Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Summer With L.M. Montgomery

A couple of weeks ago, Persis wrote about her L.M. Montgomery summer. Quite serendipitously, I was reading L.M. Montgomery myself. I have spent a lot of time with Montgomery.

Montgomery was part of my childhood the way that Laura Ingalls Wilder was in the lives of other girls. Montgomery died in 1942, and after that, publishers began re-printing her books. My grandmother bought them, and gave them to my mother. I bought a cheap set of paperbacks for my daughter to read.  When I purchased Montgomery's biography a few years ago, I began a reading project, not only re-reading her books (and not just the "Anne" books), but reading critical works of her material and reading her Selected Journals, which were edited by Elilzabeth Waterson, and Mary Rubio; Rubio is the author of The Gift of Wings, the biography of Montgomery. This summer, I read the fourth volume of her journals.

The journals provide fascinating reading. Maud didn't hold back in her journals, and she took the project seriously. In fact, she re-copied them years after writing them, expecting people to read them after her death. The same lavish descriptions of P.E.I. which are in her books are within her journals. Many phrases in her journals are used verbatim in her books. These aren't just "what I did today" journals. She used her journals to process things, and to unburden her heart.

The volume I finished this summer covered the years 1929-1935. In these years, she begins to experience a loss of influence in the literary world, her husband takes a new church, and she struggles with anxiety and depression due to tight finances and a rebellious son. Health matters such as insomnia, headaches, and dizziness plague her. However, she still manages to soldier on with her duties as a minister's wife (duties which she loathes for the most part), and participate at speaking engagements.

If it is one thing Maud was good at, it was hiding her feelings. She managed to pull off Sunday school programs, hostess duties, and missionary society meetings as if nothing was wrong, when in reality, she was in despair. She did not want anyone knowing the truth. Her grandmother instilled in her a very healthy fear of "what will people say?" When one of her boys fails college courses, her cry is is, "How could he do this to me?" because she is afraid of the public disgrace. The previous volumes of her journals have their share of angst, especially when her husband's mental illness is at its worst, but this volume contains much more, and is not punctuated as often with good times.

Maud Montgomery was not generally a happy woman. At times, she reveals unflattering qualities, most notably intellectual snobbery. The comments she makes about her husband's congregants are often unkind and impatient, because she does not find them intellectually stimulating. I got the feeling that Montgomery valued intellect above godliness.

Two things really stood out to me as I read this volume. First, the ability of such an unhappy woman to write happy stories is a testimony to the creative abilities God gives. I have no idea of Montgomery's standing before God, but I know she was created in his image and he gave her those literary abilities, and I'm thankful for that. Second, I was left wondering if we can really know someone. How many people who were Montgomery's contemporaries knew her dark, despairing thoughts? When the journals were published beginning in 1985, were those who were still alive shocked? We can really only know what others will let us see, and even then, we may interpret it wrongly. God does know us intimately, though, and I wish I could have the sense that Montgomery knew some sort of peace with God.

Montgomery will always feel like a companion to me. I've enjoyed her stories and I've felt sad for the lack of love she had in her life. She truly was a fascinating woman.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What I read on my summer vacation: Philosopher's edition

When I was in college, the last class I would have picked for an elective was philosophy. Who needed to learn about a bunch of dead Greek guys sitting around in their togas pondering the meaning of existence? The subject seemed boring and highly impractical. As a Christian, thinking also seemed to be at odds with spirituality, so I never thought much about what I believed and why, let alone what others believed.

When I went through a personal crisis in my 40's, a crisis of faith soon followed. Where was God in all of this? What was He really like? Why was this happening to me? These were philosophical questions even though I did not know it at the time. Thankfully through a new church and exposure to sound Biblical teaching, I regained my bearings. At the same time, I realized that I sorely needed to know what I believed and why I believed it.  In short, I needed to become a Berean, which meant learning how to think as a Christian.

So here are a few books that I read this summer to help me discipline my mind in this way:

Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians - Mark W. Foreman
If Christians are to be people of the truth, we need to be wise about what goes in our minds. As we seek to share the truth, we also need to be careful to convey our beliefs with clarity and without manipulation. Thus in the first half, the book covers the importance of thinking critically about what we believe and its importance specifically for Christians. In the second half, the reader is introduced to principles of logic and argumentation. This was a very enjoyable read and not dry at all. The author is a professor of religion and philosophy at Liberty University.

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments - Ali Almossawi
A fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument. I've used them without realizing it, and you may have, too. So what better way to learn what they are and how to avoid them than through clever illustrations with furry critters? A version of the book is available online.

With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies - S. Morris Engel
This is a much more thorough treatment of informal fallacies and argumentation than the previous book. I'm still working my way through, but this book has given me a lot to consider and challenged me to be as logical as possible when trying to make a point. I was pleasantly surprised to find cartoons from the Far Side as examples of the different fallacies. This is a college text so the latest edition is a bit pricey, but it's possible to find less expensive, used copies of earlier editions.

