Abilene: A Letter To My Children

abilene2

[I wrote this reflective letter last month as part of a final project for the Fall 2016 Semester Honors Discourse in Cultural Theory, taught by Dr. Travis Frampton and Dr. Dan Stiver.]

My Dear Children,

I spent some years of my young adult life in a strange metropolis on the highway that shoots through arid West Central Texas as straight as an arrow. In the Gospel of Luke, there’s a tetrarch that governs a place called Abilene, a name that means stream or brook. Texan Abilene is a stream of sorts because people from all over the world stream into its several private universities and stream out full of purpose and dreams and ambitions. But Abilene is a desert too, a spot in a road that links desolate oilfields to desolate oilfields, a wasteland of dry and disembodied knowledge, a place where things come to die. It’s an enigma how the same place can either give life or take it, depending on what you’re looking for. I think it’s mostly about what you’re looking for.

wedding-2Of course, I haven’t met anyone yet – whether in Abilene or anywhere else – who was looking for death, who didn’t hope to make something of themselves or at least to be happy. Sometimes I think the hunger to be happy might be the lowest common denominator that links people together into one all-inclusive category. The thing is, what is it they want to make of themselves? I think there’s one dominant haunting question at the core of most of the anxiety that confronts young college students trying to figure out what to study and where to live and who to marry: What version of me is going to be the happy one? It was like that for me.

The myths clamor to answer this question. Because a myth is a story and stories give an illusion of structure to a world where sometimes nothing really seems to fit together, where nothing seems certain, where nothing makes sense. People used to tell myths around the fires at the heart of villages, out under the stars on warm summer nights. They used to spin tales to make sense of wind and sky and tempests and echos and all the things that troubled and thrilled them and kept them bound to the whims of the natural world. But today, myths pour in on big screens in cinemas and small screens in our pockets, and they answer different questions. Rather than trying to structure nature, which has been somewhat tamed for an increasingly urban world, they’re our best attempts to structure our freedom, to build a framework where we can fit and be confident that we made the best possible choice.

instagramBut how can you make the best possible choice when the choices are endless, when no matter what you pick, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life scrolling through the Instagram feeds of peers who chose other things and continuously broadcast what you will never have? When I try to think of a foremost trauma that has shaped my generation, I wonder if maybe this is it: Freedom. Options. The Infinity of Possibility. The War Against Regret. Social Media. How can we be safe from these things?

Let me tell you about Abilene. In Abilene, I learned how to mix a smooth watercolor wash and stretch art paper. I learned about voting math and asteroids. I learned how to get out of a chokehold and how to polka and how to conjugate the subjunctive tense in Spanish. But I also learned something else, something that easily eclipses all of these things, something that made the West Texas years worth it:

Life isn’t safe. You have to love. It’s not safe but it’s all you can do. And you must be brave enough to do it even when it’s as scary as a lonely leap over a ravine; because love hopes all things, believes all things; because it’s love that’s making the whole world new. And love is the scariest thing of all.

There’s more. If you love Jesus, you will have a well of gladness that doesn’t have to be quenched. You can quench it if you want, but this is much more your choice than anyone will tell you.

I know. This one is a hard sell. As much as we want and need to believe that there’s a way for us to be sane and cheerful whatever comes, when it comes down to it, the comforting temptation to be aabilene victim is mighty overpowering, isn’t it? But it’s no solution. In one of his many bad novels full of staggeringly good thoughts, George MacDonald talked about this irony of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

“All the doors that lead inward to the secret place of the Most High are doors outward,” he wrote. “-out of self, out of smallness, out of wrong.”

