"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 December 2005

Birthday Time

The Young Man turned 15 yesterday. Hard to believe he's been around that long, except when it seems he's been around forever. He's been practically an only child for half his life; sometimes I find it hard to remember he's really an uncle to all the itsy bitsies rather than, say, a cousin. They adore him. He loves the attention, even when it's a bit harassing at times. (He will probably deny this when he reads it.)

His nearest sibling is nine and a half years his elder (and has three children). I call him my tag-along, and I've never once rued his arrival. I recall the awe on the faces of the other four as they gathered in the hospital room the evening of his birth and vied for the opportunity to hold him. Once home they would gather around him and urge him to talk; he seemed to be trying his absolute best to shape his mouth in imitation to answer. (He talked early and had the language skills of above an eight-year-old before he was two. I have always assumed that was because of six people talking to him all day long every day.)

I think of the nights of colic, when we'd take turns walking him about the living room, the second son seeming the most patient as he sang "Jesus Loves Me" over and over and over while trying every possible baby hold to help him feel more comfortable. I think of his sisters' automatic mothering skills as they loved him and cared for him while I was gone during the day at work. I think of him in his too-small tux (thanks to the rental company ignoring our size requests) beside his oldest brother at his wedding, so little and cute but standing tall and proud. So many memories . . .

And now I have to look up a bit to look in his eyes, and I think I can see him growing yet taller as he stands at the sink washing the dishes each night. At times he drives me crazy, then he says, "Need a hug?" and I remember all the ways he enriches my life, all the ways he serves me and tries to please me, all the ways he is growing up . . . and how grateful I am, always, for this precious gift.

Happy birthday, son. You're a wondrous gift from God, and I have never doubted that for a moment. I love you.

14 December 2005

Blessed Christmas to All

My mother was born on Christmas Day. Her father, when I was a freshman in college, died on Christmas Day. We had always opened gifts on Christmas morning, but for some reason I can't recall we opened them on Christmas Eve that year. Granddad died at 3:00 a.m. We have opened gifts on Christmas Eve, after the candlelight service, ever since. Since that time, Christmas has always held a kind of dissonance for me: celebrating my mother's birth, remembering my granddad's death.

But isn't this part of the season's glory? Not just that the Baby was born, but that He died? Had He been born and not died, we would still be dead in our sins. And His death and resurrection remind me that the death that claims ever more people I love has been long conquered. Death's victory is hollow and temporal; the Son's is filled with glory and eternal.

John Donne said it long ago:

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

It is a wonder indeed that He came -- yet an even greater wonder that His mission in coming was to die.

As I travel to visit my parents and other family (taking perhaps a hiatus from the web), I pray for you who read a blessed Christmas, that as you celebrate with family and friends you will remember why the Baby was born and allow the wonder of His death -- for you -- to wash over all that you do.

09 December 2005

Grace for the Moment

I led a discussion group of a few gals this semester as part of one of the Bible classes here at the college, and we spent the last few weeks looking at what the Bible says about womanhood. In our last meeting, we looked through Proverbs 31 -- at the woman who always so intimidates me.

Usually I just feel remarkably lazy after reading the chapter. This time, however, something different struck me. Verse 25 says "she laughs at the time to come" -- the future holds no fear for her.

I am always finding ways to fear the future. One of my "projects" last summer was trying to live day by day. Oh, of course I did things for the future, but I tried not to live in the future. It's not the planning that's the problem; it's the trying to find strength for it when it isn't here yet.

Somewhere recently a woman posted this remark in a discussion on Down's syndrome and abortion: "I would certainly abort if I found out I had a Down's baby; I know what I can and can't handle, and I couldn't possibly handle that."

Leaving aside its sheer self-centeredness, the comment says volumes about her faith in God. And someone responded wisely, "You don't have any idea what you can or can't handle. God gives grace for every situation."

My own faith is generally as weak as that woman's. "I can't possibly do that," I so often say. And yet when "that" comes around, I do it. When we discovered that we would have to take overloads next semester, I kept thinking I can't possibly teach five classes, I'm exhausted already with only four. So I've spent a lot of this semester reminding myself of that wise response: "You have no idea what you can and can't handle." And I am claiming God's confidence that I will be able to do what He has given me to do.

God doesn't give grace for trials we aren't experiencing. Christ admonishes us, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Mt. 6:34 ESV).

And Paul prays for us "that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . ." (Eph. 3:16-17 ESV).

May I let Him continuously dwell in my heart so that I can always "laugh at the time to come," confident in His grace and mercy. I have had a taste of it; may I desire the peaceful fruit of faith every moment of every day.

05 December 2005

Risks and Raising Children

Thinking on our own disobediences and observing the world around us can indeed cause some hesitation or fearfulness when we consider bringing children into the world.

Even if parents are as perfect as human parents can be, and a child is generally obedient and never strays very far, there will be tough times and hurt enough. For parents will make mistakes, will sin, will fail in all kinds of ways, no matter how hard they try to do the right thing, and children must be trained and discipled and redeemed and finally choose for themselves to walk in the path of righteousness, for they are born bent away from God. And in the process, they too will err and sin and fail. This is simple reality.

Yet, God – who knows it is a fallen world and each of us is born into it bent towards evil instead of good – says “children are a gift from the Lord.”

And in the face of His gifts, ought we to say “I am afraid” because the riches are accompanied by risks? What in this world is not? God took the greatest risk when He created man with a free will, to love Him or reject Him. Every day He sees the horrors of a fallen creation, and chooses every moment to keep loving us and yearning for us.

When we look at what God has endured for His creation, the death of and separation from the Son, the constant sin of His creatures against Him and each other, then surely we are driven to think “the reward must be worth the risk.”

And it is. The babe in arms, the toddler learning to weave his way across a room, the wide eyes of delight in the newness and beauty and richness of this created world, the tiny hand on a cheek and the sweet words, “I love you,” the laughter around the dinner table and the serious conversations about life and love and eternity, someday perhaps the grandchildren’s hugs and precious love . . . It is all worth the risk; it is all worth the inevitable pain.


Obedience and trust always carry reward. Will risks be realized? Often, of course. And yet, and yet . . . greater risks attend fearfulness and refusal, do they not? We can only grow as we trust the One who calls us to live for Him, and we can only trust if we place ourselves at His mercy and set our feet into the water of the river, to see it parted for us in His good timing.

01 December 2005

The Gift of Children

Our older daughter is expecting her third child, our twelfth grandchild. The mystery of new life never ceases to awe; each child is unique and blessed; the reaction is always the same -- how wonderful!

Yesterday a dear young woman I haven't seen or heard from in several months stopped by. I hugged her and as she stepped back I saw the tell-tale bulge and hugged her again.

Every child is unique and blessed -- but some are longer awaited and add a special blessing of faith and hope. A and her husband, after finding that she has medical problems that might have kept her from ever having children, waited and hoped for years, coming before the Lord both with the strong desire for a child and the trust to accept His decision. When I first met A, her quiet faith in the face of a possibility that tore at her heart encouraged me many times.

Because a child seemed not be in the plan, they decided to move to New Orleans so he could go to seminary. Easy, for just the two of them -- she could keep teaching, they could live on peanuts for a few years. Then, just before moving, they discovered a child was, after all, part of the plan. And then Katrina destroyed the seminary plans. And now they are back here, living with relatives while waiting for a house, he working contentedly at his old job, she savoring the months of preparation she thought would never be hers to savor.

She knows something of what Elizabeth must have felt when she found she would bear a son at long last, after hope had died. What wonder and amazement. What deep joy. What awe as a baby kicks and somersaults in a womb believed to be unable to carry him. What a special blessing in the lives of his family, a blessing of gratefulness and wonder given to those who wait with faithful hearts.

