Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday morsel: "one loud and colorful moment" (from Rachel Held Evans)

I've been reading Rachel Held Evans' memoir Evolving in Monkey Town:  How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions.  The author grew up in a conservative Christian environment that encouraged the development of an airtight worldview and viewed doubts and questions as threatening at best and sinful at worst.  In the midst of her own crisis of faith, she found herself wondering about the eternal destiny of those who had never heard about Jesus, those who had died in the South Asian tsunami, etc.  John's vision in Revelation 7 was an encouragement and a, well, revelation to her:

"I wondered what exactly John saw and heard to convince him that the kingdom of God includes people from every nation, tribe, people, and language, people from the north and the south and the east and the west.  I imagined that he must have seen women wearing glorious red, green, and gold saris beneath their white robes.  He must have seen voluminous African headdresses of every shape and color.  He must have seen the turquoise jewelry of the Navajo, the rich wool of the Peruvians, the prayer shawls of the Jews.  He must have seen faces of every shade and eyes of every shape.  He must have seen orange freckles and coal-colored hair and moonlike complexions and the lovely flash of brilliant white teeth against black skin.  He must have heard instruments of all kinds -- bagpipes and lutes and dulcimers and banjos and gongs.  He must have heard languages of every sound and cadence, melodies of every strain, and rhythms of every tempo.  He must have heard shouts of praise to Elohim, Allah, and Papa God, shouts in Farsi and Hindi, Tagalog and Cantonese, Gaelic and Swahili, and in tongues long forgotten by history.  And he must have seen the tears of every sadness -- hunger and loneliness, sickness and loss, injustice and fear, tsunami and drought, rape and war -- acknowledged and cherished and wiped away.  In one loud and colorful moment, he must have witnessed all that makes us different and all that makes us the same."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three seconds of fun

What lasts only three seconds yet creates hours of fun for the whole family?

This mini-video that Richard made by accident one day when Jonathan was sitting on his lap, looking at pictures on the iPad.

Jonathan has watched this video at least fifty times and laughs hysterically every time.  And who are we to deny him his three seconds of fame?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday morsel: "still our refuge"

Today's "Monday Morsel" is over 150 years old.  This beautiful old hymn came to my mind last Thursday morning when I was at our women's group meeting at church.  Seven of us sat in a circle, pouring out our hearts to God.  We had some tough things to pray about, yet there was this overwhelming feeling of joy and privilege in knowing that God was right there with us -- that all of our concerns and anxieties were safe in His loving hands.

I went to that trusted source, Wikipedia, to find out more about this hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  Joseph Scriven wrote the words as a poem in 1855, to comfort his mother who was living in Ireland while he was in Canada.  Interestingly, one hymn scholar has commented that although the hymn "has been criticized as being too much on the order of the sentimental gospel type," it remains popular.  I'm not surprised.  I wonder if there is anyone who can confidently say, "Well, I've never had griefs or troubles; I've never felt weak or burdened; I've never felt forsaken by someone I loved; I can't really relate."  Maybe it's because all of us have experienced these feelings -- and Jesus did too -- that this song speaks so directly to the heart.

I hope these words are as encouraging to you today as they have been to me this past week.

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Downton Abbey: the (almost) missing ingredient


I've been enjoying Downton Abbey ever since I started watching it in 2012.  I now own all of the DVD's and have just finished watching Season 4. I love the characters, the interplay between the upstairs and downstairs lives, the moral dilemmas and decisions, the sumptuous costumes and settings.


For me, Season 4 is lacking something that the other three all had in abundance:  inspiring moments of heroism.  I'm not talking about lifesaving acts (like William protecting Matthew in battle) or charitable projects (like Isobel's many social outreach efforts).  Instead, I'm referring to isolated moments when characters call on something deeper than the circumstances, do or say what they know is right, and make us as viewers hope that we would do the same in their situation.

Let's look back at a few of the uplifting moments from the first three seasons:

Season 1:
- Lord Grantham changes his mind about dismissing Bates from his employ and runs after the departing car to tell Bates to come back.  "It wasn't right, Carson," he says.  "I just didn't think it was right."
- Carson persists in giving Bates the benefit of the doubt, even when the circumstances seem so damning.  "I hope you don't feel I'm being unfair," Carson says; Bates replies, "On the contrary -- I'm astonished by your kindness."

Season 2:
- In spite of her heartbreak over Matthew's engagement to Lavinia, Mary extends kindness to Lavinia and refuses to do anything to undermine her.  (Ironically, Lavinia is the only woman in the entire show -- besides her maid, Anna -- whom we could really call Mary's friend.)  When Mary insists that Lavinia stay at Downton after Matthew is wounded, Lord Grantham pauses and looks at her in silent admiration; the viewer does the same.
- Lord Grantham, having finally learned about Mary's past, doesn't condemn her, but encourages her to break her engagement and start fresh:  "I want a good man for you -- a brave man."
- Mary refuses to take the easy way out when Carlisle leaves Downton.  Instead of hiding, she faces him, saying, "I didn't want our final words to be angry ones."
- When Anna is angry about O'Brien's courtroom testimony, Bates urges Anna to forgive her:  "We've not been friends, but she doesn't want me here."

