An Exuberant Life

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior:  A Book Review

In order for Hannah More to be truly Hannah More, she had to challenge nearly every aspect of her cultural context.  Fierce Convictions is richly historical and rooted deeply in the period straddling the 18th and 19th centuries, because it is impossible to appreciate the impact of Hannah More’s life without knowing the circumstances of her world at the time:

  • Female education was not only rare, but it was also frowned upon.
  • Female authors were nearly unheard of and also frowned upon.
  • Women were trained for marriage and housekeeping only and were expected to marry young.
  • Novels and religious books barely existed as literary genres.
  • Outreach to the poor and the concept of foreign missions had gotten lost somewhere in the clutter of English class consciousness.
  • Slavery was deeply ingrained in England’s social and economic identity.

Hannah’s “bright imagination” and commitment to follow God led her to challenge each of these realities, and Karen Swallow Prior has masterfully captured  More’s role in her subtitle:  The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.

Poet

I’m convinced that if Hannah More had lived in our time, she would have had a blog.  It was in her nature to communicate through whatever medium was available, in spite of the general disdain for “the female pen.”  Positively prolific, Hannah applied her gift for verse to current events and social situations, making a name and a place for herself among elite circles (in spite of very humble beginnings).  The Inflexible Captive launched her career as a dramatic author, and she went on to make a comfortable living and an impact on contemporary culture writing Cheap Repository Tracts (a most unflattering name for short pamphlets on relevant topics at the reading level of the newly literate).  If she believed that it would help her message to be received more readily, she wrote anonymously.  Her one and only novel broke ground for 19th century novelists such as Dickens, Thackeray and the Bronte sisters.  Because her writing so closely reflected her thinking throughout her life, I would suggest an appendix in a future edition of the book with a detailed time line of all her publications and major life events.

Reformer

Although best known for her efforts to abolish slavery in England, Hannah’s tongue and pen touched on everything from prison reform, crime prevention, and animal cruelty to dueling, Sabbath observance, and philanthropy.  With her four unmarried sisters, she established a girls’ school, eschewing the “superficial nature” of women’s education at that time.  Income from this and her writing, along with an annuity provided by a suitor (who had jilted her three times), allowed her to be financially independent, thus giving her the freedom to put feet to her convictions.  For example, when the hideous living conditions in the impoverished Cheddar Gorge came to her attention, she and her younger sister established themselves in the area, started a Sunday School, and went door-to-door to assess the peoples’ needs.

Abolitionist

Every gift, every experience, every social contact, and every ounce of confidence that Hannah More had gained as a writer and a reformer were marshaled in her pursuit of emancipation for slaves in the British Empire.  At a time when Britain owned more than half the world’s slave ships,  Hannah More joined William Wilberforce in the decades-long marathon effort of awakening the social and political conscience of the people through any means available to them.  On the home front, Hannah refused to serve West Indian sugar (it “had blood on it” because of it’s dependence on the slave trade).  She spoke against slavery at every opportunity, becoming the single most influential woman in the British abolitionist movement.  She died less than two months after the Emancipation Bill passed in the House of Commons.  Her poem “Slavery” was so widely known and so effective in communicating empathy for the slaves that it later inspired David Livingstone to take Christianity to Africa.

Hannah sparkled.  She loved and worked with people of different religions and political convictions because, for Hannah, “life was a feast, and the space at her table was abundant.”  Even when writing on sober topics, Hannah More, “the first Victorian,” managed to write with humor and an engaging style.  I found myself collecting favorite aphorisms as I progressed through the book:

“On the whole, is it not better to succeed as women than to fail as men?  . . . to be good originals, rather than bad imitations?”

We “must never proportion our exertion to our success, but to our duty.”

“It should be held as an eternal truth, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right.”

To “learn how to grow old gracefully is perhaps one of the rarest and most valuable arts which can be taught to women.”

