Of Marys and Marthas (at the death of Lazarus)

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Le_poeme_de_lAme-14-Louis_Janmot-MBA_Lyon-IMG_0497

Do you know where in scripture I love Jesus the most? When He’s talking to women. These passages fascinate me: they stop my heart and inevitably bring me to sweet tears.

Whereas Christ speaks in riddles to the Pharisees, parables to the crowds, and to his own disciples be gives speeches which I find endlessly frustratingwhen the Lord speaks to women in the scripture he is suddenly incredibly clear, incredibly tender, and my heart breaks and melts towards Him.

I want to share with you one such passage that spoke to my heart recently. It was about Mary & Martha. Now, if you’re like me and were raised in the church, immediately the “busy Martha” story pops into your head. You have heard or read an endless amount of ink spilled over the famous tale. You probably have very clear images of the two sister’s differences in your mind: Martha, busy, bossy, and running the house, the DOER, coming and standing over Jesus and insisting that he TELL MARY TO HELP ME!* And Mary: silent in the story, almost an aside, quietly listening and worshiping at the savior’s feet: commended, for “she has chosen the better part.”  You’ve read articles about the differences between service and worship, and have been told to “Be a Mary not a Martha!”—and all these things are probably true, and I need not go over them. And maybe even in this story you see Christ’s tenderness speaking to every anxious women’s heart: when Mary, beside herself, confronts and appeals to the Son of God and he responds by repeating her name like a soothing lullaby to a child.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

But this isn’t the story I want to talk about. Nor is it the OTHER story about Mary, the anointing one. Mary of Bethany comes off pretty well in scripture, she’s listening at Jesus’ feet, she’s anointing him with perfume: and apparently John even assumes she’s famous because before he begins the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus he basically says, “btw, this is the Mary who anointed Christ’s feet with expensive ointment, ok?

The scene is set at Jerusalem as Jesus has been sent for by Mary and Martha because their brother Lazarus is ill.

And the scripture says:

“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.”*

Did you notice what it says there? We talk all the time about Jesus’ family and disciples but he also had friends: he knew these three siblings in Bethany, mentioned multiple times in scripture. Here are these three non-disciples and Jesus loves all three of them. Both sisters. He loves Mary and he loves Martha.

Then things get interesting. Jesus hears Lazarus is ill and (for reasons of his own: to show his love and glory by raising Lazarus from the dead, maybe?), instead of going right to them he waits several days till after Lazarus has died. … Till after Lazarus has been dead SEVERAL days. Then Jesus goes to Bethany.

When the sisters hear the news, that Jesus is approaching, they have two very different reactions (in keeping, I write with a smile and a wink, with their temperaments). Martha rushes out of the house to see him (with burning questions, I imagine, in her mind), “but Mary remained seated in the house.” (Hurt? Afraid? Shy? Resentful? Overcome?). We’ve all been there, right? Tragedy strikes and while some of us run to the those who will help, others of us hide in our room.

It’s Martha that first runs to Jesus.

Has she been scanning the horizon for Jesus? Does she have a speech rehearsed? Her heart is burdened and she knows exactly to whom she needs to speak to.

She runs to Jesus and she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Is she accusing? Is she simply stating the facts? I think, from Jesus’ response, that what is at the heart of Martha’s question-statement is a tempestuous, storming desire to know. This is the “I believed you!” reproach and the “I believe you.” hope all wrapped into one.

And Jesus meets her doubt with honesty and tenderness. I can almost see her staring into Jesus’ face, her eyes bloodshot from weeping (or bleary and strained from holding the tears back—from being strong), and what follows is a rather intellectual (but no less personal) exchange about death, life, resurrection, eternity, and belief.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?

She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.

Wow. We all know the “Resurrection & The Life” passage from Tale of Two Cities! Did you know it was from Jesus revealing himself to Martha? Time after time Jesus’ veils his identity in scripture, but with Martha (like with the woman at the well) he says: I. AM. HE. And Martha believes. In no uncertain terms! She knows.

Now it’s time to get Mary. “As soon as she said this, she went and called her sister Mary.” Martha returns to the house, gets Mary, and whispers in her ear, “saying in private, “the Teacher is here and calling for you.

Big-sister-move-much? Was Mary hunkered down by herself? Waiting for a chance to sip away from the mourners? Was she avoiding Jesus? Or merely modest and circumspect about entering the presence of the King of Kings? Did Jesus actually call her or is Martha embellishing? Who knows. But Mary finally responds. She needed a call. But she goes.

Now when Martha went to Jesus, I get this sense that she ran out of the house when nobody was noticing (at least nobody follows), and she finds Jesus on the road. Mary, however, brings an entourage. Not on purpose. They just follow her, “supposing she was going to the tomb to weep there.” Mary’s grief is so great she draws every other hurting person after her.

