Friends! I bear glad tidings. Let me begin with a (very short) story:
Once upon a time there was a girl named Sarah who loved good books and wanted the rest of the world to know why they should too. Being an idealistic girl and the child of idealistic parents, she wrote a book about it (Caught Up in a Story) and started a website where people could come to delight in and discover stories galore. But, then, being also adventurous and led by all the great books she’d read into the attempting of her dreams, she ended up in Oxford, city of her writerly heroes, and before she knew it she was a student of theology. With a gazillion papers due all the time. And then, on top of all that, she got married. And somewhere along the way the Storyformed project got put drastically on hold, much to her dismay.
Until the charming, insightful, and courageous Holly showed up to save it and revive the website and start the conversation afresh….
And today marks the new beginning of Storyformed!
I am so very happy to tell you all that my dear friend Holly, a writer and fellow-lover of books will be re-launching the Storyformed website and project with regular reviews, blogs, and a Storyformed podcast to boot. Holly has her own rich vision of coming alongside parents and teachers and all lovers of children’s books as a companion, resource, and encourager in the reading life. I’ll be joining in for podcasts and blogs here and there, but I cannot wait to see how the Storyformed concept grows afresh under Holly’s nourishment.
If you are looking for great children’s literature recommendations, for podcasts and blogs on the power of reading and imagination, and for a community eager to share the delights and joys of the reading life, then please, pop over to Storyformed.com and say hello to Holly. Listen to the new podcasts, enter the giveaways, and join with me in celebrating the renewal of Storyformed.
Read on, friends, read ever on!
There’s nothing I like better than for someone to ask me for a booklist. So since various lovely commenters have requested book lists in response to recent posts, I feel delightfully honour-bound to comply. Those requested were a list of the grace-filled novels I mentioned in the Lent in Love post, and the titles of the books I am exploring for my paper on theodicy (i.e., the paradox-studded study of God’s goodness and power in a clearly fallen and often evil world).
I’ll start today with the novels, since we are in Lent, and I think they are a gift to give shape to the quietness of this season, to provide companions of imagination in this reflective time. I’m delighted to share these – they are the quiet books that delve into the inner lives of their characters. They are pilgrimages, not of outer adventure, but of inward exploration. They are stories that have companioned me in some of the most difficult times of my life. We’ll start with those in this post.
I find the theodicy booklist to be more difficult as I am reading widely. While there are several main ‘camps’ that theologians generally join, there are countless, subtle variations in the way that theologians wrestle with the reality of God as good in the midst of a fallen world. Some of the books in my reading list, I mostly embrace, some I find challenging, some problematic or just downright wrong. The wide reading allows me to form the argument and theology I need to make a claim in a paper, but its difficult to know what to recommend here.
I’m thinking on it. And I’ll have a list to you soon. But for now, the novels.
Lila, Home, and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I was late in loving Gilead, and in fact, it was the last book I read in what could loosely be considered a trilogy. It was Lila’s story that captivated me first, the inward journey of an orphaned girl in her quiet wrestle with a Christianity that would seem to set her at odds with the woman who raised and protected her. I love Lila’s frank questions and stark wisdom, and the slow, startling love that rises between her and a deeply solitary minister. Robinson’s narration is masterful, I found myself thinking along with Lila, forgetting myself as the reader and simply looking through her eyes. Home gripped me differently. I read it during Lent last year, a story of, well, a difficult story, a tale of one family’s many hidden sorrows, a story of human frailty and the way that the hurting of one person so often wounds another, even those beloved to us. I love this as a Lenten book, one that helps a reader to journey admit what is broken, to realise the sorrowing state of the human heart. Only in acknowledging our frailty can we realise the possibility that we will be made whole. It’s a story to make you hope for Easter. And finally, Gilead, the one I was supposed to read first: the letters of an old man to the young son whose adulthood he knows he will not see.
Remembering: A Novel (Port William) and Hannah Coulterby Wendell Berry. I’ve been on an unintended, but no-less intent campaign to get as many people to read Wendell Berry’s novels as I can. It started with a paper I wrote in the doctrine of the Incarnation, when I suddenly realised that the novels of Wendell Berry were saying in story form exactly what I was reading in the best works of Incarnational theology. Remembering is, I think, an ideal Lenten story, one you could read (possibly) in a day, the story of a man who has lost his hold on identity, family, and faith. It is his inward pilgrimage as he comes near to breaking, but finds that he is ‘held, though he cannot hold’, as he discovers afresh ‘the blessedness that he has lived in, in his anger, and did not know’, one that kept the faith when he could not. Hannah Coulter is equally arresting in a different way, the quiet account of a Kentucky housewife who comes slowly to understand that it is in our faithfulness to the place and people given it, ‘our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven’.