Given her huge impact and her prodigious talent, it would have been easy for a biographer to lionize Hannah More as a plastic and one-dimensional saint.  Karen Swallow Prior has avoided this by examining her flesh-and-blood weaknesses and blind spots.  For instance, Hannah offset her wild productivity with periods of “illness” in which she would take to her bed, often in conjunction with the inevitable criticism she received for her bold stands and actions.  She was very sensitive to the opinions and regard of the “upper class,” and never reached the point where she saw the need for the poor to learn to write.  Too, her lack of practical experience did not stop her from weighing in on how wives should conduct themselves and how mothers should raise their children.

Having said that, Hannah More is on my list of “Women to Have Coffee (fair trade, naturally) with in Heaven,” and this is mainly because her life demonstrated that there is no station or set of circumstances in life that precludes usefulness to God.  Professionally, she was a poet, reformer, and abolitionist.  Personally, she was single, serving, and satisfied.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.

Advertisements

Merry Memorandum

Posted with thanks, unabashed hero worship, and apologies to E.B.White (7/11/1899 – 10/1/1985), author of Charlotte’s Web and other beloved tales.   He wrote “Memorandum,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine in October of 1941 and then compiled into One Man’s Meat in 1942 along with numerous other exquisite essays from White’s writing life.  I would listen to this man reading the phone book, and, therefore, celebrate the beauty of “mundane faithfulness” by borrowing his format and style for this blog post.

December 26, 2014

Today I should start tearing down the Christmas tree.  The needles have been falling off for over a week, and if I don’t drag it out of the living room soon, there will be more needles in the vacuum cleaner bag than there are on its branches.  Before I begin, however, I should open up the attic and bring down all the storage boxes so that everything will be put away properly.  This would be a good day to do that because the boys are all home and can help with the sorting.  I ought to repair the damaged ornaments and find hooks for all the orphaned decorations that are piled on top of the piano.  Then everything can be packed away in good condition.  First, though, I need to find the glue gun.  I’ll ask Micah where he left it when he used it to repair one of the nativity scenes.  Then I will pack up all the leftover wrapping paper, gift bags, ribbons, and tags so that I will know if I need to buy more on clearance.  I will store them under my bed, and if I write a note to myself in my planner, I’ll remember that they are there next Christmas.  Maybe.

Today I will drag the Christmas tree farther out into the woods than I did last year.  I’ll take it out where I threw the pumpkins back in November.  The cardinals have all but cleaned up the seeds — scarlet on orange brightening the dull brush pile.   Maybe they’d like a new place to perch.  While I’m at it, I ought to fill up all the birdfeeders.  I’ll have to get a wheelbarrow and find the red scoop so I can do all those chores at the same time.

Once that Christmas tree is out of the house and the floor is vacuumed and the gift wrap is put away,  I should hang the framed print of Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea that our good friends gave us for Christmas.  That will require a length of picture wire and the right kind of nails, which means a trip to  True Value and, as long as I’m going there anyway, I ought to ask Calvin if we need anything fixed on the chain saws.  While I’m in town, I ought to run into Lincoln’s for some more sour cream.  We’ve got chips left over from Christmas Eve dinner, and the kids will eat them up if I make some onion dip to help them slide down.  Some clementines would be good too.

It is high time I cleaned out the refrigerator which is packed full of little scrids of this and that, leftovers from Christmas entertaining.  This would be a good time to take on that task because the boys are home, and they won’t mind leftovers for lunch.

This would be a good day to run some Christmas goodies down to Charlie and Gail.  I’ll do that before I go to town.  Since I’m going out, I’d better finish up my thank you notes and drop them in the mailbox before the mail comes.  Some of those thank you’s are long overdue.  I should do it today while it is in my mind.

Today I should organize the shelves in the basement.  I’ve given away a fair amount of canned vegetables, pickles and jams this Christmas, which has freed up enough space so that I can rearrange and consolidate.  Of course, the man is coming to work on the furnace the first part of next week, so I ought to find that pile of old sheets to hang in front of all the shelves to keep soot off the jars while he’s tearing everything apart.  I wonder if Ike and Christine would like to keep their cooler at their new apartment since they now have more room.  I’ll have to email them and ask them about that.  If I’m going to be on the computer for that, I ought to put out a blog post this week.  Things have been pretty quiet around here, but maybe I can think of something to write about if I give myself some time.   I see it’s half-past eleven already, though, and everyone will be getting hungry soon.  I’d better get moving, especially since Calvin’s family is coming for lunch at noon.

