Cleophas and Elizabeth Visit Easter Sunrise Service

We have a tradition in our church of having Biblical characters visit our Easter sunrise service in the park. This year Cleophas and his wife, Elizabeth, from Emmaus told us about their encounter with the resurrected Christ.

First Person Drama, written by Pastor Bob DeGray and performed by John Bauer and Zion Early. Based on the story of the meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35.

Christmas at Brede Abbey, Sussex, England, c. 1955

“On the night of Christmas Eve the abbey was so still it might have been thought to be empty, or the nuns asleep, but when the bell sounded at ten o’clock, from all corners, especially from the church, silent figures made their way to their station in the long cloister, and Abbess Catherine led them into choir for Christmas Matins. The first nocturne from the book of Isaiah was sung by the four chief chantresses: ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice says ‘Cry!’ and I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. . . .’ Voice succeeded voice through two hours until the priests, vested in white and gold, with their servers, came in procession from the sacristy for the tenderness and triumph of the midnight Mass. Lauds of Christmas followed straight after, and at two o’clock the community went to the refectory for hot soup, always called ‘cock soup’ because it was the first taste of meat or chicken they had had since Advent began. The soup was served with rice–‘beautifully filling,’ said Hilary in content–and after it came two biscuits and four squares of chocolate. ‘Chocolate!’ ‘We need to keep our strength up,’ said Dame Ursula.

In the twenty-four hours of Christmas they would spend ten hours in choir, singing the Hours at their accustomed times, and the second ‘dawn’ or ‘aurora,’ Mass of the shepherds as well as the third Mass of Christmas, which came after terce. The wonder was that the nuns had time to eat their Christmas dinner, most of it contributed by friends.”

I picked up a beautiful paperback copy of In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden at Half-Price Books the other day. The blurb on the back calls the book “an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life.” I have called it “an excellent story about the lives of women within a closed community of nuns. Not only does the reader get to satisfy his curiosity about how nuns live in a convent, but there’s also a a great plot related to contemporary issues such as abortion, the efficacy of prayer, and the morality of absolute obedience.”

I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disciplines of the Christian life or the difficulties and possibilities inherent in attempting to live in Christian community.

Blog reviews for In This House of Brede:
Laura at Lines in Pleasant Places.
Heather at Lines from the Page.
Phyllis at Life on Windy Ridge.
Diane at A Circle of Quiet.
Julie at Happy Catholic.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson

Not much happens in this character-driven novel of a woman who is having a mid-life crisis in the midst of her addiction to materialism and shopping. In fact, if you want to know what Quaker Summer is all about, read this 2007 interview with author Lisa Samson.

That’s pretty much it: suburban upper middle class Christian mom feels guilty and stressed all the time. She discovers that Christ is calling her to give up her materialistic life, quit shopping so much, and serve the poor. It’s hard.

I sound sarcastic, and I don’t mean to be. However, the main character Heather Curridge (and by extension perhaps the author Lisa Samson) both over-complicate and over-simplify the Christian life. Yes, it is as simple as “follow Jesus and love people.” Yes, it is hard to give up our pet sins and idols. But as I read I wanted Heather to just get over herself, and at the same time I wanted her to be more aware of her propensity to make snap judgements about other people and to give the other moms in her life some grace. Maybe I’m too much like Heather: impatient with others and self-centered most of the time. I’ve always thought there was a lot of truth in the old saw that the sins that annoy us in others are often the ones most present in ourselves.