The Consequences of Ideas - R.C. Sproul (audio/video series)
Sproul gives a great overview of the history of philosophy from ancient Greece to the present. Whether we realize it or not, we are influenced by schools of thought from the past. Therefore, it can be very helpful to be able to recognize the source of ideas, both the good and the bad. In my opinion, Sproul can make any subject interesting, and this is no exception.  Keep an eye on the Ligonier $5 Friday specials to get these lectures on sale.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Servanthood as a Lifestyle

"Could it be that our passivity to the needs around us does not really grow out of a commitment to prioritize what God has commanded us to do, but is really a neglect of how he has commanded us to live? It is the difference between focusing on specific behaviors as opposed to a particular kind of lifestyle."
- Paul Tripp (source)
Without a doubt,these words were some of the most convicting and challenging I read all summer - even all year. I have mulled them over in my mind time and time again, and asked myself repeatedly what they mean.

Convicting because I know that I often neglect the people in my life who need me most, especially if they are outside of my home. I'm quick to do anything I can for my husband and my daughter, but I don't like the inconvenience of helping others. I rationalize my absence by citing time, distance, or financial constraints. In truth, I'm offering pitiful excuses and hoping they'll be accepted graciously. If Tripp is right, it's not my lack of prioritizing that's the issue. Instead, it's disobedience. Ouch.

Challenging because while disobedience may be the root, the time, distance, and financial constraints are very real. They don't disappear merely because I wish they didn't exist. I can't always drop my job or my family to attend a friend in need. I can't serve on church committees that meet every week when I live 45 minutes away. I can't disregard the electric bill because a family needs groceries.

The key, I think, is Tripp's last sentence. I tend to focus on the behaviors or the things I'm doing. But God isn't keeping score. There are no extra points for going, doing, or giving. Instead he calls me to be a good steward of my family, time, and money. Sometimes that means I stay put and keep my checkbook in my purse. There's no shame in that. However, there are times when sacrifice is required. Loving my neighbor demands that I be willing to offer my comfort for theirs. The lifestyle Tripp speaks of begins with a heart willing to serve, and we gain that by remembering Christ's sacrifice and his willingness to serve us.
Appreciating what God has done for us in Christ changes how we see our service. Martin Luther writes, "Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbor voluntarily, without taking any account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, gain or loss." (source)
For more on servanthood, I highly recommend Servanthood as Worship: The Privilege of Life in a Local Church by Nate Palmer.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What I Read This Summer: Nonfiction

I am not as prolific a reader when it comes to nonfiction as compared to fiction. I'd like to say it's because I'm pondering and processing as I read but I fear I may just be lazy! But then again maybe not. Maybe thoughtful readers are slow readers.

Slow or not, prolific or not, I did read some great nonfiction books this summer that I happily recommend to you.

HISTORY: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. I've read a couple of other titles by Larson and enjoyed them both, most notably The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Dead Wake is equally fascinating as it weaves personal stories of passengers on the Lusitania with the political climate as well as the strategical challenges of submarine warfare.

MEMOIR: The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life's Hard by Kara Tippetts. This was hard to read, naturally because of the subject matter and because Kara has now died, but also because of the death of my friend to cancer a year ago. Despite the heaviness, this is also a hopeful book, one that confidently asserts that life, no matter its struggles or pain, is precious because of Jesus and the hope He gives in the gospel.

GOSPEL: From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel by Christine Hoover. Christine is writing my story in this book and I loved it and I needed it.

THEOLOGY: The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges. Okay, so it's not theology like a seminary level theological tome but this exploration of the person and character of God challenged and encouraged me.

PRAYER: Prone to Wander: Prayers of Confession and Celebration by Barbara Duguid and Wayne Houk. I didn't actually read this over this summer so much as I finished it this summer so I'm including it in my list. This is a book of prayers and confessions that I used in my morning devotional time. Each prayer includes confession as well as a reiteration of the gospel with a focus on Christ and His finished work. I found it extremely hopeful and helpful.

Did you read anything you would like to recommend? Let us know in the comments! I know I am always looking for the encouragement of a good book!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A summer of fear and anxiety

One of the books I read this summer was Ed Welch's book Running Scared.  It was one of the best books I have ever read. It's about so much more than fear and anxiety.

There will always be things that we fear. As we got older, the potential fears only grow. What is crucial, though, is to find out what motivates our fear, and Welch spends a lot of time discussing that. That is what I appreciated most about this book. It offered foundational help, not just band-aid solutions. Honestly there is so much I could share about this book, but this is a blog post, so I'll keep it brief. Here are some themes I appreciated.