But she’s not going to the tomb. She’s going to Jesus.

She finds him right where Martha has left him: he hasn’t changed, he’s in the same spot. And at the sight of Jesus she THROWS herself at his feet! WEEPING. And she says exactly the same thing that her sister said before her:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And Jesus’ response? He is troubled in spirit—and he weeps. Oh, Lord!

He weeps with her!

The Son of God stops and grieves with Mary and the other mourners: even while knowing he will raise Lazarus in just a few short moments.

Do you see the parallel? Two women. Two women loved by Jesus. THEY SAY EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Same words.  And Christ responds to each in exactly the way they needed. He doesn’t tell Martha to “shut up,” he doesn’t tell Mary to “suck it up,” he meets mind with minds, truth for questions, and tears with comforting tears.

So are you a Mary or a Martha?

Both are loved and known by Jesus. You don’t have to choose one. Personally I feel like I take turns being these two women. Sometimes you need someone—someone you utterly trust—to be honest with you. And sometimes you just need to be held as you weep. Sometimes we run to the Lord with our doubts and questions (as Job did): knowing he will be straight with us, and sometimes we take our unutterable sorrow to him and learn that He Himself in all His love and power is the answer, and that before His “face questions die away, what other answer would suffice?” (Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis).  

Christ was able to love these two women in exactly the way they needed to be loved just moments apart.

This is our Savior.

Waiting for us: arms open, ready with his answers and his tears.

Because we are so loved.

 

*Martha serving text from Luke 10, ESV, emphasis mine.
*Mary & Martha & Lazarus text from John 11, ESV, emphasis mine.
Painting: “The Poem of the Soul” by Louis Janmot.
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I am Not a Republican

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Portrait of a Girl. Hands in red and blue paint

I recently made a discovery. I am not a Republican. 

Having never voted Republican this really shouldn’t have surprised me—but it did. I had always mentally considered myself a Republican by default

Perhaps the conservative reading this is now making the same mental jump. If you’re not a Republican, then surely you’re than a Democrat? I’m not, although I’m pretty sure that a few of my Facebook friends are convinced I’m a liberal after sharing some articles critiquing Trump.

It’s a very odd feeling, people thinking I’m a liberal.

Because on the flip side I know that actual liberals (among whom I count many of my near and dear relatives) have me in a most decidedly conservative camp—complete with “home-schooled,” “large family,” “Christian,” and “pro-life” labels stamped on it. I mean, how much more conservative can you get?

Republican!

But what if you have all the above labels but don’t believe in protectionism or imperialism? What if you actually kind of care about the environment, or don’t necessarily think a social safety net is evil? What if you want higher taxes? (Just kidding on that last one.) 

Party-less. 

I mean, how ironic is it that in a country which prides itself on the full-body embrace of diversity, we insist on understanding politics in terms of two groups? Perhaps this was why our founding fathers disliked a strong centralized government: they knew the only way to all get along was to allow states, unique in their cultural, geographic, and economic make-ups, to be different.

“But what’s the point?” you may ask. What’s the point of a label—old or new?

Everything and nothing. 

As a Christian I am called to live as a stranger in a foreign land. This land, our own beloved America, is not my home. I am called to seek the welfare of the state I live in but my primary goal in every aspect of my life is to glorify God—to live the Gospel: to BE Christ to my family, neighbors, co-workers, friends—to invite them into the messy imperfection of my life and show them my wonderful Savior.

I am a Christian, not a Republican.

But here’s the rub. Maybe, Christian brother or sister, you do agree 100% with the Republican platform (or at least more than any other platform.) I believe the time has come to disassociate. I fear that the label “Republican,” once merely a term for those who believed in political “conserving,” has become synonymous with American Christendom and has furthermore become associated with evil. Not just folly, not just differing opinions, but actual evil. You can argue all day about the degree and verity, but I don’t think it matters: we are called to not even have the appearance of evil. Suffer, says Paul in 1 Corinthians, for the gospel: not for doing what’s wrong! (And, I might expound, not for being associated with a party which reeks of corruption, greed, tyranny, racism, bigotry, lies, and more!). It’s not enough that most of Christendom disapproves of the current president: we’ve worked so hard to make Christendom synonymous with Republicanism that Trump is the defacto representative to the watching world! To our shame. Do you not see that our witness, our reputations as Christians and as the Church, is being dragged in the mud with the filth of politics? 

Whom do we love? And by whom shall we be known? By our savior? or by our president?

What do we really want as Christians? I think at heart we want all these awful problems to just go away. I know I do. I would prefer to live in a society where I was comfortable

Because we’re afraid. 

