Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Caring for the Vulnerable Among Us

Watching someone you love struggle with dementia is never an easy thing. My mother-in-law's challenges in the past few years -- and prior to that, her challenges as a caregiver for her husband, as he struggled with Alzheimer's -- have made me do a lot of thinking and praying. They've also made me recall the years my grandmother lived with us when I was young. How do we care best for people we love who struggle with memory loss and confusion? How do we show our love and care for them from afar, when we can't be with them all the time? How do we support the people who are their main caregivers if we're not?

There's a very helpful and thoughtful article that deals with those kinds of questions posted at the her:meneutics blog on Christianity Today. One the things I appreciate is the honesty of Benjamin Mast, the author being interviewed, when he talks about the vulnerability of elderly people with dementia and memory loss, and how easy it is for the church to overlook them. They are part of what he terms as an almost invisible demographic.

I've been wrestling with this a lot since our last family visit to Virginia to see my mother-in-law. She has been part of a moderately large non-denominational Bible church for over forty years. Yes, the same church for over forty years. While I was touched at how warmly she was welcomed to her Sunday School class when we took her to the Easter Sunday service, it was apparent that no one had been in touch with her much at all in the intervening months since she'd last been able to make it there. She struggles a great deal with loneliness, and yet from all I can ascertain, it is very rare that she receives calls from anyone at this church, and much more rare for her to receive an actual visit.

I think there are probably lots of reasons for this. Chief among them may be the contemporary, post-modern mindset that assumes that individuals would rather muddle along privately than rely on others for help. I think there is an assumption that family will do the caring, and absent that, that social services and retirement communities (my mother-in-law lives in one) will plug any care deficit. While it's true that there is a chaplain at my mother-in-law's care facility (maybe more than one?) that person is responsible for a great number of people. It also seems odd and painful to me that the local church, which would seem to be the best representative of "family of faith" there is, would so quickly fade out of the picture, even when someone has been a faithful member of that church for decades.

It may call into question how our churches can lack inter-generationality (is that a word? Well, it is now...) By that, I mean generations spending intentional time together. I don't think this has to be all the time. There are certainly times and places where it is appropriate for people to gather with people of their own age and life experience to learn at levels that fit the seasons of their lives. Young children and teenagers aren't the only people who could benefit from that. I think fellowship groups or Sunday School classes for middle aged people could be very beneficial, partly to learn and pray together over the challenges of aging! But when churches are very age-segregated, that can lead to other challenges. I know for many years that my mother-in-law had felt most at home in her own Sunday School class for older people. More and more, she felt out of place at worship, which had grown more casual and contemporary than she felt comfortable with. The people she was most connected to were her age or older, and now when she is struggling, probably many of them are as well.

All of this has made me feel deeply grateful (again, and for yet another reason) to be a part of a historical, liturgical church tradition. Anglicanism, steeped as it is in the threefold ministerial offices of bishops, priests, and deacons, reserves a very important and biblical role for deacons as leaders in pastoral and practical care for the people of God. (I love deacons! And not just because I consider many of them good friends, and have been blessed to teach in the diaconate study program in my diocese for a number of years.)  My dear husband and I have reflected lately on how glad we are to belong to a church tradition that has a long, historically-enriched, biblical practice of pastoral care. It doesn't mean that each and every church we've ever been part of has always practiced it perfectly...that's not possible. But it means that there is a much greater chance of such care being available and humbly and lovingly offered and practiced than in traditions that are shaped more by contemporary values than by historical and biblical ones.

As the body of Christ, we are to rejoice when another member rejoices and suffer when another member suffers. We are also to carry one anothers' burdens and practice loving care amongst the household of saints. And that's true no matter how old and frail the saints may be. Our love for the most vulnerable and "invisible" among us is surely a mark of our love for God. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mansfield Park Revisited

Over five years ago, I posted a reflection on my re-reading (and love of) Austen's Northanger Abbey. At that time, I dubbed myself "fully 5/6 an authentic Janeite," because I hadn't yet fallen head over heels in love with Mansfield Park. At the time of writing that post, I full expected to be re-visiting Mansfield for another read within a few months. Alas, it took me over five years to get back to the book, but re-visit it I finally did.