Children are a gift from the Lord, indeed.

21 November 2005

Getting Out of the Way

Chambers has been preaching on relationship to Christ lately, and I have been convicted and confused and wondering and elated and grateful . . . I know so little about this journey, and I fear so often that I am arrogant in my talking and thinking about it while sitting by the roadside going nowhere . . . The easy thing is to have something to do and do it. The hard thing is to just do it without angst or arrogance, without looking at the doing and praising or berating ourselves for how we fare, with our eyes on Jesus instead of self.

A number of quotes from Chambers from the last few days:

We have to battle through our moods into absolute devotion to the Lord Jesus, to get out of the hole-and-corner business of our experience into abandoned devotion to Him.

Beware of making a fetish of consistency to your convictions instead of being devoted to God. The one consistency of a saint is not to a principle, but to the Divine life.

He talks about interfering in the lives of others, trying to stop God's will in their walk by getting in the way with all our supposed wisdom, with our felt need to make things right. Then he says that if we are to advise someone else,

God will advise through you with the direct understanding of the Holy Spirit; your part is to be so rightly related to God that His discernment comes through you all the time for the blessing of another soul.

The mature stage is the life of a child which is never conscious; we become so abandoned to God that the consciousness of being used never enters in. . . . all consciousness of ourselves and of what God is doing through us is eliminated. A saint is never consciously a saint; a saint is consciously dependent on God.

We are to live for Him in the daily life where no one notices, and that is our truest witness:

The aim is to manifest the glory of God in human life, to live the life hid with Christ in God in human conditions. . . . We are so abominably serious, so desperately interested in our own characters, that we refuse to behave like Christians in the shallow concerns of life.

To know Him. That is the goal of the quest, a goal which can be attained right now in the journey and yet which will never be attained in this life.

I do not presume to pretend that I have ever lost myself in devotion to Him; I know myself too well. But there have been occasions when He has shown me how He moves without my awareness, my reaching to be a faithful witness, my anxious working to show Him and everyone else that I'm really spiritual despite appearances. Now and again, someone has come to me and remarked on some way in which my words or actions have encouraged him, and I have been astounded. It was no work of mine, no thought-provoked attempt. But because He is in me, He graciously moved through me to touch someone's life. And He gets all the glory.

I think these have been tiny pictures of what life could be like if I learned to love Him and simply immerse my life in Him. Why is something so simple so difficult to do? Lord, that I could just forget all else and see You, only You.

14 November 2005

November Roses

The fall colors have been nice this year, but not spectacular, with the exception of a few particular trees and bushes. It's been inordinately warm, perhaps more dry than usual; maybe that's the cause. At any rate, while my attention has been caught by an occasional burning bush or bright maple, for the most part it's been an understated autumn. I've missed the color.

Saturday morning I decided I desperately needed to take a walk -- too much sitting while grading, writing, lazing in the exhaustion at the end of a week. My guys were gone somewhere, and I'd gotten a good night's sleep, and I felt almost human again.

So on with the tennis shoes, a jacket because it is, after all, November, even if a warm one, and out the front door.

And there, as I started down the steps -- three deep coral-red roses leapt into sight, taking my breath with their unexpected beauty. One full-opened, at the height of its majesty; one just beginning to show its petals; one a tightly closed bud promising loveliness to come.

Roses in November. What a spectacular gift amidst the otherwise subdued days of a too-busy season.

11 November 2005

Veterans Day

Thank you to both my grandfathers and to my father-in-law. Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, my big brother and my husband. And thank you to my sons-in-law and to my beloved oldest son.

Without you, there would be no peace, no place to write and teach and love and read and worship in freedom unknown anywhere else.

You are my heroes.

May all I do with this freedom you have won and kept for me be worthy of the sacrifices you have made.

I love you. God bless you.

03 November 2005

Aiming for the Chopping Block

I sent a review/essay off today to a journal I've wanted to publish in for a very long time. I'd sent an earlier draft and received good advice, so it will be good to find out how close I've "got" it now.

When I write, I feel fully alive. The first phase is hardest -- getting down on paper what it is I want to say. The striving for clarity, for coherence, for internal logic, for something truly worthy of my time and the time of others . . . Once that is roughly accomplished, my favorite part begins -- making it say that idea how I want it said. Striving now for conciseness without loss of meaning, the telling detail, the most effective syntax, precise diction, making it exactly right -- or as close as a mere human can ever come.

When I write, I learn. Not just about the subject matter, but about myself. How I think, how I work, how I relate to ideas but also how I relate to people. I am reminded of the value of patience and revision, the need to be quiet and listen, to let the work be the focus instead of myself. All of these I need continual lessons in as I try to be a wife, a mother, a colleague, a friend, a teacher.

from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life:

"Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

"The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time's scrawl as a right and your daring as a necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with your life's strength: that page will teach you to write.

"There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block."

Writing brings me fully alive, because it connects me as nothing else but childbirth ever has with reality.

24 October 2005

Beauty in the Darkness

Driving to campus this morning, I was not in the best of moods. Spent all day yesterday grading midterm portfolios (they are pretty good, but an entire day of them is still wearing), then spent the night tossing and turning and watching the clock. Then leaving in the deep dark with a cold wind and no moon in sight and people driving towards me with their brights on . . . all those little things that it's so easy to allow to annoy.

And then I drove up the hill towards campus, and just before I reached the chapel, two deer leaped out of the trees, across the road, through the Grassy Bowl and away.

Such grace. Such beauty. Such a reminder of the little things God provides in His kindness. May I think today of grace and beauty instead of nagging little annoyances. May I keep my heart set on Him.

23 October 2005

Trusting in the Dark

Many years ago, a friend drove me home one night to change clothes between some more and less formal activities our group of buddies was enjoying. It was a several mile drive, and my friend one who had made some important decisions, and someone I could talk to honestly.

I told him my fears, the only person who had heard them. I described my place at that time as standing with darkness before me and nothing of value behind me. My friends mostly seemed to be going down the same old path, a path I had finally realized led nowhere (or perhaps worse). I didn't want to continue on that path. And yet . . . I could at least see something on it -- not least people I'd known and been at ease with for many years -- and in front of me: utter blackness, the kind in the caves in Missouri where Tom and Becky got lost, darkness you can actually see because you can't see through it to anything else.

And I was terrified that one more step would take me over a cliff into a bottomless canyon . . .

Well, with the help of loving words from my friend and others, I stepped into the darkness, and the path indeed took me over a cliff, and I died, and though I try to resuscitate myself pretty regularly, He helps me to stay dead as much as I'll let Him. It was worth it.

Years later, I made another significant change, and someone called me "courageous." I wasn't. That change was from one familiarity to another (how different can teaching be, wherever you do it?), and since the life was being choked out of me where I was, the change couldn't very well be for the worse even if it turned out not to be for the better. And today, a couple of similar changes later, it is certainly better.

But I find myself facing that darkness again. There is a change in the wind, a subtle internal voice pushing towards something new, but this time,
again, something I cannot see at all. The familiar calls to me, siren-like -- here is comfort, here is security, here are material needs met, here you know who you are and you are recognized and respected. It is not, however, like that path years and years ago which held no good; it is a good in itself, and that makes it all the harder.

But that other call . . . I've heard it before. It terrified me then, and following it was the best choice I've ever made. But still I'm terrified. I want to see if there's another cliff there. I want to see the path and where it will lead.

I wonder sometimes if I will ever truly trust. Trust is a scary thing. And because I'm always wanting life to go my way, answers to be those I want, I am often blinded to the blessings He holds out until I look back much later and realize . . . oh, that's what He was doing.

