Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of Cottonwoods and Mallorn Trees

We had a beautiful long weekend in Erie. We spent almost every moment we could outdoors, from drives on the peninsula to shore time by the lake to playtime on the sweet girl's favorite sandy playground to s'mores around our trailer-side firepit at the campgrounds in the evening. We also got to see wonderful friends for dinner on two successive nights. Despite some stressed moments (we continue to be very concerned about D's mom's deteriorating health and will be making another trip soon to see her) and our usual sparse accommodations in the trailer (made even more rustic this year since they'd opted to improve the bathroom facilities but take out the shower) we really had a lovely time.

One of my favorite parts of the beautiful flora and fauna on Presque Isle are the cottonwood trees that seem to grow everywhere. These are tall, beautiful trees that rustle with a hushed music in the frequently strong winds. It was the sweet girl who pointed out that the back of the green leaves seemed to shimmer with silver -- the leaves are a kind of greenish-gray. Coupled with the few eager leaves already turning yellow in anticipation of the autumn, there was a lovely silver-gold quality to some of the trees. It made us think of the Mallorn trees of Lothlorien, and S. and I ended up calling them Lothlorien trees every time we traipsed under another stand of them near the beach.

I love seeing S. learn to love Tolkien. We're nearing the end of The Two Towers, and every time Tolkien stops to describe the phase of the moon and the quality/timing of its light, she practically shivers with delight. I love that our daughter, so like us and yet so uniquely her own self, loves him as much for his scientific accuracy as she does for his poetry. She is so impressed that here, at last, is an author who cares about those kinds of details!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading Round-Up: August (and the "Slim Little Volumes")

I’ve been reading a lot of small books lately. The smallness describes their physical size, not necessarily their content. It’s interesting how reviewers often pick up on a book’s diminutive size as if surprised that a book with relatively few pages and a thin spine can contain something of worth. During my ten years of regular reviewing, I know I sometimes lapsed into the phrase “slim little volume,” which I now recognize as lazy writing, a sort of shorthand to express surprise that writing gems can be found in such little packages. It’s a strange sort of assessment. All we have to do is look to the world of humanity to understand how strange it is, since sometimes absolute dynamos (William Wilberforce, Mother Theresa, just to name two) are small in stature.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m drifting to smaller books in my non-fiction reading time because in fiction-world, I am still enamored of the work of P.D. James. My twelve year old sometimes gets an almost pained look on her face when she sees me bring home another James novel from the library. “Another P.D. James?” she’ll say a little skeptically, or sometimes just “that’s a loooonng book.” They are long books, full of slow, detailed prose, but I’m enjoying them immensely. I haven’t raced through James’ canon the way I raced through Deborah Crombie’s a couple of years ago. I seem to need breaks, sometimes of a few months or more, between outings. But when I get onto a P.D. James kick, I usually don’t stop with one. And I’m starting to prematurely mourn that I only have a few volumes left before I run out. I’m up to The Murder Room, which means that her detective Adam Dalgleish has actually embarked upon a romance, something I’m still a bit ambivalent about.

Whether or not I am moving toward smaller books because my brain needs a break from hefty mystery novels, the fact remains that the books on my nightstand (or rather in the unwieldy floor pile by the bed) are all fairly short right now. I’ve mentioned two of them here recently: I’m re-reading Justo Gonzalez’ The Changing Shape of Church History and I’m reading Macrina Wiederkehr’s A Tree Full of Angels.

Both of these books take me back to earlier seasons in my life. Gonzalez is the author of The Story of Christianity, my first real foray into the study of church history seventeen years ago. I will always feel indebted that he was my introduction to the discipline; he writes beautiful, readable historical chronicles. I was introduced to Wiederkehr even longer ago, when I worked for the Cabrini sisters (it’s been over 21 years now since I started my four and a half year stint with Cabrini, and I’m still learning from the time I spent with them). I’m pretty sure most of the Wiederkehr I’ve read was in excerpt, brought to prayer rooms on photocopied pages – the sisters and lay people I worked with there always brought beautiful poems and snippets of prose to prayer and meditation time. I’ve had one line floating in my head for two decades now, which I’m fairly certain is Wiederkehr’s, though I’m not sure of the context: “This is a trust song, Lord. I am in your hands like clay.” (If anybody knows where she says this, I’d love to be reminded.)

