It's a wonderful thing to experience Easter. I often wonder if people recognize the gravity of the holiday. Sure, it's fun to celebrate the coming of Spring with bunnies and chicks and pastels, but this holy day has nothing to do with painted eggs and lovely "Sunday-best" dresses. This is a celebration of freedom from the grave.
When Jesus was sent to Earth, He came to set captives free. He came to set you free... and me. We have been set free to experience joy instead of sorrow, laughter instead of tears and righteousness instead of the gut-wrenching sin to which we are naturally inclined. With two children under six in the home, I am often confronted with discussions about truth. What is true, and what does it mean?
Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? He died because when God the Father gave people the freedom to do absolutely everything except one tiny thing, we humans were unable to obey. We got as close to the forbidden thing as we possibly could, resting beneath the branches of the one tree instead of finding joy in all the other thousands of trees that we were permitted to enjoy fully.
If God the Father had not said no to that one thing, we never would have had the ability to choose whether we want to obey or not. We would not have had free will. So He said yes to EVERYTHING in the entire world. Everything. And He said no to only one thing. And we were curious. And we indulged our curiosity. And we chose to sever our relationship with God the Father, the direct and honest relationship where we could see Him and hear Him and touch Him.
Then He had to pull away, for His sake and for ours. He had to put space between us so He could be fair in giving us grace. The less we knew, the less would be counted against us. He spoke through prophets and through clouds and He gave clear instructions about what was right and what was wrong. He left nothing to chance this time, but He still left a choice. And we chose poorly.
He had to find a way to allow us back into His presence without betraying His just character. Someone had to bear the punishment. Someone perfect. Someone willing to pay the ultimate price. Jesus.
And that is why Jesus had to die. He died so God could allow us to be friends with Him again. Now God doesn't even look at us directly. He looks at us through Jesus. And we look GOOD.
Blessings for your Easter celebration. May you share a table with those you love. May you be filled with joy at the absolutely incredible mercy of our God.
If you are interested in any of the table setting items, please take a look at the links below.
Author: Taylor Abigail
I went to Israel in May and I'm still untangling how it changed me. When we landed back in the States, one of our group members said, "It's like we just time traveled." Our flight from Newark, NJ to Tel Aviv, Israel was ten hours and we were met with a seven-hour time difference. For ten days we were at least one day ahead of the Western world, but centuries behind in history. I went into this trip expecting a spiritual whirlwind experience. However, the trip itself was much more like a crash course in Israeli and Jewish history. I adjusted my mindset in a few days and found that coming home would be the start of the spiritual renewal in me. When you learn things like the name "Mary" doesn't exist in Hebrew and so it's in fact "Miriam" mother of Christ - and that Jesus' Miriam is reminiscent of Aaron's sister Miriam - the Bible becomes a beautiful mystery all over again. And when your eyes see the same sights as Jesus' eyes, this disruptive religion of Christianity takes on new life. Little realizations like Mary's undercover name have the potential to scare us: are there any core doctrines we are translating incorrectly? Is my Bible translation leading me astray? Can I even know God if I don't know Hebrew and haven't seen the landscape?
I rest in the fact that God isn't confined to one language. He speaks in dreams, pictures, visions, through music...etc. I have a Malaysian friend who is fluent in both Malay and English. I asked her if God spoke to her in both or one language. She said both depending on which language got across the idea best. What a sweet avenue into God's heart. I'm learning Sign Language in college...praying for the day that God speaks to me through it.
What's been dancing around in my head the most since I've returned has been the wonder of what it means that believers are now God's temple. I can't relate to temples. I'm not even sure that America has anything remotely close to what the temple was for the Jews. The temples and synagogues were the epicenter of Jewish life because that's where God's presence was (quite literally at some points in history) and that's where the people had to go to connect with God.
In Israel, we visited the Wailing Wall. This wall is considered to be part of an old temple. Jews still congregate there today to pray and cry out before the Lord because that's where God's presence is for them. There's security when you walk in. A wide and sunbleached courtyard stretches far out from the actual wall with dividers standing between the men's side and the women's side. The wall itself is not all that large. But long enough for scores of Jews to press themselves against the massive stones in prayer. All along the wall, there are prayer papers snuggled into the cracks. A little more unromantic was the hundreds of white plastic lawn chairs and women backing away from the wall (it's disrespectful to turn your back on a holy place) and running into the chairs, and little kids romping around.
Here was a startling mix of reverence, normality, and bondage. Eerie music hovered over the atmosphere and I wondered about its meaning. I picked up a prayer paper off of the ground in hopes I could read it and pray for someone. We sat and watched and I prayed. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would make Himself known to each of the women and that God would reveal to them His son, Jesus, as the Messiah.
Many think of the Wailing Wall as sacred and holy unlike any other thing. Maybe I'm missing something, but I walked away thankful that when I don't know how to cry out, the Spirit in me does, and that no matter where my back is facing, God is still before me, beside me, behind me, and within me. If I believed God's presence was only in some holy places, I would pitch a tent and never leave. His presence is the craving of my life.
1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?" Sometimes we feel distant from God. Could it be because of a weak hold on our identities as temples?
I lose words when I think about what it means that we - our bodies and spirits - are God's home. We are the temple He constructed from the beginning. He is only home and we are only home when we are together. He couldn't be in us for thousands of years after we sinned and the cross cleared the path for the Holy Spirit to come to a joyous homecoming and reunion. God has never been confined by space and time, but He clothed Himself with skin to blow away the sin that kept us from being his home. Still, we are not at our final and eternal home of Heaven. But our souls are eternal and are even now communing with God's Spirit within us.
