Book Review: To Be Where You Are

To Be Where You AreI don’t often read books “hot off the press.”  Usually I have so many stacked up from my last birthday, Christmas, etc., that anything new goes behind them. But Jan Karon’s books are an exception: they go straight to the front of the queue! To Be Where You Are is her newest, and its action starts right on the heels of Come Rain or Come Shine, in which Father Tim’s adopted son, Dooley, married his fiance, Lace.

In this book, Dooley and Lace have been fostering a four-year-old boy named Jack, and they’re making plans for a big celebration on what they call Name Day, when their adoption becomes final. That’s probably the major plot line, but as always in Mitford, there are multiple things, large and small, going on at any one time. Some of the other happenings in this book, just to name a few: one long-time Mitford resident passes away; another faces a serious illness and others offer to pitch in at his place of business; major plumbing problems wreak havoc at Dooley’s practice; Lace is offered a major art project which would take care of the plumbing bills, but it’s in California; a number of romances are blossoming; another Mitford resident is looking for ways to spice up his marriage; another is considering running for mayor; another is writing a book (not Cynthia!).

A few favorite spots:

She thought that one of the hardest parts of marriage was being loving when both partners were exhausted or wounded at the same time. When you had the least strength, that’s when you had to dig beyond your limits and grab whatever could be found and give it away.

She needed complete solitude to do this huge thing. No music, no interruptions, just the work. But that was not going to happen, and she had to get used to it.

Lights on in the town at the foot of the hill. Stars on in the great bowl above.

How could he do possibly want to do this fool thing?…Maybe it wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. Though he was beyond serving the mission field, wasn’t his own town a mission field?…And didn’t charity begin at home?

Once in a blue moon they got an October morning like this. It was a day when he could almost smell the ocean, when a gull might wing overhead. He wasn’t the biggest fan of sand and sea, but occasionally some hungering gnawed at him for the visual feast of the Atlantic plain and the knowledge – more like a secret revealed only to Tim Kavanaugh – that over there were Ireland and England and Scotland and Italy and…

His sermon had been preached 24/7 on the floor of The Local for more than three and a half decades.

Reading the Mitford books is like coming home for an extended visit. It was fun seeing how things had changed and yet stayed the same. The same warmth, gentle humor, and undercurrent of truth pervades this book just as it has the others. I don’t know how long Jan will continue writing Mitford books, but I’ll keep reading as many as she wants to write!

Another nice plus to reading this volume now is that the book started in October, and I also started reading (or listening) to it in October, so there were parallels in the setting to what I was experiencing personally.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read, as the other Mitford books have been, by John McDonough.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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Everyday gifts

A few friends linked to this cute video on Facebook.

OK, some might think it a little cheesy. But it made a good point in a fun way. Though it was made with Christmas in mind, I thought it was perfect for Thanksgiving – or really, for any day – a reminder of all that we have. Much that we take for granted would have been considered luxuries throughout most of history, and in fact would still be considered luxuries by a lot of the world today.

This reminded me of an event several years ago when the church we attended then had a testimony time Thanksgiving Eve. Several young adults expressed longing to see God do something “big” in their lives. I couldn’t help but think of the children of Israel in the wilderness. The everyday manna was just as miraculous and just as much God’s provision as the parting of the Red Sea and victory in battle, yet they soon grew tired of that and wanted something else.

I don’t think those young people wanting to see God do something big in their lives that night were necessarily taking the everyday gifts for granted. I don’t know their hearts. But sometimes in longing for the “big” moments we can overlook the everyday evidence of God’s presence, love, and care – maybe a little like a husband or wife waiting for a grand, romantic gesture from the other rather than seeing the love in providing for each other, being attentive to each other’s needs and idiosyncrasies, and all the various little ways we evidence that “You’re the one that I love.”

May we see God’s hand and rejoice in His love and gifts in the everyday as well as in the milestone, once in a lifetime events.

It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O most High: to show forth Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night. Psalm 92:1-2

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses,
Tell His Story, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Faith on Fire)

Friday’s Fave Five

fall FFF 1It’s Friday, time to look back over the blessings of the week with Susanne at Living to Tell the Story and other friends.