In Abilene, I learned the hard way that what it means to carry Christ is to carry a spring in your heart, a spring that can’t help leaping up, coming out, spreading its little fingers of joy to everyone it encounters. In Abilene, I learned that if you’re not a stream of life, as vulnerable as water, you’re a desert. Don’t be a desert.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

While university life is full of reading, I don’t think textbooks and assigned excerpts and articles will ever be able to take the place of living books and literature. So even though I find it really hard to carve out time for reading while at school, I’ve managed to finish reading a few books and one thing I really enjoy about breaks is the opportunity to catch up on reading. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve read in the not-too-distant past:

TheRoadThe Road (Cormac McCarthy) – 5 STARS – Hands down, this was my favorite fiction work I’ve read in awhile. McCarthy employs a sharp, incisive and minimalist style to describe the relationship between a father and his young son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic setting. Although the story is rife with tragedy and often takes on a deeply cynical tone, it’s simultaneously haunted by the promise of faith. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of the darkness of the human heart and some portions are extremely sobering and even revolting, but in his determination to accurately depict evil, McCarthy never loses sight of the actuality of good. By presenting the reader with a world where all dreams and creeds and security have been stripped away and “the frailty of everything is revealed at last,” he makes his case that it is far better to die an untimely and painful death as a noble and selfless person than to survive as merely an animal. By forcing the reader to confront the certainty of impending death, he drives them to consider who they truly are.

A favorite quote: “No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to inscribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.”

While this sounds woefully pessimistic, I found it extremely compelling: a call to examine my life and realize the imperative necessity of breaking through the temporary surface of the world around me and operating on the plane of everlasting reality. I think McCarthy’s novel is at heart surprising compatible with Christian truth and I was especially pleased with the unexpectedly hopeful ending.

Note: I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the movie, so if you’ve seen it but didn’t enjoy it, I’d recommend giving the book a chance. I found the high-quality writing style one of the most attractive things about this book and I can’t see how any film would be able to duplicate it successfully.

Oswald ChambersAbandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland) – 5 STARS – This was my favorite non-fiction book I’ve read recently. I’ve been reading My Utmost For His Highest regularly for several years now and I still find Oswald Chambers one of the deepest and most mature Christian thinkers I’ve ever encountered, so I was quite excited to read about his life story and I can’t imagine a better biography than this one. McCasland is clearly devoted to providing an account that maintains the spirit of Chambers’ approach to faith, holiness and cheerful utter reliance on the power and presence of God. I found this book overwhelmingly compelling at times and it did more to encourage me to pursue spiritual maturity than anything I’d read in quite some time.

A main theme in Oswald Chambers’ writing is the significance of being as opposed to doing. His writing is full of warnings against Christian “busywork” and is a constant call to strengthen our own fellowship with Christ. “How does your spirit develop in intimacy with Him?” Chambers asks. “Nothing else is right if that goes not well.” A primary part of his advice is always to empty ourselves of self-regard and scheming and grow in dependence on the life of the resurrected Christ within us. When that happens, he assures over and over again, we will become channels of the power of God in the lives of others, but will not be corrupted by this power because it is not our possession, or our aspiration. Our only obsession is maintaining the company of Christ.

What I enjoyed most about this book was how it brought life to Chambers’ approach by providing examples of this staggering power in his own person – something that could never really be established by his own writing, but would have to come from the observations of his family and contemporaries. McCasland has worked hard to compile the statements that demonstrate this. Here are a few examples:

Cultured, and all his culture captivated by the Holy Ghost, he in turn captivated men and women.” (George B Kulp)

“[He was] a man who always carried with him, and therefore gave to others, a sense of the Presence of God.” (Mary Hooker)

He came into our quiet home life with its parochial outlook like a west wind, waking us up and bringing an exciting sense of limitless possibilities. He was always ready at any moment for anything anywhere. One never knew what lovely, exciting thing might happen where he was, and maybe catch us up in its train. He had a great scorn for small petty outlooks and actions: ‘small potatoes, rather frosted,’ was his expression for all that.” (Irene Chambers)

I think the main thing I took away from this book was the thought that the common ideals for Christian living which we encounter in our culture are sadly impoverished and often flabby, powerless images. This book really enriched my ideals and filled me with a desire to press in towards the Source that can power a life such as this one.

tozerAnd He Dwelt Among Us (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – This book is a collection of thoughts, observations and meditations on the Gospel of John, and the significance of the concept of Emmanuel. Some of Tozer’s premises haven’t been analyzed quite as thoroughly as they might been, and so even though I agree with what he is expressing, readers who tend towards skepticism might find themselves wanting him to back up a few of his ideas with more substantial evidence and reasoning. However, that isn’t really the nature of this book, which is written in a simple, colloquial tone, calculated to reach uneducated people and not merely scholars. This book gave me a lot to think about and although its style is simple, its range is larger than you might expect and it covers a variety of topics and ideas that I think aren’t often discussed in such an approachable fashion.