Season 3:
- Because he knows what it's like to feel helpless, Bates sets aside his animosity toward Thomas and helps him find a way to thwart O'Brien's scheme and remain employed at Downton.
- After Thomas is injured while protecting Jimmy, they eventually talk openly about Thomas's attraction to Jimmy and agree to be friends.  This is the one moment in the whole show that Jimmy strays from Mrs. Hughes' characterization of him:  "a vain and silly flirt."
- Mrs. Hughes speaks courageously to Branson, comforting him in his grief and confusion and telling him kindly, "Be your own man, and carry your own tune."

In my opinion, season 4 has had too few of these heroic moments -- and the few that there have been seem to involve only the lowest servants.  My favourite occurs when the perpetual loser, Molesley, finally stops feeling sorry for himself and helps someone else, urging Miss Baxter to stand up to Thomas's bullying and blackmail.  She responds with appreciation:  "Your strength has made me strong." In another instance, Daisy shows real maturity by not avoiding Alfred when he leaves Downton, but giving him a gift and parting from him with words of friendship.  And in response, Mrs. Patmore pats Daisy's shoulder and says, "If you were me own daughter, I couldn't be prouder of you than I am right now."

But these instances stand out because they are so isolated.  (And they all appear in the final episode!)  By contrast, most of the rest of what we've seen in Season 4 involves scheming and lying.  Anna lies to Bates about her attacker.  Bates -- we assume -- lies to Anna about his trip to York.  Mrs. Hughes lies to Bates -- while swearing on her mother's grave!  Carson and Mrs. Hughes lie to Alfred to prevent him fueling the maids' spat.  Thomas lies about the Bateses even though Bates helped save his job before; and he inexplicably lies about Branson even though they were friends at the cricket match and country fair at the end of Season 3.  Rose lies about pretty much everything.  Rosamund and Edith lie about their trip to Switzerland.  (Good thing Lady Grantham is so clueless:  who knew that the stress of organizing a church bazaar would cancel out all the observation and intuition that raising three adult daughters can confer on a person?)  Lord Grantham and company lie about the contrived card game.  And on and on and on.  In fact, most of the plot lines have to do with lies -- as if the integrity the characters showed in the earlier seasons is being sacrificed in favour of deceptions and stratagems.

But for me, these schemes and manipulations really aren't that engaging; rather, I think the best moments in the show occur when characters speak from the depths of what they know is right and true.  (Come to think of it, that's the case in real life, too.)  So it's interesting to see that it's primarily the lowest-ranked people showing this kind of integrity in Season 4.  It's as if, for the upstairs crowd, anything goes.  

Lady Mary seems to be the main upstairs exception.  Of all the Crawleys, she is the one who most consistently shows her true self.  She speaks out to her family about the pressure they are putting on her in her grief; she gives Lord Gillingham a heartfelt refusal when he proposes; she tells Tom quite openly that she expects she may come to regret that refusal.  She tells us archly in the final episode that "I don't mind lying," but in fact, honesty is her best trait.  She may put on a brave facade when things are tough, but even then she is honest about why she does so, as when she told Matthew in Season 3, "If I ever look as if I'm finding it easy to lose my home, then I am putting on an act."  And one of her very first comments in Season 1 gave us a clue to the real person beneath the cool, snippy exterior:  "I always apologize when I'm in the wrong;  it's a habit of mine."

I've always considered Lady Mary the moral centre of the show, but the lower staff members are starting to take over that role big-time.  I hope Season 5 provides more opportunities for a wider range of characters to dig deep and tap into their better selves, because those are the moments when Downton Abbey rises above soap-opera status -- and Season 4 has had far too few of them.  The humblest staff are now occupying the moral high ground; it's time for everyone else, especially the aristocrats, to quit plotting, conniving and lying -- and join them!


What about you?  Do you agree that Season 4 is missing something?  Do you like the characters' deceptions and schemes, or do you prefer their authentic moments?  Which character(s) do you consider Downton Abbey's moral centre?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Marching" through my huge stack of books-to-be-read....


Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly "Twitterature" post to share what I've been reading.