The miracle of the Cross cannot be thought on enough. Jesus' sacrifice was the gateway for the Holy Spirit to enter us. The shock of the resurrection; the joy of the Father as He sent His Spirit to journey home to our souls are things that I cannot turn my face from. Believers today have never had to experience life without God's Spirit in us. We know little to nothing about the radical and timeless changes that Jesus instated. To be so brash, to be so bold, to be so generous with peace and freedom to dismember religion entirely and to name us His dwelling place probably sounded too good to be true at the time. We can get angry when good things are given to us that we don't really believe we deserve. I wonder if that was part of the problem with the Pharisees' hearts.
2 Peter 2:4 calls believers "living stones." A living stone is any stone that serves a purpose; that has a specific function and job for a building. Stones that aren't used for buildings and that remain part of the landscape are called "dead stones." 2 Peter 2:4 says, "As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him--you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." The thing about living stones is that they all were at one time dead. Choice and chiseling is what made them into living stones. Every stone had to be chiseled perfectly to serve its function well. The more specific the position of the stone, the more the chiseling.
Because we are named living stones, we can expect to be chiseled so that we can fit our specific function and purpose for every season of our lives. Our tour guide made this comment as he taught us about living and dead stones, "That pain is bad is unbiblical." Suffering - chiseling - is the crucible that transforms us from dead stones into living stones. Our guide also said, "There's always meaning in the pain. But meaning doesn't lessen the pain. It's just a guide to handle the pain well and with hope."
We can choose to remain dead stones. We can choose to not live out our identity as God's temple and living stones in His Church. We can choose to see pain as a thing to be avoided and feared. But we grievously cheat ourselves. We leave our souls dirty and unfit for the throne of King Jesus and continue wailing at a wall from which He set us free.
I listened to a sermon this morning by Matt Chandler about work and rest. He talked about the Sabbath and how it is actually a thing that God instated that denies us a spirit of self-reliance and grows in us a spirit of dependence on Him. Ezekiel 20:20, "Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.” It's a sign to remind us who is God and who is definitely not God. The Sabbath is about identity. Chandler said over and over again, "Step into the privilege of your identity. God's not upset with you for falling short. He doesn't think that way: you do."
A temple isn't a place anymore, it's an identity.
The Sabbath is not a practice anymore, it's an identity.
A living stone is not just an analogy anymore, it's an identity.
Admonitions to take chiseling well, to wonder in amazement and be humbled that we are temples, and to step into our identities as living and not dead stones are not shame-filled requirements. These are privileges that we can take or leave. These are gifts that God gives us to remain under His wing. These are identities that protect us and motivate us. We don't have to become the temple, we already are.
Author: Taylor Abigail
The name of the place we stayed was Yad Hashmona. A beautiful mix between a retreat center, neighborhood, and a theological study hub, Yad stands as a unique gem of Israel. This place was a gift from the Finns. Yad Hashmona means "In memory of the eight." During the Holocaust, Finland gave over eight Jews to the Nazis. Yad Hashmona is a sincere apology, a gift, and a sign of peace. It stands on an Israeli mountain and has a beautiful garden wrapping around the north side.
Arie Bar-David, owner of Yad Hashmona and Tirosh Expeditions (a touring company), was personally chosen to lead the Yad community. Years ago, Arie stumbled upon a small community of Finns living on the site of Yad Hashmona. As they got to know one another, the Finns saw Arie's amazing leadership abilities and wanted him to grow and lead their community. Arie accepted and Yad has since become a powerful tool in the Lord's hand to bring Jews and Gentiles alike to Himself in the land of Israel - through Arie's tours, the Bible translators onsite, and an ever growing community of Messianic Jews. Arie's family is the first Messianic Jewish family in Israel for decades. During my visit, God's deep devotion to the Jews and Israel became more and more apparent. God's provision and faithfulness to the Jews and Israel was made especially real to me at Yad.
As we walked Jerusalem, we watched the Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Jews, and Muslims mix and mingle. Yet, in the city, there are specific "quarters" where each people group tends to gather. Their ethnicities are a dividing wall, yet, Jerusalem serves as an epicenter for many of their faiths. I've heard it said that in the Western world, our question is, "Is there a god?" and in the Eastern world, the question is, "Which god do you serve?" Walking the Israeli soil gave the sharpest proof of this polarization.
The very nation of Israel was born out of God's covenant with Abraham. Throughout history, the Israeli land has been the coveted possession of empires for its blessed and fertile soil. The Jewish people's entire lives have revolved around God the Father and their search for the Messiah. I am certain that had I approached any person there and said, "There is no god," I would've been in the minority. This entire civilization centers around the spiritual; meanwhile, back in the States, some of us wonder if God hears our prayers and if His power is as active today as it was in Bible times.
And this is where it comes closer to home. The Bible stories about how God helped Israel win wars, and how He rescued them from exiles, can easily feel far away and irrelevant. But standing in the country that has a history which is inseparable from God's grace and power, I couldn't continue to believe that God was inactive or uncaring in my own life. The God of Israel is the same God of my heart and in my heart. While it is "ok" to have doubts, it is not ok to stay in them. Doubt is first and foremost out to destroy our faith and it is up to us to find the truth behind the doubt. It is possible to live doubtless. Doubtless that God is good and that He is for our good, doubtless that He is sovereign and trustworthy, and doubtless that He is able to perform the same miracles in my life as He did for the Jews'. There is no condemnation for those who are in doubt, but, there is always more life to be had.
For me, Israel was a final seal of assurance and an incredible inspiration to live for the God who lives in me.
Author: Taylor Abigail
The shade was much needed after a morning of trekking. In Israel, the heat is dry and deceiving - often it is much hotter than you think. We had just explored a replica of a biblical town - complete with houses, wheat fields, and even meandering goats! I was touring all over Israel with a group hungry to learn. Our topic of study was women in the Bible. After walking the town, our guide brought us to the shade and asked us to open to Proverbs 31.
Over the years, Christian women have attached baggage to this particular passage. Whether teaching has abused the text or not, for me, Proverbs 31 is the description of the woman I could never be, yet, the one I am expected to be. My adrenaline began to pump at my guide's request, but I decided to trust him.