A few favorite quotes:

“The very first qualities of Christianity are holiness, purity, right living, right thinking and right longing.”

“It is not what I hold as a creed that matters so much (although if my creed is wrong, my experience is bound to be wrong too), it is that part of my creed that I have lived through experientially…I believe that everything I hold as true must be mine in living, vibrant experience.”

“God knows that the most mature of us still need coddling sometimes, and so He is quick to overlook our ignorance, but He is never quick to overlook our sins.”

“It must always be kept in mind that what God thinks about a man is more important than what a man thinks about himself.” “The sinner dies alone and the Christian dies in Christ. But every man dies for his sins. He either dies by joining his heart to Jesus Christ, and is tucked up under the wings of Jesus and dies in the body of Christ or else he dies alone in his sins.”

Eugenics (2)Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Although the scope of this book was more limited than much of what Chesterton writes, I think it was one of my favorites of his books on social commentary. Although he addresses some specific issues of British legislation and politics which no longer apply in the same way they did in his time, I think this book still rings true today as a hearty denouncement of modern academia’s disdain for the lower classes and the modern capitalist elevation of profit over the lives and loves of people.

A few favorite quotes:

“The eugenical opportunity I have described is but an ultimate analysis of a whole drift of thoughts in the type of man who does not analyse his thoughts. He sees a slouching tramp, with a sick wife and a string of rickety children, and honestly wonders what he can do with them. But prosperity does not favour self-examination; and he does not even ask himself whether he means  ‘How can I help them?’ or ‘How can I use them?’—what he can still do for them, or what they could still do for him. Probably he sincerely means both, but the latter much more than the former; he laments the breaking of the tools of Mammon much more than the breaking of the images of God. It would be almost impossible to grope in the limbo of what he does think; but we can assert that there is one thing he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think, ‘This man might be as jolly as I am, if he need not come to me for work or wages.’”

“Prevention is not only not better than cure; prevention is even worse than disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life with the extra exasperation of being quite well.”

“The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “;When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.’ You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams) – 4 STARS – Perhaps the cleverest, funniest and yet most cynical classic science fiction work of all time, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly entertaining. Douglas Adams is, of course, a bitter atheist, and this attitude can’t help but affect his writing. I really wasn’t a fan of some of the content in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, but other than that one, I gave these books a solid 4 stars, mainly for their piercingly intelligent humor – a form of humor that seems to be going out of style in my generation.

A few favorite quotes:

“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?”

“Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet. And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.”

“They rented a car in Los Angeles from one of the places that rents out cars that other people have thrown away. ‘Getting it to go round corners is a bit of a problem,’ said the guy behind the sunglasses as he handed them the keys, ‘sometimes it’s simpler just to get out and find a car that’s going in that direction.’”

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works – 4 STARS – This book compiles all the poetry and some of the letters of the Jesuit poet-priest who is perhaps most well-known for Dappled Things and As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Hopkins’ devotional poetry is studded with wordplay and powerful imagery and although the book contains many that are unfinished or only fragments, each one is like a jewel.

War In Heaven (Charles Williams) – 3 STARS – This is the first of Charles Williams’ I’ve read and although I can see his appeal, I’m not certain I’ll ever be a huge fan of his style or preferred subject matter. This book’s metaphysical explorations were a little too far-fetched for me, but I still appreciated some of the thoughts it introduced.

A few favorite quotes:

“‘Something awaits him surely of ruin and despair.’ ‘It may be,’ the stranger said, ‘but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves and I think you fear them overmuch.”