The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien. Imagine that a medieval mystic poet wrote a modern novel with communist Yugoslavia as his setting and a little boy as his hero and you will begin to get the gist of this book. Following Josip from his idyllic childhood in a village called ‘Rajskja Polja’ (the ‘fields of heaven’), the book chronicles the brutal loss of his innocence and his growth into a mathemetician and ‘cultural rebel’ under Tito’s regime. The gift of this story lies in its unblinking portrayal of human brutality as it is juxtaposed with the light, the poetry, the Love that still bubbles up in the heart of a wounded boy and calls him relentlessly home. Longer review HERE.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but of all Goudge’s novels, it is one that is for me almost devotional, a riveting story that traces the making of one woman’s soul in the wild solitude of mental illness, and the way that her story captures and renews the faith of the girl to whom she left both her home and her journals. I have a quote from the book as the background to my laptop screen at the moment: ‘there are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these: ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’ If in times of distress you hold to these, you will do well.’
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It’s been too long since I read this, but it was one of the novels I read in my teens that helped me to understand what profound grief looks like, what doubt and struggle can be in the heart of a faithful believer. Set in South Africa in the era of apartheid, it is a story in which grief, the brokenness of sinful people, and the sorrow of those that love them, is unblinkingly recounted. It is a tragedy in its way. But one whose final word is a grieved, aching hope.
Adam Bede (Oxford World’s Classics)e by George Eliot. George Eliot is just ever and always one of my favourite writers, a woman who wrestled profoundly with her faith, and eventually rejected the Christianity she knew, but lived always in pilgrimage toward the Christ whom, I think, she never completely abandoned and whose self-giving love she portrayed again and again in her profoundly human heroes and heroines. This story of a pure-hearted farmer and his love for both a passionate Methodist woman and a fallen girl explores compassion, sacrifice, and selfless love.
Ah friends, may these stories companion you from sorrow to grace, from grief or frailty, to the knowledge of the Love that holds you all times, even when you feel you cannot hold.
Last month I was in London, very early on a frosty morning. Thomas was in town for a theological conference and I’d tagged along, intent on finally snatching a couple of hours at the British National Gallery (can you believe I’d never visited before?). But I was tired. The day had barely begun and I already felt bone weary, dogged by work half-finished and my own travel bag of current troubles and a few of the headlines I’d read on the bus that morning. The walking day ahead looked very long, and my adventurous spirit seemed to have wandered off without me. It was cold, so I walked aimlessly around the squares of Covent Garden, downhearted, waiting for shops to open, hoping for a cafe.
And then there was music. Abruptly. Music so full and living and quick it was like sunlight slicing through fog. The tint of the air seemed to visibly brighten. I watched people all round the echoing, high space perk up their ears, and start walking toward the music, something golden and swift by Mozart. I followed. We found the musicians, four of them, by leaning over a balcony, looking down into one of the warmer corners of Covent Garden. They were grouped in a half moon, a cellist, a flautist, and two violinists. Bundled in faded sweaters and battered boots, with sly flairs of colour in one violinist’s blue scarf, and the flautist’s red beret.
And they danced as they played, stomped and twirled in perfect, but friendly, laughing sync. They played with frost-reddened noses and fingers, but the swift, laughing music belied the cold. In fact, that music took no notice of anything but its own joy, and it seemed to come from deep within them, part of heart and muscle, emerging into their fingers, received by the strings of the violin or flute or mellow-throated cello. I watched them, with a dozen others, fascinated. People smiled. Toes tapped. Who knew why they had braved the cold and dawn to shatter the fog with their song light. All we knew was that they laughed as they played. They caught our eyes and winked.
And in a sudden, unravelled happiness, standing at that rail, I knew a quality of joy that comes more and more rarely to me since childhood. I knew innocence. Happiness without shadow of fear. I stood there for half an hour as they played on and on, and I left the cold and heaviness of my heart behind. The music made me childlike because for an instant, its potent beauty allowed me a shifted, inner vision of the joy that is coming, coming, coming. The dark, fleeting shadows of my morning trouble, my weariness, my fear, were phantoms that blessedly died in the strong light of the beauty singing around me.
