Thursday, December 29, 2005

Book Thoughts: The Cross Centered Life

After hearing this book recommended several times, I picked up The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing by C. J. Mahaney. It's one of those small books published by Multnomah (after Jabez hit the big time, they went a little crazy with small books). But size is not always correlated to content, as this book demonstrates.

In seven short chapters, Mahaney discusses how to live a life intentionally centered on the gospel. This book reminded me of (and made me again grateful for) the abundant teaching I have received on this matter in the last 8 years or so. It wasn't until I went away to college and sat under certain teachers, all the while attending an amazing church, that my understanding of Christ and the gospel was truly deepened. And, thankfully, this intentional cross-centered teaching and preaching continues to inform my thinking as I sit under the ministry of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

So this book was a source of gratitude for me as I read it. After establishing the gospel as the necessary primary focus of the Christian, the book addresses three common areas into which we can allow ourselves to drift and thus get "off-center": legalism (performance as a means of earning grace), condemnation (guilt/shame), and subjectivism (listening to ourselves). He also offers some practical ways to intentionally place the gospel at the center of our daily thinking. If you'd like a short yet focused reminder of the grace and gospel of God in Christ, read The Cross Centered Life.

"We never move on from the cross, only into a more profound understanding of the cross."
~David Prior (quoted in The Cross-Centered Life)

And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story
That I have loved so long.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Poem Thoughts: "Spring and Fall"

I've had an increasing interest in poetry lately. I loved teaching Emily Dickinson to my 11th grade class this year more than I ever have before. So with a gift card from a student, I purchased Poems to Read, a work that's part of the Favorite Poem Project, headed by Robert Pinsky, a former poet laureate of the United States.

One poem that has remained with me even after reading it several days ago is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) that I had never read before. I think it captures perfectly the bittersweet angst of growing up. The narrator, though having the perspective of years, knows of what he speaks.

Spring and Fall
To a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Book Thoughts: Making It Up

I love reading book reviews. When I worked at the BJ Press in grad school, one of my favorite parts was that we "had" to read Library Journal, The Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly. I had never really looked at those magazines before, and I adored them. I still try to read PW on occasion at Barnes & Noble, along with Pages and Bookmarks, two other magazines about books. And every Sunday morning over breakfast, I read Book World from The Washington Post.

Needless to say, my "Books to Read" list can get quite out of hand. (And this is just one category -- the "Reviewed Books" category. Others include "Books I Discover while Browsing," "Books Recommended by People I Know," "Books I Own that I Must Get around to Reading at Some Point.") Sometimes I'll go a little crazy and check several out from the library at one time, then find myself overwhelmed and return most unread. But occasionally, I do actually read the books. :-) Making It Up by Penelope Lively is one such book.

I had read reviews of this book which caught my attention. Writers are often asked the question, "Do you write out of your own experience?", and Lively says that this book is her answer. She calls it an "anti-memoir" -- a collection of stories centered around the "what if?" question. She takes moments from her life when something could have happened but didn't, and creates a story exploring the possibility that never occurred.

For example, Lively lived in Egypt as child, and when British citizens had to evacuate during WWII, her family went to Palestine. But they could have made the choice to go to South Africa as many others did. Lively fashions a story around a young woman (a nanny) who travels by boat to South Africa during this time period.

This is the first book I've read by Penelope Lively, and I'm far more inclined to pick up another one by her in the future. I found the stories to be intriguing and distinct, each with their own flavor, and yet somehow unified under the organzing principle.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting. ~ Micah 5:2

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
Be born here, in this place”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says, “Yes,
Let the God of heaven and earth be born here –
In this place.

~ Leslie Leyland Fields

Friday, December 23, 2005

It's a Girl!

And I'm an aunt!