Blessings to all on this Boxing Day as we all do eternally important things without realizing it.

Do You Want a Quiet Heart?

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled by Martin Lloyd Jones:  A Book Review

Sometimes we get it all wrong when we read Scripture.  We translate sentences through a syrupy grid of sentimentality (“Oh, that’s so comforting . . .”), when what we are looking at is a command.  Do this.

Thus begins sermon number one of Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, a compilation of eight sermons preached by Martin Lloyd Jones in 1951 when Cold War angst and post WWII gloom hung in the air of Great Britain as thick as London fog.  His musings on John 14 are no less relevant in today’s milieu of beheadings and suicide bombers, nor is his thesis:  “The greatest need of men and women in this world is the need of what is called a quiet heart, a heart at leisure from itself.”  He explores the various means that people use to achieve that goal and comes to a firm conclusion:  “The claim of the gospel is not only that it can give us a quiet heart, but also that nothing else can do it.”

Chapter 2 (i.e. sermon number two) sets forth Jesus’ own words as to just how that quiet heart comes about, and it, too, is a command:  Believe in God; believe also in me.  Sermons three through eight go on to reaffirm the foundations of Christian faith, asserting that the substance of what one believes about God does indeed matter, and that the calm and quiet heart that Jesus urges upon his disciples is not merely another anesthetic to numb the inevitable pain of life on a fallen planet.

Although it is tempting to recommend this book as an evangelistic tool for unbelieving family and friends, it may well have a more immediate purpose within the household of faith.  Jones gets to the core of biblical illiteracy and theological holes that plague the church:

“If we want to know exactly what believing in Him means, we must take the entire New Testament, the Acts and the epistles and the light they cast upon Him as well as the detailed records we have concerning Him in the four Gospels.”

We come to Christ through a cross, and the essence of this gospel will remain a mystery to those who neglect the Source of all Truth about God — the Bible.

With the words of Hudson Taylor, Jones urges his readers to “hold on to the faithfulness of God,” (Mark 11:22).  A right view of God will result in a right view of life, including realistic expectations for peace and happiness.  Doubting Thomas becomes the hero of the day, his stumbling, groping statements of doubt setting the stage for Jesus’ clarifying words that resonate through the ages:  “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me.”

Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled is a road map for the seeker, and a homing device for the believer who has lost his way.

This book was provided by Crossway Books in exchange for my unbiased review.

Resurrecting this post for my first link-up with Overflow’s #wholemama community!  Join us!

Just One Thing: Opposition

The way in which a person responds to opposition reveals the stuff he’s made of.   Nehemiah had barely unpacked his toothbrush in the ruined city of Jerusalem when his enemies started sharpening their swords — and their tongues.  Commentator Derek Kidner writes, “Sanballat and Tobiah throw a long shadow over the story.”

The truth is that without conflict, there is no story.  Where would Frodo be without Sauron?  The Pevensie children without the White Witch?  Wesley without Prince Humperdink?  Even though I know this is true, most days I still  wish I could leave out the conflict in my own story.   Perhaps this is why we tend to prefer Luke’s account of the Christmas story during this time of year. We love that he focuses on the shepherds’, the angels’, and Simeon’s and Anna’s welcome to the baby Jesus.  Matthew paints a darker tale of wise men who refuse to be informants, middle of the night narrow escapes, and a jealous king who will stop at nothing to protect his own interests.  Leave it to the weeping prophet (Jeremiah 31:15) to foretell the royal slaughter of all the children two and under in that region.  In Revelation 12, John also  portrays the dark side of the Christmas story in apocalyptic style with a red dragon standing before a woman in labor, waiting to devour her child.  The fact that Jesus was swept away from Herod’s scourge; that the Revelation 12 man-child was caught up to the throne of God; that Frodo destroyed the ring; that the White Witch was cast out of Narnia; and that Wesley and Buttercup lived happily ever after does not diminish the genuineness of the danger nor the importance of the process as conflict unfolds.

