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My first year of teaching high school, I was faced with the question of why we read and teach the books we teach. What makes them worth reading?

Well, they’re classics, right? They’ve been around for a long time, lots of people have read them, so they must be worth reading, right?

But that can easily become a circle to get stuck in, can’t it? We read these classics because everybody always has. And they read them because everybody always has.

So. I began making a list of the qualities that give these books staying power.

Don’t worry. I won’t treat you to the whole list, but if you think of the movies that your family watches every year at Christmas time, you will most likely be able to figure out some of the qualities I discovered.

Unique characters–what is it about George Bailey that keeps us watching his wonderful life again and again, even though we could quote all his lines for him? Though no one will ever be able to breathe the life into those lines like Jimmy Stewart did. _It’s A Wonderful Life_ gives us two characters for the price of one!

Engaging characters–Elf, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Grinch and Cindy Loo Who, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, Tim Allen’s Santa Claus, Clarence Cloudbottom: they touch our hearts and lives because they are like us or like someone we know . . . or even wish we knew. Somewhere along the storyline, we find a person that we can connect to through our own lives and experiences. And as we grow and our life experiences broaden, we experience these stories in a new way.

Universal themes–How in the world did _The Sound of Music_ become a Christmas classic? There’s nothing remotely Christmas-y about it! But it’s been shown on tv at Christmas ever since I can remember . . . and I can remember watching it from a rather young age! Perhaps it’s because at Christmas time, families want to come together to watch something good and something filled with hope and joy and love and something worth believing in. And the story of the Von Trap family–both the true story and the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein version we all know so well [I’ll bet you’ve sung along with it at some point or another yourself!]–their story is full of those things. Something worth believing in so much that it’s worth risking one’s life and livelihood for. Hope and love: “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life for as long as you live.” And, of course, joy.

Timelessness–some stories can only be enjoyed once or twice through before they are put on the shelf and never really thought of again. Some are good again if you are experiencing them with someone to whom the story is new. But some. Those classic some. They are good again and again. There are new things to notice, new connections to make each time we experience them. They grow with us. We connect with the story and characters in different ways as our experiences follow the path of time that we all take. Scrooge today is a rounder character to me than he was when I was a middle-schooler reading _A Christmas Carol_ on my own for the first time. And though in the past I have been more touched by his own personal redemption story, my attention was caught this year (as Dickens would have had it, I’m sure) by the poor and the needy and by the way that Ebenezer did what he could to remedy the deficits. Timely story indeed.

Unique characters. Engaging characters. Universal themes. Timelessness.

Do these apply to THE Christmas story? The one that started it all?

You know what my answer should be, of course. The “Sunday School answer” that I should give as a good Christian.

But I hate giving answers just because they’re the expected answers. Not even the First Christmas story should be locked into a cycle of meaninglessness: “we read it every year because everyone reads it every year because it’s the classic Christmas story.”

Is it worth reading every year? Should not the Author of the Universe do work excellent enough to withstand scrutiny? Is the First Christmas story timeless enough to be heard again and again each year with ears both familiar and new at the same time?

This will, of course, depend on the other three qualities we have just mentioned. In this post I will leave you to ponder its universal themes while I take the briefest of looks at the characters.

We don’t know a lot about them. Some of the principal players are known only by their occupations and titles. And even those around whom the story swirls are sketched with minimalist lines. Yet it’s an old actor’s adage that character is action. And from the actions that make up the plot of the story we can derive the characters. What kind of a person kills all the babies in a town to try to get at the one he fears may one day grow to take a throne he will, by then, be too old to hold? What kind of men rush from fields to search a sleeping town for a little baby? And what kind of person sends his only son into a hostile world?

The story of the First Christmas is a story of many different reactions to the same gift. Were we in their shoes, what response would have been ours? In whose company would you find yourself?

Steven Curtis Chapman was exploring that question himself one Christmas, using those thoughts to write his song “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us).” And on this Christmas Day, I leave you with that question: where are you in the Classic Christmas story this year?

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)”

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)” lyrics

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Longing to heal the ugliness in others,
I find my only weapon may be
My own acceptance of my acceptance
In the beloved.
Help me, Father, to express my trust
In You and in Your reconstructive
Work around me by embracing
Your delight in me.
jmc 4/11/12


(C. S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lucy’s gift from Father Christmas)

9-10-11

Psalm 139:6
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.

vi
I admit, I am a bit overwhelmed
As I ponder
How completely
You care for me.
I can’t wrap my mind around the
Magnitude
Of these details:
I can’t even get past the fact that You
Care enough
To observe me so minutely,
To study me.

9-10-11

Psalm 139:5
Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.

v
The oddest part is this: You haven’t rifled
through my heart and moved on.
No, You’ve besieged me. Here I thought
I’d have to look for You, to chase You down,
And when I looked out my windows,
You had me completely surrounded.
You’d planned Your campaign,
You were here for the long haul–here to stay.
And I could feel You laying Your hand on me–
For what?
Just to show me Your closeness?
As a fatherly expression of affection?
In benediction? As investiture of power?
Or maybe so I wouldn’t be afraid of Your
Drastic measures to make me Yours.

