Friday, October 30, 2015

Praying With Psalm 40

"Let all who seek you rejoice in you and be glad;
let those who love your salvation continually say,
"Great is the Lord!""

I had never noticed what a wonderful prayer this is in Psalm 40:17. This is the prayer book version, which I came across in my reading this morning.

When I begin to read Psalm 40, I tend to get a little lost in music. "I waited patiently for the Lord," the opening line, usually kicks me into the U2 sung version of this psalm. When I get to "He put a new song in my mouth," in verse 3,  I start to hear Messianic singer Marty Goetz. (Yes, two incredibly different kinds of music.) It's apparent that a lot of different people feel the need to sing this psalm.

My own heart has sung different parts of it before, but where I lingered today was in verse 17, a verse I don't remember lingering over before.

It seems to encompass two kinds of people we're privileged to pray for: "those who seek you," and "those who love your salvation." That seems to sum up a lot of my intercessory prayer. I pray for those who don't yet know the Lord or who seem to be seeking him -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not. And I pray for those who already know him to know him better, to be drawn closer to his heart in prayer and praise.

It's really the same prayer for both, just worded and shaped a little differently. We pray that those who don't yet know him will come to know and love him, that they will learn to rejoice in God and be glad in that rejoicing. And we pray that those who know him already will find great reasons to rejoice in their salvation, to dwell in his refuge and let their abiding in him well up in them in praise and adoration.

That we all may come to know God in deeper, better, more gladsome ways than we have ever encountered and known him before.

What a good song to sing!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mrs. B's Centennial

A couple of weeks ago, on the 12th of October, it was the 100th birthday of dear Mrs. Brooks, the neighbor and lifelong family friend who shared Jesus with me when I was a little girl.

Mrs. B, as I grew up thinking of her, is a precious saint. She was not only instrumental in leading me to faith, but in influencing and loving most of my family in Jesus' direction. When my mother, spiritually hungry and looking for help in understanding God, went to her door years ago to find out about the Bible clubs Mrs. B had for neighborhood kids, Mrs. B invited her to come see for herself what it was all about. That invitation, and her gentle teaching and loving presence, made all the difference in the life of our family. I will be forever grateful that she was the one who scattered gospel seeds and helped to water them for so many years.

I have no idea how many other lives and families Mrs. B touched over the years, but I would guess it is beyond counting. She taught Bible clubs for decades. She and her kind husband, Clifton (who always reminded me a gentler real-life version of Fred Flintstone) were known for their loving and generous friendship to many. Just as one example, when I was a pre-schooler, they once took care of me for a whole week during the day-time when my mother was in the hospital and then recovering from surgery. For a child who had not grown up located near grandparents, this was heady stuff. I still remember Mrs B scrambling eggs for my breakfast and adding bacon bits to them, Mr B pushing me in the cart at the grocery store, and Mrs. B laughing as she made me peanut butter sandwiches (hers were the best, I apparently proclaimed, because she spread the peanut butter right to the edges).

Both of my sisters eventually taught during the summers with CEF, the organization Mrs B was a part of. Although I never did their summer program, I did end up working with Mrs B in a Bible club when I was a teenager. She had decided to teach some refugee children from Cambodia who had moved into the neighborhood and she asked me to help. We couldn't speak their language and they could speak only a little of ours, but she loved on those kids with Jesus love and I followed along in her wake, happy to watch and learn.

Loving others in her gentle way has always been what Mrs B does best, and it's why her quiet voice, speaking the truth of the gospel, has always carried such weight. During my first couple of college vacations, I went with my mom and Mrs B to a program that Mrs. B regularly taught in. It was a detention center for juvenile girls who had gotten in trouble with the law, and Mrs B thought it would be good if someone closer to the girls' age could share a testimony with them. Introvert that I am (never a public speaker), I went because she asked, and I did my best to share as honestly and lovingly as she had shared with me. And I watched as those teen girls, hip and cool and insecure and in pain, swarmed around her after the Bible lesson she taught, just wanting to be with her. Some of them called her Grandma.