So, I’ll quote some others on Christianity Today‘s 2008 Novel of the Year:

“Samson shines with themes of grace, purpose, and the emptiness of what we call success. Her stories prompt Christians to rethink stereotypes and call them to riskier living. Neither contrived nor saccharine; manages to convict without preaching.” ~Christianity Today

“Lisa Samson has a wonderful insight into people. Through Heather, she analyzes a woman’s guilt at overeating, overachieving, and overspending. She examines women’s friendships–some genuine and some superficial, as well as the obstacles that we create that hinder finding new friends or going deeper with the ones that we have.” Deliciously Clean Reads

“Don’t read this book if you’re happy with your comfortable Christianity. This book will challenge you to step outside of that little box you’ve put your faith-walk in, and open your heart and life up to real hands-and-feet Jesus-following Christianity. Reading this book made me squirm. In a good way.” Carrie K. at Mommy Brain

I was mostly annoyed by Heather Curridge and her journey toward self-discovery, but that doesn’t mean you will feel the same. Maybe I just need a mid-life crisis of my own and a little more grace.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson is one talented guy. I’ve been a big fan of his songs for quite a while now, but I haven’t read any of his Wingfeather Saga books because, well, I just didn’t want to commit myself to a big, huge, sprawling, saga series of books. And the idea that the man could sing and play and write songs and lyrics and write fantasy books for children was a little too much to be believed. So, sometimes God gives a wealth of talent to one person.

I should have taken the plunge and made the commitment with the first book in the series, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. Then I could have read the second and third books, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows, and all of the characters that I came to love in The Warden and the Wolf King–Janner and Kalmar and Leeli and Arthram and Podo and Sara and Maraly— would have been old friends already. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the fourth and final book in the saga even more if I were equipped with the background and history behind it, but I really enjoyed The Warden and the Wolf King anyway.

Even the one book is a saga, and it is a commitment, 519 pages worth of commitment. Obviously, I recommend starting at the beginning of the series with Book 1, which makes it even more of a commitment. However, dare I say that it’s worth it? Definitely influenced by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, this series is nevertheless no Tolkien imitation and no Lewis copycat. There are lots of battles and adventures and hair’s breadth escapes for those who like that sort of things. But the themes and characters are what drew me in. I loved reading the description of Janner’s battle with the jealousy and mixed motives and sin that tears his heart apart as he tries desperately to be the strong, courageous and protective older brother that he is called to be. I liked reading about the “cloven”, creatures part human and part animal or insect who struggle to deal with their dual natures and their disturbed memories of the past. Oood the troll provided some comic relief and a few moments of heroism and rescue. And the ending to the entire book, and the entire series, was pure genius. Enough said.

The Silence of God is one of my favorite Andrew Peterson songs, and I would say that it pairs well with the themes of The Warden and the Wolf King. Several times in the book the “good guys” just have to grit their teeth and keep going, without answers, without a clear word from the Maker, just persevering and hoping and working toward the best goal they know.

I find that the Christian life is a lot like that song and a lot like Janner’s and Kalmar’s journey in this book. “What about the times when even followers get lost? We all get lost sometimes.” “The aching may remain but the breaking does not.”

Jane Austen and the Longing for Fidelity and Honor

51IDqyyYbhL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

We discussed the novels of Jane Austen recently in Sunday School class at my church (studying this book by Jerome Barrs), and we particularly focused on the reason for Austen’s burst in popularity in the past 20 years or so. Of course, movie and TV mini-series versions of Austen’s novels fueled the resurgence in her popularity, and Jane Austen never has really gone out of fashion. However, why do these novels, and their screen adaptations, resonate with so many readers and watchers?

Mr Barrs writes:

“Why this popularity? Is it simply the beautiful dresses that the women wear? Is it a bizarre nostalgia for romanticism? (Austen was certainly not a romantic in the technical sense of this term; in fact she attacks romanticism with great passion in Sense and Sensibility.) Is it simply an escape from the cynicism of our post-modern age? Is it a longing for manners and courtesy, for a kinder, gentler way of relating to one another in an age of culture wars? Is it a secret interest in genuine romance to replace the cultural norm of instant coupling and gratification? I mention these various options because each of them has been expressed in movie reviews and in articles about the Jane Austen ‘craze.'”

