Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 2016 Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I truly enjoyed participating in the 2016 Reading Challenge from My achievement level in number of book categories completed was certainly mediocre, but each book that I read for the list was enriching. I realized my personal bias toward certain genres when confronted with "A book about a current issue" ("Oh, please no!" I often read to escape) or "A book published in 2016" (I prefer books published nearer to 1916 and rarely buy new books) - and I never did get around to reading a book in either of those categories.

As a non-competitive free spirit, I indulged in books that just wouldn't fit into a category on the challenge list - "A book for children" was checked early in the year, but many subsequent evenings found me curled up with another nice little piece of juvenile fiction that didn't fit any of the other check boxes. Looking back, I realize that I didn't allow the reading challenge to stretch and mature me to the extent that I could have, and if I do something like this again, I will try harder to branch out of my comfort zone of Spurgeon and Dickens and try "A graphic novel" or "A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers". But very few categories were skipped out of indifference. Most of the list was not completed for lack of time. I look wistfully still at "A book by Francis Schaeffer" and "A book with at least 400 pages" never completed. Maybe I will keep the list going until it is all three years perhaps.

Here, though, are twenty-seven books that I did complete, and my brief reflections on them.

~ A book about Christian living - Future Grace by John Piper
I completed this book early in the year as I neared the end of pregnancy with our second child. The winter was cold, we had recently moved, I was often unwell, and the pregnancy went long overdue. Future Grace encouraged me immensely many afternoons spent on the couch while our son napped. It was just what I needed to help me carry on - whatever happens, your covenant-keeping God will be there for you. Thank God for books like this.

~ A biography - John Bunyan - Tinker of Bedford by William Deal
Written for middle-schoolers and published by a homeschool curriculum company, this was not a typical grown-up biography, but it made John Bunyan's life more real to me and filled my heart with wonder at the grace of God to this man so humble and weak, yet so greatly used for good.

~ A classic novel - Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
This category was not hard to complete, but it was hard to choose! My husband came to my assistance as I stood staring at the bookcase - "Read Robinson Crusoe - you can't get more classic than that!" I was glad I read it - I hadn't realized what a strong Christian message it contained. Crusoe's journey to faith in the God who ruled over even the worst tragedies of his life resounded with true Christian experience. It was encouraging! Besides that, just about anyone enjoys the classic adventure tale of survival by resourcefulness and perseverance in dire circumstances.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Wonder of Christmas Love

Nearly every Advent season, I find, with almost incredulous surprise, that there is another layer of wonder, another beam of glory to see in the familiar story of the incarnation. Sometimes there are several lessons of love and beauty to learn in one season. Isn't that why we take more than a day to celebrate?

There was the glimpse I had of Christ's mighty condescension when I lay on the couch, shaking with fever and chills from one of those friendly seasonal flus, feeling as miserable as all get out, and I looked over at the nativity scene on the shelf, nestled under the big, glad banner of "Joy to the world, the Lord has come!" All I could think in my illness was "Why did you come, Jesus?...It is just so bad down here. But you came..." Dirt. Disease. Discomfort. Death. Why did you do it, Jesus? How could you ever bring yourself to come? The answer was a glimpse of love far larger than I have ever felt in my own heart. So in the midst of the misery I saw the depth of his love and adored.

Adoration of the Magi
Then there is the story of the three wise men from the east. The line on a Christmas card - "We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him" has been turning over and over in my mind. Why did they do it? Was there a command, an injunction? Mary and Joseph would never have gone to Bethlehem if Caesar had not issued a decree. They were obligated, so they went, and through it prophecy was fulfilled. But these wise men - they are becoming a wonder to me. They heard news, an almost magical announcement of the birth of a King, and for them, the only reasonable option was to pack their bags and go, onward and onward until they could find and worship Him. It was as if to worship the King sent from Heaven was the consummation of all their life's work and all their heart's desire. We take for granted the story that they went. But they went. Not the twenty minute drive to church, but the twenty month march over the desert. They knew, like we forget, that to worship the Divinity is the highest joy and privilege of human existence.

This season, the lessons I have been learning perhaps reflect my weariness as a mother of little ones, longing for peace and quiet, and for those moments when I needn't be bothered. These are riches to me these days, and so I was able to see in the Christmas story, the sacrifice of these things as beautiful. Love is a willingness to be bothered, perhaps infinitely bothered. Jesus loved us, and so He bothered to come and lay down all comfortable things for us. The wise men loved Jesus, and so they bothered to leave home to behold Him and adore. This love makes Christmas beautiful. This love thrills my heart and calls me to run onward in the path of love with Jesus, who has come to us, to never, ever leave.

