A Literary Pursuit of Beauty, Grace, and Truth

It’s been a long time since I browsed in a Christian bookstore. They’re exceptionally rare here in Maine, but on one of my last excursions, I inquired about the poetry section hoping to lay hands on something by Luci Shaw or Marjorie Maddox. Alas, it was not to be on this day.

“We don’t carry poetry,” I was informed, in a tone that somehow made a virtue out of the omission, and given the disappointing nature of the Christian poetry that has found its way onto greeting cards and into cheerfully vapid collections over the years, maybe it’s just as well to save shelf space for more substantial material. Of course, the tragedy is that poorly written inspirational verse has inoculated the church against the rich treasury of  devotional poetry that is part of our heritage and our history. Taking the religious life as its subject, devotional poetry shows rather than tells, suggests rather than argues, and has the lovely effect of prompting “us to think about God and spiritual truth.” (14)

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years, has done us the tremendous favor of sorting through the endless possibilities of great works and narrowing the field down to a manageable representative collection that begins with the oldest surviving poem in the English language and works its way up through modern times.  The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems provides helpful commentary on each work, beginning with explanation of unfamiliar or archaic terms and then moving on to enhance the reader’s understanding of artistry and content while noting specific devotional aspects of the poem.

Ryken’s contributors include all the Johns (Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden) and the Williams (Draper, Shakespeare, Wordsworth) along with a  multitude of well-loved names including George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, Christina Rossetti, Anne Bradstreet, and the Brontë Sisters.  Perhaps the greatest treasure, however, is his inclusion of lesser known poets who wrote with great depth of soul. Exercising considerable restraint, I will share a few favorite excerpts along with insights from the commentary that have added to my contemplation of their deep theological truth and have enhanced my understanding of the rich mode of expression used by skillful poets throughout history.

On the Incarnation:

“‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God would be made like man, much more.”   (78)

“It is commonplace in Christian thinking that God made man in his own image. John Donne reverses that fact in a thought that is so unexpected that it can be considered a paradox: it is even more noteworthy that in the incarnation God was made in the image of man. [These] lines are an aphorism (a succinct and striking statement that we remember.)”  (80)

On Human Restlessness:

“Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”  (92)

In these words put in God’s mouth by George Herbert, “we are given the reason why God created people to be restless in the world. The poet imagines that God created people with a built-in ‘pulley’ that draws them to God.”  (93)

On the Key to a Meaningful Life:

I confess to finding Milton’s writing to be beyond challenging — inscrutable, even — without assistance, but with the insights from Ryken’s notes alongside a slow and careful read, this excerpt in Adam’s words from the epic poem Paradise Lost are a road map for life in a fallen world:

“Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend.”  (133)

On the Place of Lament in the Life of a Believer:

Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House” renders tragedy in verse without trivializing it. “The pitfall that a poet needs to avoid in a poem like this is allowing the consolation to come across as facile (too easily achieved and glibly stated). Bradstreet meets the challenge by fully acknowledging the human and earthly loss that she has sustained.” (137)

“My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy table eat a bit . . .
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on moldering dust,
The arm of flesh dist make thy trust?”  (136)

By her example, we may carve out our own faithful living of lament and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.

The Soul in Paraphrase as a title has been lifted from a poem by George Herbert:

“Prayer, the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth.”  (8)

Herbert is referring to prayer, the ability to live in God’s presence as angels live, but Ryken argues that devotional poetry serves the soul in the same way, rendering and representing our souls in words that we might have come up with ourselves— if only we had the skill.


Many thanks to Crossway for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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Oswald Chambers’s Message of Hope in the Midst of War

One hundred years ago, the war to end all wars ended, leaving the world a very different place, and, ironically, setting the stage for the next world war. Geographic boundaries would shift and entire countries would be swallowed up or renamed, but even more seismic changes were at work in the spiritual realm as hearts were softened and minds were startled awake by the devastation and loss of life.

Oswald Chambers is best known for the classic devotional work My Utmost for His Highest, but some of his most important pastoral work happened against the backdrop of World War I as he ministered to troops stationed in Egypt. In A Poppy in Remembrance, Michelle Ule, author of the biography covering the life of Chambers’s wife Biddy, has applied her sanctified imagination to a subject she knows well–the lives of Oswald and Biddy Chambers–and has created a cast of realistic and relatable characters who were impacted by the Chambers’s ministry.