Our guide was a 70-year-old Messianic Jew who had lived in Israel all his life. A Hebrew- speaking and Hebrew-Bible-reading man of God, I hoped that he would shed new light on this worn (in my mind) passage. I wanted to find the truth from Proverbs 31. I want to be at peace with all things in The Word. I humbled myself and let the Holy Spirit move as our guide began.
Hebrew reads from right to left. It's reminiscent of chiseling words into stone. The mason would hold the chisel in the left hand, and come down with the hammer in his right hand. This forced the movement across the stone from right to left. The permanence and force with which this language had been recorded for centuries can also be found in the words themselves. Each word is richly nuanced, specific, and poetic.
Line by line from the Hebrew Bible our guide drew out truth, mercy, and grace from Proverbs 31. A concept that is much more present in the Hebrew is the sense of partnership between the husband and wife. But not the partnership we might think of today. In Jewish culture, the men were out studying the Torah, while the women were truly the child-rearers/bearers, and managers of the house. If their husbands were well respected in the city, their homes would be large; filled with many children and servants. Their partnership was much more about the encouragement they gave one another in their respective duties rather than splitting the work evenly. Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, a wealthy king, wrote chapter 31 about the ideal Jewish woman - a woman who from her youth understood that she was (quite literally) going to be the lone queen of her castle while her king waged war and ruled in the city.
As Solomon wrote about this ideal Jewish woman - complete with strong arms and the ability to stay up late AND rise up early day after day - he starts and ends the chapter with the most important things. He begins, "A wife of noble character who can find?" and ends, "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." These bookends are timeless. Solomon, king of 1000 women in his palace, knew that the "ideal Jewish woman" whom he described could not be found. But what he did find among the 1000, was that those who feared the Lord - not those who started and owned multiple business, not those who had 10 children, not those who kept every crevice of the palace clean, and not even those who were the most beautiful - but those who feared the Lord - were worthy of praise.
While we tend to teach Proverbs 31 as the way to be a godly Christian woman, the true wisdom and message of Proverbs 31 is that amidst the impossible standards for women, that the fear of the Lord frees us from them all. A woman of wisdom will remember these bookends and cling to them for their freedom. We do not need to be found perfect, we need only fear the Lord.
Like the dry heat, an English translation of a Hebrew Bible can veil the truth. I'm so thankful that I experienced a taste of the fullness of Hebrew. As my guide finished his teaching on the chapter, my anxiety ceased and a new relief washed over me. No longer does this chapter represent standards to be met and surpassed. It now stands to remind me to continually stand in the grace of Christ who has called me worthy by His blood.
by Patricia Stirnkorb, guest author, as published in the spring 2017 issue of Live magazine
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Above: the Garden of Gethsemane
Stepping off the plane in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel, was like stepping off any plane ride to any other city in the world. But the realization that we had now entered the "Holy Land" brought goosebumps.
This is the land that God selected for His people - and I was walking on it. Ezekiel tells us, "On that day, I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, 'flowing with milk and honey,' the glory of all lands." Ezekiel 20:6. God didn't just allow the Israelites to wander for 40 years and then grab a piece of barren land. He searched it out for them - a special land flowing with milk and honey, the glory of all lands! Israel! Sacred to Him in 1400 BC and sacred to Him today.
In my mind, Israel was a desert - dry, parched, brown. Yet I knew from studies that God allowed His people to farm it and that water sprang forth to produce crops. I had no idea how amazing this land was that He gave them. Geographically, Israel is close to the size of New Hampshire: 8,019 square miles, a mere 263 miles top to bottom, 114 miles at its widest, 9 miles at the narrowest. Of that, the Negev desert consumes 6,178 square miles, more than half of the country.
Yet in this land, there are five growing seasons which produce 95% of all food consumed in Israel. When the Israelites began returning to the region in the late 19th century, they purchased mostly semi-arid land. Much of it was untillable. They set about cleaning, clearing, terracing, irrigating and desalinizing the land to make it farmable. The diversity of the climate in this country allows them to produce almost every type of fruit and vegetable. in 1948 when Israel was proclaimed an independent country, 408,000 acres was tillable; today they farm more than a million acres!
Israel's coastal zone produces citrus, bananas, coconuts, avocados, kiwi, mangoes, guavas and grapes from orchards near the Mediterranean. Basic garden vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and zucchini are grown pretty much everywhere. Melons are grown in the winter months in the valleys. Subtropical areas produce bananas, dates, and coconuts, and in the northern hills, apples, pears, and cherries are plentiful. Grape vineyards are found across the country which has allowed the wine industry to flourish.
Even field crops like wheat, sorghum, and corn are grown. They also grow cotton on drip-irrigated land which produces some of the highest yields per acre of anywhere in the world. And this is not a complete list. Open-air markets in the cities bring home-grown fruits and vegetables like strawberries and greens. Imagine one small state, more than half of it a desert, producing crops that are unique to only parts of our large country! We passed miles of green houses on our trip across Israel. In fact, about 25% of their crops are grown in greenhouses or covered structures.
Most people travel to Israel with the intent of learning, seeing and experiencing the connection between God and His people, seeing the places where Jesus walked, lived, taught, and was crucified. Of course, the magnitude of that cannot be diminished as Judaism influences all other religions in the world. But, we need to realize that "behind the scenes" God provided exactly what His chosen people needed to survive. The land of milk and honey produces honey dates which are the sweetest in the world - honey from the date flowers, which is exceptional - and milk from their livestock produces more gallons per cow than any other livestock in the world (without antibiotics or growth hormones!). They export much of what they grow. They import very little: coffee, oilseeds, meat, cocoa and sugar. In fact, 95% of all they need comes from their own country.
It is not an accident that His people have come home to the land that God selected for them.