It’s been overcast and cool this week, and maybe that’s contributed to it also being a drowsy week for me. But here are some of the best parts of my waking moments. 🙂

1. Fall color in the neighborhood. I’d mentioned a few times that I had seen some fall color in other areas of town, but not in my immediate vicinity. It finally came last week! One day while out running errands, I stopped here and there to take some pictures of it, but none really captured it (it happened to be on one of those overcast days). But there are some lovely photos posted at the local TV station’s “Your Photos” section.

2. Time with Timothy. We baby-sat (or had a play-date, as his parents called it) last Saturday while his parents had some time to themselves. I’m always just a little apprehensive about watching him beforehand, in case he misses his parents too much or just doesn’t have a good day for some reason, but so far it has always gone well.

3. A UT Vols win! I rarely watched football before we moved here, but it’s hard to escape UT fandom when you live right in the middle of it. 🙂 They had been having a rough time of it lately, and finally pulled out a win last Saturday night.

4. Getting an extra hour last weekend. I don’t like giving it back in the spring, and I am not fond of it getting so dark so early after the time change, but I do like having that extra hour.

5. Going through craft books. I hadn’t planned on any deep searching and sorting for the items I was planning to donate that I mentioned last week – it was more just a matter of pulling together items I had set aside or noticed and itemizing them. But I didn’t have them ready to go last weekend, and once I did, I decided to look through a few more places. One was the bookshelf in my craft/sewing room. I spent a very pleasant afternoon looking through craft books, and yes, I did set aside some to give away! That also got my creative juices stirred up!

Happy Friday!

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Discussion of Jayber Crow

I had seen Wendell Berry recommended here and there, but hadn’t gotten around to him yet. When I saw Michele was hosting a read-along and discussion of Berry’s Jayber Crow on Thursdays, I decided it would be a good time to read him. I titled this post a discussion rather than a review because I’m still processing what I read and will probably go into things I might not in an ordinary review.

JayberA cursory review of Jayber Crow would mention that he is the barber of a small community called Port William in Kentucky. He’s the narrator, as a man in his seventies looking back on his life and the changes in the community since his birth in 1914.

But to expand a bit:

His parents had died when he was young, and he was taken in by elderly relatives, who also died after a few years. He was sent to an orphanage at the age of ten. The orphanage director had an odd custom of changing each child’s name to their first initial and last name, leaving the orphans “not quite nameless, but also not quite named.”. Jayber’s given name was Jonah Crow, so he was called J. Crow, which eventually became Jay, then Jaybird, then Jayber.

The orphanage was religiously based, and “turned inward, trying to be a world unto itself” (p. 40) with “a set of rules tightly strung between ourselves and the supposed disorder and wickedness of the world” (p. 33). While others, “[hungering] for the world outside” (p. 40), rebelled by escaping and partaking in forbidden activities, Jayber developed his own inner life, looked out the window instead of listening in class, spent a lot of time on the library, took long walks alone. Much was preached about “the call” to be a preacher or missionary. Fearing the consequences of disobeying “the call” (like an earlier Jonah) and in case he might have missed hearing it, he decided to “give [God] the benefit of the doubt” and “accept the call that had not come” (p. 43).

That led him to a scholarship and part-time job at a Christian college. He enjoyed fewer rules, more freedom and independence, and earning some spending money. But he began to have questions about what he saw as conflicts in the Bible, so much so that, after talking to a number of professors who didn’t help him, he finally went to the one he was “afraid to go to…because I knew he was going to tell me the truth” (p. 53). As he spilled forth his questions, Dr. Ardmire asked, “Do you have any answers?” When Jayber said he did not, but didn’t feel he could preach without them, the professor agreed. When Jayber said he had had a feeling he was “called,” the professor answered,

“And you might have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery. It may take longer” (p. 54).