Olivia Jane Guthrie was born last night at 10:48pm to my sister Katie and her husband Ben. Olivia weighs 8lbs, 13oz and is 22 inches long. She's the first grandchild on both sides, so she's in for plenty of spoiling.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Favorite Quote

I struggle against the idea that characters in novels should be role models. Role models may inspire some children--but they didn't inspire any child that I ever was. They only discouraged me. Whereas that awful, bad-tempered, selfish Mary Lennox--who could admire her? Who could love such an unlovable creature? Yet she was given the key to a secret garden. Not because she deserved it, but because she needed it.

~ Katherine Paterson, "The Child in the Attic"

Monday, December 19, 2005

Movie Thoughts: The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe

More comprehensive reviews of this movie are available nearly everywhere, so I will not even attempt one. Besides, as the titles of these sorts of posts testify, all I aim to do is offer a few "thoughts" on movies, books, etc. I have enough guilt over my "things that must get done" list without adding full-scale reviews to it. :-) So here are my random thoughts on this movie:

The White Witch: I really enjoyed Tilda Swinton in this role. She was a good blend of iciness, fierceness, and attractiveness. I found it believable that Edmund would be taken in by her. If anything, I thought she could have been even more intense.

Aslan: I suppose it's to be expected that a character of this sort can never live up to one's imagination. I also found myself remembering comments from a class on Paradise Lost -- that it is easier for us to portray evil in all its "glory" than it is for us to portray goodness. Somehow we always fall short in portraying true goodness. It's either too flat, too sentimental, etc. So I felt that way in watching Aslan. He was fine, but not amazing.

"Not a tame lion": I had wondered where these lines were, and found them moved to nearly the end of the movie (in the book, they're in the middle). It was an effective change, I thought, for the movie, since it allowed the full force of Aslan's character to inform the audience's understanding of the words.

Father Christmas: This is one of my favorite parts in the book, and it was in the movie as well. I love that Lewis sees the Story of Christianity as one that can encompass all the stories we tell, and therefore it is completely right and wonderful that Santa Claus shows up in the story. I found this scene in the movie to be one of the most affective.

Overall, I thought this movie was very good. I'm certainly not a Lewis expert or fanatic -- I haven't even read the entire Narnia series. Also, my favorite work of Lewis's is Till We Have Faces (which I adore) rather than The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe. But I very much enjoy the book and I enjoyed the movie as well.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Movie Thoughts: Memoirs of a Geisha

To celebrate the start of a two-week Christmas break, another teacher and I headed off to the movies yesterday after school. We saw "Memoirs of a Geisha," the new film based on Arthur Golden's book.

The overwhelming impression I left the theater with is that this movie is gorgeous. The actors, the music, the fabrics, the dancing, the scenery -- all unite to create a movie that's enjoyable simply on its sensory appeal alone.

I had tried to read the novel several months ago in anticipation of the movie. And while it held my attention somewhat, I just couldn't get into it. About halfway through I gave up the fight to persist until the end and returned it to the library. I did wonder, though, if the movie would demonstrate that I had made a hasty decision in not reading the whole thing. But after seeing the movie yesterday, I actually felt somewhat affirmed in my choice. A few times during the movie, I had the impression that if I took a few junior high girls I know and dressed them up in beautiful kimonos, I would have quite a similar storyline.

You may disagree with me. The coworker I was with cried at the end (though she laughingly admitted she wasn't really sure why). But this one didn't emotionally resonate with me on a story level. I didn't feel all that attached to the characters (besides hoping things would turn out well for these beautiful people) or to the love story, which is a primary motivation for Chiyo (the main character).

But I wasn't bored at all. I truly enjoyed the whole movie. It's stunning. I would probably see it at least once more. I'm considering buying the soundtrack. I loved the closing lines.

So, perhaps sometimes, sensory appeal alone is enough.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen

On this day in 1775, Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England.