Mrs. B has outlived her dear Clifton (though he lived to be near 90, I think) and has even outlived one of her children, her pastor son who sadly died unexpectedly of a heart attack several years ago. She now lives in a nursing home where she can get the daily care she needs. It's not hard for me to imagine her bathing everyone there in the same gentle love she's always shone on everyone she's come into contact with.

I didn't know what image to put on the card I made for her birthday. I finally chose this:

I had seen this painting no long ago on the "I Require Art" blog. It's a painting called "Yellow Sycamore in Autumn," painted by Edgar Payne. I thought the wonderful spreading shelter of the tree, and its bright color and stage of life, seemed to capture so much of what I felt when I thought of Mrs B and all the beauty she's shared in her hundred years. Right down to that blue patch of a window where you can glimpse heaven.

When I went to write down the specifics of the painting so I could put them on the back of the card (something I always try to do when using an artistic image) I almost laughed aloud. Payne painted this in 1916. It's 99 years old...painted when Mrs B was just a tiny girl of 1.

Friday, October 16, 2015

"A stately squadron of snowy geese..." (Reading Washington Irving)

Jedi Teen and I have been reading Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first published in 1820. This is one of those stories that I could have sworn I must have read somewhere along the line in my literature studies, but apparently I missed it.

The headless horseman is such a deep part of our American literary landscape that the story and its characters feel very familiar. I think I must have seen the Disney version (their Ichabod Crane is the visual that kept playing in my brain as I read) and I am guessing I read some sort of abridged version in grade school or middle school. I also came across inferences to the story in my beloved Trixie Belden mysteries that I read over and over as a child, stories that happened to be set in the Hudson River valley.

I don't know why I never read much Irving, given that his collected works was one the books that my grandmother, an inveterate re-reader, read regularly. It was one of the beloved books she brought with her from her home in North Carolina when she moved into our home in Virginia when I was nine. I caught onto some of her other reading loves, but somehow I mostly missed Irving.

I'm glad I found him now. I had a delightful time wending my way aloud through his dense prose, deliciously thick with description. There's something substantial about biting down on 19th century literature: when you finish a novel or a story (or sometimes even a page, paragraph, or sentence!) you feel you've eaten something hearty and filling, like a good creamy potato soup with a dark grain bread.

It's not surprising I mention food here. Irving delights in showing us how much Ichabod Crane, skinny as a scarecrow, loves to eat. One of the funniest scenes in the story, and there are many, is when he goes to the Van Tassel home to woo his sweetheart. He's enamored of her family's wealth as much as he's enamored of her, and the way he notes that wealth is to note how much there is to eat. Every animal he sees in the barnyard, alive and kicking, he envisions on a platter:

"The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind's eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy..."

We were both impressed with so many turns of phrases. The sweet girl couldn't help chuckling over some of them, like the phrase "sleek unwieldy porkers" to describe a group of pigs. In that same scene, I appreciated the alliterative joys of a "a stately squadron of snowy geese..." I know that more than one of my English teachers would have likely slashed at some of those adjectives with a red pen, or at least warned me against their overuse, but there is something about the sheer layers of words that really works to create this story's atmosphere and tone.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Pevensies at Hogwarts

I feel nigh unto certain that someone has written about this already, but have you ever noticed how neatly you could divvy up the Pevensie children in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe into houses at Hogwarts?

I was not feeling terribly well last night and picked up my well-worn copy of LWW just to let myself dip into a few of its friendly and familiar pages. And right there, on page three, we have this exchange among the four children who have just landed at the Professors' house:

"It's an owl," said Peter. "This is going to be a wonderful place for birds. I shall go to bed now. I say, let's go and explore to-morrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks."

"Badgers!" said Lucy.

"Snakes!" said Edmund.

"Foxes!" said Susan.

Laying aside the fun possibility that the owl they hear hooting outside is delivering mail, don't you find their animal choices somewhat fascinating? In the world of Harry Potter, the animals associated with people are always "telling" about someone's character -- whether they are the animals associated with their Hogwarts house, or with their patronuses or an animagus form.