A Story and a Message

Claire Meacham grew up to the staccato of typewriters and the echoing excitement of whatever was in the news as she traveled the world with her father Jock, collecting stories for the Boston Newspaper Syndicate. Radcliffe-educated and American-born, Claire ached to see her own byline in newsprint, but, stationed in a conservative London newsroom, found herself perpetually thwarted by cultural bias and her parents; insistence that she devote herself to more “appropriate” womanly pursuits. Given the task of transcribing notes from her father’s war reporting, Claire was haunted by the appalling numbers of casualties and the descriptions of war on a colossal scale, and, after hearing biblical truth through Chambers’ ministry, she turned to Christ, first as a coping mechanism to survive the war, but ultimately as a Savior and reliable Guide for her future.

Ule anchors her characters in early 20th century England and France with vivid multi-sensory descriptions of honking taxis and rumbling horse drawn transports that combined for nose-assaulting bedlam — this along with an affluent socialite aunt who played bridge with “Clemmie” Churchill and a worship service in which Robert E. Lee’s disenfranchised daughter turns up veiled in black and wandering Europe.

Relevant Counsel from Chambers

Chambers’s counsel to Claire in her spiritual pilgrimage comes directly from the pages of his sermon notes, so not only does it ring true, but it applies to present day believers as well:

“I find it helps to brood on the unknown and let it sit in your soul.” (33)

“Sanctification means intense concentration on God’s point of view. Every power of body, soul, and spirit are chained and kept for God’s purpose.” (121)

Through Claire’s eyes, the reader experiences the heat, the lice, and the drills of soldiers deployed in Egypt and also the heartache and terror of the European front that hit close to home and left grief in its wake. With nearly 17 million deaths all tolled, many emerged from their experience of World War I without hope. Even the poppies that sprouted from soil churned by tanks and soldiers’ boots were taken as a symbol of the war and a sign that beauty can, indeed, survive ugliness, but lasting hope comes only through submitting one’s entire life to the God who already owns it.

Our yesterdays present irreparable things to us; it is true that we have lost opportunities which will never return, but God can transform this destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness for the future. Let the past sleep, but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ. Leave the irreparable past in His hands, and step out into the irresistible future with Him.”        ~Oswald Chambers   (397)


Many thinks to the author for providing this book to facilitate my review which is, of course, offered freely and with complete honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Poppy in Remembrance or Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional, simply click on the title here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photo of poppies by Monica Galentino on Unsplash

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Celebrating Christmas in a Season of Loss

In a year that has seen at least 23 school shootings, parental grief lies very near the surface of our society. At the same distressing time, a stunning 1 in 4 women has had an abortion by age 45, creating a quieter, but even greater undercurrent of grief — one mostly unshared and unacknowledged. Then there are the countless precious children who have died too soon a thousand other ways.

How many parents that you know are facing another Christmas without their son or daughter?

Entering into the mourning of friends (or even total strangers), we rarely know how to comfort them — how to do or say something that puts God’s mercy on display, while trumpeting the joy of our blessed hope, all with appropriate sensitivity. We desperately want to avoid a candy-coated misuse of Romans 8:28 that forces tragedy into some sort of untainted blessing without acknowledging the lacerating loss. The tension renders us wordless.

But where we are wordless, the word of God is not. Woven into the account of the Messiah’s birth is a story of childhood death, a blunt and brutal story that brings parental grief right into the “most wonderful time of year.”

Capture

I’m teaming up with Desiring God today in sharing this call to a compassionate observance of Holy Innocents Day during this challenging season for parents (and others) who grieve. Click here to join me over there for the rest of the article.

May Joy and Peace Be Yours,

Michele Morin

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Are You Ready to Receive the Gift of Advent?

One day, the Gift of all gifts was carried into a public space.

Although the Gift could have come with a transcendence too glorious for human eyes,
It came instead in the arms of a young Jewish woman.

No one noticed,
For the Gift was small,
Unexpected.

Besides–
No one was looking for a Gift that day. . .

No one but Simeon.

We don’t know when Simeon’s vigil began or how he discerned that the wait was finally over,
But he was there, standing watch at the Jerusalem Temple.