I think it's been re-reading Pride & Prejudice with my husband and daughter (my umpteenth time to read it, but the first time I've ever read it aloud, and their first time to encounter it) that made me realize I was up for a fresh look at the only Austen novel I've never felt completely at home with. I was a tad bit worried that I might not be able to lose myself completely in its pages. This mirrored the worry I felt back in 2009 when I did my second re-reading of Northanger. As I said then:

I confess I felt nervous as I took the book off my shelf. It felt too smooth, the binding too uncreased, the pages too new to be one of my beloved Austen books. And what if...perish the reading experience remained the same as the first time and I still didn't "fall into it completely"?

Silly me. If Jane is an acquired taste, then I have so long ago acquired it that reading her now feels like second nature. I should have realized that I've spent so much time with Jane in the intervening years that I would recognize her voice as soon as I began reading. I should have known that one can never really have the same reading experience twice, because wherever one is today is not where one was ten years ago (or five, or one, or possibly even last month).

I could have essentially written those words again this time out! 

I was definitely "ready" for Mansfield Park in a way that I wasn't when I first read it many years ago, still new to Austen's music and her way of looking at the world. Gone was any sense of stiffness or unfamiliarity. This was simply Jane again, Jane whom I love to spend time with, and I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of the novel this time out.

That said, may I confess -- and still consider myself fully a Janeite -- that I'm still not sure I fully "get" Mansfield Park? I don't mean I don't understand the plot, but there's something about the characters and the underlying tone that still doesn't quite work for me on some level. My memory of Fanny Price, from my one long-ago read, was that she lacked the sparkle and vivacity of some of Austen's other characters, and while that's true, I didn't feel the loss of that so much this time, maybe because I've now come to know and love the complexities of some of Austen's other heroines (Anne Elliot doesn't precisely "sparkle" either, but I love her dearly -- and really, how many of us sparkle in real life?).

In fact, this time out I found myself impressed with just how authentic Fanny Price's character feels. Yes, she's insecure and naive and perhaps a trifle rigid and judgmental, but what else can we expect her to be, given her life situation? She also shows a marked amount of determination not to give into social pressures and romantic intensity, even when she's being wooed with seeming sincerity by Henry Crawford.

It's the men I don't fully understand this time out, both Henry Crawford and cousin Edmund. Mary Crawford I understand more -- she's a schemer and a social climber but underneath it all, not an awful human being. She's easily swayed and led into error by others and there's a part of her who would like to be a lot more noble and real than she is, but she just doesn't have much backbone. Fanny's got the backbone and a much deeper heart, which is one reason why I wondered about Edmund's inability to see that (can he really be as smart as he's supposed to be if he's that dense about women)? Even though he claims, in the end, to realize Fanny's worth, I've got an uneasy feeling that somehow there's a part of him that might feel like he's "settling."

Henry's truly the one I don't understand. I'm not sure how Austen wants us to feel about him. She gives us far more time with him than she gives with with Wickham or Willoughby, scoundrels in other novels. Like them, he is the immature schemer who trifles with women's emotions -- at least at first. But at some point in the novel, he actually appears to grow. He sees Fanny's real worth, falling for her in spite of the fact that he'd initially looked upon her as just a conquest to pass the time. It feels as though Austen wants us to take him on the level at this point. At least I can't help feeling that she does. He is trying to change, he wants to be a better man, he wants to be the kind of man who perseveres and actually deserves a woman like Fanny. In the end, he fails, but -- and here's the problem with the way my emotions felt engaged -- I felt sad that he failed. There was a part of me rooting for Henry to actually become what he claimed he wanted to become. The fact that we see his spectacular fall from grace off-scene (just through letters and hearsay) made it all seem sadder. Fanny was proved right not to trust him, and while I was glad she'd been wise enough to not succumb, there was a part of me that wondered if her inability to forgive his past wrongs didn't have something to do with the fact that he ended up failing. I'm not putting the responsibility for changing him on Fanny. Getting into a relationship with the intent of trying to change someone doesn't seem healthy. But what if she'd at least taken him at his word when he was telling her how much he loved her? What if she'd found it in her heart to speak the truth: "I don't love you that way because I love someone else. But I recognize that your feelings for me are respectful, tender, and good, and I hope that you will find someone else to love that way some day."