We traveled the country from Tel Aviv along the coast to Caesarea. The scenes are spectacular: clear sky and beautiful blue ocean. The ancient port of Akko was most memorable. We ate dinner at a local fish restaurant called Uri Buri. The owner, a very likable Jewish businessman, took us on a midnight tour of his hotel, Efendi Hotel. Uncovered from layers of rubble, this gem of a palace sits squarely in the middle of a Muslim community in Akko. The hotel has been restored to its original opulence: marble floors, hand-painted ceilings in every room with intricately carved wood trim, gold-inlay furnishings, and a common area on the second floor with a balcony that overlooks the city. Akko has been called the Gem of the Galilee, the north region of Israel where it is located, close to the border of Lebanon, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Directly east of Akko is the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, home of the award-winning wineries. One of our stops was at the Tishbi Winery for lunch and a tour. Michael and Malka Chameletzki were contracted to plant vineyards in 1882. Immigrating from Lithuania, the family settled in nearby Shefeya and began their vineyards. By 1925 the area was surrounded by lush grapevines. Today this fourth-generation winery is famous for their great food, remarkable vine-covered courtyard cafe, and creators of fine wines. Tishbi has vineyards all around Israel, providing different types and flavors of grapes, allowing them to harvest and produce many wines of varying body, aroma and flavors.
Most likely, second only to Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee has more stories centered around it in the New Testament than anywhere else. As the only fresh-water lake in all of Israel, it was once the solitary source of drinking water. Many communities and towns were located on its banks and Jesus did some of the his most memorable preaching from there. He recruited many of his disciples from along the shore, and gave one of his often-recited sermons, the Sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes, from nearby.
The Sea of Galilee, called by many other names (Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias) is a miraculous thing. The lake is 13 miles long and eight miles wide and is the second lowest spot in Israel, only following the Dead Sea. The lake is fed by salt water springs that cover the bottom of this (maximum) 43'-deep lake. Fresh rain water and run off from the hills as well as melting snow from the mountains keep the lake supplied with fresh water. However, Israel's government is constantly monitoring the fresh water level. There is a sign at the edge of the water and web site with daily updates. The danger is, if the freshwater gets too low, the whole sea will be salinized and the results would be irreversible.
What was once Israel's only source of fresh water has been replaced by many other water reclamation stations around the country. Because of the shallow water and wide open spaces around it, the sea is prone to storms, as Jesus and the disciples experienced when Jesus walked on the water. Matthew 14:24-33: "But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, 'It is a ghost!' and they cried in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them saying, 'Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.'" He went on to invite Peter out on the water to join him and when Peter took his eyes off of the Lord, he began to sink. "...Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?"
The wonders of Israel are amazing: from the land to the agriculture to the markets, the people and the places. Historical sites, like Masada, the Dead Sea, the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. I do not have enough words to share all the marvels of this Holy Land.
And then we went to Jerusalem! This is the Sacred City: the city on the hill where the fortifications surrounding it at one time seemed impenetrable, yet it was destroyed repeatedly, only to rise out of the rubble and recreate itself. It is the home of the One God: the capital of two peoples, the sacred site of three religions.
But what makes it remarkable is that Jerusalem is the eternal city. Built on earth, this is the city that will be both terrestrial and celestial. "Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also, there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, God himself will be with them and be their God." Revelation 21:1-3. Imagine a city that will literally be fully an earthly dwelling place and created new as a celestial city where God and man will dwell forever. Jerusalem is that city.
Jerusalem today is filled with museums, historical places and dig sites. Nearly 900,000 people live in this city, a blending of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of them call it their holy city. Walking the streets, following the path that Christ took on his way to the cross, was a humbling experience. We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where 2,000-year-old trees still grow today, any of which could be where Christ prayed the night before his crucifixion.
The Garden Tomb is a revered place to visit, dispelling many myths about the when, where and how Christ was crucified and buried, and of course, about his resurrection, the basis of Christianity. While the Garden Tomb is certainly representative of the look, the atmosphere, the surroundings and the type of tomb where Christ was buried and resurrected, no one knows for certain if it was that place. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher believes the tomb was below their present location. The fact remains that if God had wanted us to know the exact spot, we would know it.
The Western Wall is all that remains of thee last temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It was the last great fall of the city and when the Ark of the Covenant was taken, never to resurface even to this day. The tunnels under the temple remain, but the Western Wall is as close as people can get to where the Holy of Holies was located, the room where the Ark was located. There is no temple there today and none will be rebuilt until the Jewish Messiah comes; when Christians believe, Christ returns for the second time.
People come daily to pray at the wall. Jews celebrate and pray on Shabbat (the Sabbath) each week in the square around the Western Wall. Prayers and notes are placed in the cracks of the wall: special, silent, heartfelt prayers of God's people.
I wish I could write about all the miracles of Jerusalem. I can only say that every Christian, every Jew, everyone who is searching for God will find a peace, tranquility, a reverence and awe in Israel. It is not the homecoming of just the Jewish people, it is the homecoming of all believers.
by Nancy Admiraal, guest author
I resolved to read the entire Bible. Now I'm not the first person to make this commitment, and I won't be the last, but I think most people start the book of Genesis with much enthusiasm. Not I. I've read through the Bible before (it took about four years) and I knew right from the start that some of the reading would be a real slog for me. Leviticus loomed large on the horizon, just two books after Genesis, and my skewed perception of the Prophets, a big tangled mess of weeping, wailing, and judgment, loomed even larger.
Like pushing yourself to do an extra mile on the treadmill, I knew it would be good for me and achieve some great results, but would I have the endurance to make it all the way at a decent pace?
My chosen method was The Daily Bible In Chronological Order, 365 Daily Readings, New International Version. Of course you can simply read the Bible from cover to cover or follow any number of online reading plans, but this Bible has a date written next to each day's Scripture portion. For better or worse, I'm a person who rebels against routine, so I knew from the start that I probably wouldn't stay precisely on schedule. The dates helped me gauge my relationship to the goal. I permitted myself to be up to fifteen (15) days behind schedule, and at times achieved the distinction of being eight (8) days ahead of schedule. That didn't last long, but it sure felt good.