In one way I found this section somewhat maddening, not because Jayber had unanswered questions regarding the Bible. We all have them, and some won’t be resolved this side of heaven. But there are answers to some of Jayber’s questions and I was frustrated that the professor didn’t deal with any of them. But perhaps what the professor meant by saying that Jayber could not be given answers was that intellectual arguments wouldn’t suffice, at least for him. Whatever questions he had and answers he needed would have to be wrestled with through faith.

So Jayber left school, found work, started barbering, started school again, not for a major but just to take literature classes. But finally he felt a pull to his roots, and he headed back to Port William and spent the rest of his life there, opening a barber shop and living alone. He describes various people of the town, some a great deal, and the changes over the years. He eventually comes back to a type of faith, though with many of his questions unanswered.

A couple of people he talks about at length are Athey Keith and Troy Chatham. Athey was a quiet, salt of the earth farmer. Troy was the son-in-law of which he did not approve but had to accept to preserve the relationship with his only daughter. Athey used the land with wisdom and care and benefited from it, but not in a way that depleted it. He worked to “[improve] his land; he was going to leave it better than he found it” (p. 179). Troy was the high school star athlete who seemed never to get over the need to “show off” and be admired, and in his mind, the way to succeed was to go bigger – plant more, buy more equipment, etc. until “he had no margins.” “He had, in fact, plenty of intelligence–plenty more than he ever used” (p. 177), but he was totally uninterested in anything Athey tried to teach him and “asked of the land all it had (p. 181).” Their whole story seemed to be almost a parable of what Jayber (and/or Berry) thought was wrong with the way the agriculture industry was going. Michele remarked once that sometimes in the book it seemed as though Berry stepped in front of the mic rather than Jayber, and that seemed to be the case especially here. I don’t think he was saying that farmers should never have bought tractors and should have continued to use mules, but he points out a number of problems with the industrialization of the farm and the difference between using the land and using up the land.

One oddity in the book is that Jayber falls in love with a woman he can never have, because she is married. He never crosses any lines, mainly because he realizes that if she had that kind of a relationship with him, it would fundamentally change who she was. But he loves her from afar and helps her out when he can.

One nice article I came across posited that it was, in fact, Jayber’s love for Mattie that “converted” him from being “so independent that he doesn’t fully know his place, doesn’t know the people in it, and doesn’t love them as he ought. What’s more, it has made him, like Troy, a danger to that place due to his refusal to give himself to it while taking a great deal from it.”

The love Jayber learns to practice is an extremely physical love grounded in practical acts of devotion that sometimes by their very nature require that he not do things he deeply desires to do. Learning to love Port William and the people in it did not consist of an emotional attachment to it or in being authentic about his feelings toward it. It meant disciplining himself in such a way that promoted the health and life of Port William.

This reminded me of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities in the sense that his pure but unrequited love for Lucie changed him into one of the greatest examples of Biblical love in literature. Another recent find, Suffering Unto Salvation, compares Jayber’s love for Mattie to Dante’s for Beatrice in Commedia, and demonstrates effectively how romantic love can waken and feed spiritual love.

One of themes in Jayber Crow is that of belonging. From what Michele called his “unnaming” at the orphanage, until some time after he got back to Port William, he didn’t have a sense of belonging anywhere or to anyone. Even once he claimed Port William as his own, he still held himself somewhat aloof from it, remaining “sort of bystander a lot longer than I remained a stranger” – maybe because he was a classic introvert, maybe due to habits and how he grew up. But one thing that stood out to me was that people who seem to be on the fringes of a community can sometimes paradoxically be the ones who most fiercely care about it. Michele shared an article recommending Jayber as a study for pastors. I don’t know that I would go that far, both because of his theological oddities and because he did hold himself back from people, but in his caring of the community and most of the individuals in it, he’s a good example.

He mentioned throughout the novel the thought that he should “make something of himself,” until he finally comes to accept his place in the community, and that compulsion goes away. This seems to be a nod to what his professor told him, that what we’re “called” to may not be “the” ministry, but caring for those under our influence in the best way we know how is a calling and ministry itself (something I’ve ascended the soapbox for before).

