Without glossing over those who truly suffered through the pandemic, either in their business, their health, or the health of loved ones, we must consider that most of us in America had much for which to be truly grateful. Sometimes we do miss the forest for the tree, just because the tree is big and easy to see. Sometimes we are so focused on how we want things to be that we refuse to deal with any interference and rebel against life and against God Himself when our plans have to change and we are forced to step out of our comfort zone and re-assess ourselves and life in general. The Christmas season is the perfect time of the year to reflect on the year that comes to a close and be grateful for the blessings the Lord has bestowed on us. This is why I thought it might be an encouragement for many to focus, for a change, not on the Corona cloud, but on its silver lining and consider the Twelve Blessings of the Lockdown:
It has made us clearly see that we are not in control, despite our considerable battery of advanced technology. In fact, as it became known that the virus had been manufactured by Chinese scientists, it has brought to mind the stark reminder that our human lives are terribly fragile indeed and can be easily snuffed out at the whim of terrorism as well as by natural diseases and disasters.
This has made us more aware and appreciative of past blessings we had taken for granted, whether good health, freedom to travel where and when we pleased, or be able to work.
It has forced us to face ourselves without the ubiquitous distractions of our "normal" life busyness. It has given us the opportunity to reflect on who and what we are: what have we done with our life so far? What could and should we change or improve for ourselves and for those we love?
It has increased time spent with our immediate family, which has brought in increased appreciation and opportunity to share more with the people who matter most to us. A recent survey noted than 70% of Americans have come to a greater appreciation of their family through the pandemic. The optimist in me hopes that the other 30% were already extremely appreciative of their family before the virus struck.
It has given us plenty of opportunities to accomplish things that had long been on our to-do lists but for which we never seemed to find enough time. Craft and construction stores, like Menards, quickly picked up on that and were kept busy with customers eager to complete long-awaited home-improvement projects.
It has given us more time to read, for which I, for one, am infinitely grateful!
It has given us more time to write, not only for us writers, but also for all who rediscovered the special pleasure of writing letters long-hand. New York writer, Rachel Syme, had the idea in the Spring to launch Penpalooza, a pen pal program to bridge people. It has now over 7000 participants from 50 different countries! https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/rachel-syme-penpalooza/
It has made us appreciative of some of our modern technology in a more profound way than simply as outlets for entertainment. Kids have been able to do school from home, parents have been more involved with their children's learning, their difficulties and their strengths. Adults have been able to work from home as well, saving on commuting time and gas, and gaining in family time. Zoom, Face Book, emails have kept us connected despite distances and restrictions.
It has given us time to take a good look at the world around us and rediscover an appreciation for its intricate and multi-faceted beauty. In the United Kingdom, the BBC launched the idea of taking an "Awe Walk." People committed themselves to take a weekly 15-minute walk in parks or in the countryside for two months. They were also asked to take a selfie at the beginning and at the close of the two months. The first selfies tended to show the person at the center of the picture, but in the latter ones the focus was on the surrounding natural landscape, with the person appearing off to the side. How revealing! This simple exercise allowed the participants to look at something other than themselves, at the bigger picture, to re-kindle their sense of wonder, and hopefully, in the process, to re-evaluate their own place in the universe and before our sovereign God.
With external sources of entertainment closed, such as restaurants, theaters, sport events, resorts, people have been compelled to provide their own entertainment. Whether it was watching a family movie, playing a board game, reading, or experiencing with venues new to them like writing a poem, sewing, or trying their hand at painting or wood working, it has open new doors and, in some cases, made them aware of new talents and interests. Furthermore, limited outings to the stores has helped waste less time when an ingredient is missing, and learn to do without it or be more careful when making the next weekly trip to the store. While shopping online has soared, it has also helped limit temptations, since one goes to an online store with something specific in mind and is less likely to be distracted by a sea of aisles full of alluring products one did not even think of before.
It has opened creativity and charity with churches broadcasting sermons and Bible studies beyond the walls of their buildings, thus reaching a far greater number of listeners and touching lives with the Good News of Salvation in Christ. Many volunteers from diverse organizations have pitched in to collect and distribute aid to those in need.
Most importantly, it has given us the opportunity to re-assess our life in the greater scope of eternity. Where have our choices led us? Have we yielded to God's calling or insisted on having our own way? Have we been grateful for the incredible blessings, small or big, that He has bestowed on us and on those particularly dear to us? Or have we, instead, taken His gifts for granted, as things to which we felt, somehow, entitled? Even if we have walked closely with our Lord, there is always room for improvement, since we are woefully aware of our many shortcomings. So, how can our stewardship and witness be improved? How can we better show His love and Truth through our daily life? How can we be better prayer warriors? What a blessing to know that our Lord is in control and nothing happens on earth without a reason, as part of His divine plan!
