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.

A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

We were discussing this idea, along with Mary Magdalene, at church this morning. We have such need of a Savior every day. We all have such need of the gospel, the good news that Christ has paid the penalty for our sins and that we are redeemed in Him, every day. We have need of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit every day, every hour.

Jesus, I believe; help my unbelief.

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a useful, compact history of the progression of Christian thought and heresy from the rise of modernism in the 1920’s (and again in the 1960’s)to the post-WW II revival of Christian neo-orthodoxy to the dissolution of church-going, especially in the mainline Protestant churches, in the 1960’s and 70’s, to the rise of evangelicalism to the present day lapse into mostly-heresy. Of course, these are trends not absolute descriptions of every Christian or every denomination.

I say it’s useful even though Douthat paints with a broad brush, and he admits that “a different set of emphases and shadings could yield a very different portrait of American Christianity at midcentury.” This caveat extends to the entire book. Douthat makes statements such as “the message of Christianity itself seemed to have suddenly lost its credibility” (in the 1970’s) or we are a nation “where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends.” I read these sorts of categorical statements, and at first I agree, but then I think of all sorts of exceptions and conditions and stipulations.

Maybe this book is the sort of nonfiction polemic which is best reviewed by my giving you a chapter-by-chapter summary of the major theses of Douthat’s argument, and then you can judge for yourself whether or not the book would be useful for you to read.

Part 1 of the book is history, a brief overview of the fluctuations in faith and practice of orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century and the twenty-first.

Chapter One: The Lost World. This chapter begins with the conversion to Catholicism of poet W.H. Auden and continues with Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as emblematic of the post-war return to Christianity and neoorthodoxy. Christian churches had the potential to become “the salt of the earth, a light to the nations, and a place where even modern man could find a home.”

Chapter Two: The Locust Years. The 1960’s and 70’s brought continued growth for conservative churches but but a crisis for mainline Protestant chuches and for Catholic parishes in the United States. “The culture of mainline Protestantism simply disintegrated,” and Catholics lost in terms of mass attendance, priestly and other vocations, and participation in almost every aspect of parish life. Douthat argues that political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization and resulting religious universalism, and America’s ever-growing wealth combined to cause the decline in the credibility and eventually practice of the traditional, orthodox Christian message.

Chapter Three: Accomodation. Many churches and denominations responded to the challenges of the 60’s and 70 with an accomodationist message: “seek to forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that were undercutting orthodoxy.” The accomodationists, Catholic and Protestant, lost members, but didn’t simply disappear.

Chapter Four: Resistance. Other churches chose a different path: resistance to forces of modernism, sexual and materialistic hedonism, and moral relativism. Eventually, Catholics and Evangelicals found themselves as co-belligerents in resisting the “spirit of the age” and defending traditional Christian beliefs. As Evangelicalism grew, evangelicals re-engaged in politics and public life; Catholics moved away from adapting to the secular culture to the “tireless proselytization” and “moral arguments” of Pope John Paul II. However, the resistance wasn’t enough to stem the tide of heresy.

So, Part 2 of the book is entitled The Age of Heresy.

Chapter Five: Lost in the Gospels. Liberal, Dan Brown/Bart Ehrman/Eileen Pagels pseudo-Christian pseudo-scholarship encourages Americans to invent their own religion in which “no account of Christian origins is more authoritative than any other, ‘cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.”

Chapter Six: Pray and Grow Rich. Joel Osteen, Kenneth Hagin, and others preach a Jesus who may not say crudely “name it and claim it” but who still “seems less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips, which are more or less guaranteed to pay off for any Christian bold enough to act on them.” I think Mr. Douthat goes a little off-course when he associates financial counselors like Larry Burkett and pastors such as Rick Warren, who Douthat admits have criticized the prosperity teaching of the Word-Faith movement, with that same heretical theology. It’s always tempting to tie everything into your thesis and make the chapter balance.