Mr. Barrs goes to suggest that the humor and character development in the books serves to make us tolerate, if not embrace, the profound moral lessons that they contain. All of these things are at least part of the truth. Some people watch the 1995 TV mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice for the costumes and the courtly manners. Others love the idea of romance in the novels, ignoring the common sense and decidedly unromantic way Austen looks at courtship and marriage in general. However, I think there’s something deeper going on in our cultural embrace of the pre-Romantic, eighteenth century norms embodied in the novels of Jane Austen.

It’s similar to what is going on in our love for The Lord of the Rings. We’ve lost the concept of “honor” in our society, yet we long for it because God made us to be honorable men and women and to attribute honor to goodness and faithfulness in both men and women. When we watch or read LOTR, we are confronted with men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits who are above all, honorable, or at least trying to be virtuous, and we recognize the dearth of honor and virtue in our own culture.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his book The Abolition of Man, ““We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” He could have added that we devalue and distort the institution of marriage and the relations between men and women, and we are surprised that many young people no longer see any reason to get married or any value in the marriage relationship. However, we were made, male and female, to give ourselves in a faithful, monogamous marriage relationship, and when we see or read about a society (eighteenth century England) in which that is the norm, even if the marriages themselves and the courtship preceding them are flawed and imperfect, the word picture touches something deep within us. Women want to find an honorable man like Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, who also honors and cherishes his Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Wodehouse. Men, although not as likely to read and re-read the works of Jane Austen, can also appreciate the characters of sensible, intelligent women in Austen’s novels who are nevertheless willing and even eager to enter into a lifelong commitment to one imperfect but honorable man.

I think it is because marriage is so endangered and devalued in our culture that we embrace the stories Jane Austen told. When I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides a couple of years ago, I wrote of that novel’s themes, “Perhaps the idea is that we’ve reduced marriage to sexual attraction and sexual athletics, and we’ve reduced knowing God to going through the forms and expressions of religion and being good.” I wasn’t really sure what I thought about Eugenides’ novel when I read it, but his central premise that we’ve lost, or nearly lost, something valuable in our approach to love and marriage has stuck with me. Jane Austen’s novels give a glimpse of what we’ve lost, and it’s attractive and soul-satisfying, even if we don’t know exactly how to recapture the reality of the “marriage plot” we’ve lost.

Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower

51FJbLEKjeL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Andi Unexpected reminded me of the simple mystery stories I read when I was nine and ten and eleven years old, nothing profound or even memorable, just a good solid mystery story for middle grade kids who like that sort of thing.

After the death of their scientist parents in the jungles of Central America, Andi and her older sister Bethany move in with their Aunt Amelie. While cleaning out the attic, Andi discovers a hidden closet and a mystery. Who is the mysterious Andora, who shares Andi’s name? Why does no one want to talk about her? Why are the local museum director and a history professor from the nearby college so interested in Andora’s story?

I felt as if a few of the plot points were a little rushed or unexplained. Andi says at one point that Andora is her great-aunt, but I wasn’t sure how she knew this bit of geneological information. I never understood how Andi’s parents decided to name her Andora after a mysterious woman that, according to the story, no one really knew by that name. Nevertheless, for fans of The Boxcar Children or series mysteries of that genre and reading level, Andi Unexpected may be just right. It looks as if Andi Unexpected is itself the beginning of a series.

November 29th–A Very Good Day

Three wonderful authors, for whose work I am very thankful, were born on this date. Any of their books would make lovely Christmas presents.

