Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning About Leaning

There's a scene that often comes back to me from the sweet and sentimental comedy While You Were Sleeping. Our heroine, Lucy, is falling in love with Jack, the brother of the man she thought she was in love with (it's a twisty plot). Neither of them has confessed their feelings for each other yet, but Jack finds himself getting jealous over the perceived attentions of Lucy's oddball neighbor. He explains that he thought that the neighbor man was "leaning" into Lucy, which in Jack's understanding means the two are especially close.

"Leaning?" Lucy asks, somewhat blankly. Yes, leaning. It's a funny, sweet scene because Jack (played by Bill Pullman in his younger years) proceeds to try to explain to her what he means by leaning. He moves in close to her, explaining that only people who feel very close or very drawn to one another find themselves "leaning." The oddball neighbor (whose intentions, as it turns out, are mostly harmless) happens by at that time and proceeds to prove Jack's point. "Is he bothering you? Because it looks like he's leaning."

I've been thinking a lot about leaning lately, and what it means in the spiritual life. Despite growing up with the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," it's not a concept I've thought of much in connection to my relationship with God. But lately I find myself thinking of it a lot, perhaps because I am finding myself recognizing how much I need to lean. How much I need to be literally held up, sustained by the love and strength of God.

It turns out that "leaning" on God is a biblical image, and one that really does conjure up intimacy, especially the closeness of a parent/child. But it's not just the kind of leaning described in the sweet scene of a romantic movie (though that does make me smile) the kind of leaning where someone draws protectively close to someone else. Biblical leaning has to do with recognizing our essential reliance on the God who sustains us and who holds the world in being, in whom all things cohere. And it's a reliance that starts, according to the Psalmist, before we're ever aware of it, before we're even born:

"Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of you." (Psalm 71:6)

So leaning on God is our essential state, the way we're created to be. He's the one who watches over us even as we shelter, hidden, in our mother's womb. He's the one who sustains us and brings us into the light of day, the first of many deliverances the Lord graciously provides to his people.

Sin and its power can be described in a lot of apt ways, ways that help us to understand its dangers and how it can corrupt and subvert God's plans and purposes for us. Missing the mark, being twisted or bent, turned inward, are all ways of describing or thinking about sin. But I've been thinking lately about sin also causing us to lean in the wrong direction. We lean away from God (thus moving out of the close circle of his arms) and often end up trying to lean on other things, expecting they will hold us up or sustain us, only to discover how unstable and unsteady those things are. Part of our restoration, when we begin to walk with the Lord, is that he draws us back to the close circle of his arms and helps us begin to lean on him again. Notice the use of the word in this verse from Isaiah, which describes how the people of Israel will be day be returned from their captivity to Assyria and restored to right relationship with God:

"In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth." (Isaiah 10:20)

Even once we're restored and in right relationship with God, we still sometimes find ourselves moving away from him and leaning on the wrong things. Sometimes this is obvious, and other times more subtle, but sometimes we find ourselves more dependent on external things (for happiness, peace, comfort, security) than on God himself. And when that happens, we need to repent, literally turn around, and lean back into God.

He wants us to lean. He welcomes our leaning. He remembers what we're made of (remember, he is the One who knit us together in the first place!). Perhaps a great deal of our spiritual disciplines -- prayer, solitude, study, service -- are really all about learning to lean closer and closer into him. Lean deeper. Lean with the sure and certain knowledge that he won't let us fall. And as we lean in, we discover, much to our paradoxical delight, that we are able to move outward -- not in wrong or hasty directions (looking for sustenance and security where there isn't any) but in freedom and joy, like a rooted tree, pliable in the wind.

Lord, let us lean.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Celebrating Tommy and Tuppence

My contribution to the Agatha Christie blog tour celebrating the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth. Thank you for stopping by!


The persistent tapping on the outer door of the office of the International Detective Agency caused an immediate flurry of activity. From behind one office door came a sudden wild staccato of typing, while from the other came the screeching wail of a violin in pain. Albert the office boy rolled his eyes as he carefully laid aside his spy thriller and wiped his fingers, sticky from sweets, before heading to the front door.