His life had been lived in anticipation of an arrival, and
His leading was no less compelling than an angel appearance,
For the Spirit was upon him,
Communicating with him, and
Compelling him to take his post.

With roots planted in the thin soil between the Testaments,
Somehow Simeon grew to hear the voice of God.
Did it come with audible clarity?
Or was it more like a raised eyebrow,
A nod, or the lift of a chin to point in a certain direction?

Seeing the Child,
Simeon sang his dismissal from duty,
a new psalm from Jewish lips
with lyrics of hope that moved beyond
the great salvation of Mary’s song;
With a wider circle even than
Zacharias’s anthem of redemption and blessing.

Simeon’s cameo appearance trumpeted
Revelation to the Gentiles AND
Glory to Israel,
A Divine Fiat of both/and,
Intended to rebuke an either/or culture that had all but forgotten Old Testament prophecies of Light to the Gentiles.

“How silently, how silently the Wondrous Gift was given,”
for even now, the Gift of all gifts goes unseen and unheard.
We are out for flashing lights,
Our gifts are mired in the moment, and
The lyrics to our songs get it all wrong.

After all, a message with a sword running through it is hard on the ears.

Mission fulfilled, Simeon was dismissed from his post,
But his shadowy sword-words concerning those who would “speak against” the Babe in his arms came to pass, and the sword would, indeed, flash through Mary’s heart,
Leaving the human race still divided, but along a new fissure–
the line between darkness and light.

Unbelievably, my eyes, too, have seen God’s salvation
And Simeon’s words, spoken over a tiny Baby, have been fulfilled:

Jesus has revealed the true God and the true Way.

The question is, are we
(Am I?)
ready to welcome Christ as He really is?


Celebrating the Season of Advent with Joy,

Michele Morin

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Musings: November 2018

In just a few days, we’ll begin the season of Advent. Even if you don’t observe much else on the liturgical calendar, it’s hard to avoid the on-ramp to Christmas. Instead of counting shopping days and check marks on my do-list, my practice has been to think of Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’s birth. There’s no magic formula for this. When my sons were all young and enthusiastic (and boisterous!), we did a daily project:  baking together, crafting an ornament, visiting a nursing home, or even bailing out of the homeschool schedule early and reading big stacks of Christmas books. We’ve looked at Old Testament prophecies and thought about the message of the angel, the response of the shepherds, and the visitation of the mysterious magi. Advent puts time on our side for more in depth teaching than can ever happen in a quick read through of Luke 2 on Christmas eve.

One component of Advent that seems to get lost in the tinsel is the recognition that Jesus had a very somber and serious reason for showing up all pink and newborn in that Bethlehem manger. He would grow up to bear our griefs and to carry our sorrows, to be wounded and bruised so that we could know healing and peace.  From time to time all of us feel the dissonance of Christmas joy alongside regular old December stress, and to varying degrees our own experiences have confirmed that Simeon’s prophecy of a heart-piercing sword is not the only evidence that the Incarnation started out tinged with blood.

David Bannon is a grieving father who knows the bitter taste of disappointment–with life, and with himself. He was convicted of felony charges in 2006, and, then, in January of 2015 his twenty-six year old daughter died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose.  He found his way back into a true and heartfelt celebration of Christmas by embracing the grief as well as the solace expressed in Christian art. The result is Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a collection of twenty-five meditations based on paintings that become devotional in nature as they “convey truth rather than arguing for it.” (xi)

Leaning into the joy as well as the sorrow during Advent prepares the heart for a celebration of Christ’s birth that is rooted in hope. Since “grief can ruin or mature us,” (11) there is wisdom in bringing it out into the open to do its work, and Bannon employs a palette of Scripture references, quotations from great literature, and images of masterpieces from a collection of flawed, troubled, and wildly talented artists in his creation of twenty-five meditations to carry the pause of communion through the season of Advent.

Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, is a guide for those who, perhaps, would not appreciate a more traditional approach to Advent, but who would find companionship in the healing knowledge that they do not suffer alone.

November News

My feet are still firmly planted in the season of Thanksgiving. Ten Morins gathered around the table this year, and I was so caught up in the joy of it that I took nary a picture.