Sunday May 3, 2020
The Godly Man of Proverbs 31
One of my favorite Bible text is Proverbs 31. Recently, I heard someone wishing that there were a "Man of Proverbs 32." And I have more than once heard feminists resenting the fact that the text focuses on women; they interpret it as unfair and akin to a command to wives to be subservient to their husbands. But, actually woven in those verses, I think that we are given a very good picture of what a virtuous, godly man is supposed to be like.
First, we are told the advice concerning the finding of a godly wife is given by a mother to her son. It is logical to infer that this mother is a godly woman herself, thus her advice bears credibility and has great impact. Second, this son is a king. Interestingly there is no other reference to a King Lemuel in the Bible. In Jewish tradition, he is assumed to be Solomon, but really there is no evidence of that. What we do know is that "Lemuel" means "belonging to God." In view of this, I propose that King Lemuel is a personification of any young man come into a position of responsibility, authority, and power. By extension this applies to young men in general, just starting in life, empowered by their talents, diplomas, and freshly acquired independence from their parents; and more specifically Christian young men, who would listen to an elder's advice about finding a spouse for life. Given the first admonition, Lemuel is, at that point, much like Prince Hal in Shakespeare's play Henry IV, sowing his wild oats and here his godly mother is calling him to attention, reminding him of the do's and don'ts of being a virtuous man: Don’t's:
Don't mix with women of no virtue;
Don't drink; it alters the mind and leads to commit injustices
Be the voice of justice; stand up for what is right
Help the poor and those in need
Find a godly wife
The first thing I find striking here is that the Do's offer a direct solution to the don'ts. Indeed the man who has a loving wife whom he loves and trusts has no time for mistresses or prostitutes.
Now let's take closer look at Lemuel A young man. Freshly come to the throne (no father mentioned, but still has his mother). Has been acting foolishly. He is capable of listening to good advice and becoming all that God has equipped him to be, again similar to Prince Hal who becomes a great ruler when he becomes king, as Shakespeare shows us in Henry V. So in what ways is this man a perfect match for the Woman of Proverbs 31?
He has a job (whether king or shepherd matters little); he knows his duties and responsibilities
He is a believer, which is why he pays attention to the godly advice of his mother
He respects his mother and values her advice
Although a man in a position of authority, he is not too proud to listen to a woman, which infers that he values wisdom, not a false sense of superiority attached to gender.
Starting at verse 10, we have a description of a godly wife, but through it we also get a further description of a godly man and husband:
He has complete trust in his wife, which means that not only she is trustworthy, but that he is fully aware and appreciative of it.
Because he is able to trust her, he enables her fully, giving her free range of choices and actions, even land investments –something few today thought was done by women in the past.
He gives her complete control of the home front (which obviously means considerably more that the kitchen and children) while he focuses himself on the outside front (i.e. see the "Do's " above, being the voice of justice, standing up for what is right and helping those in need, which applies to any job from carpenter to physician and from professor to street sweeper by the way!); but really the two work together in complete understanding and harmony, which infers that they are fully open and attuned to each other.
Note that while he looks after the welfare of those in need in the public sphere, she does the same from the home sphere, (verse 20: "She extends her hand to the poor").
He talks freely with his wife and treats her as an equal and valuable partner, which means that when he is in his public role, making decisions with the elders, his words carry in equal measure the wisdom of his wife; her input is included in his.
He fully supports his wife's decisions; no micromanaging on his part.
He is proud of her and secured in his marriage, which gives both of them happiness and completeness, but is also a testimony before others (Cf. verse 23 he is "known at the gates".)
He encourages his children to value their mother, planting the seed in his sons that, when time comes, they, too, should seek to marry godly women, and in his daughters that they should emulate her.
He loves her and tells her so often, never refraining from heartfelt praise.
So, really Proverbs 31 may focus on the qualities of a godly woman and wife, but like the two parts of a diptych, it offers a great deal of information on what characterizes a godly man and husband. The two are truly one, like the two sides of a coin. Not only do they complete each other, but without one, it is impossible to have the other. There is no power struggle between them, no inferior/superior relationship. Just as men and women are equals in the eyes of God, equals in salvation, equals in his love, and equally empowered by Him, a true Christian marriage is based on equality of love, trust, respect. Godly spouses encourage, enable, strengthen each other, are secured in the love that make them one, the purpose they share, each contributing his or her talents, and the equal and complementary value of their respective roles, both within the family and within the society in which they live.
Monday April 13, 2020
Tips on staying focused during the quarantine.
In these unusual and trying times of social distancing and remaining at home as much as possible; it is easy to lose focus, become negligent, and even, Heaven forbid!, lazy, sloppy, and idle. Since turning "couch-potato" has never succeeded in making anyone happy, it is vital that we keep up with fruitful stewardship. God has given us many talents and opportunities and our sense of purpose does not depend on our present circumstances, but on His calling for each of us, and what we choose to do with these circumstances.
While the quarantine can be frustrating, it behooves us to think less on what we cannot do and invest ourselves with determination and enthusiasm into what we can do. One of the things I find most helpful in keeping ourselves in check is having long and short-term goals, carefully established in prayer.