A couple of minutes later the typing ceased, and a small, neat head, topped with a shining bob of black hair, poked around the corner of the boss’ door. Red-haired Tommy had just put the violin back on the shelf and out of its misery. Now he obeyed his "secretary’s" beckoning hand and joined her to look through the small peepholes and into the outer office.

Tuppence too rolled her eyes. “You weren’t supposed to play the violin,” she hissed. “You know Albert likes to tell new clients that you’re on the phone with Scotland Yard.”

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” replied Tommy, stolid as ever. “But I don’t think it’s a new client this time.”

“No?” Tuppence stood on tip-toes, squinting. “Are you certain?”

“Pretty certain, my girl. I think it’s just the folks arriving for the blog tour.”

“For the what?” She raised her eyebrow.

“The blog tour. Oh, don’t look at me like that…I’ll be dashed if I can really explain the thing. We’re behind the times, you know, old girl!”

“I wonder….” Tuppence mused. “Are we really, Tommy? I mean, I know we’ve been around for a while now….but do characters like ourselves really go out of fashion?”

“Well…” Tommy critically appraised her outfit. “You’re certainly not dressed for the twenty-first century.”

“No,” Tuppence said slowly. “I suppose not. All the same, I find it rather comforting to know that there are people out there who still care. Who still know about us, Tommy, despite our age, and who think we’ve worn rather well. Because you know, they still read our books, don’t they? It’s not just all about Hercule and Jane, bless her…”

Tommy laughed. “Of course they’ve worn pretty well themselves, when you consider it.”

“Yes, but they had such good publicity! All those novels! All we ever got was four novels…four novels, Tommy! And a handful of short stories! Though I must admit,” Tuppence added with a faraway look in her eye, “I loved those short stories.”

Tommy regarded her with affection. “You always were a bit of a romantic, Tuppence. Full of nostalgia.”

She smiled at him. “Well, one good thing about living on forever in reader imaginations is that we always get to stay young and adventurous.”


Although I suppose it could be argued that Tommy and Tuppence are minor league detectives compared to the great Hercule Poirot and the amazing Jane Marple, I have always had tremendous affection for these lesser known sleuths of Agatha Christie’s.

Last year I went on a Tommy and Tuppence reunion tour and re-read all the books in which they’re featured. They loomed so vibrant in my reading memory that I was almost astonished to discover their scarcity in Christie’s canon. But in many ways, that simply adds to their mystique. They pop in and out of Christie’s long writing career, like old friends that every once in a while she simply had to revisit.

They show up early (very!) in 1922’s The Secret Adversary, beaten out only by Poirot’s first case. As dashing young adventurers, their story has far more of the romantic and comedic spy thriller about it than the straightforward cozy-whodunit.

They come back in 1929’s short story collection Partners in Crime, still arguably my favorite Tommy and Tuppence book (in case you couldn’t tell). Their witty banter seems perfect for these shorter tales, and I’ve always wished for more stories from this period in their detecting/spying careers.

They arrive on the scene again in N or M? of 1941, a terrific espionage novel set in war-time. We don’t see them again until 1968’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs, a somewhat disturbing novel set in a very different season of Christie’s writing. They appear again in the poignant Postern of Fate, a novel marked by a great deal of nostalgia – and the last novel Christie ever wrote (though others were published later).

Admittedly, the final two books don’t show Christie at the top of her game. But considering there were only five Tommy and Tuppence books altogether, it seems striking to see the placement of those books in her canon. It suggests a great love for these lively characters when you realize that Christie created them so early in her career and felt an urge to return to them so near the end of it.