Meanwhile, I knew I was supposed to be rooting for Edmund (and I know if I get around to watching the film adaptation with Johnny Lee Miller in the role, I no doubt will!) and I did find him endearing on many levels, not least of which was the fact that he was the only person at Mansfield who was truly kind to Fanny from day one. But he felt so incredibly big brotherly in his role of older cousin that it was harder for me to root for the romance. Added to which, as I already mentioned, he drove me a bit batty with his inability to realize the depths of Fanny's feelings. He looked right past her and latched onto the pretty but shallow Mary Crawford, although he knew at almost every turn that the two of them weren't right for each other. Unlike Fanny, he falls into the trap of thinking that he can love someone so much they will change their essential nature. Austen seems to be telling us, in both love stories, that such change doesn't come easy.

And that makes me a little uneasy. Granted, I think on one level she's right. We are who we are, often for better or for worse, and it takes a lot to truly change us. Austen may be saying something deeper here (without actually saying it) about the limited powers of even the best romantic love. It can be a wonderful thing to love another person, but ultimately, it's the grace and love of God that can change us from the inside-out. What I'm stumbling over is the fact that often that love is mediated to us through other human beings. It's through being forgiven and embraced, even in our messy brokenness, that we often find ourselves most changed.

I've been coming to realize that's one of the things I love about Darcy's character in P&P. It feels stronger to me this time much his love for Elizabeth changes him. It's true that Darcy's failings are not the kind indulged in by Wickham or Crawford. He's not a flirtatious trifler with emotions. But he is unbending in his opinions and highly condescending. He has a hard time looking past appearances and confessing his own weaknesses and shortcomings. His love for Lizzy changes him in good ways, partly because he has to learn to bend, to become more fully human. Interestingly, it's really his love for her (before she ever understands how to return it; she's changing too!) that begins the changing work in Darcy. Because both characters change and grow, there is something about their union that is highly satisfying. Edmund and Fanny, likable as they are, don't seem to change much. Their temperaments are also more alike than not (they both have trouble with the whole notion of play acting and its potential impropriety, when no one else in their circle can see that at all). You could say that Edmund grows wiser, I guess, but somehow there just doesn't feel like there's as much movement in their characters. They don't move toward each other so much as they both stand still and finally manage to see past what they need to in order to come together in the end.

All this is merely my "second impression" (to slightly mangle an Austen reference) of a novel I'm sure I will turn to again. Perhaps on a third reading, I will come to an even better understanding of the characters and its overall tone. There's a lot here to enjoy and love, including the wonderfully sketched background characters like Fanny's Uncle Bertram and her conniving Aunt Norris. And as always, some truly artful scenes.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Austen Spring

Last year we had a Tolkien summer, and this year it's an Austen spring. We're reading Pride and Prejudice in the evenings as a family. It's the sweet girl's first encounter with Austen, her dad's first encounter with an entire Austen novel (he's seen numerous movie adaptations with me, and I've read him excerpts). It's also my first time to read an Austen novel aloud. So we're all enjoying something new and fresh in the experience!

Having pretty much internalized P&P after multiple re-readings, it's interesting to read it aloud and discover how challenging it actually is to read aloud. Austen's long sentences, which meander a lot in the middle before reaching their main point, are harder on the tongue than I expected. They flow more easily when I read silently, but I'm enjoying the challenge...and remembering how Alison Steadman, the actress who played Mrs. Bennett in the 1995 A&E version, said she thought Austen's lines were harder to deliver than Shakespeare's.

And speaking of Steadman, hers is the acting voice that influences me most when I read. It's almost impossible for me not to read Mrs. Bennett's without her cadence, which isn't a bad thing perhaps!