I’ve thought about writing a separate post dealing with Jayber’s theological issues. He does admit having “been in the dark wood of error many times,” but that doesn’t include the errors he doesn’t admit to. I don’t know if these are also Berry’s. Maybe I still will do that at some point, but suffice it to say that I had problems with that aspect of the book, though occasionally he would express something I agreed with, like “The Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen” (p. 157). One beautiful passage after Athey died mentioned heaven as “an unimaginable thought of something I could almost imagine, of a sound I could not imagine but could almost hear. I don’t speak of this because I ‘know’ it. What I know is that shout of limitless joy, love unbound at last, our only native tongue” (p. 268).

I was also dismayed by a smattering of bad language, a few vulgar references, and Jayber’s sexual activities in another town with “certain women I had encountered out in the great world [who] would not be available unless paid” and a longer-term intimate relationship with one woman (not described explicitly but referred to). I thought it odd that Jayber’s religious feelings never touched his sexual activities: it’s his love for Mattie that causes a change in that department. Even Bernie, his closest friend, has a “might as well be wife” and a son with her.

But otherwise I thought Berry’s writing was rich, especially the drawing of his characters that I feel I know better than my own neighbors, the laying out of the story, his descriptiveness, and his phrasing, some of it wry, some of it almost lyrical. Some passages just made you stop, sit, and think for a while. Some of my favorite lines in the book:

Aunt Beulah could hear the dust moats collide in a sunbeam (p. 173).

I have books to read, and much to sit and watch. I try not to let good things go by unnoticed.

Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.

After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down.

If the devil doesn’t exist… how do you explain that some people are a lot worse than they’re smart enough to be?

He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.

[After Troy’s son died in Viet Nam] It seemed for a while that Troy had been almost unmade by his grief, but then, having nobody else to be, he became himself again and continued on (p. 293).

We discussed for a while at Michele’s place the thought in that last quote, that sometimes we need to let the circumstances of life “unmake” us in order to effect change instead of just going back to what we were before.

It was uncanny that the book intersected my own life at points. I was in the section where Jayber is trying to cross a flooded river to get back to Port William when my own loved ones were experiencing flooding in TX (that was almost too intense to take in at that time). When he discusses change after having to close down his shop, we were just embarking on a couple of major changes in our family. And not long after he expressed trouble with the idea or war conflicting with Jesus’ command to love our enemies, I came across a lengthy section dealing with that very issue in Love in Hard Places by D. A. Carson.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Paul Michael. His voice will forever be Jayber’s voice to me. I also checked out the hardback copy from the library both to facilitate the discussions at Michele’s by being able to review the section under discussion each week and just to go over some things again myself.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this along with Michele and others – I gleaned so much more from it than I would have alone. It was fun to toss around ideas in the comments there. Michele once described Jayber as an “odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.” I think that pretty well sums him up! Sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing, often insightful, his story was a thought-provoking read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Book Review: Between Friends

Some years ago, when my oldest two were in school but my third had not yet been born, a friend mentioned a group she got together with to work on craft projects and invited me to join them. I’m not sure how all the ladies knew each other or how the group started, but at the time I attended, it was maybe 5-8 or so ladies at a time. They took turns meeting at each other’s homes and bringing snacks, everyone would bring whatever craft project they were currently working on, and we had quite an enjoyable time talking while making progress on our projects. It always reminded me a bit of the old quilting bees or the sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women who, in later books when they were grown and had their own families, would meet together periodically to visit while doing their mending. The only other experience similar to this I’ve had since was when ladies’ groups at church would gather to work on something to send our missionaries, our college students, or for an upcoming event. I always enjoyed the fellowship with hearts and mouths while our hands were working and the inspiration gleaned from each other’s ideas.

Between FriendsI recently rediscovered a book on my shelf called Between Friends: Craft Projects to Share by Charlotte Lyons. She begins with a story of her family having moved to Chicago and, during a walk, her children spotted a group of other children playing and ran up to them. Her daughter noticed one of the moms nearby, sewing, and said, “My mom does that too. Will you talk to her so we can play with your little kids?” And that, says Charlotte, is how she met “one of [her] best and dearest friends” (p. 10). That led to a group of women meeting like those I described in my first paragraph, and Charlotte goes on to tell how sometimes something handmade would spark a conversation with new friends or lead to new endeavors together.