“‘Oh damn and blast!’ he cried, with a great voice. ‘Why was this bloody world created?’ ‘As a sewer for the stars,’ a voice in front of him said. ‘Alternatively, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) – 4 STARS – I’ve been meaning to read something by Orson Scott Card for quite some time and I finally got around to it. I think this was a good introduction and I really enjoyed thinking about a lot of the serious questions it raised regarding leadership, management of power, and war ethics. Although this is classified as young adult science fiction and features protagonists who are children, it centers around surprisingly deep themes. One of my favorite ideas presented was the fine line between virtual reality and the real world, a concept that I think is particularly important for my generation to deal with, surrounded as we are by constant internet access, video streaming, and gaming. So many human experiences can now be simulated on a console or electronic device with seemingly no immediate consequences, but this book really underscores how profoundly our reality is affected by our mental state, and how the imagery that we process and entertain is shaping both our internal character and our outward view of the world.

A few favorite quotes: 

“I will remember this, thought Ender, when I am defeated. To keep dignity, and give honor where it’s due, so that defeat is not disgrace.”

“You realize that power will always end up with the kind of people who crave it.”

“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment, I also love him. I think it is impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

What I’m Still Reading:
Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Timothy Lane, Paul David Tripp)
D.L. Moody: Moody Without Sankey (John Charles Pollock)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
A Passion For The Impossible (Miriam Huffman Rockness)
Death By Living (N.D. Wilson)
Good Poems (Garrison Keiler)
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

What have you been reading lately?

Books!

It’s been a long time since a post about books, and I think it’s high time, for I have been reading them, of course, though more sparingly and slower than usual. I listened to the whole of the Short History of England in Libri Vox recordings, while mopping the kitchen floor. Middlemarch was an adventure that sustained me through illness and chaos, and I keep turning back to The Rain In The Trees when I forget what heartbreak feels like; I keep trying to figure it out. Sitting on the carpet against the walls of the space museum in D.C., and trapped in the National Gallery of Art during spring protest marches at the Capitol, I read every one of the thin, color-splashed pages of Des Cars’ study of the Pre-Raphaelites.

I started a new job in the summer, and have very little time to read anything these days, but when Flaubert said, “read in order to live,” he wasn’t far from the truth. In a culture of words where we are beset on every side with wasted language and so many lies, it is more than a wise option to deliberately confront ourselves with the beautiful and the good. It is a necessity, I think.

Here is some of what I have been reading. I hope you will share your own lists with me, too, because I don’t want to miss out on your splendid recommendations!

George EliotMiddlemarch (George Eliot) – 5 STARS – Middlemarch, like most writings of its time, is a lot of work. It is an investment. And it is a very good one. I read this one on Sarah’s recommendation, and I have to say that I think she was spot-on. Not being particularly thrilled by Silas Marner, the only other Eliot work I’d read, my expectations weren’t very high going into this one. But when the climax of the story had me actually in tears in the middle of the night, as I sat up late to finish it one weekend, I realized just how much power Eliot had packed into here. It’s difficult to share much about what I took away from the story without giving the story away, but I will say that the theme which moved me most strongly was the lovable portrayal of righteousness, even unnoticed and unrewarded. Middlemarch wants to teach us about the pricelessness of integrity of character, and demonstrates that nothing is worth having if it can only be got at the expense of what is right, and that no loneliness compares with the loneliness of the man who cannot be at peace with himself and his Dearest Friend.

A Short History of England (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – Chesterton’s highly opinionated summary of the history of England is both funny and disorderly in a masterful, Chestertonian manner. Much poetic license is taken with the narrative of the British Isles and Chesterton runs off on regular rabbit-trails, but some very enduring ideas are contained herein. I felt I wasn’t quite knowledgeable enough to really get everything out of this, and was painfully aware of some awkward gaps in my British history. The section that I found most helpful was Chesterton’s explanation of his admiration for the medieval era, a thing I never quite understood before, and which I expect to think about quite regularly for the rest of my life as I explore the workings of postmodern society and try to piece together the social philosophies of the past.