The sweet girl has found it interesting, but has been surprised at the sheer number of words she needs help in defining. I confess I had almost forgotten, due to long familiarity, just how gorgeously dense Austen's vocabulary is. And sometimes I am stymied when faced with defining a word (especially a few of the more archaic ones) because I realize I have spent years understanding it from context but not really knowing its precise meaning. With some of the denser passages, she has also required a little help of that "could you explain what just happened there please" variety, but we don't mind stopping and providing a little extra help. I feel like a tour guide! And that's fun too.

There's also the delight of realizing anew how many words Austen loves with such relish that uses them frequently. ""Felicity" and "amiable" (or "amiability") being two of her very favorites, though S. keeps noticing how often prejudice and pride crop up too.

I've not tried much in the way of voices -- too busy just trying to read it in a lively and engaging way to promote clarity -- but it strikes me how much fun it would be to play Lady Catherine in a stage version. Such commandeering condescension! Lizzie is also a wonderful role -- a tad bit snarkier than you realize when you read her quietly on the page. Some of her lines just drip caustic wit. Despite the fact that Austen gave Lizzie's sister Jane her own name, you can't help but feel that she must have seen something of herself in her main heroine. Though the older I get, the more I think I empathize with Jane Bennett and her attempts to see the best in others. I think I am somewhere between Jane's naivete and Lizzie's cynicism. And I think part of Austen's underlying message is that both can get you into trouble. Lizzie thinks of herself as a realist, but there are bits of underlying bitterness in her dealings with the world and the unfairness of her own situation that color some of her prejudices and help make the plot go.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Everything We Have Comes From Him

I'm in the midst of a several day slog through a lot of work deadlines, which in actuality is part of a longer series of months where I've been pushing at a pace I know I can't keep up much longer.

My mind is tired. I am running out of creative ideas (both teaching and writing). I am running out of energy and hours.

My heart is tired. We have friends going through the unfathomable sadness of accompanying one of their children through terrible illness that looks as though it will end soon in death.  I have turned twice to news reports in recent days about the persecution and killing of Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

My mind and heart are also bursting with love and gospel goodness, which in the midst of all the heartbreak and heartache feels ever more precious each day. We have been loving our nearly teenage daughter through a ton of very hard questions about God, life, Jesus, the Bible, and the world -- incredible questions that come faster than we can possibly answer (her mind works at such an amazing pace sometimes). I spent part of the morning trying my best to answer questions from a seven year old who told me he really wants to see God.

Tonight I was glad to come across these words from the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 1 in The Message:

"Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.”

What a rich treasure God has given us -- all of us who weren't much when we were called, but who by God's grace have been given everything we need, including a clean slate and fresh start.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Upside Down World

I'm working on a proposal for a youth curriculum lesson based on Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians 1. The Acts 17 passage has that wonderful verse where Paul and his friends are accused of having "turned the world upside down." The people of Thessalonica didn't mean that as a compliment -- Paul and his fellow missionaries were proclaiming the gospel, and it had upset their whole way of thinking and being! (Sometimes having your world turned upside down isn't very comfortable!) But their words were truer than they probably realized at the time.

And what was true then is still true now. The gospel changes everything!

My dear husband gave me the terrific idea of having the kids look at an "upside down map" for one of the activities. If you've never had a chance to check out a map with a south-north orientation, do. It will blow your mind and get you thinking about the world in highly creative ways. It might humble you a bit too, especially as you ponder how many tacit assumptions we sometimes make about our place in the world based on the accepted construct of our maps.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Holy Week and Easter

"He became naked so that we might be clothed; he who was truly fit to rule took all our dishonesty and unfitness to rule upon himself; he rose from the utter dependence of death with an imperishable body, "more fully clothed," so that we, too,clothed in his merciful robe, might be fully knowing and fully known in love's full embrace.  Like God.  As we were meant to be."
                                       ~Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

A blessed end of Holy Week, and a joyous Easter!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Penderwicks in Spring

I don't usually pre-order books, but with The Penderwicks in Spring, the fourth book in Jeanne Birdsall's planned five book series, I made an exception. Not only had my twelve year old daughter been eagerly anticipating the next installment since she was nine, I love these delightful books too. When I had a gift certificate around Christmas, I plugged the pre-order into my purchase...and almost forgot about it.