We live in an increasingly violent and hateful society. All that is good—innocence, commitment, piety—is despised. We live in fear of ridicule. The media delights in making Christens out as bigoted, hateful, Bible-thumping, women-hating, hypocritical (and secretly-perverted) CRAZY people—(and using as their examples actors or else real people much of the actual church considers apostate or fringe-cultish at best). 

We live in increasing fear of loosing our jobs. Losing our businesses, schools, or occupations. We experience hostility in the work place. (I personally have been turned down from a job due to being too religious—“not the right cultural fit.”)

We live in fear of our children being taken away. We do not yet fear for our lives but isn’t it sometimes easier to face death (clear, instant, and a gateway to glory) rather than ongoing daily shame, social ostracization, and suffering?

Yet this is what we are called to. If we really believe in eternity, salvation, and the dire need of the lost: then we are to abandon all and follow Christ, knowing that as they hated Him they will likely hate us. But oh! brothers and sisters, let them hate us for being Christ-like! Let them hate us for the GOSPEL’s sake. Not for for a party-platform, and thereby association with swindlers, tyrants, racists, and revilers. 

So what if we’re party-less? So what if we no longer have a home? We have a building from God: a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 5:1)

It is time to disassociate: to break ties and bind ourselves to Christ. Christians do not belong to one political party. And when your political party blinds people to hearing the gospel, something is wrong. 

Here we are going about our daily gospel-spreading lives and you throw a political party into the pot, and do you know what? 

The gospel is hard enough.

The Gospel: that while we were yet sinners: Christ died for us. 

This is hard enough!

This gospel is our only valid identity, the only label worth having: Christian, bought by Christ, lovers of Truth, Justice, and Mercy. And we ought to care a thousand times more that we are known for our love and willingness to sacrifice every physical comfort for the sake of Christ and His gospel than by ANY political platform or affiliation.

So let’s throw aside every weight that encumbers us. We are setting real stumbling blocks and gospel-foolishness before ears that need to hear and hearts that need to be won. Let’s not muddy the waters with political affiliations. They don’t matter.

The gospel does.

What to do? When Life Is Going Well

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hand poppies field

From June 2017

I am overwhelmed today by a sense of how many people in my life are suffering. Countless people around me are hurting and grieving, the long list includes: miscarriages, mothers with cancer, newborns with cancer, death of newborns, death of pastors, murder, suicide, job loss, home loss, chronic illness, and more.

I don’t remember another time in my life where so many things were piling up on top of each other (never mind a few US shootings and fires and bombings abroad).

The irony of it in my case, though, is my own life is swimming along pretty well. I am head over heals in love with my husband—who recently told me that I was the most adorable creature in the whole world (oh, be still my heart). While on the one hand this year has been a difficult in terms of grad school, travel for work, and frequent times spent apart, yet when I compare it with all that’s going on in family, friend’s, and co-worker’s lives I realize I have only long lists of things to be thankful for: Job, Housing, Food, Church, Health, Life, Family, Salvation.

And so I find myself staring at my days and hours and going, what is all this blessing for?

I know that suffering in this life is a given: we are sinners in a fallen, broken, hurting world. Nor does being a Christian somehow buy you an easy-pass, in fact we are told to expect suffering… and more of it! We will suffer like Christ, and mourn with those who mourn. We are not taken out of the world but bring the light of Christ into it. We are only promised that in our suffering we will never be alone: and that there will be a future day when all suffering ceases and every tear is wiped away.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  ( Psalm 34:18 )

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147.3)

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26) 

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

We are called to bear one another’s burdens. I know there will be a future day when I will have burdens to bear, and where family and church will swoop around me with loving arms. But it is not this day. Today I am one of the strong ones. Today I am shouldering other’s burdens.

Today I have strength to pray. Do you know that in Colossians 4:12 Paul describes prayer as “wrestling?” I heard a speaker once explain how this is incredibly comforting. Because we expect prayer to be easy: but it isn’t. It’s actually a struggle. It’s a struggle of mind, body, and spirit. Isn’t it a comfort that it has always been so? And in Romans 15:30, Paul encourages the brethren to “strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf,” —we enter into the struggle of our brethren through wrestling and interceding for them in prayer. Let us not neglect this!

Today I have enough money and a Generous God. One of the marks of the early church was their radical generosity: giving not just out of excess but against their own personal comfort and needs. Even Jesus in Matthew 6, when he reminds us to “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them: therefore do not worry about tomorrow,” he then follows that up with “therefore go sell your possessions and follow me.” Our security in our Father’s tender knowledge of our physical needs and abundant provision for our spiritual ones should prompt us to radical generosity. What physical things can you be doing to help those suffering around you? Can you give your time? Can you make meals for those too overwhelmed to cook? Can you watch somebody’s children or cover a financial bill?