10 Books That Screwed Up The World [And 5 Others That Didn’t Help] (Benjamin Wiker) – 4 STARS – I was quite impressed with this one, actually. Wiker explores the writings of several destructively influential shapers of culture, from Machiavelli to Freud to Margaret Mead to Marx to Alfred Kinsey, and many others. He intersperses his commentary with quotations from the authors in question and equips the reader with vivid and sometimes shocking examples. His chapters are short and engaging and he doesn’t take long-winded philosophical detours, which makes this an excellent book to recommend to friends who want to explore worldview issues, and tackle the elephants in the room, but may not have the patience for Francis Schaeffer yet.

The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea
(Colin Cutler) – 4 STARS – It’s hard to put a label on Colin Cutler’s first book. The Ward is a brief and rich Christian reworking of Norse mythology, told from the perspective of a hermit in medieval Scandinavia. It’s historical fiction that morphs into sober, Bible-based fairytale. It reminded me strongly of reading Beowulf as a young teenager and it felt like a context for all of the dark mystery surrounding the mythology of Beowulf. While there were some issues with lack of polish and a few instances where the tales seemed to unfold a little awkwardly, I understand that this is an extremely difficult genre to work with and greatly respect Cutler for venturing out into these uncharted but promising waters.

PrayerWheelTickets for a Prayer Wheel: Poems (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – There is no question that Annie Dillard is a splendid writer. Like all good poets, she hallows everything and shrouds it in mystery. I just wish her mysteries weren’t so utterly impenetrable and gloomy, and keep hoping she will be unreservedly jubilant about something for once, rather than behaving as though the few visible parts of the mostly-veiled truth are not particularly gladdening. I feel I am getting only half of the story with her, and I want the other half wildly. That said, there were some sections in here that made me stop short and reread and reread and reread. Like this,

God am I smug when they talk about Belsen–
I’ve never killed anyone in my life!
I simply betray:

let the phone ring,
seal a typed letter,
say to the girl in the courtyard,
“I never saw him before in my life,”
call a cab, pull on gloves,
and leave. And leave you,
and leave you with the bill.

Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (Laurence Des Cars) – 4 STARS – While there was nothing especially stunning or remarkable about Des Cars’ treatment of the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the book was concise and informative and a good simple introduction to the origins, philosophies and figures of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Lord, Teach Us To Pray (Andrew Murray) – 4 STARS – Murray’s thoughts on prayer make up more of a discourse than a book. Like so much Christian writing, this one is loaded with redundancies and blithely employs terms that mean more than any of us are likely to understand in the course of our days as earthlings. However, I don’t find this quite as annoying as I used to. Because as I begin to scratch the surface of the meanings of some things, I begin to learn about the heights and the depths of meaning in everything. And it’s OK if we don’t know everything, as long as we know that there is a very great deal to be known. To live will be a great adventure.

CyclopsThe Odyssey (Homer) – 3 STARS – Interestingly enough, I didn’t find myself liking The Odyssey quite as much as the Illiad. It has all of the good stories, yes, but I felt like the Illiad boasted superior craftsmanship and a stronger emotional appeal. And more unintentional humor, of course. The Odyssey seemed a little thin and rushed compared to the many hysterical chapters of the Illiad in which nothing happened at all except vicious bickering. However, the stories of The Odyssey are timeless, of course, and hold their charm even when you already know what is going to happen.

The Rain in the Trees (W.S. Merwin) – 5 STARS – I have to give this book five stars, even though I suspect if Merwin and I were to sit down over coffee, we would find little to agree on. There were portions of this book where the divide between our presuppositions was made very evident, but overall the poetry in this volume is about the human experience, which is more or less universal. In an era when universals and traditional imagery are frowned upon by many leading figures in the academic community, Merwin’s focus on nature and wide themes was like a breath of mountain air. It should be noted that there is deep sorrow coursing through the pages of The Rain in the Trees: the sorrows of things forgotten, things lost and, most of all, things without answers. It is a book to be read cautiously. Merwin is an author to whom we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have.