Nehemiah’s tattling and tongue-wagging enemies were against him from the start (2:9.10), and the sound of their derisive laughter followed close on the heels of Nehemiah’s rallying speech to the people of God, (2:18, 19).  No doubt these hecklers were prominent; they were titled; they had the wherewithal to make life very complicated for Nehemiah.  Kelly Minter paraphrases Nehemiah’s response brilliantly:  “He looked the opposition dead in the eye and said, ‘I’ve got God, and, by the way, He trumps everything.'”  He didn’t wave the royal decree under their noses.  He didn’t name drop (“Well, King Artaxerxes sure didn’t mention you guys when he said . . .”).  He didn’t whistle for the captains of the army and horsemen that had accompanied him from Susa.  He didn’t even offer to compromise or to give them an honorary position on the city council (see verse 20).  His heart stayed rooted in the truth he had prayed in chapter one verse five, because his hope was resting in the “great and awesome God of heaven.”

Opposition will be part of our story for as long as the setting of our story is planet Earth.  Unlike Nehemiah, we have the historical advantage of hindsight to a God who pulled victory out of a stone tomb, who will ultimately defeat the dragon, and who has given us bold promises of our ultimate triumph, (see Psalm 44:5; Luke 10:19; Romans 8:35-37; I John 5:4).

In the face of opposition, Nehemiah’s strategy was expressed in three words:  “Arise and build!”

(For further study, check out the verses on triumph listed above; read Nehemiah 1 and 2 in one sitting. . . and join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)

Slow Christmas

Light Upon Light

Compiled by Sarah Arthur:  A Book Review

The problem with reviewing a book like Light Upon Light is that Sarah Arthur has done such a fine job explaining her purpose in the introduction that anything I say feels superfluous.  As a guide to prayer during the season of Advent, she has compiled a rich assortment of poetry and prose from long ago and far away as well as from down the road and practically yesterday.

“Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another.  Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.”

And that’s exactly how it feels to read it and savor it, day by day, through the dark of December.

The readings are arranged into eighteen sections for four weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, two for the following Sundays, one for Epiphany and nine for the following weeks of Epiphany. Flexibility is the name of the game, so this is not another holiday straight-jacket, but, instead, a warm, comforting sweater.  Each reading has a suggested prayer, a psalm and suggested Scriptures, an assortment of readings to add flame upon flame, and then a suggested closing prayer.  The index of contributors is a valuable resource for further reading of favorite authors, or for answering the burning question, “Who wrote these gorgeous words?”

Partake of Light Upon Light like a delectable Christmas treat.  Let the words waft over you like the aroma of Christmas tea and hot cider.  Slow down your Christmas and find the Holy that has been right there all along.

A Lively Faith is Enhanced by a Lively Mind

Redeeming Philosophy:  A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions by Vern S. Poythress:  A Book Review

Why does anyone exist?

How do we come to know what we know?

Where do commonly held moral standards come from?

Do any of these questions matter to ordinary people in our “sleeping, eating, going to work, walking around life”?  Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, has taken on the task of smoothing the uneasy relationship between faith and philosophy — of “redeeming” philosophy, “the love of wisdom.”  By definition, this would involve “compensat[ing] for the faults or bad aspects of” philosophy.

Because The Big Questions eventually find their way back to God (or require His conscious exclusion), Poythress examines philosophy through the lens of theology.  What makes his approach unique is that he uses the three perspectives of John Frame, professor of systematic theology and author of numerous books, most notably The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, which presents Christian epistemology and the three perspectives which Poythress borrows:

(1) The normative perspective which “focuses on the norms, namely, God’s commandments.  It asks, ‘What does God command us to do?'”

(2) The situational perspective which “focuses on the situation.  It asks, ‘Given my situation, what actions of mine can best promote the glory of God and blessing for my fellowman?'”

(3) The existential perspective which “looks at the person.  What are my motives?  What attitudes and actions are driven by love?”

The author’s frequent use of John Frame’s work gave me the pleasant feeling that I was getting “two for the price of one.”  It was also helpful and admirable that when Poythress referred in passing to a topic which he knew he could not cover thoroughly and stick to his outline, he pointed his readers to additional books which would provide deeper discussion on the subject.

