Interview with Tsh Oxenreider, Author of Bitter & Sweet
It feels like we just started 2022 and left Advent 2021 behind. Many are preparing for the new year ahead, and we hope we can help you do exactly that. Author Tsh Oxenreider is releasing a special book on February 1, 2022 that is a guide through the journey of Lent to Easter, called Bitter & Sweet. I hope you enjoy our conversation below about all things grace, spiritual growth and how to bring beauty into our long winter/summer season (depending on where you are in the world).
Thank you to the Icon Media Group for making this interview possible, and thank you Ms. Oxenreider!
Our conversation begins here…
Modern Witnesses (“MW”): You have written about Advent, in the past, in Shadow & Light. What inspired this project and journey of Lent?
Tsh Oxenreider (“TO”): For the past decade, I have been intrigued by the liturgical calendar, but largely, it was something I didn’t grow up with, which is why I think in some ways I was intrigued by it. After incorporating Advent into our family’s routine and rhythms, it kind of seemed like a somewhat natural next step. Advent is the start of the new year for the liturgical calendar, and so Lent comes after. It had been a word I had long heard, but I knew nothing about it. I think there was an interest in what it meant to practice Lent as I saw more and more people doing it that did not have my same background. I was intrigued by what it meant. It was a natural next step. It was more an interest in the calendar, at large.
MW: I know you didn’t grow up celebrating Lent, but did you have any Easter traditions, as a child?
TO: Not other than going to church. It was a big production. I grew up in a non-denominational evangelical environment, and so it was almost like a performance that we looked forward to because that’s what we did on Sunday mornings at church. Followed by an Easter egg hunt and food with the extended family. There was always a bit of a disconnect, and it was like, What do these things have to do with each other? I knew what Easter was about, Jesus raising from the dead, but as a kid, I didn’t really have the connection. I moved on, and I liked the candy.
MW: You mentioned you had a general interest in the calendar, but was there something specific that sort of clicked or really made you want to observe Lent, having not grown up with it? Something where you personally decided that you were going to go on this journey to not just learn about it but participate in it…
TO: With Advent it feels like a countdown to Christmas—
Lent doesn’t really have that same appeal publicly, with younger kids and the family or something you can incorporate with other traditions; you don’t really have a form of counting down to Easter. The main appeal that drew me to Lent as an internal practice was the idea of fasting from something for my personal betterment or growth. That’s all I really knew about Lent, at the time. I didn’t realize there is really a trifecta toward Lent, it’s not just fasting. There are other elements to it. At the time though, I was really intrigued by the idea of, Could I, for six weeks, fast from something? And that’s really what drew me to it, without really even understanding what it meant to connect with church history regarding that. Why even fast for Easter? What’s the point, and how does that make Easter better? The initial idea was more like, Can I do it? How would this affect my relationship with God? That was my first draw to it.
“The main appeal that drew me to Lent as an internal practice was the idea of fasting from something for my personal betterment or growth.”
MW: What is your special focus this Lent?
TO: Last year, I did a “no buy” Lent, meaning other than essentials like groceries and bills, I fasted from any needless spending. It was really transformative for me in how I viewed my local economy, my local world. This year, I’m already doing for the first half of ’22 a ‘100-mile-radius life’ is what we are calling it as a family. We are practicing if we can live within a 100 miles, not so much like not travel, but more like get everything we need within a 100 miles, like produce or any staples. So, I think I am tying my Lent into something related to that, where I am going to fast from shipping and from the idea of connecting not so much remotely but at a distance. One of the really cool things about Lent that I think sometimes we forget is that there is a three-legged stool where you get three legs to the table (Easter), and fasting is just one of the legs. The other leg is prayer and the other one is giving, and it’s often really meaningful to tie those three together. So, for example, a few years ago, I fasted from sugar, and I tied that in with creating a backyard garden, where we planted some veggies and then we gave to a hunger/food related ministry. So, that in mind, I like the idea of tying in our fast with something related to celebrating something within our 100 miles like restaurants or supporting some small business. It’s really helpful to make it meaningful by not just doing away with something but by adding something good. Those are my brainstorming thoughts right now…
“It’s really helpful to make it meaningful by not just doing away with something but by adding something good.”