I’m also reading – or maybe it’s re-reading, I’m not quite sure – C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory. I would have told you that of the five essays included in that volume, I had definitely read two or maybe three of them. I go back to the title essay, “The Weight of Glory,” probably once a year. This summer I decided to move straight on from there and read everything else in order, and so far I’m remembering them all, so perhaps this is a re-read. No matter. Everything Lewis wrote is worth reading and then chewing on again.

Lewis is one of the few writers in my life that I actually sometimes wake up feeling I need to read. It happened again this morning. I find myself thinking “it sure would be nice to spend some time with Jack this morning,” and I reach for whatever book happens to be handy (I’m blessed we have a lot of his books on our shelves, and there are a lot more right down the road at the seminary library). This morning, Jack wanted to talk with me about “Learning in War-Time,” and I was happy to listen again. The slightly browning edges of the page and the note underneath the title “A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939,” gave me a moment’s pause, as it suddenly occurred to me that this voice that feels so fresh first spoke these words seventy-five years ago. It’s strange that a mere one-line description of the sermon itself could move me so much, but it somehow made the whole thing feel more rich and real as I sat there on my bed and the morning sun slanted silver through the blinds. As I read, I found myself feeling like I’d slipped into a pew of the church, right behind a lady wearing a WWII era hat. When I left the pages, no doubt I would find myself traipsing down an English road lined with trees whose leaves were turning red and gold. 
In the “slim little volume” category (sorry, I couldn’t resist), I’m also reading More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby’s witty collection of literary columns. This was a Christmas gift from my sister last year, and it’s been mostly sitting on my desk intriguing me with its title. Not long ago I found myself drawn to it on the new non-fiction shelves at the library (“what a funny title!”) and then realized that I’d thought that before and the book was at home on my desk. It’s my first dip into Hornby’s work and it’s delightful. He has a droll sense of humor and an insightful way of cutting right to the heart of a book and what it meant to him.

I’m re-reading Meindert DeJong’s The Wheel on the School. I decided recently that I wanted to get back to my literary devotional project, and saw that I had broken off (sometime last year) in the midst of ideas for a devotional based on this book. At that time it was fresh in my mind because I’d just read it aloud, for the second time, to the sweet girl. I thought I’d better give it a quick re-read to refresh my memory, since my notes were not entirely jogging my brain. But it’s such a beautiful story that reading it quickly feels almost impossible. I’m also having that interesting experience of realizing how different it is to read a book silently (and just to yourself) after having gotten to know it while reading it aloud.

My quest to read everything Gary D. Schmidt has written continues with his early novel Anson’s Way. I’m not very far into it yet, so I will probably take this one (along with the new P.D. James) to the peninsula when we head out on our few-day vacation soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Tree Full of Angels

Something made me open up Macrina Wiederkehr's A Tree Full of Angels earlier today.  Her prayerful insights seemed like balm to my tired heart today.

I've read bits of this book before, but not for a long time, and so I decided to begin at the beginning. In just a few pages, she has already reminded me of several things:

  • that we need to open our eyes to unwrap the gifts of the ordinary (xiv)
  • that "Glory comes streaming from the table of daily life" (xiv)
  • to remember to ask the important question: "Am I too busy with my own agenda to let God's agenda bless me?" (xiv)
  • that reading the saints can sometimes speak to the ache in our hearts (xv)
  • that we are "poor storm-tossed creatures, yet precious stones" (2)
  • that we are creatures of both "littleness and greatness...frailty and...splendor...poverty and...wealth" (2)
  • that home is the place where our name "becomes precious" (2)
  • that the "hearts of friends" can become home places for us (4)
  • that "the Church is that home into which I have been initiated, in which I have been anointed, healed, forgiven, nourished, and nurtured" (4)
  • that the Church is broken home because you and I are broken, and we make up the church: "we have to accept both the burden and the grace of being Church" (5) 
 So thankful to have picked up this book today.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

"Let There Be Light..."