And I knew afresh, as I have known it in my truest moments before, that the great promise of beauty, the thrummed message that sings to us in those moments when we are struck by art or music or story, is that ‘everything sad is coming untrue’. Like Sam in Middle Earth who saw a high star and knew that the Shadow was a ‘passing thing’, I stood in the light of that music and with Julian Norwich, for an instant, I knew that ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well’.
There are ten theological things I could say about this. There is incarnational theology to be applied. Defences of art and imagination to be made. Book-length arguments to be written…all of which I intend in the future. But for this moment, I want simply to bear witness to the truth that beauty speaks. I want you to know even the briefest gleam of the light that came to me and made me a child, holding my Father’s hand once more. I want you to trust that when beauty comes to you, in its illogical, unreasonable joy, it speaks a truth larger than any darkness you have known.
Trust it. Trust joy. Trust hope.
Because, you know, it’s easy to distrust those things. We live in a world of headlines and reason, where shouted doom and daily controversies define our waking moments. We live in adult hurry. We work and give and measure our success. We live in an age of reason, where we tend to think that only what can be argued is true. We mistrust things we cannot explain or see.
But today, in this season in which we prepare our hearts to receive the risen Christ, I hope that you may be given the grace to stand in the light of a beauty that speaks a joy beyond reason. Redemption, happy endings, resurrections, are entirely beyond explanation. We can only receive them, as we receive new life at the hand of a Creator who is always kindling light in darkness. In this dark and difficult world, may you have the grace today to believe the promise of beauty, to believe it in the face of despair. May a song or a phrase of story or a glimpse of new-sprouted blossom or a burning note of music grip you.
And may you believe the story it tells.
And… may you find a sister-friend like Joy. Who teaches me to embrace… Music. Childlikeness. Laughter. Every single day. I couldn’t resist.
Lent, my friends, is upon us, a season that feels to me a little like a journey through the wilderlands of quiet and repentance. It’s a new practice in my history and sometimes I look forward to it, sometimes I dread it, wondering if I have the strength for the road. Last year though, I found that the heart of Lenten practice really isn’t about my discipline or devotion. It may take me the rest of my life to fully grasp it, but the truth remains:
Lent is the season in which I rediscover love.
For most of my life, I have equated Lent with law. With repentance, yes, and under grace, I know. After all, Lent ends with Easter and a feast to mark salvation. But since discovering this practice of the church, I’ve mostly seen ‘the penitential season’ as a time in which I made laws of discipline to express my true contrition, to prove to God that my sorrow over all the ways I sin and fail is real.
Lent dawned bright this year in England, bright as my good intentions. On the day when much of the church begins a season of repentance, the sun blinked and gleamed in a stark blue sky and birds whistled as if it were May and the daffodils in the vase on my desk finally bloomed.
But that evening, after a long day, after a service in which the ashes of repentance were crossed into my forehead, I looked down the long trail of the coming days, and all I saw was grey. I was weary and afraid, doubtful that I could keep strict laws or great fasts. I felt too busy and tired to keep up the strictures of dawn devotion or the renunciation of chocolate. (You know?)
So my Lent began in doubt – of myself, and let us be honest, of God’s capacity to love an undisciplined me. I might have spent the whole of this quiet season in just such a mindset was it not for an encounter with a passage from Luke (during one of those attempted dawn devotions) and a woman of whom a self-righteous pharisee named Simon spoke exactly the words I felt were true of myself: ‘she is a sinner’.
The story in Luke is set in the pharisee’s home, at a dinner he held for Jesus, ostensibly in Christ’s honour, but presumably to prod and test him, find out if Jesus was, by pharisee standards, ‘the real thing’. Simon comes to his own conclusions when a woman who had ‘lived a sinful life’ creeps in to express her love for Jesus. Bringing an alabaster jar of perfume and a heart so brimful of repentance that it spills into tears, she kneels at Jesus’ feet to weep and wash him with her tears.
Simon’s conclusion is instant. If Jesus really had God in or with him, he would know what kind of sinful woman was touching him. And, Simon must have assumed, send her packing. For Simon was one of the pharisees who counted out tithes even of their mint leaves, kept the minutest tenets of the Law, tithed and cleansed and followed the Law so well that even God, they thought, couldn’t condemn them. But Simon was also of those, according to the passage just before, ‘who rejected God’s purpose for himself’. And what was that purpose? Love.