And although Christie seemed to save her most brilliant plots and creative bits of writing for other detectives, there’s a wonderful vibrancy to Tommy and Tuppence. Why do I love them so? Let me count the ways…

1) I love that they’re a couple. All of Christie’s other detectives may have help or even partners of a sort (“mon ami, my dear Hastings!”) but Tommy and Tuppence are truly a team. Each brings unique strengths to the work they do. Tommy is completely solid, faithful and trustworthy. Tuppence, as Christie herself once described her, is "scattily intuitive" (love that phrase)! Tommy may be the “official” investigator in the world’s eyes, but Christie -- and the elusive Mr. Carter -- both know that he’d be nothing without Tuppence. And Tommy knows it too.

2) They’re funny. Really, truly funny, in that stolid British way. From Tuppence’s penchant for buying hats to Tommy’s gallant flirtations, they make me laugh.

3) Albert.

4) They age! Miss Marple, like your maiden aunt or your first Sunday School teacher, has been old ever since you met her. Even Poirot, by the time we first see him, is already retired and moving into a long second career. But Tommy and Tuppence are different every time we see them, and grounded, at least somewhat, in real time.

They meet during World War I, their courtship, marriage and early career are totally defined by the 1920s. Their work for the government, in their late middle-age, is colored by World War II, the war in which their own grown children serve. In the final books, Christie even gives us a glimpse of them when they’re elderly, and of course part of the delight comes in seeing how essentially unchanged they are.

OK, don’t push the timeline too hard – it won’t stand the scrutiny. Still, every time Christie popped in on Tommy and Tuppence (or they popped in on her?) she showed them in a different season of life. It gives them an extra layer of reality, so that you almost feel as though you’ve been flipping through the photo albums on their coffee table. It also makes you miss all the intervening years you don’t get. I still long to see Tommy and Tuppence sleuthing up a storm while Derek and Deborah are in nappies. Can’t you just imagine Tuppence, pushing a pram, hot on the trail of some underworld crook?

Long live Tommy and Tuppence Beresford! They deserve to be celebrated.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Poetry Stretches

In the midst of crazy days, I've been reading more poetry ~ and beginning to write more too. It's helping to keep me sane!

One of my favorite stops for poetry stretching is the Miss Rumphius Effect. Each Monday you'll find a new "stretch" for your poetry writing muscles. Even when you don't have time to play, it's always fun to check back in and see what others have written.

That's how I found this wonderful poem by Jane Yolen, which she submitted for last week's poetry stretch. The challenge was to write a poem consisting entirely of questions. If you're a fan of Charlotte's Web, I think you'll find this just delightful!

And wouldn't it be fun to take this for a model and write a series of "questions poems" from the perspective of some of your favorite literary characters? I may give it a try. If you do too, I'd love to have a look.

Wilder Prayers

Sometimes the books we're reading aloud, especially when we're reading them at bedtime, end up coloring our nighttime prayers.

Saturday evening we all cuddled on the couch and read another chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter. It was the chapter where the blizzard comes up suddenly while the children are at school, and Laura and Carrie have to battle their way home, through blinding wind and snow, with their teacher and schoolmates. It's a harrowing passage, made moreso by the fact that they almost miss the last building in town (Laura literally runs into it with her shoulder) and blunder their way into the open prairie.

A few minutes later we were praying our bedtime prayer, thanking God for his various blessings and asking for his peace and rest for the night. Suddenly the sweet girl's voice piped up from the blankets: "And please help us not to get lost in any blizzards!"


And by the way, I couldn't resist the post title. I think I could often stand to pray some bolder, wilder prayers...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gratitude Thursday

I'm back...and you probably didn't even know I was gone!

We spent the past few days in Virginia visiting with my husband's family. His mother and stepfather are going through some major changes and challenges as his alzheimer's grows worse and it was a hard few days for all of us. Lots of laughter and love, yes, but also some stress and tears.

Seeing someone you love fall into such confusion and disorientation is always difficult. Robert is the only grandfather my daughter has ever known on her dad's side of the family (her paternal biological granddaddy died when she was three months old). And of course, my dad, her Papaw on the other side, has been quite ill this year too.