“Let there be light in all the nightmare places,
in the millrace of license, in the stifled room;
let there be joy in starved and leaden faces,
in charred or sodden furrows, where no tears bloom.”

That’s the first stanza of a poem called “Benediction” by William R. Mitchell. I read it for the first time several days ago, and can’t get it (the whole poem, but that first line especially) out of my mind and heart.

This week has been a week of prayer for our broken and hurting world. Everywhere we turn there is news of violence. The radio and my Facebook feed keep sending me to the only places where I can begin to make any sense of the suffering and madness in the world: the Scriptures, and my knees. Yesterday I prayed my way through Isaiah 49, feeling every verse so powerfully and personally on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters that it almost felt like the ink on my Bible pages must still be wet.

I was working yesterday morning when S. woke up late (summer tired, and dealing with allergies and an antihistamine that makes her drowsy) and stumbled into the living room. We settled on the couch together to begin our usual morning prayers. Our first words in prayer together every morning are “Lord Jesus Christ, be with us today. Help us in all we think, and do, and say” followed by the singing together of “This is the day that the Lord has made.”

We were into the line “we will rejoice and be glad in it” when I glanced up and saw, a few feet away on my computer screen, a news headline about children being killed in Iraq. I averted my eyes (not to block out the reality, but to try to stay in the moment with S.) and returned to our prayer and song with a lump in my throat. Part of me wanted to scream out: “How can I rejoice and be glad in THIS day, Lord! How can I rejoice when your children are dying?”

Yet we are still called to rejoice, even as we are called to mourn and lament. And the two are not always so far apart.

Later in the day (after talking and prayer as a family) S. confessed something that I appreciated for its honesty. She said, “sometimes it’s hard to feel like all of this is real and happening when it’s not happening here.” She’s right, though most of us aren’t nearly so honest. It’s hard to feel someone else’s suffering when we are safe and secure. It’s hard to feel someone else’s suffering because when we let ourselves feel it, it hurts. It’s hard to feel it, because we don’t know what we can do, and we feel powerless.

But we’re not powerless. We have prayer.

So we pray for ourselves, that we would properly mourn, lament, and rejoice in this broken but still-blessed world, and we pray for those who suffer, that they might find release, deliverance, comfort, courage, strength, and whatever else that God knows they need.
“Thy kingdom come” takes on more urgency in our prayers in times like these. Truly, Lord Jesus, come and make your presence known. Come and take your throne.

We pray today for Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan – and so many other places.

The final stanza in the Mitchell poem:

“Say for me, God, their blessing I am seeking;
Lord, decree for them the sun, and Jesus speak aright
my scattered syllables – for past my yearning, past
  my speaking,
I have been stammering, let there be light.”

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Changing Shape of Church History (Notes on Intro)

Several years ago I read a little book by Justo Gonzalez that felt like a real conversation changer for me. It was called The Changing Shape of Church History. Conversation changers are what I call those books that shape my thinking enough that I begin to talk about things differently than I used to. This book has not just changed the way I've thought about church history, and the church in the world today, but how I've taught it.

I have gone back to parts of this book so many times that I've decided to re-read it, but this time through I want to take notes. Yesterday I dove back into the introduction, so thought I would post my notes on that today. I'm summarizing, but also adding some of my own thoughts and glosses as I go.