The "manna principle." This is the reality that just as God provided daily for the Israelites in the wilderness, so does he provide for us daily. He will give us today those things we need today. Worry often spirals out of control when we start looking ahead to tomorrow before it's arrived. He won't give us tomorrow's portion until tomorrow. This helps us to learn trust, knowing that whatever tomorrow brings, God will provide.

Our fear reveals what we value most. When we have fears, we need to ask why. What are we ultimately trusting in? When we struggle with fear, our tendency is to find ways to stop fearing. Welch suggests that rather than running away from it, run toward it and figure out why we have those fears.

We are citizens in the kingdom of God. Being part of a kingdom means we have allegiance to our king. As Christians, we owe allegiance to our king, Christ. Too often, our allegiance is to a kingdom (usually the kingdom of "me") which is temporal. But God's kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and when we have proper allegiance, it changes everything. Fears reveal our ultimate allegiances, and sometimes, we're giving allegiance to the wrong kingdom.

We need to be in the Word and prayer. The ultimate solution to worry is knowing God and relating to Him. We will never get a grip on fear if we don't know God, and that means being in the Bible regularly. And it means meditating on the words, and seeking God through prayer.

There are many practical ways to help someone who struggles with fear. Things like deep breathing, exercise, prayer, and even engaging in creative pursuits can help when we are overwhelmed by fear. But the root of our fear needs to be identified. One of the things Welch said, which I found the most compelling was this simple principle:
Whatever is most important is the thing that rules us.
When God's kingdom is most important, it will rule us. If something else rules us, it will be revealed in our fears.

This book challenged me to think about where my ultimate allegiance is. Welch is skilled in both distilling truth and encouraging. He is honest about his own fears. It is a book I will recommend to others, and refer to again and again.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What I read on my summer vacation: L.M. Montgomery edition

"Green Gables"
In late spring, my family had the opportunity to visit Prince Edward Island for a day. A stop at the Green Gables Heritage Place was a must, and we were able to walk through the house that was the inspiration for Anne's first home. The surrounding countryside was beautiful with rolling green fields and rich red earth. We took a walk along the shore and stood on the sandstone cliffs as the waves crashed before us. We could catch the scent of the balsam firs while a songbird sang his heart out in a nearby field just like a scene from one of the novels. Some may think L.M. Montgomery's descriptions of her native heath were over-romanticized, but after seeing it with my own eyes, the Island is as picturesque as she had painted it to be.

In honor of the visit, I read two "new" stories by Montgomery - The Story Girl and The Golden Road.  These books are a two-part series involving the children of the King family. The narrator of the novels is Beverly King, a young boy who is sent with his brother from the big city of Toronto to the family homestead on the Island. Since their father was being transferred to South America for work, they were going to live with their Uncle Alec, Aunt Janet, and cousins.  The children's adventures make for a fun and charming read, and the author captures the ups and downs of rural life so well.

One of my favorite episodes in The Story Girl involves a prophecy that the world would end the following day. The "prophet" was the (in)famous leader of a sect in the United States (it figures). Also the fact that this prediction was published in the newspaper gave authenticity to the bad tidings, so the children were sent into a panic at the thought that they would soon meet their Maker. The account is very humorous but a little sad as well. The King family were staunch Presbyterians and regular churchgoers, but their beliefs stemmed from long-held family traditions rather than from saving faith. Thus the children had no gospel assurance and no hope other than their good deeds. Since Montgomery's husband was a Presbyterian minister, I began to wonder about her own religious upbringing and convictions.

That being the case and based on Kim's recommendation, I picked up Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio. This is not a light biography but a well-researched tome by an English scholar, which took decades to complete. I will warn you, though. If you imagine Maud's life must have been as happy as the novels she created, your bubble will be burst. Her life fluctuated between joy and sadness and was marked with a deep longing for love, friendship, and acceptance. The thought "What will people think?" was always in the back of her mind. Like Anne, she knew the pain of rejection for "not being a boy." She worked hard for every dollar to pay for college while a male relative had his education handed to him on a silver platter. Maud was a gifted writer and speaker, and yet she was taken advantage of by her first publisher and had her work disparaged by highbrow critics toward the end of her life. She met her husband, Ewan MacDonald at a time in both their lives when they were emotionally needy and became engaged out of that need. He was not a kindred spirit by any means, and their marriage was not a happy one. Although MacDonald was a Presbyterian minister who fought against the liberalization of the denomination, it appears that he suffered from debilitating depression which resulted in fear that he was not one of the elect. Maud, having been raised in a long line of Scotch Presbyterians, could not find any comfort in her faith either. She too suffered from emotional issues during a time when any form of mental illness was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and swept under the rug for fear of the shame. The only treatments at the time were potentially addicting medications, which were later shown to exacerbate the problem. Based on the evidence, Maud tragically took her own life.