We got back last night, quite late, and all of us feeling right on the edge of getting sick. The sweet girl has congestion and a hacking cough; I'm battling sore throat and on-again/off-again sinus pain; Dana is just plain tired. We were so tired that we probably should have come straight home, but we decided to try to visit an old friend of D's in West Virginia. We met him and his youngest child for lunch, then followed them several miles off the highway to their house. It was good to see them, but we promptly got lost trying to find a way to another highway on our way out, and the whole day was like that -- missed turns, needing extra bathroom breaks, long lines at restaurants, tempers getting short from time to time, everybody just longing for home and our own beds, everyone just a little "off" emotionally.

The only thing that finally worked to get us all back to some sense of balance was a long time of reading aloud, which is one reason why my throat is sore and hoarse today. We finished The Wheel on the School (incredible book!) and plowed several chapters into The Long Winter. I was planning to read that one later this autumn, when we were closer to actual winter, but it happened to be handy as I scooped up a "just in case we need one more book for the car" book on my way out the door Sunday afternoon. And it turned out that Wilder was just the voice we needed in that final push homeward -- a prose voice we all know, love and appreciate so much.

You're probably wondering, given the title of this post, where's the gratitude? But there's a lot of there, shot through the details of the exhausting past few days. Here are just a few blessings I'm counting this afternoon (adding them to my ongoing gratitude list)...

63. The opportunity to just be present for my husband and his family through this really hard time. The blessing of hugs given and received, and laughter in the midst of hard decisions and painful moments.

64. The beautiful minute the other evening when Robert, D's stepdad, seemed to become fully and suddenly "himself" again. He smiled, made a joke, touched his wife's face with loving affection, gave me a wink. It faded quickly and he soon wandered off again, but it was such a good reminder of who he is (not who he "was" but still "is") and why my mom-in-law is doing her level best to make good decisions about loving care.

65. Fun cousin time for the sweet girl her younger cousin Tori (just one of two younger cousins she has -- though she has a plethora of older ones!)

66. The beauty of apple tree country when we got lost in W. VA. If one must get lost, getting lost on a beautiful blue-sky September day on winding roads past ripening orchards is definitely the way to do it.

67. Work to come home to. Yes, I'm being grateful for this. There is way too much of it, and I have no idea how it will all get done this autumn -- the overwhelmingness of it all kept me up part of the night, though a good prayer time enabled me to get back to sleep about 5 this morning.

68. And yes, we slept in.

69. Poetry. Billy Collins. 'Nuff said? I'm hoping to dig up some scraps of writing time to review his lovely collection The Trouble with Poetry which I finished reading early this morning.

70. Homeschool resources and books from my sis-in-law. She brought a huge plastic tub of stuff over for me to go through, and I plowed through with great eagerness (there was a lot of plowing through of "stuff" over the past few days, as we began to help my mother-in-law go through things preparatory for their big move to a retirement community). It was fun, in the midst of all that, to have some good books to go through. We wedged them into the back of the car, a couple of nice big stacks.

71. The first book I saw on top of the stack, when I opened the big tub, was a copy of Melisa Wiley's Little House in the Highlands. Almost cried when I saw it -- in the middle of exhaustion and much emotion, seeing that there was like seeing a note from an old friend. (I know Melissa is just a blog acquaintance, but she blesses my life regularly...and what delight to own this lovely book!)

72. A chance to talk with my mom by phone for a while, during the time we were at my mother-in-law's. It was one of the hardest decisions in the world to not go on to Richmond; I miss my parents so. My dad, thankfully, is still stable and seems to be strengthening, but I miss them. But I trusted their wise counsel when they asked us not to push it in our tired and overwhelmed state.

73. The work I came home to...did I mention I am teaching again? That the door that seemed to slam shut irrevocably over the summer miraculously opened again? And that, though I am challenged tremendously (in terms of time, mental space and many other things) I am also grateful to be teaching and having a chance to read and learn more about the era of the early church?