"All of this was done by a quiet maiden lady who had merely paper and ink at her disposal; all of this is conveyed by little sentences between inverted commas and smooth paragraphs of point. Only those who have realized for themselves the ridiculous inadequacy of a straight stick dipped in ink when brought in contact with the rich and tumultuous glow of life can appreciate to the full the wonder of her achievement, the imagination, the penetration, the insight, the courage, the sincerity which are required to bring before us one of those perfectly normal and simple incidents of average human life. Besides all these gifts and more wonderful than any of them, for without it they are apt to run to waste, she possessed in a greater degree perhaps than any other English woman the sense of the significance of life apart from any personal liking or disliking; of the beauty and continuity which underlies its trivial stream. A little aloof, a little inscrutable and mysterious, she will always remain; but serene and beautiful also because of her greatness as an artist."

~ Virginia Woolf on Austen

Thursday, December 15, 2005

On this day in literature . . .

. . . Emma was published in 1815, one day before Jane Austen's 40th birthday (which should provide a small clue as to tomorrow's post).

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Monday, December 12, 2005

In Praise of Netflix

I recently received a free two-week trial for Netflix. And, yes, I know that these "free trials" are nothing more than marketing ploy to compel me, along with millions of other Americans, to join the bandwagon of consumerism.

I have happily joined the masses.

I love watching movies. I'm certainly no great connoisseur (for wise words on that matter, check out Explorations), but I enjoy them. During my first year of teaching, there were times when I simply couldn't bear to look at any more words; even my reading for pleasure fell by the wayside at that time. So movies became my sanity. And I still love to watch them, even though, thankfully, I no longer feel as though I'm constantly drowning in words. And while nothing beats a quiet theater on Friday afternoon after a week of school (where only once have I run into my students, but that's another story), Netflix runs a close second for me.

I used to think that I would be content to stay with my little local videostore with its selection of current movies as well as a good number of British and foreign movies. But at nearly $4.50 a movie, I can run up quite a bill in a month. And even they don't carry everything. Netflix is the perfect solution for someone like me. I have the $14.99/month plan, which allows me to have two movies out at a time, with unlimited rentals in a month. I pick the movies I want and line them up in a queue in the order I prefer. They're shipped to my mailbox, I watch them, and then send them back in a postage-paid envelope that comes with the DVD. In the last two weeks, I've been catching up on season one of "House," one of my favorite TV shows.

And though I have the occasional twinge of guilt that I'm neglecting an independent store (and all the idealistic values that get attached to that concept) in favor of a "big, bad superstore," the deal just outweighs any sense of obligation I might have to the local store.
And, besides, the only reason I feel guilty is that, as the quote under my blog title testifies, I'm a big fan of "You've Got Mail," and, in some way, I feel that joining Netflix is the equivalent of abandoning Meg Ryan and her children's bookshop in favor of Tom Hanks and Fox Books. :-)

So, all that to say, that if you enjoy movies, and find yourself renting an average of three or more a month, you might want to give Netflix a try. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Hymn

I remember hearing this song at Heritage Bible Church in Greenville, SC. It had been set to a recent arrangement, which I remember as lilting, haunting, and comforting all at the same time.

My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death
His presence is my stay;
One word of His supporting grace
Drives all my fears away.
His hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
His oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

Words by Isaac Watts, 1719.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Happy Birthday, Emilys!

On this day in 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts.

On this day in 1987, Emily Ruffner was born in Warrenton, Virginia.

I did not discover that these Emilys share a birthday until this year. So Happy Birthday, Emilys. :-)

Here's one of my favorite poems by the first Emily:


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—

Friday, December 09, 2005

On this day in literature . . .

. . . John Milton was born in London, 1608. At the age of 42, he lost his sight (an affliction which Sonnet 19 below addresses). He would later produce the greatest English epic, Paradise Lost.

Excerpts from the opening lines of Paradise Lost:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse . . .
. . . What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low, raise and support;
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

~ ~ ~ ~

Sonnet XIX

When I consider how my light is spent,
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

~ ~ ~ ~

And my favorite lines from Areopagitica, pounded into my head in Dr. Silvester's Milton class (thank you!) :

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Snow Day?