Today I have enough love. I believe the more we grow in the grace of the gospel, the more tender our hearts become to the sufferings of those around us, the more compassionate and empathetic we grow, and the more we will feel other’s people’s pain. Someday we will be like Jesus: and weep over cities and strangers. How else could it be? If the Lord is faithfully growing your tenderness: then today you have enough love. For that one person in your life who needs you to be Christ’s hand’s and feet.

 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Today I am one of the Lord’s strong ones: giving as He would have me give. Tomorrow I may be broken, and then I will pray, “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” (Isaiah 40:29) Perhaps you will be God’s strength to me on that day.

We all take turns between these two halves of living.

Little Children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

A Year of Reading Part 3: On The Books Never Finished

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book unreadLooking back over a year of 40 books has given me ample opportunity for self-reflection. It’s drawn my attention to the two conspicuous omissions which I purposefully left off my list: the book I put down and the book I have yet to finish reading.

The Book Put Down

I can remember only three books in my life which I have consciously put down. Of course there have been plenty of those forgot-to-keep reading books, those one chapter reads you pick up while at a friend’s house, or give back to the library, or that dreadfully boring book like Moby Dick which makes you turn the last 400 pages in an absent-minded forgetful kind of way. But by put down I mean slammed down with revolted decision: I mean really interesting books which you chose not to finish.

One of these three was a Freudian-psycho-sexual analysis of Queen Victoria & Prince Albert. Bizarre. The other two were for the same reason and by the same author, the last one just a month ago.

The troublesome author? John Steinbeck.

I love Steinbeck, and am revolted by him, too. We have had a strange relationship, he and I. When a beloved literary professor recommended East of Eden I tried to read it—but put it down only a third of the way through. The synopsis I got online said it was about the consequences of adultery (and the lurid descriptions I had already endured did not bode well for a novel devoted to a moral precept I was already thoroughly convinced of).

Years later, my husband and I stayed in John Steinbeck’s writer’s studio in Monterey, California—a darling little cottage just our size.

When I picked up East of Eden for the second time (I had, on reflection thought the lurid passages not-so-shocking when viewed from the married state), the familiarity of his 411ws+zkdpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_California descriptions washed over me in waves of nostalgia. I am myself a Californian, and he was describing places I knew and loved.

There is no denying Steinbeck’s an amazing author. His ability to get behind the human psyche and in just a few words paint a picture which is tantalizingly familiar and physically tangible is magnificent. My second attempt at East of Eden left me in no doubt that it was a masterpiece. And despite one (or two) truly wicked characters, they are pitted against good ones, and the theme of the book is love: and what is real love? It was a deeply moving (and, I believe), over-all a very true book. It also had a happy and redemptive ending.

And then a few weeks ago I began Steinbeck’s The Long Valley. I’d read Of Mice & Men some time ago with no ill effects so thought I’d give good ol’Steinbeck another go. The Long Valley is a collection of short stories which mostly take place in California’s Salinas Valley. Each story pulls you in with eerie humanness of his writing—the almost-adorable couple, the pretty ideal, the fascinating scene, the beginning of manhood—and then just when he could resolve the story he ends it: the protagonist hopeless, possessed, crying, or dead.

I am glad I do not live in a world of Steinbeck’s making.

Each story was so fascinating—and then so gruesome. I kept reading one after the other hoping the next would end happily, maybe this time Steinbeck won’t ruin it all.

The book had me in its depressing grip—I was forcing myself to keep reading the last few short stories to the end of the collection so I could say I read it, when my husband (talking to me online) gave me this piece of wisdom:

You don’t have to finish bad books, love. It’s very freeing when you decide a book isn’t worth reading all the way through—don’t give the author the pleasure.

Don’t give the author the pleasure.

It sounds strange but what he said is amazingly true. There is a a kind of pleasing the author in reading. For reading is a kind of war, is it not? A battle-dance between you and the author. The author has an idea, a vision, a story to tell, and he presents it to you. And you? You can be won over, you take a willing step further into the world of the book, you can read, enjoy, praise, and share. Or you can put it down. You can step away. And if everybody were to put the book (or article, fake news, etc) down, the author has lost: and what they have written fades into oblivion.

In one of my favorite “writer-verses” in Ecclesiastes, Solomon encourages his son to hold fasts to the scriptures and warns him, “Of the writing of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12B)

To the writing of books there is no end.

As a writer I am acutely aware of the excess of literary thought committed to paper. I am myself an example of the inexhaustible impulse to write and record. I know it is a gift and I don’t exert any particular strain to contain it.

But I realize its limits.

There is no end.

There is no end to what could be written: most of it rubbish which will be forgotten.

There are words worth reading and books worth putting down.

We have a limited amount of time.