74. Rain. It rained all morning, and looks as though it could rain again. We've needed it so, and the world looks refreshed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Sale Bounty

Today was the Harvest Festival a couple of towns over, which sales!

I found some wonderful things in the children's section at the large sale at the Presbyterian church. Look at this lovely haul ~~

The Friendly Beasts (an old English Christmas Carol)
illustrated by Tomie dePaola

Caterpillars, Bugs and Butterflies
from the "Take-Along Guide" series of kids' nature kids we like so much

Drawing Faces
from the Usborne ARTideas series (internet-linked)

Mary Cassatt
by Mike Venezia (probably our favorite author on "introducing great artists" for now)

What Makes a Cassatt a Cassatt?
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art series I've heard such great things about (clearly someone was getting rid of their Cassatt books, to our delighted gain!)

Do You See What I See?
A Devotional Seek-and-Find Book for Advent
(published by Creative Communications for the Parish)

by Beverly Cleary (the sweet girl's big find of the day!)

A Hole is to Dig

by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
(I practically danced a jig when I saw this -- a beautiful hardback copy in very nice condition, and I think it's a first edition! Of course I immediately thought of Ursula Nordstrom)

The Dragon of Lonely Island

by Rebecca Rupp
(which I just recently reviewed here)

And my dear husband picked up two great reference books, one called An Illustrated Life of Jesus (from the National Gallery of Art collection) and a book on the Age of Exploration (Time-Life's Great Ages of Man series)

And we got most of these for 50 cents each. A good day for books!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

That Tiny Little Word "So"...

This week's gospel readings have us in John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus.

This has always been one of my favorite stories in the gospels, not only for how it shows us the love and power of Jesus, but because I am blessed to have sisters named Mary and Martha. The stories involving the sisters in Bethany have always felt especially close to my heart for that reason.

I've read John 11 so many times that the contours and curves of the narrative almost feel worn smooth. So when I hit a surprising "bump" in my reading yesterday morning, it grabbed my attention.

I was reading in the English Standard Version (ESV) and got to verses 5 & 6:

"Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was."

Jesus LOVED them. So when they were sick and in need, he....rushed to their side to do everything he could right away to fix things! That's what we expect from this story, isn't it, when we're reading with our natural mind and heart? That's what makes sense to us.

I was reminded of a scene with the sweet girl from sometime last month. She wanted something, something badly, and we wouldn't let her have it (I honestly don't recall what it was, but it wasn't something we wanted her to have at that time, and we were trying to help her work through her initial response, which involved a lot of anger and petulance.) She got a little tearful and said "But don't you love me? If you love me, and it's a good thing, why won't you let me have it?"

So often this is the state of my heart before God. Sometimes I'm angry and petulant, but sometimes I move past that and just end up weepy. "But Lord," I say, "this isn't a bad thing I want. It's a good thing! It's something you'd bless! I don't understand why I can't have it!"

And it's harder sometimes, isn't it, when the "thing" we want isn't so much a "thing" as something even more important and intangible (but just as real a need as any desire for a more tangible object). Lord, I want healing for this person I love. Lord, I need to be able to feel your presence NOW.

That tiny little word "so" really jumped out at me. Jesus loved them, SO he waited. Some translations use the word "yet" or "but" which alters the meaning a bit, or at least bends to our natural bellowing in the face of this kind of thing. The "so," tiny as it is, helps me comprehend at least a fraction more of the deep love and wisdom of God.

He loved them too much to give them the quick and easy "fix." He could have rushed to their side and healed Lazarus, and yes, that would have blessed them (how many times do we see Jesus heal in the gospels, so simply and quickly and in immediate response to a request made in faith). In this case, he had a bigger blessing in view, one that would not only do more in the lives of Mary, Martha and Lazarus than they ever would have imagined possible (and we ourselves can only imagine the soul growth and the deepening trust Jesus' actions brought forth in the hearts of these dear friends) but a blessing that encompassed many more people who witnessed the raising of Lazarus and who came to know Jesus as a result of it. Jesus had the kingdom in view, and his waiting was part of that kingdom work.