Though teaching has its drawbacks, (such as, oh, say, no life?) there are certain benefits. The three months of summer rank rather high on the list, but following close behind are those lovely things we call snow days. It is at times like this that I am glad I'm part of a profession that freaks out when flakes begin to fall.

I've been hearing rumors at school of a ritual performed by students in hopes of appealing to the snow gods. Something about spoons under pillows and pajamas inside out? I just may have to join them.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

All I Want for Christmas . . .

. . . is a few good books. Actually there are only four at the top of my list right now.

The Book of Common Prayer 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book

The Elements of Style (Strunk & White) -- Illustrated by Maira Kalman

The remaining two I'd like are The Five Books of Moses and The Art of Biblical Narrative, both of which I blogged about in an earlier post. I've been using library copies, and I have a feeling I'm going to reach my renewal limit soon.

So what are you hoping for this Christmas?

Monday, December 05, 2005

On this day in literature . . .

. . . Christina Rossetti was born in London, 1830.

A poem of hers I remember from elementary school . . .

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.

A poem of hers we often sing at Christmas . . .

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part, -
Yet what I can, I give Him,
Give my heart.

And a short poem of hers that is one of my favorites . . .

O Lord, I cannot plead my love of Thee:
I plead Thy love of me; –
The shallow conduit hails the unfathomed sea.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Solemn Harmonies

In the Book World section of today's Washington Post, there is an excellent article by Michael Dirda, a book critic for the Post, in which he extolls the virtues of sacred prose, commenting that "there are times when only the full organ roll of liturgical prose can match the glory or sacredness of the occasion." He writes that the five sources of religious eloquence in the English language are the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, The Pilgrim's Progress, hymns by writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, and the classical traditions of oratory and homily. He then spends the remainder of the article examining excerpts from each.

In my writing classes, the students practice imitation, short exercises in which they copy out passages from literature or great speeches or Scripture. They are now copying out Luke 2:1-14, and so I am thrilled that Dirda opens his article with a section from this passage. In fact, I enjoyed this article so much that, though they are at this moment unaware, my students will tomorrow be receiving handouts of this article and listening as their teacher reads it aloud to them with her own inserted exhortations. :-) I highly encourage you to read it as well.

This article was an excellent prelude to the hymns we sang at church this morning: "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah," "O What Matchless Condescension," "Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor," "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," and our closing hymn, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence."

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Sunday Hymn

Thy Mercy

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song,
The joy of my heart. and the boast of my tongue;
Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last,
Hath won my affections, and bound my soul fast.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here;
Sin would reduce me to utter despair;
But, through Thy free goodness, my spirits revive,
And He that first made me still keeps me alive.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart;
Dissolved by Thy goodness, I fall to the ground,
And weep to the praise of the mercy I’ve found.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son;
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.

The words of this hymn were written by John Stocker in 1776. I first heard it on the CD "In the Company of Angels" (2001) by Caedmon's Call. Sandra McCracken, the wife of one of the members of Caedmon's Call, wrote the music that accompanies the hymn on the CD. I have no idea what sort of tune this hymn was sung to when it first appeared, but the updated music fits the song perfectly.

Caedmon's Call, along with other Christian bands such as Jars of Clay ("
Redemption Songs"), has quite effectively updated certain hymns. World Magazine gave "Redemption Songs" a solid review this past summer. Though much of what fills the book and music sections at a typical Christian bookstore is merely overrated fluff, I'd highly recommend "Redemption Songs" as well as "In the Company of Angels."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The 10 Best Books of 2005

The New York Times has offered its opinion on the 10 Best Books of 2005 (5 fiction and 5 nonfiction). Of the ten, I've read only one -- Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, which was intriguing if not uplifting. And of the others, the ones I'm intrigued by and may add to my library list are Kafka on the Shore (fiction) and The Lost Painting (nonfiction). Has anyone else read any of these?