9-10-11

Psalm 139:4
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.

iv
You know me so well that You know
What I will say
Before I say it.
[When others do this, I sometimes find it
Disconcerting–should I be
Comforted when You do it?]
[Do You sit back with pleasure to hear
What You know I will say
And how I will say it?]

9-10-11

Psalm 139:3
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

iii
Like diffused light on a cloud-covered day,
You are everywhere around me
Yet springing from no one spot.
You surround what I do
All day long, and at night
Your presence
Is as ubiquitous as the air I breathe.
Like a nurse who has worked with one doctor
For many years,
You are used to the way I do things.
You’re familiar with my
Mode of action–
And You’re comfortable with me.
[Actually, God, I’d like to be comfortable with You that way, too.]

9-10-11

Psalm 139:2
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.

ii
You observe me–
As though I were the most important
Person in the world to You,
You are aware of where I am
And what I am doing:
Whether I am sitting down or standing up,
You know it.
And You can tell,
Like good friends can from across the room,
Exactly what I am thinking,
Nuance for nuance better than I know myself
Sometimes. Well, always.

 

9-10-11

Psalm 139:1
O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.

i
Lord God, You have searched me,
Digging deeply down as a miner digs into
His vein of precious metal or as a
Treasure-hunter digs down into his treasure-trove.
Because of this, You know me–
You’ve seen all there is to see.

This year in school, my students and I are memorizing Psalm 139 and Romans 6-8. In September, as we were studying through Psalm 139, the full meanings behind the Hebrew words struck me with such lovely force that I decided to try my hand at paraphrasing the psalm, attempting to communicate some of the full color that the words themselves express. By the time I’d made it through the first 6 verses, I’d found myself with two hand-written pages of something more poetic than prose but more prosy than even my typical poems are. I had to laugh at the way it takes me so many many words to communicate the full–wait, not even the full thought of what God expressed in 6 short and deceptively simple verses.

The month of February at my church is a month of reviewing verses that we have memorized over the years, so it is more than fitting (not that I need an excuse) to post this reflection on one of the passages that I partly memorized as a young girl, have now completely memorized, and have found comforting and astonishing at many and various times through my life.

Let me encourage you to read the psalm if you have not–and to read it again if you have–and to ponder with me God’s intimate knowledge and intricate creation of each individual person . . . of me . . . of you.

Psalm 139 (Blue Letter Bible)
p.s. If you click on the “C” beside each verse on BLB, it will bring up the verse with the Hebrew words for each phrase. Click on the numbers in the column marked “Strong’s” to go to a page that gives the meaning of and detailed information on the word itself.

November 11, 2010

I just figured out tonight why Psalm 103:5 would need to happen.

I was reading the background Lois Lowry gives for her book Number the Stars in her afterword. She spoke of the courage of the Danish resistance fighters who dared to defy the Nazis in so many ways . . . and of the youth of so many of them. One young man she spoke of was only 21 when he was executed by the Nazis. Young, brave, and idealistic, he wrote a letter to is loved ones asking them not to lament the past that has ended but to work for the future they truly longed for (and needed). So young. So brave!

And it hit me that I have grown old at heart. Afraid to risk, afraid of the pain, afraid that all I’ve done and risked in the past was a mere foolish waste after all. All that pain, that fear, that doubt is crippling. Because when you’re young you know that the risks are there but you haven’t experienced them firsthand. And you tell yourself that you are proceeding in spite of the risks when really you are simply throwing yourself out into the fray as though there are no risks. Because for the young, the risks don’t exist. But when you have experienced the risks, you grow up, you become conscious of the cost, and you grow wary.

And before you realize it, you’ve grown old.

Perhaps you become more strategic, but maybe that’s a nice way of saying you play things safer.

And perhaps that’s why we need God to renew our youth like the eagle’s–so we can launch ourselves out again and take the risks as though they aren’t even there. Because in the real world, the world that matters, the risk of loving others is great, the greatest, but it’s the one ideal that is the most important. Because if we are going to act like God does, we are going to have to love like He does–in spite of the risks. And–like those young, brave, Danish resistance fighters–perhaps even because of them.

 

Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth. Psalm 71:9

Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things: so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:5

(found this in perusing old journals today, Aug 24, 2010 . . . was both amused and encouraged!)

Tuesday, January 27, 2004
written after reading MEN OF IRON by Howard Pyle

Lord and Master,
how weary I be in “well-doing” Thou wottest all to well of. Yet, peradventure I be not doing even half so well as Thou wouldest desire and dost deserve.

Arm me within to the challenges I must face ere my race be run–be they challenges glamorous or tedious, be they adventures dreadful or monotonous. Strengthen my resolve by Thine omnipotent right arm.

Champion I would be, yet have I the heart of a child and the will of a peasant. My champion Thou must be else my defeat is certain.