A few precious, random highlights from Scripture during that year: First of all, Genesis is an awesome story. Besides all four gospels, Genesis has become my favorite book. Who does not cringe every time they read about Satan tricking Eve who tricks Adam into taking that forbidden fruit, thereby moving our default position from “innocent” to “guilty”? Several of us can relate to Sarah's impatience with infertility and her grasp for a solution by means of Hagar her servant. Who is not thrilled by Joseph's revelation of his own identity to his long-lost brothers in Egypt? The origins of Scripture and our own lives reside in Genesis.
Second, Solomon's story really struck me this year. In 1 Kings 3, God demonstrated his pleasure with Solomon by offering him anything he wanted. Instead of asking for wealth, military success, or a long life, Solomon asked for wisdom. “I will give you a wise and discerning heart … I will give you what you have NOT asked for – both riches and honor.” (1 Kings 3:12-13) Basically, God lavished blessings on Solomon and Solomon pleased the Lord in many ways, especially by building the temple.
But this was the catch … Solomon had a bit of a thing for women. Seven hundred wives and 300 concubines to be exact. His wives led him astray. “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” (1 Kings 11:3,4) What an incredible fool! The man with everything lost it all, including the kingdom. Because of his love for David, God did not take it away during Solomon's lifetime, though. The Bible doesn't tell us about Solomon's ultimate destiny, but his story is a timely warning. Love the Lord with all your heart and stay away from people and things that lead you astray.
The last thing I notice from my reading is that there are a lot of prophesies in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is REALLY long compared to the New Testament. Now I know this sounds elementary, but the result of reading the OT from January through mid-October was that I was thirsty for Jesus in much the same way as Israel should have been after all those many thousands of years!
The parallel experience struck me as God's intention. We are supposed to drink up the gospels after reading through the desert of Israel's disobedience. Mary's words at the angel's announcement that she will bear Jesus, the Savior of the world: “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” (Matthew 1:38) might be the slogan of my life if I could just get over myself. I still cry every time I read of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Oh, and my all-time favorite: Peter walking on the water with Jesus. This story is all of life. Like Peter, we oscillate between magnificent trust and dismal failure to trust. Jesus often calls us to walk on water, and he's always asking why we have such little faith.
I am ten days behind my Bible reading schedule. And I do not have a special place that I read every day. In reality, every place you or I read the Bible can be special … the waiting room at the dentist's office, the carpool line, the Mr. Clean Car Wash, your kitchen chair.
Don't wait another year for God to call you out on the water.
by Patty Morwood
I heard a new phrase lately: 'graceful desert living.' Never mind that I've suffered heat-stroke; I have really learned what 'graceful' coupled with 'desert' does and does not mean.
This winter we've lived in a city that seems to have plopped itself down in a giant sand pit. None of the lush green shades of Ohio, except occasionally, when turning another of the endless beige-sandy pebble-strewn corners, did I run all-of-a-sudden into a greensward! Ahhh, a reminder of home, though in reality, grass in this place means a sucking away of precious water, the gold-standard of the desert.
Every purse, every back pack, automobile compartment, and workplace drawer holds extra bottles of water; I know some who stash away salt tablets just in case. Certain times of the year, even while walking quickly from your house to the car, the heat can knock you down.
And the critters. There are all kinds who wander in from the desert, as if making sure humans know they themselves are the real intruders and should thus be made miserable with stings and bites (for some of us, a mere sighting is shock enough!).
The most frightening of the desert commoners include mountain lions, sidewinding rattlers (to minimize contact with the hot sand, they move sideways in an S-shaped motion), scorpions and the venomous gila monster.
God was gracious to me this winter. I didn't see any of these animals. Only a small three-inch lizard on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night one time; but since, I've dreamed of little lizards scampering across my pillow as I sleep.
I'm used to tall green trees with boughs and leaves swaying in the wind. Desert succulents don't sway, they've those fat little leaves and profuse colorful buds that keep them rooted and stationary; others sport needles and sharp protrusions. I know God made these strange plants for desert environments, and indeed, to an acclimatized person, it is all very very beautiful – critters, cacti, brown-beige, and intense sun-heat.
Early in the morning, before it is really hot, I like to take my golden doodle out for a walk on "The Loop", a walking-biking path that wraps one-hundred miles around the city. One day I saw something humorous: a dog walking with little booties on all four feet because of hot sidewalks! As the calendar moves toward summer, it becomes a very common sight.
One Sunday in March, the bulletin at the church we attend here warned, “Beware, the snakes are out!” My hiking took on a new dimension; I focused downward, eyes sweeping back and forth under bushes and across trails looking for that familiar diamond pattern, instead of gazing straight ahead on the mysterious and awesome desert and its pristine blue, blue sky.
Truthfully, the great Sonoran Desert is an awesome geographical place. It spans many miles, as it covers the California Baja, and parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. We spent years vacationing in Mexico's Sonoran Desert because my husband's parents lived there, where the desert ran right up to the beach. But I didn't pay much attention to the desert then; I was occupied with slathering sunscreen over my young children's fair little bodies and hovering with out-stretched arms as they encountered the powerful, dangerous sea without being carried away.
But today, in southern Arizona's Sonoran, I have actually spent several months instead of just a few weeks. Father Kino is renown in Mexico, but now I notice he's famous here too. Many streets, missions, schools, monuments (even two in the United States Capital's National Statuary Hall), geographic features, and royal forts bear his name. One of our sons married in our ancestral home on the beach in Kino Bay, Mexico and later named his golden doodle “Kino.”
Father Kino, 1645-1711, was an awesome man: a Jesuit-educated missional priest, as well as a geographer, explorer, cartographer, astronomer, and writer. How did he do all this? He wandered the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and what would later become southwest America for decades.