I have been reading Chambers again lately, and what keeps leaping out at me from the pages of his meditations is our need to know God. He is continually rebuking us for our propensity to work for God, to gain His approval by our good works. But what He wants, Chambers keeps reminding us, is for us to know Him and in that way become like Him.

Have no other motive than to know your Father in heaven, Chambers writes; God does not hear us because we are in earnest, but only on the ground of redemption.

Father, may I long to know You, and thus trust You, and banish the fear of not knowing where You are leading me -- because my Father will never lead me wrongly or to my ultimate hurt. May I learn to let You be my vision indeed, taking each step you open before me with a childlike trust in Your lovingkindness toward me.

17 October 2005

Phoebe

As I drove round the bend this morning, the moon dazzled my eyes to near blindness. No soft glow or haze of clouds to mute her, she could have muted the loud glare of bright headlights had any challenged her. She did not peek from behind the trees, as so often happens; rather, her insistent brilliance demanded notice and required obedience.

Phoebe, so changeful, from seeming absence to full presence, from romantic hazy glow to icy clear radiance. I am reminded of Dickinson's poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

There is time for this circuitous telling, certainly, for partial or hazy revelation, but there is time too for bright Truth straight on. May God grant the wisdom to know which phase any given moment may require.

10 October 2005

En-Visioning Again

It's fall break here. This morning, K and the YM went to run errands. I fixed something to eat, stared at the book I am reviewing, read a bit in Lilith again, then pulled our hymnal off the shelf. It's been so long since I've just sung hymns, and the rare times we do so in our church it's to a new tune or with added choruses, and never all the verses, as though the writer's thought can be known and edify us in snippets or by cut and paste. So I just sang, hymn after hymn, and found myself for the first time in a very long time feeling something in worship. It was good, very good.

This particular hymn has always been a favorite, and it spoke to me strongly today, so I thought I'd share.

"Be Thou My Vision"

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art --
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word:
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord,
Thou my great Father and I Thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,
Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

"Without a vision, the people perish." May the vision be His, indeed Him, and may I learn to pursue with a whole heart. Vision and wisdom, Lord; grant me vision and wisdom.

04 October 2005

Dancing

I have always loved the image of the dance for marriage. Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity has a section in the front called "Quodlibet" (it means "whatever"), snippets of ideas the editors have been mulling over. David Mills writes about marriage this time, and I love these two paragraphs:


"It's as if the couple have spent so long learning to dance that now they move so fast and so smoothly that you just see one thing (one flesh) moving. The husband has always led, and he's still leading, but he's better at it: He's leading his wife where she can and (mostly) wants to go, and she's following because she wants to.

"She trusts him and thinks that following him makes the dance better, and even when it doesn't (because he's not perfect), they keep dancing in a way that covers the mistake. If she hesitates or resists, he changes the dance, most of the time (because he's not perfect), because he knows she sees something he doesn't."

It's All About You

Cindy posted this over at Quotidian Light, and since I took the bait, I have to put it here. :)

Leave your name and...

1. I'll respond with something random about you.

2. I'll tell you what song/movie reminds me of you.

3. I'll pick a flavor of jello to wrestle with you in.

4. I'll try to say something that only makes sense to you and me.

5. I'll tell you my first/clearest memory of you.

6. I'll tell you what animal you remind me of.

7. I'll ask you something that I've always wondered about you.

8. If I do this for you, you must post this on your journal. You MUST.

27 September 2005

Lincoln Essay

Note to my readers: Joshua Shenk paid Inscapes a visit and tells us that his book on Lincoln, Lincoln's Melancholy (from which the Atlantic Monthly article discussed below was abstracted), is now available. Here's a link to his website that tells a bit about the book, and here's where he says one can find the currently lowest price.

26 September 2005

Longing for a Focus

{Note: The boy now has 4” on me; his voice on the phone is now mistaken for his dad’s instead of mine; and he has chosen the road to maturity instead of juvenile self-centeredness. So he no longer seems to be “the boy.” “Guy” is unacceptable because it denotes a physiological young man who determines to remain emotionally a boy. So while he may have a ways to go to fully arrive at it, he shall now be known as “the YM” – the young man.}

Quote from “Twenty Years After” – Betty Friedan’s preface to the 20th anniversary edition of her book The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963:

“Women [. . .] who combine work, marriage, and motherhood [. . .] have more control over their lives” than women who are “just housewives.”

In the margin of my copy appears the comment “surely this is a sick joke!”

I will grant you I did not choose to combine work, marriage, and motherhood, which undoubtedly affects my response to this assertion. However, I have not spent the past 20+ years in continual resentment over it, and I have tried my best to make the best of it, to make it “work.”

It doesn’t.

The assertion is false, and while some women may be completely happy to live this way, I refuse to believe they have more control over their lives than the woman who chooses one or the other.

Of course, Friedan frequently refers to the housekeepers and nannies and various other servants that the career women she knows all seem to hire . . . but even with a husband at home who takes care of most of the housework “drudgery” (laundry, cleaning, etc.), I do not have any sort of “control” over my life. (I can’t imagine how women manage who have to do all that after a day’s work outside the home – which is likely a lot more women than Friedan admits.)

This past summer, one of my goals was to let go – not be consumed by anxiety over the to-do list but try to live in His time and in His peace. I found at least a taste, and it was good.

I got far more done than I ever have, I think. Research on family concerns; the YM’s high school curriculum determined, books ordered, and first semester of daily assignments laid out; a good deal of reading both fun and purposeful; an essay drafted (whose death was of value – at least I know now what was wrong with the concept); a trip to visit parents; syllabi completed before classes began (a first!); and more. I even cooked a few real meals and made cookies with the YM.

I never felt rushed. I got up when I felt rested (and napped if I needed to – though after the first couple of weeks I rarely did), went to bed when I was ready, responded to my husband and the YM without constant annoyance at being interrupted – because there was nothing I was being interrupted from. I was living for others and not just for me and my timetable, created by the fact of my professional position and its ownership of my time and mind, by virtue of that monthly paycheck and all its attendant expectations.

Now I am trying to continue in that place. I am seeing some victories in leaving behind the constant anxiety that usually attends the semester, even as my days fill with more and more “things to be done.” It is better than usual, emotionally, much of the time. (Lord, help me find it this week!)

But control? More control over my life than I had all summer? I collapse into bed when I can no longer keep my burning eyes open, to be jerked awake a couple of hours earlier than my body clock accepts, so I can shower and dress and rush away from my family with quick hugs, only to spend my day immersed in what others require of me. No matter how much I enjoy teaching – and I do – I have no meaningful control over my time or my actions for those ten hours.

And when I come home, I have papers to grade and classes to prep, and when I choose to spend the evening with K and the YM, I must stay up and do the rest late at night – I am being paid for it to be done – only to drag myself up with the alarm and do it all again the next day. And when the weekend comes, all I want is to catch up on sleep, and yet there are the never-ending papers, the constant class prep, and my annoyance at interruptions from the ones I should be serving with delight.

Perhaps some women thrive so much on professional work that they are not exhausted by this routine. Perhaps the rewards of pay and prestige are so welcome to them that lack of time to restfully enjoy husband and children does not disturb them. Perhaps their children don’t need the emotional and time investment that mine seem to.

But even if they enjoy such a life, they do not have more control over their lives than I had this summer. And I do not understand why anyone would choose a frenetic pace determined by others over the freedom of “just a housewife.” For me, no amount of money, no amount of professional acclaim could ever be worth this constant exhaustion, this constant pull in too many directions, this lack of control over my life.

(And yes, I remember what it was like with young children, and I know that women at home are not autonomous and cannot do what they please; but they can be focused on serving family and not trying to serve both family and the mammon of professional expectations. It is a place of service and not a place of “personal fulfillment” which cannot be found when sought after. [One must lose one's life to find it.] And there is much freedom in not being pulled in so many different directions, but having one's life directed by one primary purpose, so that all choices are made within that one context. [Yes, I am teaching the controlling idea in my classes! One's life needs a CI, too.])