  • In the introduction, Gonzalez makes the claim that "the entire field of church history is changing" (2) and then says, someone is bound to ask, "how is it possible for the past to change?" (2)
  • He makes the obvious but important (and I think often overlooked) point that "history is not the same as the past. The past is never directly accessible to us. The past comes to us through the mediation of interpretation. And that interpreted past is history." (2)
  • He provides the useful image of a dialogue. When we speak with another person, that person is not directly accessible to us. We have their "words, gestures, and tones" (2) and we receive those things and interpret what they are attempting to communicate. When we are in an authentic dialogue, we do our best to respect the "givenness" of the other person's words. But we also have no choice but to "hear and interpret those words" from our own perspective, which is shaped and colored by our own unique experiences. Dialogue is really impossible, he points out, and yet we engage in it all the time -- and it forms the basis of our social life. (Just think about the last time you tried to have a meaningful "conversation" on Facebook, minus all the visual and body language clues he just referenced, and think about how hard real dialogue can be!)
  • Now that you have the image of a dialogue firmly in mind, "think about history as a dialogue. It is a dialogue in which it is not only the past that addresses us, but also we who address the past." (2) In other words, we're not passive observers -- we speak with the past, we ask it questions. And the answers we get from it depend in large part on what we're asking. 
  • So it makes sense to realize that church history changes, as the church itself changes.
  • History is pertinent "not that it is what happened in the past, but rather that it is what happened in the past as seen from our present and toward the future we imagine." (3) (Keep that one in mind -- and think how, as the people of God, we're called to live faithfully in the present, inspired and encouraged and deeply connected to the past, as we walk boldly into the future that God has not only imagined for us, but the future he can actually bring to pass.)
  • So why is the history of the church changing? You might think it's just because "scholars have new sources" (3) but there's more to it than that. It's because "the church and the world are changing. And these are changes that we can only begin to understand as we look at them in historical perspective." (3)
  • He goes on to highlight changes seen in the world around the time of 9/11 (which happened a few months before he penned this intro...the book was published in 2002). 9/11 reminded us the map of the world was changing. 9/11 revealed to us the shared vulnerability of humankind, even in places/centers of power which we might have thought were invulnerable. As we reflected on what happened, we also became aware "that the world is not really as secular as Western modernity had thought, that many nations are no longer culturally or religiously homogeneous, that events in the past that many of us did not consider important still have great power to shape the future" (4).
  • And changes in the way world history is perceived and written about will also have an impact on how we think and write about the history of the church. 
More notes to come.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Annual "Happy Birthday, JKR and Harry!" Post

It's the birthday of author JK Rowling and her beloved fictional wizard Harry Potter! Jo Rowling is 49 (in real life) and Harry would be 34 today.

In honor of the day, I thought I would re-post a reflection from my archives. I'm cheating just a tiny bit -- or rather, double-dipping -- in that the post is just as much about Tolkien as it is about Harry Potter. Given that we're in the midst of The Two Towers right now as a family, however, I've had Tolkien very much on my mind, and happened to be revisiting this post today. It's an oldie but a goodie.

I hope Harry and Jo both gets lots of owl post today!

Saturday, July 19, 2014


My precious father turned 82 today. I am so thankful for him in so many ways, and so thankful for all the ways the Lord has sustained his health in recent years. As he often says, he feels like he is living on gift time!

In honor of the day, I thought I would post a poem I wrote for him two years ago, when he turned 80. It still sings true.

My father turns eighty today.
I know without asking
that he will celebrate
with an angel-food cake
topped with blue icing –
the same cake my mother
has faithfully made
for as many of his birthdays
as I can remember
and beyond.

Blue is my father’s color.
His eyes sparkle with it,
clear and bright, true blue
eyes my mother fell in love
with and still loves.
I picture him in blue,
the pale coarse fabric of
his long-sleeved work shirts,
the lighter, slicker blue of
dress shirts under suit coats.
One of those shirts is always
draped on the ironing board
of my memory, its white
buttons resting hard against
my cheek when we hug.

Blue is my father’s color –
The paint I see spilling
from the tubes next to his palette,
the hue of the musical notes
that flow from Gershwin’s Rhapsody,
the chipped sky blue of seats
at old Parker Field where we
watched minor league games
every endless summer, the slow
spread of July sky where I can
see him now, silhouetted against
the neighbor’s yard, hands cupped
to imitate the coo of mourning doves.

My father turns eighty today.
And I picture my mother
spilling drops of pure color
from a small bottle
into the white cream ocean of frosting,
swirling the spatters with her quick spoon
till they intermingle into a lovely
robin’s egg blue, festive and ready.

And it strikes me anew
that love is never just
the icing on the cake,
but that it decorates our days
in whorls and peaks
of ordinary brilliance.

                        ~EMP 7/19/12