He loved the indigenous Native Americans, in ministering to them he established 24 missions/country chapels, 19 rancherias (villages), and countless other stations and royal forts (presidios) and towns (pueblos). He walked; he rode horseback. He followed ancient trade-routes, all along the way introducing European seeds, fruits, herbs, and grains; he taught people how to raise cattle, sheep and goats, becoming Arizona's “first rancher.”
And the early maps of Mexico's northwest, America's southwest and the Baja were drawn by his hand, probably as he leaned against a big boulder under that intense bright desert sun, to survey his glorious but dangerous surroundings.
I wonder how many times he was incapacitated, as I have been, with heat-stroke.
Since that unfortunate experience, I've learned that prickly pear, the most common succulent in the desert, gives a high yield of electrolytes. No doubt Father Kino chewed on their invigorating “pads” (leaves) as he tread under giant saguaros, relaxed under bright stars luminous in the black night of the desert, and woke to circling hawks and vultures overhead.
But soon we're off to the health food store before returning to lush green Ohio – for even after a rather tame Ohio hike or a ½ marathon super-walk, a few spoonfuls of prickly pear nectar mixed with water would be a boon!
A boon that will remind me of my winter of awe: graceful living in the great Sonoran Desert.
by Patty Morwood
In earlier blog entries, I wrote on the joy of reading good books and then chatting with girlfriends about them; in a second blog essay I gave suggestions for establishing and maintaining a Literary Club, and what a literary club, as opposed to a book club, really is. This essay, the third in a series, is a glimpse into being part of a literary club that is committed long-term to reading the best of the world's stories.
In my world, literary women are readers who want to read and discuss the best literature of the nations. You know, those stories countries like to export as the most outstanding of their literary works, works that show their beloved country's unique character, culture, and history. Most of us term these stories “classic” literature; they are seldom what we know today as the best-sellers. Novels labeled “classic” are known for their excellent language, characters who are either wholeheartedly loved or violently detested, and compelling themes. The nations' great books showcase their people's unique characteristics and experiences and yet they are universal in so many ways.
I asked two of my literary club members to talk with me about the advantages of being in a literary club focused on the world's literary classics.
What first attracted you to a literary club where great classics are read and discussed?
Anne: “I wanted to engage in intelligent discussion that would challenge my thinking. My other book club reads current 'best sellers' which definitely hasn't made them worthwhile to read, much less discuss. Those discussions weren't meaningful or even in-depth. I was ready for real engagement and other kinds of readers, especially women who willingly would read and discuss with a Christian lens.
Betsy: “I was looking for a group that would discuss the universals, not just current perspectives laced with divisive ideology. And anyway, I've always loved the classics.”
Describe how discussions among the ladies with broad literary insights and differing abilities enlarge your perspectives on analyzing literature.
Betsy: “Being with women who are committed to reading the book every month and attending Literary prepared to discuss keeps us all coming in the same manner. Insights come from being well-read lovers of books, stories, people and real life. Our faith is at the heart of each of our perspectives, but it is not a narrowing of viewpoint; I think it expands our compassion and interest in the human experience. Most if not all the women studied literature, history, or some other of the arts in college, so there is a somewhat scholarly insight that enriches our discussions. But don't let your level of formal education keep you from a literary club; in such a group as this your education will be continued and enriched, no matter who you are.”
Anne: “I appreciate the ladies who research the history surrounding the book's story, the author, or the work itself. There are those who help identify literary devices or have read the book more than once; they see authors' works in different ways. Their insights are usually multi-layered.
“I love fellowship among women. I first found it as a collegian and alumna with my sorority leadership responsibilities, then again with Christian women during my Emmaus experiences, and again with this wonderful group of literary women. We are an active, energizing and collaborative group. I love how everyone shares, does not judge, and encourages each other. There is total freedom to dislike an author, a book, or a particular genre or style of writing.”
What are the benefits to doing classics with Christians who like to view a work through a Scriptural lens and then compare their ideas and insights with other Christians?
Anne: “It helps the club realize how large God is, how His truth has influenced writers and cultures throughout time, more so than just reading the book alone without discussion with others. I am also encouraged to 'see' God in literary works and in history, when oftentimes other groups with whom I might discuss literature will never be able to identify or accept a Christian influence in something they are reading. Often in secular discussion groups I feel a work is more easily dismissed BECAUSE it has a clear Christian theme of redemption … and it's even used to criticize the piece.”
Has literary club changed the way you read both classics and non-classic books?
Anne: “I have become much more aware of the differences between excellent and just good writing. Modern novels rarely reach the excellence-bar anymore, but it is very satisfying to read literary classics. I have learned how to delve into the deeper elements of a literary work and appreciate the different ways authors construct their stories.”
Do you take notes on our literary discussions?
Anne: “I absolutely take notes on discussions! For one, I'd never remember what all we said! Plus, I want to go back to the book and reread it through others' eyes. And I like to use the notes when I recommend the book to others, or when I discuss it with family.”
Can you explain something from our reads that has deeply intrigued you in some way.
Betsy: “There are two books, very different in themselves, that I think showcase a proud woman's surrender at the end of a long life; each woman loses everything but each woman gains her own soul.One is Psyche in C.S. Lewis' Till we Have Faces, a retelling of an ancient myth. And the other is Kristen in Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavrensdatter. Both women are so richly drawn that it seems they could be you or I. Psyche lives in a pre-Christian world permeated with superstitious paganism; Kristen is a young wife in Medieval Norway. Both are vividly portrayed in all their beauty, brokenness and humanity. The reader begins to love them, empathize and understand them, and even hate them at times. Finally, the reader gives each of them over to the mercy of God, just as their creator did in the first place.
Anne: “When reading Watership Down by Richard Adams, I was so intrigued with the 'roles' each rabbit played. There were the leader, the sage, the brawn, the storyteller, the jester. I was fascinated at how well developed the characters were and how true to their character they stayed. I had not had that appreciation before reading that book.”