But Jesus never loses sight of his friends or how much he loves them. Maybe that's why John gives us that glimpse of Jesus weeping at the tomb. I remember I used to wonder, why was Jesus weeping? He knew what he was about to do! But his friend is dead, and has been dead for four days. As we see Jesus weeping in that moment, we realize that he knows what his waiting has cost these beloved friends in terms of real anxiety and grief. He knows, more than anyone, the darkness and sadness of death and how it's left its mark on his good world. He knows, more than anyone, what it will cost to defeat it.

It dawned on me that there's one other place in John's gospel where the word "so" has jumped out at me before. That would be in chapter 3, verse 16. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

He loves us so...enough to weep with us, enough to give us what he truly knows is best, enough to keep the world and the kingdom in view even while working in the small seedbeds of our hearts.

There is so much to that tiny little word "so."

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Two More Agatha Christie Reviews

I'm continuing my quest to read all the novels of Agatha Christie from the 1920s. You can go to my earlier post to find new links to my reviews of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Big Four (1927). Just scroll to the bottom of the post to find my list of reviews, with titles listed by publication date.

I've read The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) and hope a review will be coming soon. I'll continue to post whenever I edit/add links.


One of the things I love about building a learning life are the moments of serendipity.

Yes, some of the moments are at least partly, semi-consciously planned (which OK, I realize, makes them less serendipitous...). For instance, during this first week of school we've begun to focus our world history studies on the 17th century. Next week we'll be looking at the Netherlands in the early 1600s, and...not entirely by coincidence...our artist of the month in fine arts appreciation is Jan Vermeer, a Dutch artist who painted in the early 1600s. I've even decided that we're going to launch into The Wheel on the School (set in the Netherlands) as our next read-aloud.

But some moments are so beautiful you just can't plan them.

I've decided that this year we're going to focus, gently and as naturally as possible, on one character trait each month. This will be a trait we talk about sometimes during candles (our family's time of evening prayer) and try to work into other learning moments from time to time. I chose "attentiveness" as the first trait for several reasons. It seemed like a good one to start the school-year with, as we turn our attention to a whole new season. More than that, however, I am trying to be more sensitive and open to what God is doing in the sweet girl's heart by paying closer attention to the stories from Scripture that really grab her and won't let go. For the past few weeks, the story that has done that for her is the story of Samuel -- the boy Samuel in the temple hearing the voice of the Lord. We have read a particular re-telling of this story over and over, and she is clearly very drawn to it.

And of course, what Eli does near the end of the story is to teach Samuel how to pay attention, how to listen and respond to the voice of God. No small thing. I love listening to the sweet girl chime in on Samuel's words "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

And listening is not easy for my girl. Is it easy for any of us? She is a worrier, frequently restless with anxiety and full of what ifs. She can be contemplative, but it's not her natural state these days (full of curiosity and lots of energy, as she should be!) so a listening stance is something we have to nourish. Some of her developmental issues show up in the struggles she has to fully pay attention to and catch "cues" from the people around her. So I'm trying to find ways to nourish listening and attentiveness in small ways: through encouraging us to pause for a period of about half a minute or so of silence before we begin to pray, through the drawing lessons we started together last week (using Mona Brookes' Drawing With Children) where we are learning to relax our eyes and really look, long and carefully, at the elements of shape in an object.

All of which made me smile this morning when I opened up the website I was planning to use for our introduction to Vermeer, and saw this beautiful painting:

It's called "The Lacemaker" and it immediately spoke "attentiveness" to my soul. I quickly shifted from my original plans to look at another Vermeer painting and we spent time with this one. All during the rest of this busy and somewhat stressed day (I'm overwhelmed with work, fighting illness, and supporting my husband through a very stressful time in his family's life) I kept going back to the quiet serenity of this picture.

I love it when moments like these happen. Serendipity.