Some favorite portions:

From Term:

they are on their way already
their feet are the feet of ghosts
watching them is like watching a ship
leaving the shore
and seeing that it will never arrive

From Before Us:

You were there all the time and I saw only
the days the air
the nights the moon changing
cars passing and faces at windows
the windows
the rain the leaves the years
words on pages telling of something else
wind in a mirror

everything begins so late after all

From History:

there was a note on a page
made at the time
and the book was closed
and taken on a journey
into a country where no one
knew the language
no one could read
even the address
inside the cover
and there the book was
of course lost

it was a book full of words to remember
this is how manage without them
this is how they manage
without us

I was not going to be long

A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – This volume is a collection of short devotional poems by MacDonald, one for each day of the year. Some are fairly hum-drum, but I copied down several pages of real treasures. A small sampling:

“Be for me then against myself. Oh lean
Over me then when I invert my cup;
Take me, if by the hair, and lift me up.”

“Give me a world, to part for praise and sunder.
The brooks be bells; the winds, in caverns dumb,
Wake fife and flute and flageolet and voice;
The fire-shook earth itself be the great drum;
And let the air the region’s bass out thunder;
The firs be violins; the reeds hautboys;
Rivers, seas, icebergs fill the great score up and under!
But rather dost thou hear the blundered words
Of breathing creatures; the music-lowing herds
Of thy great cattle; thy soft-bleating sheep;
O’erhovered by the trebles of thy birds,
Whose Christ-praised carelessness song-fills the deep;
Still rather a child’s talk who apart doth hide him,
And make a tent for God to come and sit beside him.”

“O Father, thou art my eternity.
Not on the clasp Of consciousness–on thee
My life depends; and I can well afford
All to forget, so thou remember, Lord.”

Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (George MacDonald) – 3 STARS – I took down several pages of quotations from this one, but the story-line was not especially intriguing.

Stories of GodStories of God (Rainer Maria Rilke) – 4 STARS – I have a love/hate relationship with this one. I love Rilke for being such a marvelous writer and for writing fairy-tales, and for loving children. I hate the irreverence of the book and the way it throws everything into a mood of insecurity and uncertainty and takes away from the eternal nature of fairy-tales.

Lady Susan (Jane Austen) – 3 STARS – A short, epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote as a teenager, Lady Susan centers around the fate of an unscrupulous, conniving, flirtatious woman. As you would expect from something of this length and nature, it falls short of really drawing the reader into the story on an emotional level, and thus the climax is suitable but not remarkable.

David Elginbrod (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – I got a lot of wonderful things out of this one, even though it did seem to go on and on at times, and MacDonald entered into a few too many sermonizing digressions. Hugh’s progress really did capture my interest and I felt the significance David Elginbrod’s far-reaching impact was powerfully demonstrated.

Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Anne Coulter) – 4 STARS – Anne Coulter is smart and funny and mostly right. She nails so many things squarely on their little heads that the pounding of hammers is sure to reverberate in the reader’s head long after the reading of this sarcastic, educational and entertaining book. However, like most people of her temperament, Coulter isn’t writing to convince anyone from the other side, and her wit is biting and overtly harsh, certain to turn away anyone who isn’t already more or less in agreement with her. I felt the chief value of this book was the numerous and vivid real-life examples that equip the reader with the context and organization necessary to argue the beliefs they hold but don’t know how to comprehensively defend. It’s also a great boost for those who feel their faith in conservatism wavering a little in the face of unrelenting outside pressure.

Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – My feelings about this one were exactly expressed in my review of Tickets For a Prayer Wheel above.

Poetry HandbookA Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver) – 3 STARS – This small volume is loaded with some very useful advice for those who want to write poetry, and is beautifully written, as befits prose written by an author who is a poet. However, Oliver’s rejection of universals in poetry taints much of what she has to say and renders this a book that I would hesitate to recommend to someone else unless I knew they already had an understanding of the tension between the postmodern obsession with particulars and the traditional dedication to universal truth.

What I’m still reading:

The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
Hudson Taylor [Volume II] (by Howard Taylor)
The Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov)
Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

So, how about you?