Chapter Seven: The God Within. “The message of Eat, Pray, Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert) is the same gospel preached by a cavalcade of contemporary gurus, teachers, and would-be holy men and women: Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield, Neale Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. It’s the insight offered by just about every spiritual authority ever given a platform in Oprah Winfrey’s media empire.” God exists, if He exists, inside our own hearts and minds and souls, a subset of Me.

Chapter Eight: The City on a Hill. Of course, it’s not just the New-Age liberals who have succumbed to heresy or to heretical tendencies. “A version of (American) exceptionalism is entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy. . . Christianity makes room for particular loves and loyalties, but not for myths of national innocence or fantasies about building the kingdom of heaven on earth.” When Christians begin to go along with the slogan “my country, right or wrong” or worse, believe that America can do no wrong, they are in danger of placing a kingdom of this world before the kingdom of our Lord.

The final, brief section of Mr. Douthat’s book is a conclusion called The Recovery of Christianity. He suggests some possible sources and models for renewal: the emerging church movement, the neo-monastic movement, church growth in the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and societal and financial catastrophe that may vindicate and make relevant again the Christian message.

I have serious doubts that any of those four events and movements will be the catalyst that God uses for revival. However, as Mr Douthat writes, “the kind of faith that should animate such a (Christian) renaissance can be lived out Christian by Christian, congregation by congregation, day by day, without regard to whether it succeeds in changing the American way of religion as a whole.” God is responsible for revival; I am responsible to live an obedient life before Him daily.

I’ve given a broad overview of a book that has much specific food for thought, challenging, even convicting, words of warning, and a few practical ideas about “how we then should live.” Recommended for all Christians, especially those who are involved in and thinking about political and cultural engagement.

Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic by Matthew Lickona

My Protestant sensibilities are put off and, yes, somewhat offended by what Mr. Lickona and the Catholic Church call “sacramentals”. A scapular is a sacramental (sacred object or action) worn by lay Catholics to remind them of their devotion to the church and to the Lord:

“The devotional scapular typically consists of two small (usually rectangular) pieces of cloth, wood or laminated paper, a few inches in size, which may bear religious images or text. These are joined by two bands of cloth and the wearer places one square on the chest, rests the bands one on each shoulder and lets the second square drop down the back. In many cases . . . the scapular come(s) with a set of promises for the faithful who wear them. Some of the promises are rooted in tradition, and others have been formally approved by religious leaders. For instance, for Roman Catholics, as for some other sacramentals, over the centuries several popes have approved specific indulgences for scapulars.” ~Wikipedia

It feels superstitious to me, and Mr. Lickona admits in his book that the idea of sacramentals and indulgences sometimes bothers him a bit, too. Nevertheless, as I read about Matthew Lickona’s spiritual journey from cradle Catholic to mature and devout defender of the faith, I was impressed with the centrality of the things that I believe really matter: devotion to Christ and commitment to trust in His grace to carry us through the things that we don’t always understand.

“I am a Roman Catholic, baptized as an infant and raised in the faith, a faith which holds the exemplary and redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ at its core.”

“My faith is weak. I am anxious when I think about the future. I have trouble considering the lilies of the field. I ought to trust in the Lord, I know; it’s His will I’m trying to obey. But He has been known to give crosses as gifts, so I often look elsewhere for comfort.”

“I think about God and the faith, and I hope my thinking has some spiritual worth. But knowing a great deal about God is not knowing God. Faith in Him is bound up with knowing Him, and woe to me if my faith is borrowed from the true faith of others. Because if I do not know Him, I fear He will not know me, and the door will be shut.”

“Just as I don’t base my faith on a personal experience of God, I don’t imagine that any particular personal suffering would make me doubt his existence, any more than it would make me doubt that water is wet. I do not tie up God’s existence, or even His love, with the sufferings of the world. My God is the God of Job.”