I would do anything acceptable to the God who gave His Son, acceptable to that Son who died for me, to be in that place again.

16 September 2005

Discipline and Peace

Our new Sunday School class is on the spiritual disciplines. Great teacher. Great, and for me very needed, subject. But I already find myself in avoidance, making excuses.

I am not disciplined in these areas. Partly it’s just human laziness, of course. There’s an element of having had folk in my life who made me feel like an evil person because I hadn't cloned their habits. Some of it’s irrational fear of drawing too close to Him – maybe He is waiting for me so He can shoot me down, chew me out, tell me how really a worm I am.

All of it’s just excuses. And part of me wants to embrace this class and maybe find ways to void those excuses. And part of me is afraid to find more rules and instructions and methods of organization that I can’t possibly follow, so that I will feel once again a miserable failure.

Thinking on all this last night, I was struck with the realization that it’s not just “discipline” – making myself do certain things at certain times in certain ways and amounts. But it’s desire – desire not for the disciplines but for the One the disciplines help us to know. All the prayer and Bible reading and fellowship and sermon-listening in the world mean nothing if done for their own sakes. (And I know they can be so done.)

And there is the heart of my reluctance and failure in the disciplines. For all my reliance on relationship, I do not rely on relationship with Him. Oh, I rely on Him. But I do not rely on relationship with Him. I do not love Him and long for Him as I do for my earthly father. And I want to, and I am afraid to, and I am so lazy . . .

And here’s another Scott Cairns poem that somehow speaks to this frustration and failure in me and comforts me. The title is, I understand, a Greek word for “peace.”

Hesychia
Stillness occurs with the shedding of thoughts.

– St. John Klimakos

Of course the mind is more often a roar,
within whose din one is hard pressed to hear
so much as a single word clearly. Prayer?

Not likely. Unless you concede the blur
of confused, compelled, competing desire
the mind brings forth in the posture of prayer.

So, I found myself typically torn,
if lately delivered, brow to the floor,
pressing as far as I could into prayer,

pressing beneath or beyond the roar
that had so long served only to wear
away all good intentions, baffling prayer.

Polished hardwood proves its own kind of mirror,
revealing little, but bringing one near
the margin where one hopes to find prayer –

though even one’s weeping is mostly obscured
by the very fact and effect of one’s tears,

which, for the time being, must serve.

12 September 2005

Under Conviction, Again

I just got a boxload of books (the day 42 freshman essays came in, too . . . how unfair is that!). I can only afford the time to glance through one in the next few days, so I chose poet Scott Cairns' Philokalia. The first poem I chanced across took my breath.

"Possible Answers to Prayer"

Your petitions -- though they continue to bear
just the one signature -- have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties -- despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value -- nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentence -- all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment -- is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you --

these must burn away before you'll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.


All I can say: Lord, help me.

09 September 2005

“Thoughts of Death”

Shenk writes about Lincoln’s determination to live for the “sacred purpose” to which he was called, but his melancholy never left him; he continued to have “thoughts of death.” It is unclear to me from the article if he continued to actively contemplate suicide. But that phrase has intrigued me the past few days – “thoughts of death.”

From the time I was in early high school until some point during graduate school (after marriage and the arrival of four children), I all too frequently contemplated suicide. Not just the idea, but the ways and means.

But at some point during graduate school, the conviction to live came to me. It was no dramatic moment; perhaps simply every decision not to die strengthened an implicit decision to live. However it happened, the possibility of suicide ended.

But not “thoughts of death.” Sometimes the first realization that I am sinking into that morass of depression – I love the old-fashioned term melancholy; it is much more descriptive – has been the thought, as I lie in bed frantically tired, I just wish I would die.

It is a strong thought, frighteningly so. I used to fight it. But fighting it seemed only to increase its power. Now I just repeat it a few times, like a mantra, and then force my mind elsewhere – mentally work on a story or essay I’m writing, carry on that conversation I’ll never have with someone, plan my classes for the next day. Often a frantic go-around with its own craziness, to be sure. But the thought of death eventually goes away.

Most things go away, eventually. Fifty-three years (close enough) have taught me that this too shall pass is true. Oh, I know that circumstances won’t always pass. But the way we feel about them will. Today they are overwhelming. Tomorrow they will be gone. Or we just won’t care. Or we’ll wonder why we cared. Maybe they’ll even appear funny. (I said maybe!)

For the melancholy, however, it’s not the circumstances that are the driving force. Shenk writes, “in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.” Indeed. There is no chicken-and-egg question here, nor is there any need for something to be awry for the melancholy to wish for death.

It will come, too. But I am content to let it come in God’s time, and try to remember the star which Sam saw above the reeks of Mordor. The shadow is merely for a time; truth and beauty are forever. I need only cling to them, not create them nor even, at any given moment, see them.

03 September 2005

“Lincoln’s Great Depression”

One of our modern traits is the desire for immediate and complete alleviation of all suffering. I am not opposed, as a general principle, to the alleviation of suffering. But one must remember that this is a fallen world, and suffering is the refining of the One who created us. Maybe we seek too quickly sometimes for health and ease.

The article "Lincoln's Great Depression," by Joshua Wolf Shenk (not available online), appears in the October 2005 issue of The Atlantic. I cannot too strongly urge those of you who have struggled with depression to find the issue and read it.

Based on primary source research, Shenk draws a compelling picture of the deep, even suicidal, depression that dogged Lincoln all his adult life. He divides Lincoln’s struggle into three phases – initial fear, during which he most strongly contemplated suicide, sometimes making friends so concerned as to remove from his reach all razors, knives, and such implements. The second phase he calls engagement – when Lincoln, having determined that he would live, sought and began to live for a considered purpose: “He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and ‘so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.’” (This was not hubris – Lincoln was surely one of the most humble men in our political history – but a sense of purpose.)

Once he seems to have engaged his depression – primarily by accepting it and coping with it through work, story- and joke-telling, and reading and writing poetry – he then transcended (not escaped) its grip on his life through embracing and using its benefits to the good of the country he was elected to lead. Of these benefits, Shenk discusses at length clarity, creativity, and humility: Lincoln could see issues more clearly than those less inclined to a pessimistic view of them, he created his best speeches and made his best decisions when he was most melancholy, and he recognized that he was a man under authority (the people’s, God’s) simply doing his job to the best of his ability.

All this is fascinating reading. One thing that most interested me was the way Shenk describes depression and, most unmodern-like, questions the wisdom of always trying to get rid of the suffering it causes its victims, or assuming that the victim of depression is so “sick” that he is de facto unable to function in any positive way. His final lines read:

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation [once he was sick but he got over it and achieved great things] but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

Some of the ways Shenk describes depression:

“True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden – but also, in Lord Byron’s phrase, with a ‘fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.”

“Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. [. . .] Lincoln [. . .] once wrote of ‘that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.’” Of the result of this, one stanza of a Lincoln poem reads “To ease me of this power to think, / That through my bosom waves, / I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink / And wallow in the waves.”

“[H]appiness,” Shenk writes, “is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies.” He quotes a researcher: “[W]hen they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are often less biased.”

(This quality, Shenk believes, gave Lincoln his ability to see the horror of slavery, but also the wisdom of the founders in not trying to abolish it at once but put into play the restrictions that would allow it to die out naturally. Each view, of course, made him most unpopular with large numbers of people, but he did not shrink from the truth he was convinced he had seen. He gained this particular insight directly from his own depression: “continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing it could never be perfectly attained.”)

“With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength – these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln’s self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence.”