MW: I like that a lot. I think the giving part is so important because it fosters community, and God is always calling us to give. It’s a special thing to connect with people when you are giving.
TO: And it makes our fasting not really about ourselves. For example, if you were to fast a literal meal a week, one could take those funds that you would otherwise use for eating that day and give to an organization that feeds those who have food insecurity. There really is a cool way to connect our temporary suffering (which is smaller than what it could be in our world) with something much greater, and it gives it that meaning that God could use.
MW: I like the idea of 100 miles…
TO: That was really to give it some boundaries, because if you say eat locally, that feels really big, you know? Just to see what we can do. Can we buy meat, cheese and staples near us? Let’s see what we can do. Part of it came from hearing some news from businesses around us that went out of business because of COVID. We all live in community with each other and what role can I play?
MW: The book’s aesthetic has a lot of purple and illustration of fruit, lemons specifically. Was there a specific thought or intentionality behind this?
TO: Purple is the color of Lent historically, so if you were to walk into a liturgical church, you would see the changing of colors within the sanctuary and purple is the color of Lent, so I felt it was pretty important that it be that color, even though I am not drawn to purple as a color.
I like the idea of lemons for a couple of reasons, one, personally speaking, I love lemon. I associate that with springtime. I always feel like I have something lemony at Easter. Lemon, with the title of Bitter & Sweet and I had Shadow & Light for Advent, I like the idea of us going on a journey with these liturgical practices. We start Lent on Ash Wednesday and end on Easter. Ash—literally the bitterness of death, the idea of something being fallen, temporary and ephemeral all the way to something about feasting, about eternity, and about the goodness of God, the sweetness. Lemons to me are a symbol of that. The bitterness of the tartness—
MW: And it can also be used in a sweet way.
TO: It’s that lemons-lemonade concept, and it can be used in a tangible way. Everybody is familiar with that idea. We can immediately taste lemons in our mouth, and we can taste lemonade or lemon bars, so that was the connection with that.
“We start Lent on Ash Wednesday and end on Easter. Ash—literally the bitterness of death, the idea of something being fallen, temporary and ephemeral all the way to something about feasting, about eternity, and about the goodness of God, the sweetness.”
MW: I like that. Very cool. What are your top three essentials for Lent? Things that help you stay focused or make it through…
TO: I mentioned the three-legged stool of Lent. I think people often feel overwhelmed. Not only does it feel like you are adding more stuff that isn’t a requirement, but it’s more of a personal challenge—that’s the way the modern world would see it. So it feels like it’s adding something. It also just feels long.
Lent is considerably longer than Advent, even. It’s 46 days, 40 days we practice with each Sunday being a break within those days. So, I encourage people who are not familiar with this tradition but intrigued by it to give yourself a lot of grace. Remember that this isn’t about proving yourself as a Christian with God. God isn’t up there with a clipboard checking off boxes that He is impressed with. To give yourself lots of grace increases your chances of hearing from God as you go through. The whole point is to grow in holiness– it’s not to prove yourself. You are going to mess up. I really encourage people to not show up for Lent as though you are going to do it right. That’s not the point, and you are not going to.
With that in mind, the things that help me—in both Shadow & Light and Bitter & Sweet I incorporate a lot of art and music. For me, as someone who is drawn to that, art and music encourage me and keep me going. Adding beauty, basically, to our lives. This time of year, the time of Lent, it’s dark and dreary. It’s that blah time of year. The end of winter and start of spring where it’s a big tease, you know? Where you are like, Is this ever going to be over with? You think spring is coming, and then, it’s not, you know? It can feel frustrating, but when we can add some form of beauty—for me that’s art and music, but candles are helpful, flowers, things that remind you of what is coming, especially in the hardness of Lent, that there is so much grace. There is so much that is not what we see in the here and now.
Beauty, and a form of community. You want to be careful to not one-up each other to see who has the hardest fast, but to just fill each other in on what you are doing for Lent out of a way to check in with each other and to communicate with each other what you are learning. To spur each other on to goodness.
MW: Do you do that with a group of people?