You can imagine the excitement when the beautiful yellow and green jacketed hardback arrived on Friday. The sweet girl and I promptly treated the book like Nick and Tommy Geiger treat their beloved football, passing it with great enthusiasm. She read it in two days, managed to not give me any major spoilers, and handed it off after telling me that she loved it. I also read it in two days (knowing we will both go back to savor it more slowly later) partly because I knew she was longing to talk about it. Which is what we did for a good bit of yesterday morning.

Without providing too many spoilers, I do want to give a shout-out that this book is every bit as lovely as its predecessors, and in many ways moved my heart more deeply than the first three. The books have always been a wonderful mixture of humor, sweetness, and some bitter sweetness. Birdsall manages to balance multiple emotions while providing stories with lively pacing and character defining moments for her beloved cast of characters.

Fans of the books should know – and this is nothing you can’t discover online or on the book flap – that the events in this book take place about five years after the last one. That means that Rosalind, Skye, and Jane Penderwick are nearly grown up – 18, 17, and 16 respectively, with Rosy off to college in Rhode Island and only home for occasional visits. That makes Batty almost 11, about the age Jane was when we last spent time with the Penderwicks, and Ben (their stepbrother, the son of Iantha) now 8. (One of the first things the sweet girl said to me when she was in the midst of reading was “Ben really talks now!” which made me laugh.) There is also a new Penderwick on the scene, rambunctious Lydia, age 2.

The book belongs to the younger Penderwicks, with its heart and soul reserved for Batty. While I missed more time with the older three…though they do come into the story in important ways, and still feel very much themselves in spite of being teenagers…I was so glad that Batty finally got her book. I don’t know if I feel a special affinity for Batty because we share the role of “fourth child” in the family, but I’ve always loved this youngest (well, used to be youngest) Penderwick sister, ever since she wandered into the pages of the first book wearing her butterfly wings. Batty has long since outgrown the wings, but this book is, in many ways, about her learning to fly. 

In case you’re wondering, Jeffrey makes a couple of important appearances, and the Geiger boys (now young men), are also prominent this time out, especially the oldest Geiger, Nick, who turns out to be an important mentor for Ben and a good friend to Batty when she most needs one. Tommy Geiger, Rosalind’s long-time suitor, is offstage for most of the narrative, but have no fear…Tommy being Tommy, he shows up when it counts.

Ben has turned into a delightful kid, with a love for action figures and rock collecting and a personality as big as it needs to be to help him hold his own in a houseful of girls. Mr. Penderwick and Iantha have small roles this time out, but they’re still their usual loving selves, supportive and helpful parents with the humor they need to help their children sort things out. Mr. P still spouts Latin whenever he gets the chance, but since Skye is now taking Spanish and Jane is learning French (badly), little Lydia, in the parroting stage, is quite the polyglot.

I won’t say a thing about Penderwick animals (fearing to give too much away), but animals are important in this story, as they almost always are.

The moments of humor are delightful, as always, especially when Rosalind brings a potential suitor home from college, a handsome guy whose terrific cheek bones can’t make up for the fact that he spouts all sorts of pretentious silliness about books and films.

Keep an eye out for echoes from the first books, including the very first book. The Alcott echoes continue to feel strong in this book too. Oh, and don’t be surprised if there are a few secret MOPS meetings, as well as MOOPS, MOYPS and even a MOBAB. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to get to your nearest library quickly and pick up a copy of the first novel. Go! Now! What are you waiting for?)

The moments of pathos are also beautifully rendered in this book, especially as Batty does some soul-searching, both about her musical gifts and about her place in the family. Since the four girls’ mother died not long after Batty was born, Batty has always been the liminal character, the one more than anyone else who seems to straddle the family as it originally was and the family as it has come to be. We see in the book that sometimes that perch can feel a little precarious, but it also has its gifts.

I both laughed and cried in the final chapters. The Penderwicks in Spring is a worthy penultimate installment in a great series. The sweet girl and I both eagerly await book five and whatever surprises and familiarities that may have in store.