As president, he believed “that he had been charged with ‘so vast, and so sacred a trust’ that ‘he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.’” He had found his duty, in other words, and did not allow himself to shrink from it however difficult depression might make the work. And the work, because adamantly pursued in the face of suffering, held tremendous creativity, wisdom, insight – and in turn alleviated or held at bay, at times at least, the despair of his personal suffering.

I have read nothing that rings so true about depression not written by an artist suffering from it. It gave me hope once again, especially in the midst of another dark time. I too have been given sacred trusts, from which I must not shrink.

21 August 2005

Imitation

When our grandson D. was one, we visited for a few days, and he fell in love with the boy (his uncle, only ten-eleven years older). D. had a beach ball that came nearly to his shoulders, which he loved to push around the room. The boy saw more potential, and one evening flung himself over the top of the ball and rode it to the ground, somersaulting away as he came down. D. thought this hilarious and decided he would do the same. As he threw himself at the ball, however, he quickly saw that the ride down would certainly be dangerous.

So he threw himself at the ball, jumped back from it, and dropped onto the floor in the exact same position as the boy’s when he landed from a somersault. Then he laughed wildly as he looked for our reaction, which was all he could possibly have hoped for.

They must have done this for half an hour, the boy somersaulting over the ball, D. imitating him to the best of his ability, the adults clapping and laughing at the fun, his mom and I wiping away tears of mirth.

It struck me later that perhaps we ask too much of ourselves and others when we try to imitate Jesus and godly folk we know. None of us expected D. to strictly imitate his uncle, to be able to do or even try the exact same actions. Rather, we delighted in his desire to imitate and applauded his vigorous efforts to do the best he could with his more childish abilities.

I wonder if the Father, laughing a bit at our awkwardness, applauds us a great deal more often than we realize, knowing that because we love Him we will continue to grow and to increase our ability to imitate His Son more closely. I wonder if we would grow more quickly if we rejoiced in His love instead of always fearing a wrath that is reserved not for us who are His children but for those who reject Him out of hand.

I hope that I can learn to accept more graciously both my own limitations and the limitations of others, seeing and rejoicing in the attempt to imitate, recognizing it as love which will lead to growth, instead of demanding an impossible perfection.

17 August 2005

Humbled

We are in the midst of faculty workshops. Monday, Jeff Myers, founder of Passing the Baton, International, inspired, convicted, encouraged us in our mentoring of young people. He is a gifted speaker and wise believer, passionate about the Lord and His work in people’s lives. I came away with a notebook full of insight that it will be a joy and a challenge to reflect on and consider.

But Jeff most humbled and encouraged me in a simple exchange when I greeted him before the seminar began.

Humbled not in the sense of humiliated or made me feel like a worm. Rather, humbled in the sense of making me understand the grace and loveliness of my Lord.

I haven’t seen Jeff in months. He no longer teaches at the college, and though he lives in town, our paths rarely cross. We were both involved with a national conference a few years ago, which had us on the same plane a couple of times in travels to Dallas for planning and Denver for the conference itself, and in the airports and between sessions, we got to know something of each other’s dreams and gifts and ways of knowing our Lord.

When I greeted Jeff Monday morning, the first thing he said was, “I prayed for you several times this summer.” Now, those of you who know me know that prayer is the most difficult of the disciplines for me. I try not to be a “get me out of this” pray-er, but it’s close. And I certainly haven’t been praying for Jeff. I’d thought of him now and then with gratefulness for his work and hope that his family was doing well, but not prayer, not speaking to God on his behalf.

But he had prayed for me several times. And I was humbled. Because his graciousness showed me once again the grace of the Lord, how He cares for us even when we don’t pay much attention to Him, upholds us when we are just sort of wandering along, calls us by His very kindness to remember Him.


It was a good summer. And Jeff reminded me that one reason is the prayers of people who love me enough to lift me up whether I know it or whether I have the discipline or love to do the same for others. To all of you, thanks. May God bless you richly for allowing His love to flow through you in this very special way.

12 August 2005

Liberal Arts and the Modern Student

I am currently reading Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning, a fascinating anthology of essays on education. It is a challenge; while I agree with a great deal that Oakeshott says, he seems – so far as I can tell at this point – to be starting from a different set of assumptions about the world and man’s place in it than I do. And so I am needing to be constantly aware of these assumptions and try to sort through how they affect his ideas and how that should affect my reading. It’s good; I need that sort of challenge to keep my own reading skills sharp and to remember what my students need to learn about responding to text themselves.

We talk a great deal about the “liberal arts”; most of our colleges and universities claim to offer a “liberal arts” education. I have long known that is not the case, nor is it even possible in the structure of the American institution of so-called higher education. If a student graduates with a liberal education, it will be because he has figured it out on his own, perhaps with a bit of encouragement from the few teachers who see the vast gap between the claim and the reality.

Oakeshott defines liberal learning with various emphases as he progresses through his first essay, “A Place of Learning.” This is my favorite articulation of his definition and will suffice to clarify what I mean by the term “liberal arts” (which, please note, has nothing to do with the political designations of liberal and conservative): Liberal learning is learning to respond to the invitations of the great intellectual adventures in which human beings have come to display their various understandings of the world and of themselves. Or as Arthur Holmes has also put it (in his book The Idea of a Christian College): the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to man as man, rather than to man in his specific function as a worker or as a professional or even as a scholar.

The point of Oakeshott’s essay is to clarify what this venture should mean and the importance of a special place – school – where it can be accomplished (or perhaps “begun” is a better word; it is a lifelong task). Along the way he discusses various problems in the modern academy which come about because of its capitulation to the demands of modern culture. But towards the end, he describes what modern culture has done to the students who come to us, and challenges the university to find a way to reach them instead of accommodate them. I offer a lengthy quote from this section as a challenge to myself as this new semester begins – to remember that this accurately describes many of my students, and to remember that it is worth the effort to hold out to them continually the opportunity to see the world in different terms, no matter how strenuously they may resist my efforts. (I’ve added a couple of paragraph breaks to the following quote to make it easier to follow in this format.)

The world in which many children now grow up is crowded, not necessarily with occupants and not at all with memorable experiences, but with happenings; it is a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation. A child quickly becomes aware that he cannot too soon plunge into this flow or immerse himself in it too quickly; to pause is to be swept with the chilling fear of never having lived at all. There is little chance that his perceptions, his emotions, his admirations and his ready indignations might become learned responses or be even innocent fancies of his own; they come to him prefabricated, generalized and uniform. He lurches from one modish conformity to the next, or from one fashionable guru to his successor, seeking to lose himself in a solidarity composed of exact replicas of himself.

From an early age children now believe themselves to be well-informed about the world, but they know it only at second hand in the pictures and voices that surround them. It holds no puzzles or mysteries for them; it invites neither careful attention nor understanding. As like as not they know the moon as something to be shot at or occupied before ever they have had the chance to marvel at it. This world has but one language, soon learned: the language of appetite. The idiom may be that of the exploitation of resources of the earth, or it may be that of seeking something for nothing; but this is a distinction without a difference. It is a language composed of meaningless clich├ęs. It allows only the expression of “points of view” and the ceaseless repetition of slogans which are embraced as prophetic utterances.

Their ears are filled with the babel of invitations to instant and unspecified reactions and their utterance reproduces only what they have heard said. Such discourse as there is resembles the barking of a dog at the echo of its own yelp. School in these circumstances is notably unimportant. To a large extent it has surrendered its character as a place apart where utterances of another sort may be heard and languages other than the language of appetite may be learned. Its affords no seclusion, it offers no release. Its furnishings are the toys with which those who come are already familiar. Its virtues and vices are those of the surrounding world.