The Book Never Finished

There is another book I left conspicuously off my list. The Bible. Technically I read several biblical books, however when I looked back over my long list of mostly-Fiction I realized I didn’t read it nearly enough—not when I clearly had so much time.

Don’t get me wrong, time for pleasure reading is a wonderful gift, and reading is excellent for the improving of the mind and the honing of one’s God-given literary talents. But personally, I admit to you that I feel a pang of sadness rather than pride when I look back and see how much time, which could have been devoted to knowing my Savior better this past year, was spent on a lesser and far less lasting purpose.

There is another “writer-verse” which is one of my favorites. It is at the end of the book of John, where he says (and I can almost feel his heart swelling with the enormity of what he writes): “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

All the books in the world.

I think one of the reasons I often don’t read more scripture is that there is indeed a battle going on—and not only against flesh and blood (my own laziness, tiredness, etc)—but also “against the powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12) who would so dearly prefer us to swallow Steinbecks than to sup at the table of the Word.

download2My brother-in-law recently shared with me how he was reading about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord: refusing to let him depart until he had received a blessing. And he did receive a blessing. Reading scripture is like that, he shared, wrestling with it until you receive a blessing. And isn’t it wonderful that when you wrestle you will be blessed?

And so in conclusion of this long year of reading my heart is full with many things.

My heart brims with thankfulness: for the hours of dead time turned to better purpose, and for discovering a few really good authors—some insightful and wise, others delightfully human.

My heart is furthermore resolved: to strengthen my arms to wrestle with the Word.  To not depart until I receive its blessing.

And lastly I am comforted: that for as many books as I’ve read or put down, finished or not finished, there is a Word which I’ll never be done reading, which I’ll never be finished with, and (thank God), will never be finished with me.

A Year of Reading Part 2: Book & Author Reviews

Looking back over a year of books, a few stick out as being particularly memorable—for good or ill! I thought I’d take just a few from each genre and give you a review.

Mystery: Louise Penny, P.D. James, & Others

Reading Louise Penny gave me an epiphany: I suddenly realized what characterizes authors whom I want to keep rereading. My seven-book Louise Penny stint came on the heals of reading P.D. James—who originally intrigued me in Devices & Desires with her serial-killer thriller opening which had me jumping and starting and ripping through pages—however she lost me after reading Cover Her Face. I had seen a pattern emerge.

You see, there are more or 9d26b7a9373c3dc26385aaa2d7b4827aless three different kinds of mystery novels. The queen of mystery writing, arguably in the category by herself, is, of course, Agatha Christie—wherein her pages she gives you every.single.detail you need to know to figure out the mystery—but you never will. (I got awfully close once or twice, just close enough to realize how brilliantly she lays her plots). She is a mystery writer for the brain.

Then there are mystery writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Elizabeth Peters (I’d also throw in much of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries, Jeeves & Wooster, etc.) which are better termed Adventure Stories. They are read for the fun of the chase—the bizarre and ghostly happenings, the melodramatic dangers, the clues the detective analyzes (i.e. dirt on the shoes you can’t see until the protagonist makes a comment about it). They affect your blood (and maybe your funny-bone)—but rarely your brain or heart.

220px-DevicesAndDesiresThe third kind of mystery novel is the psychologist mystery–the study of human nature. They are character driven stories, motivated by the people in them (such as Dorothy Sayer’s series with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane). P.D. James is such a novelist, and she certainly does have a keen understanding of people which I appreciate—however the kinds of people which fill up her stories are the very worst sort. By the near-end of the novel, you have seen the disgusting under-belly of each character: you hate them all. Any one of them could have done the dirty deed. Every one of them had murder in their heart. James relentlessly (and rather callously) exposes each corrupt motive—and you are left the sadder (and mildly depressed) for having seen the worst of human nature.

I do not need to read books to know how wicked people can be. Nor is it the reason I personally pick up mystery novels.

338691Louise Penny is also a character-driven mystery novelist. However, what sets her and other authors like her apart is tenderness. She clearly loves each of her characters—even the would-be-villains.  You start out despising someone—and then come to know them, and see yourself in their selfish choices, fears, obsessions, and mistakes. Her books are peppered with truly kind and wonderful people—and when she reveals their faulty motives you see a fundamentally human heart: your own. Her stories are filled with a perpetual hopefulness, that wounds will be healed, that pasts will be redeemed, that forgiveness triumphs. Is her moral-compass infallible? No. After 7 books, I have found a few moral appraisals which I disagree with, but as her stories are about humans and their choices (and the ramifications of most of her character’s choices are pretty on-point), I’m ok with our differing point of views. She is not a Christian as far as I can tell, but her own loving-kindness towards her characters seems to inform her view of God which makes for an insightful and stirring read.

