. It was a terrible story. Really, really bad. I still remember the first line, of which I was quite proud: “Maxine walked slowly in her big, bulky jacket.” I don’t know why I was so proud of that line, but every time I read it over, I thought, This is going to be so good! I got eleven pages in—it seemed like a huge accomplishment, like I’d just written War and Peace. I never finished it and never let anyone read it, I don’t think. (Although I did print out one copy for myself, so it’s highly likely that at least one of my parents saw it.) Since then, I always had, in the back of my mind, the dream of writing for a living.
I pursued it quietly, doing a complex little dance of avoidance, not even really admitting it to myself because that would be scary. I majored in English education in college…and then decided to add another major in creative writing. But just because I liked it, not because it was practical. A few years later, I went to graduate school in English Literature and had to be almost forced by my friend Maria to sign up for a writing workshop. I wasn’t brave enough to do that on my own, and I owe her a lot for helping me sign up for that class, then for encouraging me to change my course and get my MFA. I still get very nervous showing someone my work. So you can bet the publishing process has been a bit of a roller coaster of emotions for me.
The thing I love most about writing is most certainly having written. The process is difficult, and I try to avoid difficult things whenever possible. I hate how difficult it is coming up with an idea. I hate feeling stuck and watching that damn cursor just blink and blink and blink at me. I hate the perfectionist streak in me that makes each paragraph take agonizingly long to get “just right.” I hate that things are usually not “just right” enough. But there is a moment within each essay or chapter when something clicks, and I realize I might actually have something important to say. That moment makes all the rest of it worth it. So the longer I do this, the more I’m learning to trust that that moment will, eventually, after approximately 1,809,111 cursor blinks, happen.
What is one of the main things you hope readers take away from Whirlybirds and Ordinary Times?
A deeper love for God. A deeper sense of grace for ourselves and one another. What a gift, if I’m able to be even a small part of making that happen.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Ian McEwan, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frederick Buechner, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Now that Whirlybirds is completed, do you have plans for another book?
I do. But I’m also still swept up in the whirlwind of having this book published, so I haven’t really been working on anything new like I should be. I also feel like I might have told all my good stories already. Damn. What if I did that? (Of course that’s a big lie, but it’s a lie I tend to believe on some days.) Grace for creating new stories, I suppose!