My God, too is the God of Job and of Peter, (Mr. Lickona would call him Saint Peter) who said to Jesus, “”Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.”

As long as we’re both following Jesus for those words that give eternal life, I can ignore the scapulars and the statues of the saints and the other Catholic trappings that Mr. Lickona says draw him to Christ and that I see as distractions at best. I think Matthew Lickona and I would disagree about many things, but it seems to me after reading his spiritual memoir that he and I would agree about Jesus.

I’ll be content to let Him sort out the rest of it at the Judgement, and if Mr. Lickona wants to go swimming with his scapular firmly in place to remind him of the grace and mercy of Our Lord Jesus, who am I to argue?

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Romans 14:4

Matthew Lickona’s blog, Korrektiv: bad Catholics blogging at a time near the end of the world

A Light Shining by Glynn Young

I thoroughly enjoyed Dancing Priest, Mr. Young’s first book about Michael Kent, Olympic cyclist, Edinburgh student, Anglican priest, and orphan with a mysterious past. Of course, it’s also the story of Sarah Hughes, American artist and also a student in Edinburgh, whose lack of faith throws a kink in the developing romance between her and Michael.

In this sequel, I was pleased to read more about Sarah and Michael and their growing families, both nuclear and church families. Michael’s and Sarah’s Christian testimony through lives lived openly and vulnerably is fresh and un-jaded. I loved the way that in their youthful enthusiasm they just did the next thing that God called them to, with prayer and thoughtfulness, yes, but without that too long attention to possible problems and hesitation that many of us (I) are prone to allow to derail our best intentions.

Mr. Young’s writing is simple and unadorned, easy to read and follow. The e-book edition of the book that I read sometimes needed some more spacing indicators to show when the point of view was changing from one character to another. There’s a shadowy terrorist villain in this second book, and I sometime couldn’t tell when I was leaving the mind and viewpoint of Michael Kent and entering the mind and world of the villain. I find this problem frequently in my Kindle reads, and it’s a little bit annoying, but not overwhelmingly so.

I would recommend these companion novels to anyone with an interest in well-written Christian-themed fiction, Anglican church fiction, adoption and street children, Olympic cycling, or the politics surrounding the British royal family. Read them in order, first Dancing Priest and then A Light Shining. No spoilers her, but all of these subjects are elements in the these two books about a vibrant young couple coming to terms with their faith in Christ and their journey to follow Him through difficult circumstances.

Bringing Home the Prodigals by Rob Parsons

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted from reading Rob Parsons’ short book called Bringing Home the Prodigals. (I don’t get all of the answers I want when I read Scripture either.) I didn’t read the book, and immediately receive a phone call from one of my “prodigals” saying that she was returning to the faith and wanted to go to church on Sunday. I prayed the prayers printed in the book, and my prodigal son hasn’t come home—yet.

'The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667/1670' photo (c) 2010, Jorge Elías - license:, I was reminded of the truths that God has already spoken to my heart during this time of waiting on Him and trusting Him to do His work in my life and in the lives of my family members:

Ultimately, we are all prodigals, Elder Brothers and Younger Sons and a little of both, and Christ is our only hope.

We the people of God’s church, by our legalism and our unloving attitudes, have made open rebels of some who were never rebels in the first place. We have driven God’s children away from us because of the color of their hair, or the clothes they wear, or the beverages they drink, or the language they use, or the piercings or tattoos they have on their bodies.

The great problem with the church in the Western world is that half the prodigals are still in the pews—and don’t realize their lost condition. “Our churches are filled with nice, kind, loving people who have never known the despair of guilt or the breathless wonder of forgiveness.”

Seeds sown into the soil of our children’s lives go deep into the soil of their very being. Never give up.

We cannot live someone else’s life for him. Children make choices. And sometimes those choices are bad ones.

“Our children are ultimately God’s responsibility. He is their Father. He does not ask the impossible of us. Only that we love them.”