Between Friends explores the bond that exists between women as friends–a bond that is richly intensified by creative endeavors. Whether a project is made for a friend or with a friend, the joy in doing so gives resonance and inspiration to an ordinary hour, day, or weekend (p. 11).

Charlotte has grouped the craft projects and instructions in the book into categories based on how long they take – an hour, half a day or so, all day, a weekend, or “as long as it takes.” Every chapter also contains a vignette about a particular real-life friendship as well as activities and suggestions for forming a club around a particular type of craft. Sprinkled at the bottom of several pages are a variety of quotes, like “Happiness is a by-product of an effort to make someone else happy. – Gretta Brooker Palmer” and “Happiness walks on busy feet. – Kittie Turmell” and “Little house, you are so small, Just big enough for love, that’s all. – Anonymous.” There are even a few recipes here and there.

This is a delightful book, both for the craft ideas and the exploration of friendship.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

The Strength of My Faith

When I faced surgery two years ago, I also faced a major battle with anxiety. First, with any medical procedure, they have to tell you everything that could possibly go wrong. Even though the things they describe aren’t likely to happen, there is some possibility they could happen. Some people probably are able to dwell in the “not likely” aspect of it, but some of us have trouble getting out of the “Yeah, but what if….” side of things. On top of that, though I am not diabetic or hypoglycemic, I do have low blood sugar issues sometimes. I usually can’t go past 9 or 10 a.m. without getting dizzy, shaky, and lightheaded, and the surgery wasn’t scheduled until 1 p.m., with nothing to eat or drink after midnight the night before. On top of that, I have irritable bowel syndrome, which can get into a vicious cycle with anxiety. It’s one more thing to get anxious about, and anxiety about it increases the likelihood of it being a problem, which increases the anxiety, and so on. I asked just about everyone I knew to pray about it, and God marvelously answered. The anxiety came to a peak two days before the surgery, but the morning of, God truly gave me “peace that passes understanding.”

Some of you who have read here for a while may remember that that procedure was not able to be completed. They thought I had one type of rhythm problem with my heart, but once they tried to treat it, they discovered I didn’t have that after all. I had a different kind, which was a totally different (and riskier, I was told at the time) procedure.

So two years later, which was this last August, that procedure was scheduled. The battle with anxiety was not as intense, I think due both to the fact that I had learned some things about dealing with it, and God had gotten me through all this before. But it was still a factor.

I had the notion that in order to keep the anxiety at bay, to avoid all these possible problems, and, most of all, to have a victorious experience spiritually, I had to maintain a certain level of faith. I saw anxiety as a failure of faith, and if I did experience any problems with blood sugar, IBS, etc., it would mean I had failed.

One can get rather weary feeling the weight of all that. A few days before the surgery, while once again several of these issues were going through my mind, a line from an old hymn by Ada Ruth Habershon revived in recent years came to mind:

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast.

It’s not the strength, size, intensity, or maintenance of my faith that makes the difference. It’s the One I have faith in.

This is not a new truth to me. I was brought to this focus way back when I was first saved, and it’s something I have to be reminded of from time to time.

The fact that God knew the depths of my heart and my struggles and ministered to me so personally and tenderly touched my heart so deeply, and this became one of the most special moments of my life. This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone else.

I share it not only to glorify God, but to encourage you. A former pastor’s wife, an older lady who had walked with the Lord for decades, used to often say, when she was speaking or counseling, “Look away to Jesus.” Whatever you’re going through, look away to Him.

There is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely, shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength. Isaiah 45:21b-24b, KJV

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. Psalm 119:37, ESV.

For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:40, ESV

But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness,  the Lord will be a light to me. Micah 7:7-8, ESV

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. Psalm 63:1-3, ESV

I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him  and saved him out of all his troubles. Psalm 34:4-6, ESV

And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Matthew 17:8. ESV

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV

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