There were times when I was tempted to stop reading the bio, but I am glad I finished it. It's amazing that Maud was able to focus and write such delightful novels when she experienced so much sorrow and disappointment. Perhaps her writing was an escape from reality to a better place created by her pen. I will read her fictional works with new appreciation and look for glimpses of the author in her characters. I also have much greater respect for Maud's gift as a writer now that I know more of her own story.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Portrait of My Summer Reading

I have no power in the face of a friend's 4 or 5-star review on Goodreads. None whatsoever. I immediately check to see if my library has the book so that I can add it to one of my lists. The ability to have several lists stored on my library's website is a gift from the Lord.

I discovered A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy courtesy of Lisa's  rating. I'd never read anything by Binchy.  This story was like curling up in a blanket with a cup of hot tea: warm and cozy. When I was finished, I immediately checked out another Binchy title, Heart and Soul, which I have promptly devoured. What I enjoy most is that her books are character, rather than plot, driven. Spending some time in one of her books before bed is a wonderfully relaxing way to end the day.


I go to the library to pick up a book I've had on hold. I can't resist strolling through the shelves. A book jacket catches my eye and my hand automatically reaches for it. I scan the inside flap, and all is lost. I bring it home.

The bright book jacket on The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty got me. I'd previously read Moriarty's What Alice Forgot, which I thought was cleverly written, so I was eager to see what her other works might be like. I wasn't disappointed. I could hardly put this one down during vacation. Moriarty also writes for characters, though the plots in both books have been well-developed written and interesting.

The "Customers Also Bought" feature on Amazon is a double-edged sword. Useful, because it's nice to find books that might suit my tastes. Harmful, because my reading list usually grows by two or three books every time.
And so I stumbled upon The Children Act by Ian McEwan, which appealed to me especially because of my legal background. McEwan's intensity and skill allow him to pack a powerful punch in a short read. It's a story that I won't easily forget.

(Please note that none of these titles are considered Christian and may contain language and/or situations certain readers might find offensive.)

Friday, September 4, 2015

What I Read This Summer: Fiction

For the month of September we are talking about our favorite summer reads here at the blog. I will freely admit: I am a voracious reader of fiction. I find great enjoyment and value in a good story well told, no matter the genre. However, as I devour one novel after another, I often find I have a problem: I cannot remember what books I’ve read and if I do remember then I have trouble recalling which ones I liked. Sad but true. This is why I keep a Goodreads account. There I can tally both books read and my rated response.

Checking my Goodreads list of books read this past summer revealed a season of slightly disappointing reads. There were several two stars, and this doesn’t include the books I started but didn’t finish and the book I disliked so very much that I didn’t even list it.

My only five star read of the summer was To Kill a Mockingbird. Which makes sense. Isn’t it a five star for us all? I mean, surely I don’t have to tell you to read it, am I right? But then again if you haven’t, then do. Now. Today. It’s a five star and then some. Trust me.

My love for To Kill a Mockingbird aside, here are a few notable fiction reads from my summer reading. I liked them all even if none achieved five star status…

Wolf Hall. Probably my favorite non-TKAM read of the summer. My only quibble, and at times it was a big one, was so many characters with the same names! Of course, in an historical novel I suppose the author hasn’t much freedom in naming her characters. Some have faulted the novel for its exclusive use of “he” in reference to Cromwell. So long as I could keep in mind that the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, though in third person (“he” instead of “I”) I didn’t struggle there as much as I did with the similar names. Regardless it was a fascinating book about a fascinating character in a fascinating period of history.

We Were Liars. Trust me, the less you know about this one, the better. I knew nothing at all and I could not put it down. If you read it and want to discuss, feel free to email me and we can talk about it, the ending in particular.

A Fall of Marigolds. The stories of two women a century apart, September 1911 and September 2011, are weaved together in this historical novel. Seeing the events of 9/11 unfold in a novel was both interesting and different. A friend of mine told me she thought I would like this one and she was right. I did. How much do I love friends who know me so well to send me book recommendations?

Still Life. I’ve read the first two books in Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and I’m hooked. I love love love a good murder mystery and while these have started a little slowly they have not disappointed. I am looking forward to reading more in the series.

What about you? Do you enjoy a good story well told? Do you have any recommendations from your summer reading? Let us know in the comments! Your fellow fiction fans want to know!

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What I read on my summer vacation

Did you read any good books over the summer? I did. Did you read any good articles? I read a few. That is the theme for September: good reading of any kind. We will be sharing what we found good reading this summer, and we invite you to share what you read. Whether it was a good work of fiction while you lounged on the beach, a biography while you camped by a lazy river, or just took your laptop onto your front porch in the evening, we would like to hear from you, too. We're always looking for good things to read.

We hope you'll join us.