“You and I cannot bring up godly children; it is not our responsibility—it is too heavy a burden. We are called instead to live godly lives.”

“In love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.” ~Thornton Wilder.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. ~I John 1:8-9
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. ~I John 3:1-2

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, with Beth Clark

“I have absolutely no desire to write a book about myself. This is a book about a Christ who is alive today and not only knows but cares about every hair on my head. Yours too. I’m writing this book on the chance that a glimpse into the life of my family and me, full of my stupidity and God’s grace, will remind you of this living, loving Christ and what it means to serve Him. I’m writing with the hope that as you cry and laugh with my family you will be encouraged that God still uses flawed human beings to change the world. And if He can use me, He can use you.”

I was encouraged by this story of a young woman, a girl really, eighteen years old, who found herself called by God to live in Uganda and minister to the poorest of the poor and adopt orphans and be ministered to by those same poor people and orphans. Katie Davis is a normal, average American girl in many ways, but she has an unusual God to whom she said “yes!” when He called her.

I really devoured this book. Katie’s story is amazing and inspiring. I will admit to one complaint about the book (but don’t let this keep you from reading it.) I would have liked to know more about what made Katie the caring, compassionate adult that she is. I would have liked to know more about her background. She mentions that her parents are Catholic, but Katie doesn’t seem to be a practicing Catholic. She talks like an evangelical Christian. I would have liked to know more about Katie’s family and how God prepared her for her new life in Uganda. But maybe Katie didn’t feel it necessary or didn’t feel comfortable sharing those family details.

Anyway, it is an excellent and challenging book. I gave it to a friend for a graduation present. I would recommend giving Kisses from Katie to all Christian graduates, but only if we’re prepared to have God do radical, exciting things in their lives. Read it only if you’re prepared to have God do radical, exciting, difficult things in YOUR life.

Katie’s blog

The Heart of Texas, the Movie

Wow! I just checked out this documentary movie from the library the other day, and I put it in my computer and watched it tonight. I had no idea that I would be watching such a powerful story of suffering, redemption, and forgiveness. The events chronicled in the movie happened in 2000; the movie came out a couple of years ago in 2009. The tragedy/miracle happened not far from where I live, in a little town called Simonton and nearby Wallis, Texas. I hadn’t heard of the movie, nor had I heard the story of Grover and Jill Norwood and their neighbors, Ulice and Carrie Parker.

I don’t want to say much more, except that I highly recommend that you find or buy a copy of the movie and watch it. You may find yourself in tears, and then on your knees before the Lord.

The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo

I am in a quandary. I don’t want to discourage anyone form reading this memoir, a true story that carries a wonderful message about the necessity of forgiveness, even in the direst of circumstances.

However, to be honest, the book could have been edited down to about half or three-fourths of its almost 300 pages and not have lost a thing. If you’re a good skimmer, you’ll really appreciate this story of a pastor and his family terrorized and very nearly destroyed by a man who acts like the devil incarnate. In 1969, Robert Nichols moved with his family to Sellerstown, North Carolina to serve as pastor of the Free Welcome Holiness Church. As the name of the church indicated, the Nichols family was welcomed by the community, except for one man, Mr. Horry James Watts, who lived across the street from the parsonage and occupied pew number seven in the Free Welcome Church every Sunday morning. The violence and harrassment began with threatening phone calls and escalated until . . . No spoilers here.

The amazing thing about the story is the ending. Could you forgive a man who threatened to make you family leave the community where you lived “crawling or walking, dead or alive?” The sction near the end of the book on forgiveness is worth the price of the book because the author speaks from hard-earned experience.

“If I allow myself to go down the pathway of rage and retaliation, several things happen, and none of them are good. Here are my top four:
My sins will not be forgiven by God if I refuse to forgive those who have sinned against me.
I miss an opportunity to show God’s love to an unforgiving world.
I’m the one who remains in jail when I withhold God’s grace by failing to forgive.
If I have trouble forgiving, it might be because I’m actually angry at God, not at the person who wronged me.”