For the marvel of the story is that Jesus knew exactly what kind of woman was bathing his feet with her tears. He knew exactly the sin and grief that tortured her heart. He also knew the elaborate facade of good deeds and correct opinions by which Simon, the supposedly spiritual leader, kept guilt at bay. So Jesus told a story of two debtors, one who owed much and one who owed little. Both are forgiven by a generous moneylender and at the conclusion, Jesus simply asks of Simon which of them will love him more?
‘The one who was forgiven most’, says Simon, of course.
‘Like this woman at my feet”, says Jesus, ‘who has loved and wept and washed me with her tears, while you have not even given me the kiss of hospitality or a towel to wipe my weary feet. She has been forgiven much, and so she loves much. But he who has forgiven little, loves little.’
In a brief stab of insight I saw myself both in Simon and the woman. In Simon, because with him, I thought that God’s acceptance of me dwelt in my being correct and keeping my countless little laws of performance. I thought Lent was about proving myself so good that judgment couldn’t touch me. In the woman, because deep down I knew myself frail and weak, unable to assure my own salvation or even abstention from chocolate for forty days. Both were equally sinful, but one hid it even from himself, and so did not recognise Love at his table, while the other in her repentance saw him clearly and wept with gratitude.
In that moment, my understanding of what it means to keep Lent changed. Lent often has the reputation of being something that the super godly do, a sort of iron man competition, open only to the spiritually elite. I think we often look at the spiritual life in general this way. I look at the people near me in study and church and think that everyone must be doing it better than me as I scurry through papers and strive to make time for those I love and try to catch sleep and make it to my kitchen at night too tired to cook, let alone pray. The irony is that Lent (not to mention the Gospel) is precisely for the lost and discouraged, the brokenhearted and disappointed who know they have nothing left to give. Lent is for the hurried and distracted, the lonely.
The disciplines of Lent – prayer, devotion, fasting, stillness – aren’t meant as a heightened performance, an extra extravagance of discipline to prove we’re really Christians. Rather, they are meant to create a quiet space in which we listen afresh for love, ‘accept God’s will’ as we come and remember that we are forgiven. Discipline is a good thing – quiet is a gift. But only if rooted in Love and used as a means to push back the cacophony of life long enough for us to look heartward, knowing ourselves afresh as the ‘sinful women’ and ‘wretched men’ in whom God’s plan to save the world by grace is worked.
But we find that grace only when we face what needs forgiving. As long as we, with Simon and the pharisees, believe we need not repent, need not admit our insufficiency, we will simply stand rotting and wounded in the armour of our good deeds and defiant self-confidence, dying, if we only knew it, of the festered guilt we will not face. In facing that messy guilt, in coming to the broken place in which there is no longer any scaffolding of piety to uphold us, any pretense of righteousness to disguise us, we discover, first, our eternal inadequacy. And second, grace. Real grace. Not the cheap kind that slaps a mask over a distorted face, but the deep kind, the backward working magic of Christ in which we are met in our most broken places by Love.
I changed my Lenten rhythms after reading that marvellous story. I haven’t quite managed the giving up of chocolate or the eager rising at dawn each day that I had planned. But I have stepped away from certain distractions (don’t get me started on the number of screens that jostle for my attention), and taken the extra quiet to listen, to pray. I’ve risen early once a week to write, just to get my soul in the habit of articulation, and in the posture, once again, of listening. I’ve read a couple of novels whose words drip with grace. And in the hushed moments of these sweet times, I remember that I am forgiven.
And ah, how much I’m learning to love.
When lovely Joy was a-visiting a couple of weeks ago, we took a Sunday afternoon tromp round Addison’s Walk. This is the lovely loop of forested path in Magdalene College where Lewis and Tolkien had a talk about myth that turned Lewis toward believing that the epic of Christ just might be true. At the first turn of the path, on the other side of a small bridge, there is an unassuming plaque paying tribute to Lewis’s presence at Magdalene through the words of a poem he wrote in the springtime one year.
I have rarely encountered a poem so taut and trembling all at once with the hope that thrums in the coming of spring. I read this aloud to my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and we looked out the window and felt like we heard the trill of a bird in the light, sweet repetition – listen, you can hear it in the lines ‘this year, this year’. And with that haunting call, the quickened heartbeat, ‘quick quick!’ of hope.
I simply had to share:
What the Bird Said Early in the Year
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.
Open once again your heart.