1. C.S. Lewis
Lewis is the best writer and the most profound thinker of the three, the one whose work will stand the test of time. I predict that Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and Till We Have Faces, in particular, will be read and appreciated a hundred years from now. Because he died fifty years ago on November 22, 1963, he has been remembered with many, many articles and blog posts this month. Here are links to just a few from this year and from other years.
50 Years Ago Today, RIP Jack
Jared at Thinklings: Remembering Jack (2005)
Lars Walker at Brandywine Books: The Feast of St. Jack and The Great Man’s Headgear
Hope at Worthwhile Books reviews Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in Lewis’s space trilogy.
Heidi at Mt. Hope Chronicles writes about her appreciation for the works of C.S. Lewis.
Jollyblogger reviews Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

2. Madeleine L’Engle
Ms. L’Engle is the most likely of the three to have her work become dated. However, the science fiction quartet that begins with A Wrinkle in Time may very well last because it deals with themes that transcend time and localized concerns. And I still like The Love Letters the best of all her books, a wonderful book on the meaning of marriage and of maturity.
Madeleine L’Engle favorites.
In which I invite Madeleine L’Engle to tea in June, 2006, before her death last year.
A Madeleine L’Engle Annotated bibliography.
Semicolon Review of The Small Rain and A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle.
Semicolon Review of Camilla by Madeleine L’Engle.
My Madeleine L’Engle project, which has languished this year, but I hope to get back to it in 2009.
Mindy Withrow writes about A Circle of Quiet.
Remembering Madeleine: Obituaries and Remembrances from September, 2007.

3. Louisa May Alcott.
I love reading about Ms. Alcott’s girls and boys even though many people are too jaded and feminist to enjoy books that celebrate the joys of domesticity and home education.
Circle of Quiet quotes An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott on the wearing of blue gloves.
Carrie reviews Little Women, after three attempts to get though it.
Claire, The Captive Reader re-reads my favorite Louisa May Alcott novel, Eight Cousins.
Claire, The Captive Reader revisits Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins.
Sam at Book Chase reviews Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.
Joyfuly Retired sponsored an “All Things Alcott” Challenge in 2010 where you can find links to many posts about Louisa May and her family and her novels.

November 29, 2007: To This Great Stage of Fools.

No Dark Valley by Jamie Langston Turner

Jamie Langston Turner is one of my “go-to” authors for Christian-themed fiction. So when I saw a copy of a novel by Ms. Turner that I hadn’t yet read while I was perusing the shelves at Half-Price Books, I bought it without a second thought. And I’m glad I did.

No Dark Valley is a little more “religious” than some of Ms. Turner’s other novels, although all of them are about how ordinary people find redemption and strength through faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, just like the characters in her other books, the characters in No Dark Valley are real. I can imagine meeting these people, talking to them, understanding them. There are no pasteboard saints in this story, although Ms. Turner does indulge in a meta-fiction thread that runs through the novel about how Celia, the protagonist, imagines that her life and the people in it would never be believable as fiction:

“Another reason her life would make a bad novel, Celia had decided, was that the characters would seem so stereotyped. Nobody would believe that one person could have so many rigidly religious relatives, all stuck in the rut of such predictable, countrified ways of viewing life, all trekking to church several times a week, all so unaware that the twentieth century had come and gone. You could get by with one or two characters like that in a book, for quirky splashes of color, but not dozens and dozens of them. The whole thing would turn into a farce.”

Of course, the funny thing about No Dark Valley was that I found the characters to be quite plausible and true to life–my life in the South, in the Bible Belt. I’m not sure if Ms. Turner was actually worried that readers would find her Christian characters stereotypical and so wrote her concerns into the book, or if she was simply having fun with Celia and her own rigid ways of thinking. (Celia is a champion at projecting her own rigidity and prejudice onto her relatives and others.) Either way, Celia’s interior monologue, and later in the novel when the point of view switches to Celia’s neighbor, Bruce Healy, his thoughts, are both relatable and authentic.

No Dark Valley is both a romance story and a conversion story. Jamie Langston Turner’s prose is intelligent, vivid, and sometimes crosses over into the poetic. I really enjoy Ms. Turner’s novels. If they can be classified as “Christian chicklit”, it’s excellent, smart Christian chick lit.