Let Thy love, my soul’s chief treasure,
Love’s pure flame within me raise;
And, since words can never measure,
Let my life show forth Thy praise.
~ Francis Scott Key

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What To Do, What To Do?

If news media reports, television announcements, and social media trending topics could be weighed in a balance, I wonder what the daily tonnage would be? Surely it would be a weight too burdensome to be borne. Even the fraction of the stuff that the average American tends to gather for their sack of daily worries is too heavy for my taste, so I try to accumulate as small a load as possible. But I still end up on many days with a chunk of discouraging information about the state of things...and oh, what to do with it? Especially for mothers, every bit of baddish news adds a weight of care to our concern for our children. What do I do as a mother with another piece of news that reminds me what a dangerous, broken world I will have to send my child to face? I don't have to list the variety of depressing issues available for us to consider - anyone reading this probably knows them all too well. 

But to make the illustration concrete, here is a piece of something I happened to pick up yesterday from a Washington Post article on Trump attacking someone on Twitter - "Her phone began ringing with callers leaving threatening messages that were often sexual in nature." One thinks, Ah, poor lady! but a mother thinks, How awful that our nation is increasingly full of predators, and I have this sweet baby girl - oh God, help! Mamas know this thought sequence really well. But I paused in my sorrowful prayer and thought What DO I do? What do I want for my children? This world is just going to be nasty until Jesus comes back, and I can't always protect my children. What do I seek for them? What can I give them? and the words came to my mind - "Holding fast to the word of life (Php. 2:16)." Yes. Yes! This is what I want for them. This is what I will labor to give them and pray to see made real in them - the truth about God, the gospel of Jesus, the whole counsel of Scripture, the grand, sweet promises, the unshakable hope, the words that bring life to the soul, that sustain the believer through every trial and carry them onward to Heaven, that nothing on earth can take away from them. Truly, if the bad things on the news happened to my children - and yet, they held fast to the word of life - it would be enough.

Yes, the worst could happen - that a child does not hold to the word of life. But the battle cry of every mother's heart should be, Not if I can help it! Or for the more vigorous among us, Over my dead body! This is done, not simply by force-feeding the tots a pile of memory verses -though that doesn't much hurt! - but pressing into the solid comfort of the Word of God myself. I can't give what I don't have. But when it comes to what to do with 'the stuff out there', I can use those heavy lumps of bad news, and plunk them down on the lever of my determination to hold fast to the word of life before my children - to know and cherish the word of God for myself, and so doing to set it more faithfully before them. To use another metaphor - the colder the thermometer drops outside, the more wood you throw on the fire. Let me be found strengthening my soul with the Word of God, and when my children need strength, it will be the first thing I give them.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
(Philippians 2:13-16 ESV)

Art ~ Munkácsy, Mihály, Woman Carrying Faggot, 1873

Consider the other side of the battle on The Impossible Goal.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Wonder of Ancient Things

Notes from my recent read-through of Geoffrey Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain: 

Ancient - truly ancient - history, has the potential of providing its students with a profound sense of smallness upon the stage of the universe as well as wonderfully tingly feelings of discovery - "Oh, I never knew that!" Knowledge is a great treasure. Knowledge of things far, far past has a unique value, because it is, as it were, dug from a very deep mine, and one feels privileged to glimpse such heavily unearthed treasure in the light of the reading chair lamp. Also, the more ancient the people and events, the more one feels in learning of them that here we are getting to the root of things and the beginning of the matter, and so everything begins to make more sense. Those are some of the impressions I received from reading Monmouth.

Some lessons:

First, the historical timeline - here I was blown away (all those tingly feelings): The poet Homer was an approximate contemporary to the prophet Samuel. And good old King Lear of Shakespearean fame, was a real king (so says Monmouth, and I rather believe him) - contemporary with the prophet Isaiah! As a newcomer to the study of really old history, I never realized that any history of our western tradition went so very far back into the days of the Old Testament. This did not make the Bible any more believable to me than it already is, but it made it feel closer, like the constant breeze of the sea suddenly blowing through a crack in the wall and giving you goosebumps.