My lovely friends, thank you so much for the enthusiasm and encouragement that greeted my Book Girl announcement next week. Your words, and book recommendations (please, keep them coming!) and excitement for the project gird me with such energy and joy. I have long said that the reading life is a gift, and in many ways, this book is a gift I can’t wait to craft and offer in honour of the many friendships, conversations, and kindred-spirit spaces created by sharing beloved words. Your words here have been such a gift to me.
I’m currently in a determined (sometimes rather dogged) push toward the completion of my three written submissions for my final year so my writing here may be a bit random, but it’s still a delight to share a few of the treasures I cull throughout these crammed weeks.
First. Oh, bless the Lord and thank all that’s gloriously good, spring is coming. The last few days have been gentle, dove-coloured ones with a warming air that makes me feel that I’ve emerged out of a dark cave into the sunlight. I’m blinking. Breathing a bit more deeply. Stretching my legs in the evenings. The first buds are climbing out of the wintered branches, small stars of palest pink in the dark weave of the trees. I don’t know that I have ever experienced the relief that coming springtime brings to this extent. That the whole world aches and breathes and bursts with hope every year afresh, what a gift, what a promise.
Second, I’ve taken a short break on the ‘evil’ paper (I’m fascinated, but I have too many questions and thoughts!), and have been working instead on a paper on Celtic theology and why so many in the modern world find it attractive. This morning I’ve been reading The Book of Iona, a gift from my beloved sister, and one that explores the tension between ‘remoteness and connectedness’ in the modern world. I’ve used the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community for years and found such sustenance in its words. I find that the lyrical rhythm and imagery of the Celtic prayers startle me back awake to wonder, and it is this phenomenon I’m examining in the paper. There’s a reason beautiful words evoke a stilled, wondering mind, a profoundly theological one that I am excited by discovering afresh in my study. More soon.
Finally, I’ve been mulling a word that I came across in my recent reading of Philippians: gentleness (in 4:5). To me, it seems a quality mostly absent from the public sphere of debate and increasingly polarized opinion. And in many ways, it is not the quality to which my anxious, urgent mind is drawn as I daily watch the news, read the responses to it on social media, and feel my own mind drawn ever deeper into the grey, misty shadowlands of despair about the state of the world.
Further, it’s not, I realised, what I usually consider a responsible quality. I have not yet fully traced this in myself, but whether its part of my American orientation toward assertion of rights, or my experience of apologetics training in which I was taught to identify, debate, and stand apart from whatever I considered to be wrong or unorthdox, I have realised that my inbred impulse when I deeply disagree with – a person, a church, an institution – is to separate myself from them. And to separate with a marked degree of sternness, even condemnation.
And yet, let your gentleness be known to all, says Paul, for the Lord is near. Your gentleness. Not merely your conviction, or your condemnation, or your anger, or your fear. Your gentleness. Of course, Paul was never one for mincing words when it came to his disapproval over a theological issue, so I think it evident that gentleness can accompany conviction. What then, is this quality of gentleness, of ‘fair, mild, equitableness’ (as described by Strong’s concordance) that is to mark those who realise that the Lord is near? Does it mean not saying what I really think?
After several days of mulling this, I think that the gentleness to which Paul summons us is a facet of Christ-like care for the other, one that always recognises the goal of conviction as the loved, healed, and redeemed heart of the human person, rather than the winning of an argument. There is a clear, qualitative difference between the passive inaction of compromise, and the chosen care of gentleness. Gentleness is active love. Gentleness refuses to dehumanise the ‘other’ even in unavoidable divergence of conviction. Gentleness fights to reveal that ‘God is near’ to the human heart that beats and aches on the other side of our many modern controversies.
Further, I think that gentleness can only operate where we do realise that Christ is near, fighting, healing, helping us in the midst of the very worst valleys of shadow and doubt. Gentleness rarely flourishes when conversations are driven by fear, shaped by panic. I don’t think its a coincidence that directly after he tells us to be gentle, Paul also tells us to ‘be anxious for nothing’. Only in the giving of my fear, my angst, to the near and loving Christ, can I find a ‘peace that passes understanding’, one that enfleshes itself in a supernatural (because it really is!) gentleness.
Christ was gentle. He was gentle with us, he sought our hearts even when we were his enemies. In this age of controversy, when I daily feel myself called to strengthen and deepen my own moral and theological convictions, I find that I am equally called to gentleness, to Jesus-like care for the human hearts with which I disagree. It’s probably because I’m in constant need of gentleness myself…
‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’ by Ford Madox Brown