Jamie Langston Turner’s other books:
Some Wildflower in My Heart (1998)
By the Light of a Thousand Stars (1999)
A Garden to Keep (2001)
Winter Birds (2006)
Sometimes a Light Surprises (2009)

And if you like a series of novels with recurring and overlapping characters, Ms Turner’s novels, like those of another of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, have characters from one novel that reappear in later books. In No Dark Valley, Eldeen Rafferty from Suncatchers makes a (loud) appearance. Margaret Tuttle, from Some Wildflower in My Heart, is the friend of a friend. And Elizabeth Landis from A Garden to Keep becomes a friend and mentor to Celia as the two women play on a tennis team together.

And now I have to admit that Ms. Turner and I have a little bit of a mutual admiration society going here, and I am pleased to read that she has a new novel coming out in 2014.

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

I have read very few authors with as much insight into the feelings and thought processes of men, women, and children as Elizabeth Goudge. The Rosemary Tree is remarkable in its treatment of characters who are all somewhat broken (as are we all), but who fall on a continuum from repentant to ineffectual to struggling to wise to completely evil. And the character who is represented as utterly irredeemable, because she doesn’t want to be forgiven or changed, might be the character you least suspect.

It all seems very true to life. (By the way that’s an awful cover, but the others I saw at Amazon weren’t any better. I don’t know why the people are wearing what looks like Elizabethan or Edwardian costumes. The story takes place in the twentieth century, after World War II.) The main characters in this little vignette of village life are:

John Wentworth, a bumbling and diffident country parson who sees himself as a weak man and a failure who can never get anything quite right.

“He took off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, lifted up to Almighty God the magnitude of his failure and the triviality of his task, and applied himself to the latter. The hot water warmed his cold hands and the pile of cleansed china grew satisfactorily on the draining-board. There was a pleasure in getting things clean. Small beauties slid one by one into his consciousness, quietly and unobtrusively, like growing light. The sinuous curves of Orlando the marmalade cat, washing himself on the window-sill, the comfortable sound of ash settling in the stove, a thrush singing somewhere, the scent of Daphne’s geraniums, the gold of the crocuses that were growing round the trunk of the apple tree outside the kitchen window.”

Others see him as Don Quixote, the Man of la Mancha.

Daphne Wentworth, John’s wife, is much more competent than her husband, but also full of pride and thwarted ambitions from her youth.

The couple have three children: Pat, who is like her mother, competent and intelligent and sharp, Margary, who is more like John, dreamy and vulnerable, and Winkle, who is the baby of the family, but wise with the innocence of childhood.

Harriet lives upstairs in the Wentworth parsonage, and she is wise with the wisdom of many years of experience, first as John’s nanny, then as the parsonage housekeeper, and now as a retired pray-er and watcher over the entire household.

“They all said they could not do without her. In the paradoxical nature of things if she could have believed them she would have been a much happier woman, but not the same woman whom they could not do without.”

Maria Wentworth, John’s great-aunt, lives in Belmaray Manor and keeps pigs.

Young Mary O’Hara, Irish and full of vitality, and Miss Giles, middle-aged, bitter, and full of frustrations, both teach school at the small private school that the Wentworth girls attend. Mary’s aunt, Mrs. Belling, “was a very sweet woman and had been a very beautiful one.” She is headmistress of the little school, where all three girls are quite unhappy, each in her own way.

Into this mix comes a stranger, Michael Stone, who is weighed down by many, many real failures and sins and who comes to Devonshire where the story takes place not so much for redemption as simply for a place to go, perhaps to hide from the world. Michael will find more than he’s looking for, and the other characters in this novel will change and grow as a result of Michael’s presence and the truth he brings into their lives.

Elizabeth Goudge really has written a lovely novel. Apparently, The Times criticized its “slight plot” and “sentimentally ecstatic” approach when the book was first published in 1956. I’ll admit the story is a bit short on action, but the descriptions of how and what people think and feel more than makes up for any deficiency in fictional exploits.