Other recommendations for the series? It’s about the sleepy Canadian city of Three Pines (which apparently gets more than its usual share of murders) and the easily most honorable and lovable of men, Inspector Armand Gamache. Basically imagine the combination of rugged New World terrain with the classy trappings of the British Commonwealth peppered with all the textural delights of linguistic and culinary France. What could be better?

Non-Fiction: The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace

51P+WH1-CNL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_This book, lent from a church friend, was a game-changer for me! Wow, what a fantastic read. Martha Peace seamlessly weaves scripture in with biblical, practical instruction. Not only is it basically a hand-book for marriage, but it tackles so many important issues I would recommend it to single women as well. I think one of the most valuable things I took away from it was her practical lists of “godly vs ungodly” thoughts. I never really realized that the way to combat inner ungodliness was to consciously replace ungodly thoughts with biblical ones. Now when I catch myself thinking about things or in ways I shouldn’t—I am practically armed to combat the deceits of my heart! Just purchased my own copy and will be reading again soon!

Fiction: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

30597I made the mistake of picking up this book on my French-kick after returning from our trip. Can I be blunt? THIS WAS THE MOST HORRIBLE BOOK EVER. Literally. Terrible. On sooo many levels. Where to begin? First, let’s begin with the structure and writing. Imagine a rather boring professor decides to write his graduate thesis on medieval architecture. It is bland and rhapsodic in the kind of way only a man enamored with a dry subject could find interesting. Somewhere around page, oh, 67, the professor realizes this and decides, to attract readers, to turn his thesis into a novel. (No joke. Hugo was, in fact, on an architecture craze when he penned the novel). The plot-half of the book is devoted to mocking the church with a lurid, heart-breaking tale of a gorgeous woman who is betrayed by every single man in her life (who are each beastly in their own unique ways). Rapist priest? Check. Brutish and in the end unhelpful hunchback? Check. Cruel, self-absorbed and philandering soldier? Check. Stupid and cowardly poet? Check. Will the male-fantasy of a temptingly-half-dressed-but-totally-innocent-and-slightly-stupid-16-year-old gypsy Esmeralda be saved from a horrific and unjust death at the hands of the barbarous church and murderous people? Let’s TORTURE HER WITH MEDIEVAL DEVICES FIRST (in a rather great stretch of historicity) and then let’s almost save her and then!!! KILL EVERYBODY OFF.

The end. Zero likable characters. Zero heroes. Zero people live to tell the tale except the stupid poet. (Maybe that’s Victor Hugo in disguise.) There! Now you don’t have to read it.

Fiction: Georgette Heyer vs. Austen & Bronte

My mother-in-law turned me on to this delightful author. She is, to quote Publisher Weekly, “the next best thing to reading Austen.” I would contend that she is actually a good deal more fun than reading Austen.

51w9kyK-n5LDon’t get me wrong, I love Jane Austen. Her books are magnificent and technically the superior in craftsmanship. But she wrote so few of them. And I’m inclined to think her romances lack substance—probably a result of her never having had a real one herself—and I tend to think if I’d met her in real life I wouldn’t have liked her. I’ve read Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra—whole pages of mockery and small-minded nitpicking of people’s personal appearance. “A wit,” she was, no doubt, but not to my taste. Similarly, Charlotte Bronte, while able to come so close to the human soul in her writing, was in person an awkward, silent, mousy creature who would have probably bored me to tears (as she apparently bored the people who met her). Thus it is that I have decided that among the romance writers it is Georgette and I that would have gotten on famously.

The woman’s a riot. Her novels are delightful romantic adventures from beginning to end—and everything concludes exactly as you hoped it would. While most of her books are a good laugh, The Civil Contract was quite serious and proved to me Heyer’s depth and capacity for realism. She is a woman who understands women. Georgette Heyer led a perfectly normal married life, eschewed publicity despite her novels’ immense success, and fully understood the nature of her own writing. “I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense,” she is known to have written, “But it’s unquestionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from flu.” Or, I might add, on a stuffy, smelly, and very long subway ride.

Fiction: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

all-kings-men-jacki-kellumI first read this book in a Southern Literature class in college—I liked it then (read at a helter-skelter pace in several hour shifts) and I liked it even more a second time. It is a book about politics and the ramifications of our choices and actions—or failure to act. Honestly it’s a must-read for anyone in politics. Even after twice reading I’m not entirely convinced I’m sure of the overall point Robert Penn Warren intends to make with his conclusion—I think he spends much of the book building up to a point he never actually spells out. The concepts of fatalism and personal responsibility are held in tension almost until the end when one wins out. But having also read Brideshead Revisited and Father Brown, I find my own answer forming as I close the book. If I could spell out the conclusion which Warren aught to (and almost) makes, it is the Irresistible nature of Grace—and that just like the spider in Warren’s web metaphor (where in one single action has countless ramifications), in a single second Grace can snap your string—bringing you back even from the ends of the earth into its grasp.