What Matters in Jane Austen?
Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved 
by John Mullan 

The title's a little misleading:  these aren't really puzzles but short essays on interesting themes in Jane Austen's books, like "Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?" and "Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?"  This well-researched and entertaining book could be read for sheer enjoyment or used as a way into a deeper study of Austen's works.  It's great for quizzes, too:
- Who is the only married woman in Austen's novels who regularly calls her husband by his first name?
- Who is the only woman in Austen's novels who marries a man younger than herself?
- Who is the only character who dies in the course of an Austen novel after also appearing in scenes in the book (as opposed to just being talked about, like Frank Churchill's aunt in Emma)?
(See answers at the end of this post.)  

  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

After seeing this novel mentioned and reviewed all over the place for the past year, I finally read it.  It is about the love affair between Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group.  The characters are original and unsentimental, and there are some profound insights about what makes a life worth living and a legacy worth leaving.  Still, the book feels way too clever at times.  Virtually every time the characters speak they make cool, quotable remarks -- but what looks cool and quotable on the page can be very difficult to imagine coming out of a seventeen-year-old's mouth.  For instance:  "I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you."  (Whoa.)  It's no surprise that a movie based on this book is coming out soon; it's tailor-made for the big screen with its dramatic speeches and heart-tugging plot.


  The Thorny Grace of It
and Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics 
by Brian Doyle

I've read and enjoyed a number of Doyle's short essays in literary journals like The Sun and Ruminate; this book brings together more than fifty of them. If you're not Catholic (as I am not), you might think, "This book will be of no interest to me whatsoever."  Think again.  Doyle has a unique gift for giving both fleeting moments and significant events a sense of dignity and grace -- whether he is describing a little girl's attendance at Mass before she has major surgery, recalling a bus driver's gentle response to the death of a passenger, honouring two teachers who died in the the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, or lamenting the utter waste of Osama bin Laden's life.  Doyle's writing is funny, moving, and hopeful, and I find myself wanting to read more slowly just to savour it.  Here's a short excerpt from the essay "first draft of the first letter to the corinthians":

"Love never fails, even in those moments when we are glaring at each other in the kitchen, which there have been a few of those moments, and there will be a few more, because love isn't a placid sea, love is a verb, love is human, which means flawed and difficult and complex and startling and wonderful and painful.  Faith abides, for what else can we do except leap into the unknown, take a flyer on what might be, shoot the moon, believe in the unbelievable, steer by the tumult in our hearts?  And hope abides, for we are creatures milled from hope, we see the substance of things hoped for, we see dimly what might be gleaming and brilliant on the road ahead if only we can stride forward through the thickets.  And love abides, for if we have not love we are nothing and nowhere.  But the greatest of these is love.  You know this and I know this, and even when we forget it we know it someplace deeper than words, deeper than understanding, deeper than we are.  There are many names for the One but of these the greatest is love."


quiz answers:  
Mary Musgrove (Persuasion), Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice), Dr. Grant (Mansfield Park)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"You do it to Jesus"

"Whatever you do, even if you help somebody cross the road, 
 you do it to Jesus. 
Even if you give somebody a glass of water, 
you do it to Jesus.
Such a simple little teaching, but it is so important." 
- Mother Teresa

One of the hallmarks of Mother Teresa's life and mission was that she saw Jesus in the suffering people she served.

There have been times when I have tried to take this approach to those God has called me to serve -- for example, let's say certain members of my family -- to see the face of Jesus in them, and to minister to them with joy and humility. 

This plan usually lasts for about ten minutes.

The problem is:   

Jesus does not ask me to tape or glue broken jigsaw puzzle pieces 20 times in an hour, or need to be reminded 19 out of those 20 times to say "Please."

Jesus is not in the habit of yelling with rage when I tell him that this is blue-box week, not grey-box week, or that we go to church on Sundays, not Saturdays.

Jesus never screams (with hand up to mouth for increased megaphone effect) when told that it's time to get ready for supper, and does not need to be told ten times to go to the bathroom and wash his hands.

Jesus does not say, "Mom? Mom?  Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom?"

And Jesus does not wait to say, "Mom? Mom?  Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom?" until I have gone downstairs to the laundry room, and then say it louder.

Jesus does not make a point of shrieking when we back the car in the driveway.

Jesus does not need his underwear changed three times a day.

Jesus does not, when given a time-out alone in his room, take that opportunity to wet his pants.

So it can be a little difficult to see service to certain people in my life as service to Jesus.

But then again ...

Even after I have said harsh words like "Stop it!"  "Don't talk to me!" and "Could you leave me alone for five minutes?" Jesus' face lights up when he sees me again.

Even after I roll my eyes, let out long sighs, and seethe with irritation, Jesus catches my eye and asks me to play "sad face" or comes to sit on my lap to squish me "flat like a pancake."

And although I say goodbye to Jesus in the schoolyard each morning and walk away feeling (I confess) guiltily relieved that I won't be seeing him for another six-and-a-half hours, I come back in the afternoon and scan the crowd, eager to see him coming.