Nerve me to face whatever may be my lot. I know not whether I be fitted for greatness and victory or no. Thou knowest. Frame me and fashion me to play the part Thy wisdom hath written for me.

One boon I would ask of Thee: preserve this manly faith within my heart. Cause Thou my soul to trust in Thee through continued glimpses into Thy loving heart and superior wisdom. Let me know mine own foolishness that I may know Thy magnanimity. Burnish my shield of faith.

“Mary’s Boy Child”

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say,
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas Day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
Them see a bright new shining star,
Them hear a choir sing,
The music seemed to come from afar.

Now Joseph and his wife Mary,
Come to Bethlehem that night,
Them find no place to born she child,
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to what they say,
That man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

~ Jester Hairston
arranged by Frank Gallagher

In wondering what to write today, I was listening to Charlotte Church’s Christmas CD Dream a Dream, and the above song began to play. And God put the pieces in place for me. I knew what to write.

Christmas is the holiday we spend with my dad’s side of the family. We used to see them more often when I was little–we would see them in the summer as well as at Christmas. Now, it’s primarily at Christmas. This year we will be going to Michigan to be with my grandmother and my dad’s two sisters. Grandma is getting too old to travel, so we make sure we go visit her (rather than making her come see us if she wants to see us!). As she grows older, tiredness has settled into her body, making it harder for her to do the things she has always loved to do when the family is around. Gradually she stopped doing things: cooking for the family meals is left to my aunt, now; buying gifts for us “kids” is my mother’s job now. But one thing that Grandma still does is make cookies. Chocolate Chip cookies.

Being at Grandma’s house has always meant having cookies. I can picture the two of us at bedtime one night when I was staying alone with her at her apartment: in our pj’s and eating a cookie apiece with a cold glass of milk before bedtime. This November, at her apartment, I raided her box of cookies again, tasting the taste that will forever be associated in my mind with her and her home. And even though she makes other cookies, even though she keeps other cookies on hand (Danish butter cookies–yum!), nothing compares with her chocolate chip cookies.

We have tried to duplicate them at our house. We use no other recipe. They’re Dad’s favorite cookie, and he loves it when we make them. But somehow they never match Grandma’s cookies. And it’s not just Dad remembering “the good old days,” either: one look at Grandma’s cookies, one taste, and I realize just how good they are and how unique. Mom has tried to make them match Grandma’s cookies, people have raved about the cookies coming from that recipe; blue ribbons have been won with it (well, at least one). The cookies we make from the recipe are not bad–in fact, they’re pretty good; but no one makes Grandma’s cookies quite like Grandma does. They’re almost crunchy, but not quite. They’re almost chewy, but not really. They’re thick and have the right proportion of chocolate chips in them–just enough to be wonderful. They’re small enough to dunk in a glass of milk without having to break them, but big enough to eat in more than one bite. And they beg you to eat more! An unseen conversation goes on in my brain when I open the box to get one out:
me: I think I’ll have a cookie.
brain: With milk?
me: Naw. I’m not really hungry; I’m not going to make a big production out of it. I’ll have milk and another one later, maybe.
I take out a cookie and eat it.
brain: Wow! That’s good.
me: Hmmm. It was better than I expected. I think I’m going to have one more.
brain: Great idea! With a glass of milk this time, ok?
me: Ok!
And there I am standing with a glass of milk and a couple more cookies, having made a big production of it after all!

Yes, they’re that good.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? What does this have to do with the song “Mary’s Boy Child” (that contains such bad grammar–yes, I’m aware of the grammatical errors, and the slight factual error, too)? That’s what I was asking myself this morning. And that’s the missing piece that fell into place for me. Uniqueness. The Christmas story is unique. No religion in the world can boast a God who gives Himself to His creation in the way Jesus Christ has given Himself. No other person in history has the power to change lives as He does. No other story in the world gives such hope and such peace, warming cold hearts the world over.

Oh, the story has often been imitated: in fact, Dickens, one of my favorite authors, models his themes off of the themes in the Christmas story. But no sacrifice nor generosity in any story can completely match the real Christmas story. It is unique. It is hard and real–cold, bare facts of a factual story. It is soft and gentle–warm, pleasant thoughts of God’s love to the world. It is thick with suspense and has just enough mystery in it to make it wonderful.  It is concise enough to read in a night (unlike my blog posts!), yet it’s big enough to spend an entire lifetime pondering. And I find that I keep coming back for more. More than I ever expect each year–I wonder if there’s anything I can possibly get out of it this year as Christmas approaches, and each year I see it in a new way. It’s just as good as I remembered. No, better! Like Grandma’s cookies.

And like Grandma’s cookies, it’s not really satisfying to think about eating them or to read about how good they are. Only the real thing satisfies. Other re-tellings and comment may help us see the story in a new light, but they are not the story. There is no substitute for reading the words–God’s words, His telling of what happened from His point of view–and hearing the way He connects it with the hopes and fears and questions I bring with me to the reading of the story.

May you find yourself devouring more of His word this Christmas than you expected to. May you sample again the “real thing” and find it more satisfying than you remembered.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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