Poythress utilized Frame’s three perspectives like a magnifying glass over each of the major subdivisions of philosophy in order to demonstrate its ultimate purpose.  This multiperspectivalism has its roots in the Trinity in which there is perfect unity alongside the diversity of three personal perspectives.  This, for me, was one of the most intriguing discussions in the book, for Poythress employs another of Frame’s triads (authority, control, presence) to explain how one’s view of God leads one either away from truth or toward it.  For example, with regard to God’s presence, there is a “non-Christian transcendence” that over-emphasizes God’s otherness to the point that humans cannot expect to have personal communion with God.  Using apples, bookmarks, and the act of walking as homely examples, Poythress models for his reader  the manner of thinking that explores ideas or objects from various perspectives.  This is not a meaningless exercise in a vacuum, but rather a beam of light along which we may view the glory of God.

Although his explanation of metaphysics consumes a generous portion of the book, Poythress demonstrates that ethics, epistemology, psychology, logic, and aesthetics, and the more specialized branches of philosophy all harmonize.  Redeeming Philosophy is an excellent overview of the divisions of philosophy and is accessible even for a persevering high school student who wants to get a head start on the fascinating interplay of philosophy and theology.   Harnessing philosophy as a tool of theology, Poythress accomplishes the purpose that Redeeming Philosophy sets forth by facilitating the development of a “distinctly Christian approach to doing philosophy” and by encouraging believers to delight in the Truth and to think deeply about the Giver of Truth who alone holds the answers to all the Big Questions.

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my honest review.

Keeping Your Feet

Joel is a good skater.  Confident and eager, he knows the ropes, so I was just barely present in the semi-circle of parents as we listened to Coach Jesse’s instructions before the kids hit the ice.  I could easily have missed his words:

“If you feel like you’re falling, bend your knees.”

Huh?

How did he know that my list was too long, my day was too short, my minutes too few; that I was falling, and couldn’t find “up” anywhere?  Well, obviously he was not talking to this middle-aged, hair-on-fire, home-schooling mum.  He was giving the kids instructions for keeping their feet under them on the ice, but he had my attention.

Then, his lovely assistant took the floor to remind them of what NOT to do.

“Remember the little dance I showed you?”

Here, she shuffled her dainty skates in a mock pre-fall comic routine.

“If you feel like you’re falling, don’t try to catch yourself.”

Ahh . . . yes, I’ve never skated, but I know that dance.  I’ve choreographed it, performed it, lived it, and been bone tired from the heaviness of its rhythms, because here’s the truth:

“The Dance” does not keep me from falling.  I cannot catch myself.  That is God’s job.

The skating coaches in their warm winter hats had spoken truth, and it was time to bend my knees.

The theology of God’s keeping is actually a lot like a dance, or a skating routine.  In order for me to be “kept” by Him, I have to let Him do the keeping.  He is not impressed by my heroic efforts or my long days or my endless lists.  He does not ask me to single-handedly plan a VBS, to make detailed lesson plans for my children, or to write a weekly blog post.  He wants me to bend my knees.  He wants me to stop trying to earn the merit badge called “Competent” and to relax into the rhythm of his leading.

Didn’t I just teach a Sunday School class on Jude 24?

Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy . . .

Am I not privy on a daily basis to the reality of Psalm 116:8?

For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.

Gloria Furman has written two excellent books, and although I reviewed the second one last summer (https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/a-mothers-hands-are-always-full/), I have just recently read her first book (Thanks, Stephanie!).  Glimpses of Grace (Crossway, 2013) reminds busy mums that keeping our feet is really all about grace.  Much of the ministry of Jesus was centered around domestic things — seed, clothing, mud and spittle to name just a few.  Frequently, we overlook this in the midst of our “mundane faithfulness,” and the routines of life quickly become oppressive.  Written by a church planting missionary to Dubai with young children and a disabled husband, Glimpses of Grace is a shovel for digging out from under the rubble of self-condemnation; it is a rope to pull us out of our wallowing in boredom or despair; it is a kick in the seat of the pants for everyone who is waiting around for God to hand over the life and the circumstances we think we deserve.

Bend the knees, stop the dance, and let the grace of God keep you on your feet.