These, then, are circumstances hostile to a disposition to recognize the invitation of liberal learning: that is, the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves. How shall a university respond to the current aversion from seclusion, to the now common belief that there are other and better ways of becoming human than by learning to do so, and to the impulsive longing to be given a doctrine or to be socialized according to a formula rather than to be initiated into a conversation? Not, I think, by seeking excuses for what sometimes seem unavoidable surrenders, nor in any grand gesture of defiance, but in a quiet refusal to compromise which comes only in self-understanding. We must remember who we are: inhabitants of a place of liberal learning.

09 August 2005

Pleasing People; Pleasing God

The boy has had a wonderful attitude about his schoolwork lately. We started his semester formally last week, and he’s worked hard and been quite cheerful. The other day he asked me, “Have I had a better attitude this year?” I’d complimented him on it several times, but he can always use more affirmation and I’m glad to reassure him. I want him to know that I’m pleased with him.

A couple of weeks ago he told me about a Sunday School occurrence. They had visitors in class and the teacher asked him to bring them up to date on the discussion they’d been having. He said his classmates laughed at the request, apparently thinking he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was glad to hear that he was clearly proud that he proved them wrong, and proud to have pleased his teacher.

This morning I was praying for him, asking the Lord to remind him to retain that cheerful attitude and the desire to please his authorities. And a little voice said accusingly, “So, you want him to be a people-pleaser?”

It’s a question to consider. We’re told to do our work to the Lord, not as to men, to be God-pleasers, not man-pleasers. But . . .

How do we learn to please the Lord? He places authorities in our lives, mainly our parents and then certain teachers and other adults. We are expected to obey these authorities with a good will, and often (sadly, not always, because it’s a broken world) we will receive the reward of their pleasure.

I think this reward is intended to be our taste of divine pleasure, to prepare us for understanding the Lord’s pleasure in our cheerful obedience when the pleasure of man is nowhere to be found, when obedience to Him brings silence, mockery, or persecution. The child who does not experience the pleasure of adults in his attempts to please them will surely, sad to say, struggle more to understand this, though through God’s grace all things are possible.

I have a friend who grew up being told she couldn’t experience problems because problems meant she wasn’t right with the Lord; thus, the fear of those around her – the fear of losing God’s pleasure, even His grace for salvation – precluded any real rest in Him, any picture of His pleasure in her. She now walks with Him in a lovely faithfulness which awes me. But perhaps she could have been spared at least a few of the extraordinary struggles to trust that she’s experienced if she’d been allowed the freedom to be fallen along with true simple pleasure in her efforts to “get it right,” however successful or flawed those efforts might have been on any given day.

Oh, I know the Lord is sovereign, and even when we sin He is still in control (and it’s a good thing, too). He has used my friend in ways that would otherwise have been impossible because of those very struggles she has endured. Still, knowing that He can bring good from even our sin doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get it right in the first place.

May we have the grace each day to let our pleasure in our son lead him to desire obedience, even when we must correct him. And may his delight in our pleasure help him to understand and experience God’s pleasure as he learns to walk with and for Him instead of us.

08 August 2005

Perspectives

Pippin to Merry in the Houses of Healing in Gondor: "Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights."

"No," said Merry. "I can't. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could attend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little."

And Frodo to Sam as they meet the Elves on the way to the Havens, where Frodo will go over the sea in search of healing: "I have been too deeply hurt [to stay in the Shire], Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."

05 August 2005

August Heat

I’ve been researching inheritance issues, thinking of death and taxes all day, and I step out onto the porch to relax. At first I think the shimmering of the air has to do with my eyes adjusting from fine print to distance, but when it doesn’t go away I realize that steam is literally rising from the ground and creating a mist as it mingles with the August heat and humidity. Even Barney, the neighbors' generally extraverted and enthusiastic Schnauzer, can’t find the energy to come all the way across the yard to greet me, merely wagging his tail and nodding a bit as if in apology. The few coreopsis blooms droop on their stems, and the dogwood leaves hang limp and still. The rosebushes look like thorny limbs with a few yellow and brown insect-riddled leaves and matching dead blossoms. A sparrow lands on the porch, no more than three yards from me, and sits lazily despite the gentle rocking of my chair until the rattling of the doorknob above his head rouses him to reluctant and indignant flight. The heaviness of the atmosphere accurately reflects my mood.

Looking further, I see that a rim of light pink clouds circles the sky just above the hazy mountain tops, their pastel color reflected and enhanced in the baby crepe myrtle bravely raising its magenta flowers upwards, with a courageous daylily alongside it encouraging this rebellion against the heaviness and heat. The buzzing of locusts fills the air, reminding me of summer evenings long ago in Kansas, dodging croquet wickets on the lawn while chasing fireflies with my brother in the rapidly dimming light. The heat, the humidity, the numbing pages of depressing information, all fade in the sudden realization of beauty past and present, and I go back to my task with a lighter heart.

03 August 2005

Blocked

I know writers who claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. I suspect if I had to make my living writing I would find this to be true. However, since I make my living teaching, with all its attendant components – creating syllabi, preparing each day's work, grading papers, not to mention actually meeting classes and conferencing with individual students – the writing is not as a rule immediately compelling. I would like to believe that the ability to do it periodically disappears for that reason. It would at least supply an excuse.

However, the block often occurs when I actually have time on my hands (relatively speaking). This is depressing, to say the least, and seems inexplicable. I know full well that the solution to my present difficulty will suddenly appear just as I am sitting in faculty workshop (no doubt while the dean or president is speaking on some absolutely vital topic and I am sitting in such a place that my mental non-attendance will be noted) or when I am finally getting the freshman comp website done ten minutes before the first class meeting. At which point I will tear my hair in frustration, at least mentally, and try not to curse my wayward muse, at least not aloud.

The pressure of a deadline or a great deal to do has always been good for my writing. Of course, this can be frustrating for me and for those around me, as I try to juggle the urgent (the everyday “stuff”) with the important (the writing). Is the writing worth it? I’ve read so many writers recently, the ones who say they cannot not write, the ones who say this is delusional arrogance, the ones who reduce writing to craft, the ones who elevate it to religion. I know that writing keeps me sane. That alone is enough to tell me I must be careful not to neglect it for the urgent.

But I want to finish something someday, something worth having spent the time and the energy it took and worth the sacrifices that I and others make for it. Today, my husband is 53 – which means I will be the same in just two months. Time is running out.

And now I read, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Wisdom. Ah, yes, wisdom is the goal, not publication. Is this writing contributing to my wisdom, my understanding of God and His reality? If so, and if that wisdom is applied in the urgencies of my everyday life, then the writing is worth it, whatever its worldly fate.

“Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding; for her proceeds are better than profits of silver, and her gain than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 3:13-15).

Thanks to Him once again for the check, for the eternal perspective. May I keep it clearly in heart as well as mind as the daily round of a school year begins again, and may I keep Him before all else as I enter it.

29 July 2005

Overreacting

Hunting for home school curriculum is always frustrating at best. It used to be because the choices were so few; now it’s because they are so many. I think I preferred the former problem; at least one did not feel compelled to read five hundred reviews of each potential resource to figure out which would work best for one’s unique children and situation.

So far I’m happy with the choices I’ve made for this year. But the review-reading process once again brought me up against the favorite game of people with strong opinions and little actual experience: overreaction.

The word “process,” for example, appears to have become anathema in many Christian circles. “If it says it will teach ‘process,’ run! It will be relativistic and your child will learn nothing! It is touchy-feely worthlessness! Back to the basics, to rote memorization and the way Laura Ingalls Wilder learned!”

Sigh.

At one time, perhaps children learned a great deal more at home about how to learn. I don’t know. Undeniably, children learned a great deal more than most of us know today, and with a very different kind of curriculum. However, it is simple truth that if one does not know how to solve a problem or write an essay, one will not do so through rote memorization of facts to be used in the problem or essay. How children learned these processes in the past I do not know, but they are not learning them today.