Jesus never holds anything against me.  He never bad-mouths me or anyone else he knows.  He doesn't give me the cold shoulder or tell me I need to make it up to him before he'll smile at me.  He is always glad to see me.  

He loves me.  I am special and dear to him.

So maybe Mother Teresa was right when she said this is "a simple little teaching."  Maybe I just need to pay more attention to my simple little teacher.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday morsel: "We, the people, used to be stupid" (from Brian Doyle)

One of several books I have on the go right now is Brian Doyle's The Thorny Grace of It and Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics.  Doyle is a writer and magazine editor from Oregon whose work I've read in various literary journals.  This book of short essays about life and faith is very funny and touching; a friend lent it to me and I'm already considering purchasing it because I want to savour Doyle's reflections again and again.

In this excerpt from the essay "nobody cannot be saints," Doyle quotes from letters he received from an admiring eleven-year-old Korean girl who has discovered his books:

Dear mister, she wrote, your book gave me such wise lessons.  I learned new things about saints and, also, how to love.  I learned to bend our hours into acts of love, to love not only sweet friends and family but enemies.  Well, honestly, I used to love only my dearest people, such as friends and family.  But, how about my enemies?  I used to be hostile to them.  I just acted mean to them, not even thinking about how they would feel.  But now I truly recognize that saints are here and saints are us.  We, the people, used to be stupid, looking for saints there when they are living right here.  But saints are us.  Nobody cannot be saints.  I now realize that.  Thank you for writing fabulous.  Your book is the best one I have read so far.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

we didn't succeed, but we didn't fail either

Yesterday Jonathan was booked for an EEG test at Kingston General Hospital.  It has been a long time since he's had one.  When he first started having seizures at 10 months of age, he had an EEG then, and I nursed him to sleep so they could perform the test.  He had one again at about age three; that time they gave him a sedative which put him to sleep for the entire time.  But Dr. MacDonald, the pediatric neurologist who's been following him these past ten years, wanted to try to get one with no sedation so that it would provide a more accurate look at what his brain is doing.

Unfortunately we were unsuccessful.  Jonathan just couldn't relax and lie still.  The technician, whose name was Mike, was barely able to measure Jonathan's head and do the markings; Jonathan kept turning his head, trying to sit up, wiggling down the bed, and just not cooperating.  It became clear after about twenty minutes that there was no way he would accept having electrodes stuck to his head and then lie still for half an hour to get a good reading.

Mike was apologetic, and so was I.  "Don't worry," he said, "I've seen adults walk out of here without being able to get the test done."

"Maybe Dr. MacDonald will decide to order one with sedative," I said.

"Tell her to prescribe a double dose," he said, "One for Jonathan and one for me."

Jonathan accepted a "Nemo" sticker; then when he realized it was too big to fit on his hand, he dropped it in the garbage; then he marched out of the room with a wave, calling back, "Bye, Mike."

So much for that.

So, it didn't work out.  But I couldn't help looking on the positive side of the whole situation:  Jonathan was so well-behaved the entire time.  I'd been a bit anxious about the logistics of getting him to the appointment on my own.  I had to take him out of school at mid-day, and we had to go to a different hospital from the one where he visits Dr. MacDonald.  But going in a different direction didn't faze him at all.  He walked enthusiastically the whole way, going confidently in the main hospital doors and down the hallways and into the elevator without hesitation.  (He met a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair and said, "Hello, wheelchair!" with a big friendly smile.)  He sat patiently and read books with me for the 20 minutes we had to wait to be seen.  He didn't yell, cry, fuss, or try to run away; he acted like a big boy -- well, until it came time to have his head measured and marked.

All things considered, it was not a total failure.  Jonathan seemed to view it all as an interesting adventure rather than a stressful change of routine, and he handled it much better than he would have a year or two ago.  In that sense, even though we couldn't get the actual information we were seeking, there's still something good that we can take away from the experience.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Monday morsel: "I was found of Thee"

On Saturday we learned the sad and shocking news that a man from our former church, John Bylsma, had died, three days after a cancer operation that initially appeared to have gone well.

His obituary stated that his favourite hymn was "I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew."* I'm sharing the words here today because they provide such a comforting message of God's amazing, initiating love.  "We love because He first loved us." - I John 4:19 

I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Saviour true:
no, I was found, was found of Thee.

Thou didst reach forth Thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea.
'Twas not so much that I on Thee took hold
as Thou, dear Lord, took hold on me.

I find, I walk, I love -- but oh, the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee;
for Thou wert long beforehand with my soul --
always, always Thou lovedst me. 

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

* The words were written in 1878 by an anonymous hymn-writer.  It is sung to the tune of Sibelius' Finlandia.  I couldn't find a good recording of the hymn itself, but this video plays Sibelius' entire 9-minute composition, and the hymn's melody can be heard starting at about the 6-minute mark.