So, I’m recommending this book with the caveat that you’re not to expect deathless prose, just a riveting and inspiring story of nitty-gritty forgiveness and even joy in very difficult circumstances.

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Nominated for 2011 Cybil Awards, Young Adult Fiction category. Nominated by Ashley at Book Labyrinth.

This YA novel featuring small town Christian young people gets many things right. The story is absorbing. The characters are believable and interesting. The themes and issues in the book–teen pregnancy, homosexual temptation, drunk driving, etc.—are issues that young people do face; the presentation is realistic and sensitive. The author shows respect for the beliefs of conservative Christian people. I thought the parts of the book where the main character and narrator, Lacy Anne Byer, is experiencing God through her “prayer language” (charismatic speaking in tongues) were particularly well written and understanding.

However, (you knew there was a however) I am somewhat annoyed by books in which it is assumed that Christians, young and old alike, have never thought about the things that they believe, and it takes some enlightened outsider to bring them to their senses and make them realize their parochialism and blindness. In this book, Lacey’s new boyfriend is that enlightened, understanding, broad-minded outsider who makes Lacey Anne see that the Christian answers that her parents have given her are inadequate and unsatisfying. I don’t have a problem with Lacey Anne questioning the things she has been taught; I would question some of things that Lacey Anne has apparently been taught. And often it does take a new person’s perspective or a new experience to jumpstart that questioning process. Tyson, Lacey’s new friend in the book, is so perfect, however, that his answers seem obviously right and good while Lacey’s conservative Christianity comes off looking ineffectual and untrustworthy.

It doesn’t help that the adults in the book are mostly hypocritical, in a mild, unthinking way. There are no real villains in the book (other than Satan); even the bully is seen to be reacting to the abuse he receives at home from his alcoholic father. However, Lacey’s parents have difficulty dealing with her friendships with kids who are not perfect Christians from perfect families, and Lacey’s dad, a pastor, is quite over-protective. I have dealt with what I consider to be over-protective families in my church and in the homeschooling community, and Lacey’s dad is not uncommon. However, he is something of a caricature and his views on homosexuality, dating, and teen pregnancy are not very nuanced or well articulated.

I also didn’t like the way the book strongly implied that if a guy is a nerd and artistic and creative in his clothing choices, and if he hangs out mostly with girls and gets bullied, then he might be suppressing his homosexual identity. Especially, he might be smothering those tendencies if he has grown up in a small town and been taught that homosexual behavior is immoral. Talk about stereotypes. Artistic men are not naturally gay and do not necessarily, or even probably, have same sex desires. And if one does have those temptations, I would argue, like the people in Lacey’s church, that it’s not a bad thing to reject homosexual behavior for yourself. In fact, I would still maintain that the repudiation of homosex is what the Bible teaches and what is best for a man or woman who is tempted in that way.

Overall, Small Town Sinners is a good book, but it does encourage the view that there are no answers, only questions. And parents are not the ones to go to with your questions; a kid your age from out of town who has experienced so much more of Life is more likely to know the meaning thereof than your small town, uncomprehending parents. My final complaint is that there is very little or no gospel in Lacy Anne’s church or in her ideas about Christianity, only rules. Ty, who encourages Lacey Anne to question that legalism, doesn’t have much concept of what to replace it with either. Forgiveness is discussed, but staying “pure” and avoiding sins (of the flesh) are the main focus of Lacey’s brand of Christianity.

I didn’t even get into the “Hell House” aspect of the plot, which provides an interesting bit of evangelical Americana for those interested, but you can read more about that drama at Linus’s Blanket or at Presenting Lenore. Take it with a grain of salt, and some questions of your own, but Small Town Sinners provides a good story and some challenging ideas for evangelical Christian teens and non-religious ones alike.