Peter's enthusiasm gives us a lot of animals to choose from, but I find it interesting that he ends with stags and hawks. The reference to stags here at the beginning of the story could be a pre-echo of the end of the tale, but as I think of it in connection to Harry Potter, I think of course of Prongs. Hawks are birds associated with heraldry -- not to mention hawks rhymes with Fawkes. Put that all together with Peter's kingly courage and the gift of the sword from Father Christmas, and I'm going to say the Sorting Hat would put him in Gryffindor.

Lucy's badger puts her firmly in Hufflepuff, which I find delightful and just right. Her loyalty to the truth, her faithfulness to Aslan, and her perseverance in the face of trials all seem to make this Hogwarts house just the right place for her.

"Snakes!" said Edmund...which is where I almost started laughing. Slytherin, anyone? Edmund, pre-Narnia and especially pre-encounter-with-Aslan, seems to fit the scheming, ambitious, smart-yet-insecure portrait of many a Slytherin. Post-Aslan, of course, he's a different sort of boy, and one can imagine him having more trouble fitting into Slytherin after that (one thinks of Jill Pole noting how much Eustace has changed when he goes back to school after his adventures in Narnia) but perhaps he could bring qualities that house sorely needs.

Susan's mention of foxes is a little more ambiguous, though I do think that foxes, as very smart animals, make her a potentially good fit for Ravenclaw. It's too bad that she didn't say eagle instead of Peter, or this whole scheme would feel almost tailor-made for the four houses.

It would be interesting to see a whole family sorted into different houses, unlike the Weasleys who are just Gryffindors through and through.

I feel half-way certain that I must've read something about this somewhere at some point, or it wouldn't have jumped off the page and bitten me like it did last night. So forgive me if the thoughts aren't entirely original. I just found it fun to contemplate story worlds colliding. I've written about that in other ways before, both here (where I find preludes to Rowling in E.M. Forster) and here (where I find them in Elizabeth Goudge). Hmm. And I've found bits of Tolkien in Rowling too. Once again, we realize just what a wonderful story soup Rowling has stirred up in Harry Potter.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

John Couch Adams and the Search for the Planet Neptune

Not long ago, I was helping my daughter brainstorm for an independent writing project. This is a project from her writing curriculum, so certain assignment parameters were set, but the topic was open (partly to encourage brainstorming from inspiration to final paper).

Her dad and I decided to ask her to confine her topic choices to something in the 19th century, chiefly around the middle of the century, since that's the period she's currently studying in history. Beyond the era, we gave her carte blanche on topic choice. As usual, she gravitated (pun intended) to science first, though she ended up swerving direction in the end and is currently at work on a paper about the impressionist artist Edgar Degas.

Before she got there, we were doing some online research into scientific events in the mid-19th century and came upon the discovery of Neptune. In the wonderful way of learning trails, this led us to the book The Neptune File by Tom Standage, which our library quickly moved to the hold shelf for us.

As I said in my very brief review on Goodreads:
This is a highly readable account of the 19th century search for Neptune, the first planet ever discovered not by observation but by mathematical deduction. Standage's writing style is engaging. He makes the science, and even the math, not only interesting but understandable.

His fascination with the history is evident on every page too. I enjoyed his profiles of some of the major players involved in the discovery and the controversy that surrounded it, especially John Couch Adams, Airy, and Le Verrier. Adams emerged as one of my new 19th century heroes: his humility is just as impressive as his intellect.

The story of John Couch Adams (pronounced "Cooch"; he was from Cornwall) really did intrigue me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was a poor and relatively unknown graduate student who "got there" faster than anyone else (meaning he got to the relative position of the unknown planet based on his elegant and complex mathematics) and yet due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and downright blunders, almost never was credited for that amazing work. Someone else "got there" not far behind him. Le Verrier's math may not have been as elegant, but he got there all the same, and he had the good fortune to be in a position to get people with powerful telescopes to listen to him and take him seriously, so they could point those instruments to the sky and confirm his prediction. Which they did, prompting the world to credit Le Verrier with a discovery that Couch Adams had actually made first.