The problem, of course, is that “process-oriented” education has been taken to a foolish extreme by too many teachers and school systems. The process becomes the point, and little Johnny can pass math with an A while missing the actual answers to most of the problems – because he followed the right “process,” though not having bothered to pay attention to minor details such as adding or subtracting correctly. “But he understands how to do it!” the proud teacher gushes. I say the bridge will still fall down if he gets the wrong answers for the building of it, no matter how he arrived at them.

Balance. Where, oh, where is our sense of balance? If a child doesn’t understand the process by which to solve an algebraic equation, he will struggle with the next concept even if he manages to memorize this particular one. But the process is not an end in itself. He must pay attention to the product it leads to, as well. In writing, students for years were left in the dark as to how to create the kinds of essays their teachers expected of them. Because most of them don’t read and never write on their own initiative, they must be taught the process of writing – but not for its own sake. The point of the process, always, is to arrive at a product which effectively communicates a worthy idea to an audience.


My brothers and sisters who despise and demean the methods of education in use today would do well to step back and consider carefully what they might be missing. Some of today’s methods are ill-conceived and should be avoided, yes. But others might be very helpful if appropriately balanced with the legitimate goals of education. We need some education about education in the homeschool movement, I begin to think.

24 July 2005

Excuses, Excuses

Last night I received an email I've been trying not to anticipate. The message, though promising nothing, sent a thrill to my very toes, and I savored the moment I could tell K about it.

Now I have a choice. Following the advice I've been given, will I pour myself into this piece, abandoning all but the true essentials for the next few days, and send it off to its fate on the senior editor's desk? Or will I find myself frozen with the fear of judgment LuCindy posted about the other day?

After all, there are so many urgent things to do. Faculty workshop starts in three weeks, and classes a week after that. I need to finish my syllabi, clear my office of last year's detritus, work with K to set up our trust, create the boy's fall schedule, write some birthday cards, read the other ten books sitting on my desk, maybe clean out a few closets . . .

So many excuses to avoid the finished piece and the possible rejection.

The irony? The topic of the piece has to do with the harried lives we lead and the way we make choices. I have written several times here this summer about wanting to learn how to let go and be guided by Him instead of myself, my desires, my fears, my need for control. I think I've learned a tiny bit, at least. I only pray I can practice it this week, trusting Him that all will be accomplished in His time.

18 July 2005

Incredible(s)!

Yes, we finally got to watch The Incredibles. Yes, we all loved it. A funny, well-created film that wasn’t an all-out assault on traditional values.

Low points:
Okay, maybe I’m a prude, but really – is it necessary in a family film to have one of the characters use God’s name inappropriately as a character tag? “My goodness” would have worked equally well in a film that has no other reference to God, after all. And apparently there was one pretty bad profanity which was equally gratuitous (our muter was on but it looked bad). Why insist on this in an otherwise completely clean film? Other than that, no complaints.

On being special:
When Dash has been chastised about using his super-powers at school to play a trick, his mom tells him that he’s special – that everyone is special. He scowls out the car window and mutters, “Which is just another way of saying no one is.” Later, the villain reveals his plan to give everyone his secret for having super-powers through technology, then says, “Then everyone will be special – which means that no one will be.”

I find this most interesting. Of course, every individual is special in the sense of being created uniquely by God and loved uniquely by Him. But in the realm of human affairs, obviously we have different strengths and weaknesses. And Dash sees that the demand to dumb everyone down to mediocrity is a way of trying to stamp out these essential differences. And Syndrome, even in his frantic attempts to become a superhero through his own means, knows that giving everyone superpowers will have the same result. So it doesn’t matter whether we are trying to dumb everyone down or bring everyone up, the goal is sameness, a destruction of the uniqueness of each human being.

This is a problem Richard Weaver commented on at mid-20th century in Ideas Have Consequences. Our country was founded on the principle of equal opportunity – anyone who had the ability and drive and right circumstances could become president, or whatever. But this is not the same as equal outcomes – anyone who wants to can become president was never the idea. I may want to be a pop music star, but anyone who has stood near me in church could assure you that no amount of voice lessons and hard work will ever make me one. And it is simply a fact of life that sometimes circumstances will hold us back from achieving some particular goal we otherwise might have. But the laws of our country do not prevent anyone from attempting to do or become anything they want. Social and financial circumstances are not the purview of the law, but how many people have overcome difficult circumstances to still achieve their goals? When we insist on social engineering, however, we have to make the laws apply unequally (think affirmative action), and then we no longer have equal opportunity and those with special ability will be discriminated against.

I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I recommend it highly as another view of a society which tries to make everyone equal and prevent special gifts from being exercised. A very funny read while critiquing a serious problem, much like this movie.

On family and working together:
Great, great, great here. Each Incredible has his or her own special powers, and only in using them together can they finally overcome evil. Very realistic family life, with various tensions and frictions that smooth away when adversity threatens. (Love the scenes where Dash is disgusted at waking up next to his sister, but then goes ballistic when she is threatened: “Don’t you dare hit my sister!”) The super-smart kids don’t save the super-dumb parents, but they play an essential role as the family faces each trial. They gain confidence when they have to face danger alone, but they still need mom and dad. And mom and dad need each other. Incrediman’s “I work alone” leads him into danger he can’t conquer, but allowing his wife to be his true partner, and the kids to join in, gives them the variety of abilities they need to win the battles.

On a victim society:
I loved the opening where the people saved by Incrediman sue him for saving them (or not saving them enough). This is a great critique of today’s litigious, victim-laden society. And of course, it’s a great way of showing what happens a) to the individual denied the use of his gifts (Incrediman is continually frustrated by his inability to help people and keeps undermining the system to try to do so anyway) and b) to the society which is vulnerable to danger and death when individuals cannot do what they were created to do. The bottom line, taking care of #1 (or the stockholders!), blaming the real victims for what happens to them . . . a stronger and stronger emphasis on selfishness and coldness.

All in all, a wonderful film. Lots of great lines -- "Go save the world, honey, one claim at a time!" If you haven’t seen it, find it and set aside a couple of hours for some good clean fun. (And that’s from someone who almost never watches movies.)

12 July 2005

Mosaics of Longing

Spring 2002
Today from my front porch I can see the farthest range possible, so often obscured by the smoky haze that earned these mountains their name. My husband and youngest son are on the far side of those mountains, unloading the pickup and preparing to have dinner with our older daughter and her family. A part of my heart longs to be with them, playing with the grandbaby and sharing the joys of new motherhood with the grown child who has become one of my closest friends.

Yet the peacefulness of this moment has been a need for some weeks now, and my regret, while real, is not enough to spoil it. A warm wind blows my hair about my face. The ornamental pears in my neighbors’ yards, solid white three days ago, flaunt their spring green, while our dogwood appears afraid of another late frost, its blooms still closed and brown. A robin hopping beneath its boughs challenges it to faith.

The dense, bright clouds rimming the horizon look almost as solid and unchanging as the mountains and the sky they rest between, reminding me that while change is inevitable, it is not always obvious or immediate. I will look up in a minute or a year and see the difference.

This is where I live, and I love the landscape and, more importantly, the people whose lives have become enmeshed with mine. Yet it will never be home.

Oh, I know that no place here below the heavens will ever fully satisfy heart and soul. I am a pilgrim in the earth, made for something beyond this immediate reality, and I realize that my deepest longings have to do with eternity. But on this peaceful afternoon, looking out over the mountains, I am contemplating earthly longings and the vitality of place.