Fiction: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

I hannah1really don’t have much to say about this book except that it is a must-read. Wendell Berry makes a compelling argument for the importance of place in our lives, (this book pretty much made me want to never move again). It is a beautiful story of a woman’s reflections on her life, marriage, and children—and furthermore has one of the most beautiful chapters on marital love ever penned.

If you want to know why even in telling of trouble and sorrow I am giving thanks, this is why.” – Wendell Berry

A Year of Reading Part 1: A Purse and 40 Books

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Stack of books at the bookshop

Two Christmases ago my husband gave me a “big-girl purse.” I’d gotten through most of my life with hand-me-downs and 20-dollar bargains and was content to do so. But this was the real deal. Kate Spade, black, mega, kickin’ and stylin’. Other than suddenly noticing the purses of other women around me (and feeling pleased-as-punch about my own), I credit this single gift with launching me into a literary marathon.

You see, for a year and a half I had commuted for nearly two hours a day and had barely read a handful of books. How did I account for this colossal waste of time? Not very well. The best of days were spent in a mish-mosh of music, prayer, and sleep, the worst in day-dreams, people-watching, general grumpiness, and commuter malaise.

But with my husband’s gift came a change! I suddenly had the means by which to carry very large books with me to and fro from work! It took a little while, but on April 18, 2016 I began reading in earnest. Between then and now I read fully 40 books, ranging from timeless classics like Bronte, Lewis, Hugo, and Dickens, to the lesser-known classics like Robert Penn Warren and Agatha Christie, to my new-found favorites, Louise Penny and Georgette Heyer. These forty books were read mostly, (if not always exclusively), on the bus, train rides, and lunch breaks of my daily work-life.

Can one oversized purse make such a difference?

I share this not to make busy-mothers or over-loaded students feel guilty about not being able to read for pleasure. There are far better things than even reading which one can do with one’s time. But I say this to encourage my fellow commuters who currently may be loosing perfectly good time to as silly an excuse as mine was: not having a big enough purse to carry a book in.

So grab your knapsack of choice and start reading!!!

Below is the list of books read (not including scripture). I’ve separated them into genre to make my clear preference for “Fiction” less obvious. (Truth be told, Fiction won hands-down, 36-to-4…. Oops.) In the next few days I will share some book/author reviews and a few of the insights and thoughts which I’ve had after a year of reading. Part 2 & Part 3 to come!

Books read in entirety between 4/18/16 – 4/18/17

* = first time reading
! = recommend to all
# – recommend to select audience
^ = Well that was a waste of good time

MYSTERY:

Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters*
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie#
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith*
Devices & Desires – P.D. James*
Cover Her Face – P.D. James* ^
Death Comes to Pemberly – P.D. James* ^
Still Life – Louise Penny* #
A Fatal Grace – Louise Penny* #
A Rule Against Murder – Louise Penny* #
April is the Cruelest Month – Louise Penny* #
A Brutal Telling – Louise Penny*
Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny*
A Trick of the Light – Louise Penny*

NON-FICTION:

When People are Big and God is Small – Edward T. Welch*
The Excellent Wife – Martha Peace* !
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo*
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Butterfield* !

FANTASY/SCI-FI:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling !
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling !
Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis !
Perelandra – C.S. Lewis !
That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis !
Dune – Frank Herbert*

FICTION:
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome* !
Castaways of the Flying Dutchman – Brian Jacques
The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer* !
Pistols for Two – Georgette Heyer*
The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer*
The Civil Contract – Georgette Heyer*
The Reluctant Widow – Georgette Heyer*
Hannah Coulter – Wendell Berry !
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens !
The Hunchback of Notre Dame –  Victor Hugo* ^
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte ^
All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren #

La La Land and the choices we make: an analysis

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la-la-land-marriage

La La Land: a dazzling symphony of human emotion, delightful harmonies, and picture-perfect 50’s pastels. What’s not to love between Emma Stone’s ordinary-face-meets-extraordinary-soul and Ryan Gosling’s swoon-worthy jazz playing? It’s a heart-stealing masterpiece and it’s taking the country by a storm. Yet despite this, I have heard quite a few people express confusion (or outright dismay) at the ending. I believe this is because they do not understand it, as I firmly hold that it is precisely the film’s ending which makes the film so poignant and furthermore so true.

You see, if one doesn’t know that the film has a Casablanca ending (and really, you should know this ahead of time! Warning: real spoilers ahead!), you go in expecting Oklahoma! and the couple riding off into the sunset at the end and instead get a rhapsody of regret and you’re left being like, “Yo-wait!?!! So they don’t have each other but they have their careers and this is a happy ending?”