This controversy from 1846 was the whole reason I found this fascinating book in the first place. When the sweet girl and I were looking up the discovery of Neptune, the first thing she asked was: "Who DID discover it?" I went to a trusty online search and came up with...Le Verrier. And then read and googled a bit more and came up with...Couch Adams. Which one was it? she wanted to know. And based on a hasty skim read of online sources, I couldn't tell her, which surprised me. It would seem that something as momentous as the first finding of a planet via mathematical deduction would be a pretty certain fact. It was clear that Le Verrier and Couch Adams hadn't been collaborators, that there was some confusion about who got the credit.

In the end, as I learned from Standage, they shared the credit pretty peaceably, though there were people who shouted at each other across the English Channel about this for a long time. A lot of people in England, responsible for the errors and mistakes that caused Couch Adams' work to be ignored rather than explored at the proper time, tried to justify themselves and pass the buck. To Couch Adams' credit, he never laid into anyone publicly, blaming them for this or anything else. Genuinely excited about the discovery and genuinely humble, he praised Le Verrier's work, seemed gratified that they'd reached the same conclusion, and went on about the business of working. He even turned down an eventual knighthood.

As I concluded in my review:
It's also fascinating to reflect on how a story like this played out in 1846 -- so very different from how it would play out in our age of social media.

The last two chapters would benefit from a revision just because so much has happened regarding both Pluto (the recent fly-by) and the search for extrasolar planets since he wrote the book. (To date, NASA has confirmed over 1,800 exosolar planets!) Still, this is a very readable and enjoyable scientific narrative, one I would recommend to youth as well as adults. I plan to read this one with my eighth grader, as it ties in beautifully with both her physics and modern history studies in homeschool this year.
Can you imagine what the shouting would have been like if they'd had Facebook when this controversy occurred?! Kind of makes you wistful for a time of slightly more civil conversations.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Middle Years

Lately I've been realizing that some of the challenges (joys, tensions, giggles) at our house consist in the fact that we're all in our "middle years."

The sweet girl (aka Jedi Teen) is in the "middle years" between childhood and adulthood -- never an easy road to travel.

Her dad and I are in our middle years, period. Which turns out aren't the easiest road to travel either, bringing with them new aches and pains, different kinds of questions about our lives and what we've done/still want to do with them, and other issues we hadn't thought about very much before they got here, like the challenges of watching and accompanying our parents as they age.

Now don't get me wrong: both sets of middle years have their blessings and compensations. The sweet girl would likely tell you she enjoys newfound freedoms and enthusiasms, and in some ways, that's true for us in our middle years too.

But sometimes the different kinds of middle years collide head on, and then the fireworks can fly! Sometimes it makes me laugh.

I know that part of the challenge for me is that I am slow to keep up with changes of any sort these days, and my daughter is just full of them -- she is a walking, talking, laughing, long-legged dancing, eye-rolling, hollering, crying, giggling ball of change most days. This slow middle-years mama (who feels like it was just yesterday she was teaching this adolescent dynamo-who-is-taller-than-she-is how to tie her shoes) sometimes just stands there in awe while she watches that dynamo practice her slip jig for Irish dance class.

I suspect, though I don't know, that parents of more than one child get to ease into all this change a little more gradually. Because there is some space between children, they get to keep experiencing one stage of life with one child while another leaps ahead into the next. I've seen this with friends who have kids at multi-ages and stages, and sometimes I am a little wistful about it. Maybe I would deal better with the swift progressions of adolescence if I was still cutting crusts off sandwiches and reading Eric Carle to an up-and-coming sibling. But that's not our experience nor our particular blessing (though I am grateful I still get the chance to spend time and work with younger kids in other venues, even if not here at home).

Still, I think I need to remind myself from time to time to relax and laugh a little more about the middle years. These too shall pass. And probably far too swiftly.