 

 

The kitchen renovation has been front and center here on the hill this month. We tore the old kitchen away down to the shiny insulation and even removed the wall adjoining the bathroom (Don’t ask!). We have installed new windows, new cabinets, and new flooring, and I’m still in shock, but am making a valiant attempt at returning to some semblance of normalcy before we add a Christmas tree to the chaos soup that has become our living space.

 

 

This is high school musical season here in mid-coast Maine, and my youngest son was bringing down the house as Donkey in Shrek the Musical. It’s a hectic season with seven performances, but coordinating concessions for sale during intermission has given this homeschooling mum a way to serve the community while getting to know other parents and also the students my own kids hang out with when they are involved in public school activities. We’ve got a faithful band of area businesses and parents who donate goodies and bottled water, and we do a booming business to raise money for the program.

November Reading and Writing

The women in my Sunday school class have finished reading Cynthia Heald’s Becoming a Woman of Grace (Bible Studies: Becoming a Woman)and we’re moving on to a study of, perhaps, the most misunderstood book of the Old Testament, the book of Judges. I can’t begin to say how much I’m looking forward to this!

 

 

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Here at Living Our Days, I’ve shared three books in the month of November, and you’re invited to check out my reviews, especially if you’re looking for gift ideas for the readers in your life:

All the Colors We Will See by Patrice Gopo
It’s All Under Control by Jennifer Dukes Lee
I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

 

 

It was very satisfying to team up with Desiring God again this month with a post I wrote from the ongoing experience of being a mother-in-law in training. Then, when Jeanne Takenaka invited me to write about gratitude for her blog, I felt right at home with the topic–not because I’ve mastered it by any means, but because it’s something I am committed to writing about until I begin to get a handle on it. Gratitude is a matter of obedience, and it is a choice we have to make, by faith.

I was especially thankful in November for the opportunity to take a blogging break so that I could be more fully present for family and for all the Thanksgiving activity. It was a good week, and well-timed.

I’m giving thanks for you, trusting that your season of Thanksgiving has filled you up with joy and an abiding gratitude for all that God has given — and for the Giver Himself as He presides over the many gatherings still to come in this season of celebrations.

 

Many thanks to Paraclete Press for providing a copy of Wounded in Spirit to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

For those who have been missing the What I’m Into community, you’ll be thrilled to learn that Shannan (of shannanenjoyslife.com) is carrying the torch forward! Click here for a link to the November gathering!

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations or any of the resources mentioned in this post, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you make a purchase a tiny percentage helps support the work I do here at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Invited into the Deep Welcome of Friendship

Across the miles they drove, journeying four hours north on washboard roads until they reached this country hill.

“We want to talk about the conference,” they had said on the phone.  “We can fill you in on the details in person.  The more you know about us, the easier it will be for you to prepare.”

I heard their words, but I was deaf to their hearts, because as the date of their visit approached, the puddle of panic around me grew deeper and murkier.  The faithless ponderings multiplied:

They’ll be sorry they traveled all this way to meet someone so ordinary.
Will they want to quiz me on my theology?
I’m sure they’ll take one look at my tiny kitchen and my beat up wooden floors and decide that I’m a mess, too.

This, for me, has been the challenge of the Christian life:  to boldly welcome others into the mess that is me, and then to trust – to trust that God will build a bridge between our hearts, and to trust that others will respond with acceptance and love.

As it happens, my new friends arrived a few minutes late – G.P.S.’s aren’t much help out here!  More important, though, when they showed up in my driveway, they did not arrive bearing an impossible yardstick or hearts of judgment.  They were not expecting me to look or to sound like a conference speaker or to live in a museum of Pinterest perfection.

We exchanged warm hugs and settled down to business.

 

Capture

And may I invite you to join us?
{I would love for you to continue reading with me over at The Perennial Gen . . .}

And while you’re there be sure to brighten up your inbox by subscribing to their regular updates!

Michele Morin

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To finish reading this post, click here and join me today at The Perennial Gen, a space for Christian women and men in the second half of life.

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Reading as a Way of Life

I never leave the house without a book . . . BUT one busy Wednesday when an unexpected medical appointment pushed an already derailed schedule even further off track, I jumped into the driver’s seat of our car, headed down the bumpy hill of our driveway, and only then realized the horrible truth. In my rush, I had not even thought to grab my book on the way out the door. Time was already in short supply, so there was no turning back. My fate was sealed, so I faced the daunting prospect of a waiting room chair and magazine roulette with as much courage as I could muster.