No. It’s not a happy ending. But it’s the right ending for the film.

The film isn’t about careers, it’s about choices, the consequences of our actions, and how we choose to live. Throughout the entire time we’re watching two ways to live contrasted—a train-wreck in slow motion.

It starts with Sebastian. Sebastian is running from commitment. As his sister complains in an opening scene: he’s not really living. He’s neither following after love nor his passions: he has a STOOL which he won’t even sit on.

Mia, in contrast, is SEIZING life. She putting herself out there for rejection over and over and over and refusing to grow cynical.

What happens when the two cross paths? You’d think Sebastian’s initial responses to her would serve as a warning: rude honking, blowing her off, running away (see the amazing “He Ran” scene), even physically knocking her aside with a brush of the shoulder.

Then, thanks to Mia’s direct intervention, something happens. Despite a “wasted” evening in the moonlight—they do in fact connect. Sebastian starts reaching out—and a relationship begins.

But Sebastian hasn’t actually changed.

The second half of the film is watching everything fall apart. But what destroys their relationship is not one of them choosing a career but rather one of them NOT choosing the dinner-sceneother. In their breakup scene, Sebastian reveals he has been using Mia as an excuse not to do what he loves. But what astounds Mia most is that he has CHOSEN a life in which they cannot be together: there is no marriage, no children, no togetherness in sight. Sebastian is choosing a life without her… WHILE blaming her for the choice as if it’s for her that he’s given up his dreams. Mia suddenly sees his pattern of selfishness, his cowardice, and, in short, his complete BS.

So what about the ending? In the final montage, we see what would have happened had Sebastian made the right choices. Notice, neither of their careers change: in both Mia goes to Paris and Sebastian starts a club. Furthermore, notice, Mia’s life doesn’t change–either way she would have been  a gorgeous pregnant lady with an adorable child and a wonderful husband. It is Sebastian’s story which could have been the most different.

As the scenes flash before us, we see every wrong decision reversed: Sebastian NOT brushing Mia aside, NOT joining the awful band, BEING THERE for her audition, FOLLOWING her to Paris, STARTING his club, getting down on one knee and proposing, and yes, babies and date-nights and them together. The montage shows us how EASILY Mia’s marriage could have been with HIM, how that beautiful baby back home could have been THEIRS, how the date to the club could have been TOGETHER.

A series of choices, all in which Sebastian chooses Mia. Notice they don’t have Mia change anything. Mia did everything right, she put herself out there, she left that dinner table and MADE it to that date—and in the end she found a man who was willing to commit. You feel her sadness for Sebastian, perhaps regret for what might have been, but she walks out of that club. She doesn’t return to Sebastian like he’s some kind of long-lost soul-mate (true or not): life has gone on. She smiles at him and then walks away. I think several things are going on here: I think Mia knows she made the right choice. I think she also values all that they taught one another, and furthermore I think we see that Sebastian realizes where he went wrong. LLL d 12 _2353.NEFHe is filled with regret. But he also got a wake-up call, and he’s finally started his jazz club. And this is what makes La La Land such a good film. You have Sebastian living his dream yet deeply unhappy and then you have Mia who’s moved on with her  life. You don’t actually want her to be with Sebastian. Sebastian didn’t choose her—and Mia chose LIFE, life with scary auditions, a husband, babies, diapers, babysitters, and all that jazz (ok, maybe no literal jazz for Mia). But we see what might have been: and it would have been beautiful.

How easily life could have been different.

When my husband and I see a film like La La Land, we hold each other close, because we know the pain of choosing “no,” and we know how close we came to not choosing YES. My husband and I spent years side-stepping romance. Sometimes it was in small ways—ruining what might be a romantic moment—other times it was a much clearer decision, a “no” and another “no”—if not verbally spoken, proclaimed in a choice.

What turned us around, in addition to the Lord using the circumstances of our lives, was a few very ordinary things. An email. A letter. A phone-call. A visit. A few simple actions that launched a chain of events which has led to our present happiness and years of marriage.

La La Land is a beautiful tribute to love: and a warning to those who don’t seize it. Life goes on. It doesn’t stop for you. You can have the love of your life staring you in the face and you can choose to say no. And guess what? Life will still go on. I love how it is no single choice of Sebastian’s that ends their relationship: it is a habit of being. And that’s what the film is telling you, too: it is never too late to start making the right choices and embracing life in all its fullness now. 

So choose to love. Love is always a choice. It is a choice in marriage when I cook my husband his favorite cookies, or when he goes 10 minutes out of his way just to see me sooner. It is a choice when you keep back hurtful words and choose words of grace: when you honor instead of malign, when you choose time together over time apart. It is a choice every single day.

So realize that this is your life: right now. This is your La La Land.

And Life is made up of the choices you make.