Is there a character that stands out to you, whether negatively or positively?
Anne: “I looked forward to discussing Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was a complex novel with well-developed characters and a commentary on the human condition that is timeless. The psychological descent into madness of the main character Rodion Raskolnikoy was superbly done. His internal struggle with his place in 1860s St. Petersburg – his delusion of being 'elite' was due primarily to being educated while yet impoverished – was fascinating. The condescension he holds for others is so common in our own society today.
“If only we all could see this character flaw in ourselves! On face value it is a product of socialist Russia, but this is a character one continues to find throughout history and in many great literary classics. When he crosses the line from reality to fantasy and acts out his previously only-theoretical murder, Dostoevsky is able to keep this man a sympathetic victim in readers' eyes.
“I admired the skillful writing that pulled me into each character and each internal struggle. Raskolnikoy's elitism reaches its extreme when he sees himself as above the law. Do we not see this in many of our leaders, bosses, politicians today? Raskolnikov is a character not just reflective of 1860s Russia, but one who exists in our own current world.
“While some of our group thinks Dostoevsky depressing, I find him refreshing. He reveals the filth that exists in society, and in the hearts of mankind. He directs us to a redemption that cannot be provided by society or government or law.
“These observations are just a tip of the iceberg as to what we discuss in our literary group; the value in hearing other perspectives, interpretations and emotional responses to what we read augments the excellence of the books we read. It really is incredible!
“I am looking forward to our next discussion of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall."
What last word would you like to convey?
Betsy: “Literary Club is a gift in my life. It's a blessing. I always felt that my education was spotty. However, I have been learning and growing all these years as a reader and thinker … while I lived my regular life cleaning, cooking, and caring for three growing boys. We literary girls are of different ages and backgrounds and Christian denominations and it all adds depth. What a privilege to meet with these kindred spirits who love truth and beauty!”
by Patty Morwood
Establishing and Maintaining a Literary Club
There are essays online about literary and book clubs that have floundered, to the dismay of those who tried to establish one. The groups that do flourish may seem rare, but I’ve a few things for you to try before you give up the effort. Anyway, what you see online isn’t the full or even partial picture of what is working out there. Take heart, it can be done!
I recommend you pray every step, especially the preliminary steps. Ask God for another woman to partner with you in establishing it. A faithful and well-read woman; or a woman who wants to one day be well-read. Pray about people you already know will constitute a strong nucleus that will be faithful in the first couple of years. The four of us who began literary were committed no matter what; the rest of the ladies joined us one by one.
Pray about the first three or four books (three or four months) you will read. We were melded together with the first two books we chose: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There can’t be two books more different. Discussions inevitably came to comparing and contrasting the two: setting, milieu, tone, characters, conflict. We still refer to those two books after all these years. Austen’s works always set a standard of excellence; if you use her in the first year, you can’t go wrong. Her sentences are perfect; her humor layered and intelligent; her insights into character a marvel. But her outright descriptions of early nineteenth century British middle-class culture are so parsimonious that the reader must pay more attention to the characters’ actions and listen more closely to their conversations to understand the nuances and long-forgotten standards of that day. Austen invites you to work at seeing, to read again and again. It’s really a delight!
Don’t be promiscuous with your invitations. Be particular. We once had a lovely woman who had grown up lonely, in an orphanage in South America because her parents were missionaries on that continent, and that’s what they did with their children in those days. She was a serious reader, and probably the only truly erudite woman I have ever known.
During that time, we read Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s exposé of New York City’s upper-crust during the Gilded Age. For everyone in that society, strict codes of behavior were adhered to even if a lifetime of self-denial ensued. Countess Olenska has fled her husband and returned to her New York family, a family at the very pinnacle of the finest in that age and place. But she’s too loose for their comfort; just her presence threatens the family’s pristine reputation. Therefore, she must forthwith be sent back to Europe and her aristocratic husband!
Predictably, she slides into an almost-consumated affair with her cousin’s financé, so she’s now a definite liability. What society approved of in Europe’s aristocratic courts certainly wasn’t done, openly at least, in New York cultured society.
Now remember, Ruth Anne had grown up in an orphanage which was not even in her native country. Like Olenska -- and here the similarity ends -- she knew she was without a real ‘home,’ that she was without roots. When we met to discuss the book, she spoke for the Olenskas of the world. People who need to come home, who need psychological support, but who are instead brutally rejected and sent packing because of what their society expects of them and their family’s unwillingness to come alongside to redeem a life.
In our discussion that night, Ruth Anne peeled away my shallow literary analysis. She helped me see loneliness and alone-ness. There is no real way to change that condition, outside and apart from Jesus Christ Himself and the body of Christ. But this book wasn’t written by a believer, so this hope isn’t available for Wharton’s Countess Olenska, or any of the characters in that book.
When I later taught Age of Innocence in a classical high school classroom, the students learned how to do a real-life analysis along with the typical literary analysis. Indirectly Ruth Anne enabled them to “see” what that abjectly-alone character brought to the conflicts in the book and that there are real people like her all around them. I’m indebted to her and the entire literary club for the insights brought to life that evening.
This is just one example of a literary pivot point, an unexpected awareness that one unique person can bring to literary discussions.
Pray about where your literary ‘home’ will be. The first ten to twelve years or so we met at restaurants, many chosen to “match” the book. But as time went by, several things happened to change that practice. We tended to stay too long; our frustrated waiters were always wanting to turn their tables but unfortunately we were sometimes oblivious, so deep were we in our discussions. The lighting wasn’t enough, because of course we were all getting older! And the expenses added up.
So, we began to meet in our homes, which is a very lovely thing. Since there have invariably been caterers and unbelievably gifted cooks among us, the food and wine has been simply luscious! The evening is not only good books along with serious analysis, but great food and beautiful Christian fellowship centered on a great piece of world-renown literature: its conflicts, heroes and anti-heroes, and themes.