If you are not a bookish individual, well. . . you’re probably thinking that I have bigger problems than an over-booked Wednesday. However, if you ARE of a book-ish persuasion, then I feel certain that you have just commiserated with me throughout this first paragraph, because you know. When reading is a way of life, there’s always a book somewhere. Packing for vacation becomes a delightful process of choosing the right number, size, and selection of books to fit the space and the time available. Finishing the book of the moment always leads to the joyous question of, “What Should I Read Next?” Anne Bogel has come alongside book lovers with a podcast that seeks to answer that important question, and now there is a book, a collection of essays, uniquely crafted for the bibliophile’s journey through life, coming from a guide who is also a fellow traveler.

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life is the conversation you long to have over tea with a fellow book nerd. It’s the 150-page embodiment of the classic C.S. Lewis friendship filter question: “What? You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”  True to her claim that she “doesn’t get bossy,” Anne poses a number of the great questions of the reading life, shares her own conclusions in a conversational style, and leaves readers free to live their way into their own conclusions as they experience the delights and persevere through the dilemmas of the reading life:

To Find or to Be Found?

While Anne makes reading recommendations to guests on her podcast, she is also a firm believer that “books move in mysterious ways” (29) and may come looking for you at just the right time. Of course, it is also true that for the sincere book lover, planning one’s reading is a huge part of the fun, and suggestions from friends and catalogs and book reviews make this kind of planning possible.  Recommendations from one adult to another should never be delivered as assignments, and Anne warns against the word “should–a dangerous word, a warning sign that we’re crossing an important boundary and veering into book bossiness.”

What’s your opinion? Do you like to find your books or do you prefer to be found by them?

Library or Bookshelves?

The minimalist in me loves my local library. I can read, enjoy, and return without making a dent in the precious space on my bookcases. Some books, however, just have to become part of the collection, and Anne offers suggestions for organizing those book shelves that range from suggested methods (by color? by Dewey Decimal? by Trivial Pursuit Category?) to thoughts on the expendability of dust jackets. Before I started reviewing books for publishers, at least 75% of my reading material came from the library. Now, I read fewer than a dozen library books per year, which makes me a little sad.

Are you a borrower or a buyer?

Do You Read the Extra Stuff?

Anne recalls the season in which she began reading the author’s acknowledgements, discovering whom they thank, in what order, and what they divulge about their writing process. To me this is all a gold mine! In addition, I keep an extra book mark in the footnotes so I can easily turn back and refer to them as they appear in the text. (They are a great source for future reading!)

Do you skip over the introduction, author’s acknowledgement, and footnotes to a book or are they part of the reading experience for you? 

To Re-read or Not to Re-read?

One fall in the early 90’s a friend recommended Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and it became my go-to read every autumn for years afterward. I picked it up again this fall for a ruminative re-read after a gap of at least ten years and found that the aging process has only heightened my appreciation of the book. Bogel, too, has “found that a good book not only holds up to repeated visits, but improves each time we return to it. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.'” Because we change, a re-read is hardly ever a static experience.

Do you feel as if there are too many great books in the world to bother re-reading or do you re-visit old books like old friends?

Are You a Book Person?

I’d Rather Be Reading piggybacks on a rich Madeleine L’Engle quote:

“The great thing about getting older is you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”   

Your present day reading life has been shaped by all the readers you have ever been. This is good news because it means that somehow, in this season of reading lots of Christian non-fiction, my impressions are being enriched by my depressing-Russian-novel-phase, my obsession with Luci Shaw’s poetry, and the year I read nothing but Tolkien.

If you regularly find yourself getting hooked on a story line, if you think about the characters in a book long after you’ve reached the last page (maybe even mentally continuing the story or wondering what those characters are up to), or if you feel as if you know a favorite author well enough to have decided that they could be your friend should you happen to meet them–or that you would be terrified of them–you are probably a book person. For you, reading is more than a hobby or a pastime or a means to an end. Reading is a way of life.

Many thanks to Baker Books for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Loving the reading life,

Michele Morin

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life,simply click on the title here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.