A Tale of Two Seeds

 sprout[I have been working a new job for over a month now, and get very little time to read anymore. This has not been entirely a sad thing, because I find myself much easier edified because of it, and readier to be made happy by the happiness of the truth. In the few minutes I managed to snatch last night, I stumbled over this homely, simplistic little story in David Elginbrod and was reminded again why I keep reading George MacDonald even though he wrote far too much and got carried away. David Elginbrod can be read online for free in its entirety here.]

Long, long ago, two seeds lay beside each other in the earth, waiting. It was cold, and rather wearisome; and, to beguile the time, the one found means to speak to the other.
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‘What are you going to be?’ said the one.

‘I don’t know,’ answered the other.

‘For me,’ rejoined the first, ‘I mean to be a rose. There is nothing like a splendid rose. Everybody will love me then!’

‘It’s all right,’ whispered the second; and that was all he could say; for somehow when he had said that, he felt as if all the words in the world were used up. So they were silent again for a day or two.

‘Oh, dear!’ cried the first, ‘I have had some water. I never knew till it was inside me. I’m growing! I’m growing! Good-bye!’

‘Good-bye!’ repeated the other, and lay still; and waited more than ever.

The first grew and grew, pushing itself straight up, till at last it felt that it was in the open air, for it could breathe. And what a delicious breath that was! It was rather cold, but so refreshing. The flower could see nothing, for it was not quite a flower yet, only a plant; and they never see till their eyes come, that is, till they open their blossoms—then they are flowers quite. So it grew and grew, and kept its head up very steadily, meaning to see the sky the first thing, and leave the earth quite behind as well as beneath it. But somehow or other, though why it could not tell, it felt very much inclined to cry. At length it opened its eye. It was morning, and the sky was over its head; but, alas! itself was no rose—only a tiny white flower. It felt yet more inclined to hang down its head and to cry; but it still resisted, and tried hard to open its eye wide, and to hold its head upright, and to look full at the sky.

‘I will be a star of Bethlehem at least!’ said the flower to itself.

But its head felt very heavy; and a cold wind rushed over it, and bowed it down towards the earth. And the flower saw that the time of the singing of birds was not come, that the snow covered the whole land, and that there was not a single flower in sight but itself. And it half-closed its leaves in terror and the dismay of loneliness. But that instant it remembered what the other flower used to say; and it said to itself: ‘It’s all right; I will be what I can.’ And thereon it yielded to the wind, drooped its head to the earth, and looked no more on the sky, but on the snow. And straightway the wind stopped, and the cold died away, and the snow sparkled like pearls and diamonds; and the flower knew that it was the holding of its head up that had hurt it so; for that its body came of the snow, and that its name was Snow-drop. And so it said once more, ‘It’s all right!’ and waited in perfect peace. All the rest it needed was to hang its head after its nature.

snowdropOne day a pale, sad-looking girl, with thin face, large eyes, and long white hands, came, hanging her head like the snowdrop, along the snow where the flower grew. She spied it, smiled joyously, and saying, ‘Ah! my little sister, are you come?’ stooped and plucked the snowdrop. It trembled and died in her hand; which was a heavenly death for a snowdrop; for had it not cast a gleam of summer, pale as it had been itself, upon the heart of a sick girl?

The other had a long time to wait; but it did grow one of the loveliest roses ever seen. And at last it had the highest honor ever granted to a flower: two lovers smelled it together, and were content with it.

On Growing Up: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. There will be a great many things I wish to tell them, long before they are listening at all. That is the thing about the knowing you carry in the core of your heart: you can give it away every day of your life, but you cannot make anyone take it. And how will they know I was a child too, once? That what seems to them like a long age of dusty history was a short flash of years to me? That just as I started to figure it out, it was over?

I will write a letter. A letter from here, from 20 years old, from the barest bank on the other side of the bridge that only takes you halfway there. I will dedicate it to the children I may someday have. And to all the children that are mine in the Kingdom of Heaven.]

Children Running
My Dear Children,

You are vibrant with breath. You are bright-eyed and beautiful. When you take it into your head to do a thing, you do it, and the crimson pump in your chest keeps time.