In the Southern literature I love, place seems almost a sentient being, a character, not mere setting. Raised in Kansas by Southern parents who longed for home and returned almost the day my father retired, their sense of place took root somewhere deep inside me, to blossom only after home was no longer the place I lived.

I love the Smokies. Majesty clothed in towering pines, laced with the delicate pink and white of innumerable dogwoods, punctuated with sudden bursts of wild color in every clearing and valley, they tell me much of nature, God, and man. But they are perhaps too rich for me, too lush. Raised in the gently rolling hills and austere plains of Kansas, I was made for a life more grounded in the astonishing vastness of the ordinary.

I learned the majesty of God in expansively variegated sunsets and endless starlit skies, in swaying fields of ripening wheat and golden sunflowers stretching to the horizon, in redbuds and poplars and dutch elms, in solitary oaks centered in acres of roughly woven pasture lands. These images have shaped in me a sense of limitless possibility and unexpected beauty in the midst of the most mundane and simple affairs of life. I do not experience heights and depths of emotion so much as immense rushes and minute intensities. I move easily from focus on a particular face to awe at the magnitude of friendship. A single daisy expands to hold the universe; the universe exquisitely contracts into the welcome-home hug of my son as he eagerly describes his day.

As beautiful as these mountains are, as much as I love them, still they enclose me, cut me off from the horizon. Perhaps my longing for home is simply my need to be surrounded by possibility again, to physically see the horizon expanded beyond eternity . . . to remember and embrace my own unique perspective without comparison to others that may seem richer and more desirable merely because they are not mine.

The day is closing, one more day spent in a bittersweet exile. The clouds have stretched and grown to mosaic the sky, the farthest range once more obscured by their haze. Yet I somehow find myself content to know that the distance contains home even as it lives within me, that home, however far away, is inevitably part of the ever-changing, ever-growing mosaic of my life.

05 July 2005

The Simple Life

Advice to young folks who wish they weren't treated as such:

Life is pretty simple, really.

* If you don't wish to be treated like a child, act like an adult.

* If you don't wish to be disciplined, obey.

* If you wish to have a sense of positive self worth, a) understand your relationship to the Saviour who died to redeem you; and b) work hard to accomplish your goals.

* If you wish to feel a sense of personal satisfaction, serve.

Think on it. Life's too short to be continually concerned with perceived complexities and injustices. You are the only person you have any control over, and your choices moment by moment will largely determine your future. Your choice of attitude towards those things you cannot control will determine how much joy you experience. No one can rob you of these choices; only you can determine to be miserable and bitter.

And note: I said life's simple, not easy. But the right choices unleash God's power to work in us through whatever comes.

Did I say advice for the young? How I need to remember it every day myself!

04 July 2005

Fourth of July

I have just read the most insulting web log post that pretends to be grateful to our troops, past and present -- the sacrifices they have made so that the writer could call America a "whore of war." I'd sure send that note of appreciation to my son . . . NOT. Criticism is one thing, but unmitigated hatred is quite another. Some folk really ought to go live in whatever countries they think are so much better than this one (and believe me, I see our flaws quite clearly) and discover what tyranny and warmongering really are.

So, to get the taste out of my mouth, here's what John Adams wrote to Abigail on the third of July, 1776, after the Declaration was adopted in principle on the second. (Hence the reference to the second instead of the fourth -- the fourth was when the final form was approved.)

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

"You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day's transaction [. . .]."

My heartfelt thanks to all, from that time to this, who have made the sacrifices of toil and blood and treasure that have kept us a free nation. Especially, today, I am grateful to my grandfathers all, my daddy, my uncles, my father-in-law, my brother, my son.

May God bless and protect our troops, and may we never, even in our legitimate criticism of true flaws, forget our heritage and fail to see that it still glows in the sacrifices so many are willing to make, that it is worth fighting for, whether by the sword, the pen, or any unstinting service to man for the sake of liberty.

02 July 2005

Discouragement

One who longs to write but honestly has not the time and resources to complete anything at a standard of excellence which would make it worth even sending out should not read biographies of famous writers.

We hates them, we hates them, we hates them forever!

I'll be better tomorrow when the effects have worn off. :)

29 June 2005

Self-Denigration vs. Joy

A friend wrote recently about the destructive habit of self-denigration in so many of the now abundant diary-like web logs – even among Christians, who are called to joy. “Life’s terrible, I’m terrible, I’m a wretch, my life is pathetic, I hate myself . . .” is the litany, often with far more details than any but a voyeur should really want to know. I come away from reading a series of such diaries feeling rather like I need a shower to remove the grit and grime of other people’s self-absorption. My friend points out three particular dangers of this bent:

1. “[I]t leads to constant self-absorption. It seldom looks for answers and rarely, if ever, considers any long enough to act upon them.”

2. “[It] is the [. . .] excuse for NOT doing what we were called to do. ‘I have to get my life together before I can reach out.’”

3. “Perpetual agony over something we cannot change will accomplish little, if anything, productive.”

Right after reading this, I came across an especially appropriate meditation in Chambers, as I was catching up on those days I’d missed. In the 21 June entry, he writes, “The continued grubbing on the inside to see whether we are what we ought to be generates a self-centered, morbid type of Christianity, not the robust, simple life of the child of God. [. . .] How long is it going to take God to free us from the morbid habit of thinking about ourselves?”

It is an indication of just how fallen we are that when offered a feast of joy in full forgiveness and intimate fellowship, we choose instead to wallow about in the mire of our imperfections. Paul reminds us that it is sin that makes us fall, that the truth of who we are lies in this: our hearts made whole and perfect in Christ. “Thanks be to God! There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Himself assures us that He has come to bring us joy, His joy: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He told the disciples right before His crucifixion, “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). We see Him now; He is the resurrected Lord: why do we remain in the mire? Why do we refuse the joy that no one but we ourselves can rob us of?

We have the Holy Spirit as the seal of our salvation, and the fruit of the Spirit is . . . oh, I’m a worm, I’m despicable? No, the fruit of the Spirit is joy. Nehemiah tells the Israelites after they have repented of their idolatry to no longer grieve, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If we have tired of doing good, of living righteously, perhaps it is because we have sought self instead of Him, focused on sin instead of the forgiving Savior.

Of course there are trials, sometimes horrific ones. Of course there is sorrow, sometimes deep, haunting sorrow. Of course we still stumble, sometimes badly. The world is still the devil’s and our flesh is not yet burned away. (And remember that the disciples went through trials and sorrows that most of us can’t even imagine - after the time that He promised His joy could not be taken from them.)

But our hearts have been made new. And He has promised joy, abundance of joy, fullness of joy – His own joy. This does not mean we will always feel happiness. Joy is not a trumped-up emotion of our fickle flesh or a fleeting response to changing circumstances, but rather a reality of His life in us. “The joy of the Lord,” Nehemiah says. This means that even in the midst of tragedy – much less the mere daily grind of living in a fallen world – His joy is there to sustain us. We rejoice, not in circumstances, but in Him. We recognize that trials can make us more like Him as they force us to rely on Him, know Him, look to Him instead of ourselves, and so we can agree with James to “count it all joy.”

Chambers exhorts us, “Launch out in reckless belief that the Redemption is complete, and then bother no more about yourself [. . .]. There is only one place where we are right, and that is in Christ Jesus.”

Oh, that Paul’s prayer would bear fruit in our lives: that the Father “may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [Christ], having the eyes of [our] understanding enlightened, that [we] may know what is the hope to which He has called [us], what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe [. . .]” (Eph. 1:17-19).

May we stop lying against the truth and begin acting as though we are what He calls us: His glorious inheritance, bought with a price, created and reborn for joy. How dare we slap Him in the face by calling His glorious inheritance a wretched worm, a despicable clod of dirt. His glorious inheritance – humbling and exhilarating and true.

Followers