Pray about how the discussions will be facilitated. Our group doesn’t really have an established leader any more. It just happens that someone gets us started – as soon as possible. But when you are in the early stages of the club, it’s best if there are two or three of you who knowingly (but casually) take responsibility for the evening: getting it started, posing questions should discussion lag, and then managing the tapering off as the evening ends.
Remember this: always always small talk is the kiss of death! If the girls want to chat, agree to come early. The real purpose for gathering is literary discussion. Make this clear at the beginning. Everything is easier that way.
Establish a meeting date and don’t change it. We meet the last Tuesday evening of the month. It’s now pulsating through our veins as a day set apart from all others. Undoubtedly, when I’ve Alzheimer’s, it will still be there! An established calendar date and place actually works. It’s too frustrating to set and then reset dates, especially when young mothers have kids at home and they’ve engaged their husbands or a sitter so they can have the evening free. Even though several may have to miss an evening, don’t try to accommodate by changing the date. We’ve had club discussions with just three of us and it worked fine.
I’m so excited at the thought that some of you will begin your own literary club. You will love it! And you will love the variety of literary gifts you encounter as you read civilization’s classic authors … and how God has shaped the minds and perspectives of the women you see on literary night.
Up Next: Part Three: Personal Benefits of Participating in Literary Discussions
by Patty Morwood
It could be a flight to Paris, the first grandchild, a sunny spot in your garden. For me, it’s my literary club. Not book club mind you, … there’s a world of differences.
Literary groups are characterized by a commitment to the world’s classics; my club especially is marked by its anglophile-ish tastes, although our younger women welcome modernity’s literature from non-European countries quite well thank you. This Literary Club for Christian Women of Letters was established in March of 1990. There were four of us founders in whose lives much has transpired since that day we sat at Funky’s eating baked potato soup and dreaming aloud of sharing great reads together.
Elizabeth’s perspectives have always come from a deep well of love for the Lord, His people, and His ways; she helps us appreciate real life with and without the Lord that’s inadvertently presented in great novels. Jenny has homeschooled all thirteen years of her four kids’ educational experience, so she is knowledgeable about a wide range of things that add invaluably to our conversations. Karen, a true literary analysist, has since been a missionary in Africa and returned back to us. And I, not really a deep thinker but a woman with huge opinions, have taught literature and humanities at a classical school, taking much insight from our literary discussions with me into the classroom.
We are committed and stalwart pillars of an ongoing literary effort. We schedule ‘literary’ before we add the rest of life to our calendars.
And as the years flew by, God brought rich-minded women to walk this grand imaginative road with us. We are young, middle-aged, and older women who delight in opening the cover of a good book so we can analyze and discuss, disagree and debate, and stand in awe as the same author speaks to each of us right into the heart of our literary imaginations.
What constitutes a good group? I recommend you make it a literary pursuit. Typically, book clubs like to read best-selling authors or reads written for the masses. You know those lists, they’re commonly found in USA Today.
But literary clubs are different. We are committed to literature that nations offer as their very best. We only wish our own lives could be longer.
England’s Austen and Shakespeare and Dickens, as well as Wilde, Ishiguro, Goldsmith, Fielding and Lewis always leave us wanting more … another read-through or another English book. Sir Walter Scott wrote historical novels that grow such an honorable love of country and one’s history that I’m thanking God for his continued popularity. Scotland produced the great Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Gothic mysteries, psychological character studies, historical adventures and romances. France gave us Stendhal, Flaubert, Hugo, de Balzac, and Dumas. Germany lent Kafka, Goethe, Remarque. I think the cultured world has read Russia’s greatest – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Pasternak – with a breaking heart. The joy and suffering of the Russian people is too much for a regular diet; they must be read only every now and then. South Africa’s Cry the Beloved Country by Patton will lift the souls of future readers with hope and love and beauty. I hope I’ll hear insights about that book until I die. Spain adores her Cervantes; Italy her Dante, Eco, and Calvino. And we adore Norway’s Sigrid Undset, since we read the Kristen Lavransdatter series once and then twice more. A few years later, we capitulated willingly to the lure of her Master of Hestviken tetralogy. Undset’s works show us Norway of the 1100s, the very century when the light of Christianity finally began to penetrate the great Viking darkness. We barely walked into Japan before we wept over Endo’s Silence, now a visually lacerating motion picture. We marveled over the creativity of India’s Salmon Rushdie and his fantastical realism.
Then there’s America. How does one only mention three or five or even twenty-five books from this place? We’re unique, for our culture and character are so new, so gregarious and so confident. It would demand an entire blog entry to address American literary giants.
I wonder if our literary club can ever scratch beyond the surface of all this wonderful literary heritage from the nations. Though we have been reading together for twenty-seven years, twelve months a year, we have only barely begun.
You may ask: where do you find these wonders? The great classics occupy musty shelves in our public libraries, and the digitals of our computers and smart phones. You can pick them up for a few dollars at used book stores, and even in antique stores and flea markets.
You may also ask: how do we squeeze them into our lives? We women can do almost everything with a book on hand … walk the Pacific Coast Trail, hike mountains and trudge deserts. Or rock a baby, weed the garden, and even bake a loaf of bread. One of our gals leaves her book for that month’s discussion on the kitchen counter all day … open. A grabbed five or ten minutes can add up to quite a few pages. Books fit into back packs and purses, diaper bags, glove compartments, and flat little Kindles. Sometimes they’re lamentably lost under the couch or left in a locker over the holidays.
But always these authors and their portrayals of human nature hide in the recesses of our minds, latent until they occasionally shout into our own life stories.
‘Tis surely the best of the best of things: to read, think, write, discuss, and read again.
O the glories of being human. The bliss of very very good books. And girlfriends to share them with.
Part Two: Establishing a Literary Club
Part Three: Personal Benefits of Participating in a Literary Club
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