TO: Kind of, like in a very organic way. With friends. And thirdly, I would say journaling. Journaling my thoughts, especially on those days when I can’t be bothered or I feel like I really don’t want to do this, or this makes it so much harder. It’s a form of prayer, really, when you can be honest with yourself and God.
“There is so much that is not what we see in the here and now.”
MW: Was there a favorite song or art piece that stood out to you? I really did like those sections at the end of the chapters.
TO: A lot of the songs I chose had to do with the idea of how temporal this life is and how frail and fragile we are in terms of our commitment—basically, how much we rely on God’s grace because we can’t rely on ourselves. “Come Ye Sinners” by Ordinary Time is one that connects with me a lot. “Brother” Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is one on repeat for me. “Tennebrae” by Andrew Peterson; he has a great Holy Week collection of songs. I wanted to make sure to add some of them.
And as far as art, The Five Thousand by Eularia Clarke (1962); it’s the one I have for week two. I love that one because it was done in the 60s, so it’s not that old compared to some of the other art I have in the book. She depicts the feeding of the 5,000 like a modern day picnic—almost like a neighborhood picnic, and I thought that was a cool way to interpret that moment in the New Testament that is so familiar to all of us, to make it feel really real and current. Something that could happen now. That was probably the one piece of art that I really wanted to make sure was in the book.
MW: Is there a book, podcast or resource that is inspiring you lately?
TO: Tons! The podcast that has been my go-to is “The Bible in a Year” by Fr. Mike Schmitz. My husband actually completed it in 2021, and it was the first time he read through the Bible in a year. To me, it is such a gift and grace that God has given us this technology which can be used for good. It’s so easy for us to notice the dumpster fire all around us. To recognize that this can also be used where we can just hit play and listen to someone read to us the Bible. What little excuse we have. That has genuinely been life-giving, especially when you are like, I am so overwhelmed, today, or I am stuck in traffic or I have a lot to do, but I can at least hit play and listen to the Bible. ‘The Bible in a Year’ has been huge, and I am continually grateful for it.
And for books… there are so many books. Two books– there is a two-part book, I just finished the second one last night, The Theology of Home (Parts I and II). It’s not connected to Lent, but I appreciate these women—it’s written by two women who took the idea of homemaking and home keeping and connected it to an actual sacramental approach to our relationship with God. Sometimes, a lot of these books can become saccharin. Take care of your home and find God’s purpose for you there— that kind of message to women that can sometimes be a little defeating, and they connect the dots between our daily practices that largely feel unimportant or unseen or pointless to our own holiness and growth. It’s a timeless topic. We’ve all heard these things ad nauseum. It was a really refreshing take and approach to a topic that we can sometimes roll our eyes at. Usually, I don’t really read those books, or if I do, I just skim them, but this one I really liked. I highlighted, and it’s beautiful too.
MW: If you had to define Christianity in a sentence, it would be:
TO: God coming to us because we couldn’t come to Him.
Last remarks from Tsh:
A lot of times, especially when people are new to Lent, they just kind of cannonball into the pool and see what it’s like. Sometimes, we pick practices that aren’t necessarily congruent to who we are or what matters to us.
We think I am going to fast from sugar, when in reality it may not be the best season for that or it’s not even something God is asking from us. I also encourage people into the ancient practice of creating a Rule of Life. I have information on my website about that. Creating a Rule of Life—all it is, is a commitment to living your life in a particular way. It’s an ancient tradition from the 5th century. When you write out what your practices are, it helps you say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the right things. It’s sort of a tool for decision making, and I think, especially this time a year, if you just give yourself permission to think through who you are, how God made you and what matters to you, and what your life stage is right now, what your vocation or purpose is, when you can nail those things down, there is a lot more clarity to life. Should I take this job? Or prioritize this over that? Or something as simple as, What should I fast from for Lent? Creating Rule of Life is something I suggest.
MW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
About Tsh Oxenreider:
Tsh Oxenreider is the bestselling author of several books, including Bitter & Sweet: A Journey Into Easter. She’s also a travel guide, teacher, and podcaster, and she lives in Georgetown, Texas, with her husband and three children. She is equally happy snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef with her family and putzing around her own backyard.
Find Tsh online at:
Until next time, keep witnessing!
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