It is called life, and it is a gift you could do nothing to earn. In addition to that, it is a gift much too big for you, like a too-large sweater with sleeves dangling into the spaghetti. You must grow into it. That is what it is about. It is about coming to a coming of age that is more than the number of candles on a cake, or of discarded calendars. Quite simply put, it is about growing up.

Do not imagine that growing up has anything to do with growing old. For we all grow old (and if you do not know this now, oh! you will know it very soon) but only some of us ever grow up. You must not think that because you are young, you cannot grow up yet.

Someday you will be old. And in that day, you must not think that because you are old, you have grown up already.

For to grow up means more than the putting away of childish things. It means also the putting away of adultish things, of the wisdom of the world that clings ever closer as old age comes on. And you were born with a great many adultish things about you. You must grow out of all of this. Out of power-hunger and hard pride and cynical un-love. Out of the shallow pretenses of wisdom. Out of fear.

There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood which we must leave behind,” wrote George MacDonald. “A childlikeness which is the highest gain of humanity, and a childishness from which but few of those who are counted the wisest among men have freed themselves in their imagined progress towards the reality of things.”

Child, you must grow out of willfulness and into the strong will. You must grow out of reasonable anxiety and into the reckless abandon of trust. You must grow out of good resolutions and into obedience. You must grow out of innocence and into purity. You must grow out of self-sufficiency, and grow into the deep, deep debt. Little children, you must grow out of the fool’s paradise and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I can say all of this to you with no lingering arrogance, for I was a child not long ago, – oh, such a little while ago! and I know all about it. I know what it is to be a new-comer to the wonder-filled world and the delight. I know what it is to be young and perfect and boisterous.

I know what it is to be at the center of my own universe and bitterly dissatisfied with my reign. I know what it is to be small and weak and overcome with vanity.

But more than all of that, I know what it is to be seeking after the good things with almost my whole heart. I know what it is to be fascinated and intrigued by glorious righteousness, and yet to shy away from the kind of giving up that is required. I know what it is to be holding something back.

Child, as long as you are holding something back, you are a child still, you have not grown up.

KnightAnd this is the answer to all the riddles: growing up is giving up. When you get there, you will know it. It is giving up your vast dreams, your lively freedom, your marked-up maps, your own way, your own notions about the way things are, and the way they should be. It is a bowing of the knee. And when the boy has bowed his knee before the throne of the sovereign, it is then that he feels the scepter of the sword come down on his shoulders and rises a knight, a slayer of dragons, a man of action. Because most of all, growing up is an action.

Let me tell you the way of things in the Kingdom of Heaven. The truth is not given to you all at once. That is not the way of the learning that really matters. Truth comes in like the rising tide: one wave a little bigger than the next. What is different is that the ocean goes on beating the sand regardless of everything. But truth must have your permission before it can wash any deeper into you. It is a stark, strong, beauty and it will not waste itself on the unready heart.

When there is a thing that you know you must do, you must do it. When you do it, you will grow. Immediately you do it, you will know something you did not know before. You will know it in your core, and it will change you. If you do not do it, you will not grow. If you do not do it for a hundred years, you will be a hundred years old and a hundred years wasted. There is no other way to grow up.

Until you have come as far down this road as I have come, I hope you will be able to look at me and know there are good things ahead, that the thin little road is worth taking, in spite of the steep ascent, and the tight, mysterious curves.

But if you obey soon and do not wait long to do the thing that is given, you will fast leave your childhood behind and grow into my brother, my sister. I hope you will not be satisfied with that. For I did not do as well as I might have done. I left so much undone, and took such a long time to do anything at all.

Fix your eyes on the Master. Make him your ambition and your finish line, your homecoming, your resting place. Together we will run the long course. We will race.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

After all, we are only little children walking through the snow and rain.

I tell you the truth,” said the Master, when he was walking among us to bear witness to the truth. “whoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter.” For this reason, we need someone who will call us “child” as long as we live.

Child! What I want to say to you is as near to me as my own breath: stay young, little children. But grow up.