Sidenote/detour: While looking for more information about Elizabeth Goudge, I found this article about an Indian author, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, who plagiarized from The Rosemary Tree in her 1993 Cranes’ Morning. In fact, aside from changing the setting to India, the names of the characters to Indian ones, and the religion to Hinduism, Ms. Aikath-Gyaltsen copied much of Goudge’s novel word-for-word. It took about a year for the plagiarism to be noticed and confirmed, and in the meantime Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen died, probably committing suicide. Sad story.

I wonder what Elizabeth Goudge, who died in 1984, would have thought about it all?

Not to end this review of and homage to Ms. Goudge’s agreeable novel on such a sad note, I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“The way God squandered Himself had always hurt her; and annoyed her, too. The sky full of wings and only the shepherds awake. That golden voice speaking and only a few fishermen there to hear; and perhaps some of the words He spoke carried away on the wind or lost in the sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat. A thousand blossoms shimmering over the orchard, each a world of wonder all to itself, and then the whole thing blown away on a south-west gale as though the delicate little worlds were of no value at all. Well, of all the spendthrifts, she would think, and then pull herself up. It was not for her to criticize the ways of Almighty God; if He liked to go to all that trouble over the snowflakes, millions and millions of them, their intricate patterns too small to be seen by human eyes, and melting as soon as made, that was His affair and not hers.”

I like the idea of God as a spendthrift, creating beauty for the sheer joy of it all whether there’s anyone there to perceive it or not. Isn’t there a poem based on that idea? Maybe Emily Dickinson?

Reinventing Rachel by Alison Strobel

Rachel just got hit with a triple whammy: her fiance is cheating on her, her parents have been keeping a big (BAD) secret from her, and her best friend and Christian mentor has a drug problem. So, Rachel goes off the rails, leaves her faith, and moves to Chicago.

To my discredit, I am normally impatient with characters and even real people who “lose their faith.” Like what, you misplaced your lifelong, deep-seated commitment to the God of the Universe who was so committed to his love for you that he became a man and died for you, kind of like you sometimes misplace your car keys? Did you spend any time looking for that “faith” you so conveniently mislaid? Did you ask any questions? Pray? Wrestle with God like Jacob did?

I know, I know. I’m unsympathetic. I blame it partly on the terminology. One doesn’t really lose faith. You decide, for whatever reason, to leave it behind, to repudiate it. And in Alison Strobel’s Reinventing Rachel, the title character does exactly that: her faith wasn’t working out the way she thought it should, so she leaves it behind to try out a new, God-free life of pleasing herself and avoiding annoying Christians. God didn’t keep his end of the bargain that Rachel thought she made with Him: she’d behave, and He would make everything work out right. Instead, Rachel decides she’ll have to work out her own life without God’s help or intervention.

At first, after Rachel moves to Chicago to live with her old friend Daphne, things do work out pretty well, without church and without God. Daphne is a free spirit and lots of fun. Rachel finds a job right away. And she even gets a new boyfriend who’s handsome, attentive, and willing to take it slow and easy. However, when you leave one idol, Christian legalism and bargain mentality, behind, you’re likely to pick up another idol before long because we human beings were made to worship someone or something. Rachel finds comfort and sustenance in some not-so-unusual places, and then she finds that the idols she’s chosen are just as fallible and entrapping as the “Christianity” she left behind. By God’s grace, she also meets few people who show her what true commitment to Christ really looks like.

So, the conclusion is that Rachel didn’t really lose her faith in Christ; she never had faith in Christ’s grace in the first place. She was trusting in her Christian checklist to keep her on God’s good side, and when life came at her with a whole lot of hard stuff, Rachel’s make-a-list of rules didn’t begin to answer the questions or provide the strength she needed.

Ms. Strobel is a good writer, particularly in the area of character development. I wouldn’t mind checking out others of her novels, which I suppose is the reason I managed to snag a free copy of Reinventing Rachel for my Kindle when it was being offered as a “special deal.” It’s full price now, but I recommend it as worth the money or the time it takes to hunt down a library copy. (I’m not a fan of the half-a-face picture on the cover, but ignore that and read the story.)