Lists keep me focused, and like New Year resolutions, they do not necessarily spell "failure" if they are not checked out in the initially hoped-for time frame. For instance, I have found some old NY resolutions and even though several projects did not get done the year they were planned to be, they did eventually got done, and that is very rewarding. On the other hand, lists keep me humble when I (as often) woefully fail to fulfill them. There are also other helpful ways:
The stick-and-carrot approach such as "You can't take a break until the kitchen is cleared" or "if you finish writing this story by late afternoon, you can reward yourself with a large cup of hot chocolate."
Dividing the tasks between morning and afternoon, always reserving evening for family/couple time. Also having "mundane" tasks, such as laundry/feeding the dogs etc, alternating with more spiritual/intellectual tasks like researching, writing, reading.
Singing as you work helps. For instance I HATE cooking, but I pinned the lyrics of favorite songs inside the doors of my kitchen cupboards and I can sing as I work.
Keeping the house in order is vital for me. Like Admiral McRaven said, "If you want to change the world, start by making your bed." If I am in the study, trying to write, but I know the living room badly needs tiding up, it hovers over me and I can't think clearly until I get that mundane task out of the way. I learned that from my maternal Grandmother, whose house seemed always ready to welcome visitors, yet she read, sewed, and did amazing works in crochet; she was so organized and yet made it seem so easy.
Music is vital as well, although I do not share my sons' tastes with Bon Jovi and others. Classical, Renaissance, Colonial American songs and Christian hymns are more my cup of tea. When I write I usually pick a melody that I feel suits the "atmosphere" of what I am writing, either without words or in a language I don't understand, like Russian; I put it on repeat and put on my headphones and type happily for hours. These past two days I have been writing with this one ("Great and Marvelous are Thy Works" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr0LdT9MNpE )
At the end of each day I do a quick recap of what took place that day, checking out what was accomplished, then making a new list of what needs yet to be done. Obviously several items travel from one day to another, sometimes it can take weeks, or more, but eventually things do get done.
One thing that helps me enormously in getting things done is the thought of doing all things as unto the Lord, small as well as big things, asking forgiveness for my many failings, and feeling renewed by the fresh opportunity to improve with the new day.
I would add another special list to start the day and contemplate before sleeping: that of naming each day five (more is OK) things for which we are thankful. Obviously there will be repetitions from one week to another, after all one can hardly be thankful for one's family just once in a blue moon, but the list is indiscriminate between small and huge blessings. Each deserves our appreciation and gratefulness. Thinking up ways to be blessing to others presents the double advantage of being helpful to those around us and of thinking less about ourselves. If idleness invites the devil in, thoughtful use of our time, talents, and circumstances casts him out and opens the doors of our heart wide open to God and the joy of doing his work.
Every week I write a special letter to one of my grandchildren, who presently live in France. I proceed by order of birth and I usually do this on Sunday. I have 8 grandchildren living in France, where our second son and daughter-by-marriage are film-maker missionaries. But I do not write to children under the age of 4 (except for birthdays) because it takes a special talent to write something interesting for someone younger than 4 –a talent, needless to say, that I do not possess.
As much as we miss those kids and wish they lived much closer to us, I am grateful that we live in an age that has reduced distance all around the word. First, there is the telephone, but it has become my least favorite tool of communication. Of course, I use it every day because it is the most practical thing for urgent messages or questions requiring a quick answer. Convenience should not let us forget that no matter however enjoyable it might be to converse "live" with loved ones, words said can hardly be exhaustively remembered. As the French adage goes, "Words spoken fly away, words written remain."
In that sense, internet communication is a greater way to convey not only words but also pictures, music, and films. It combines speed and permanence; it allows for record-keeping, which makes it absolutely priceless and I, for one, am utterly both amazed and grateful for this quasi-magical technological advance of our time. However, it does not lend itself very well to creativity of penmanship and tends to make all things communicated look like printed, thus more impersonal, articles.
Skype is a double-edged communication tool. At first, it would seem wonderful; after all we can clearly see, as if they were in the room with us, people we love, despite the fact that are are tens of thousands of miles away. Yes, but. It is not as extraordinary as some might think it is. First, it offers a stilted presence. Young children, in particular, become quickly bored and restless and soon running out of things to say, they proceed to show off, put "bunny ears" on their siblings while it is those siblings' turn to speak, and create increasing discomfort and tension on both sides of the screen. I can understand them, because despite first appearances, it has nothing to do with a real conversation: we cannot touch or hug one another; everyone is stuck facing a screen from which one cannot leave or all contact will be broken; and because the moment is supposed to be special, both sides attempt to make it last as long as possible to make it more memorable. Consequently, it does tend to become memorable, indeed, but not necessarily in a positive sense.
But then there is the traditional letter. Commonly dismissed under the moniker of "snail mail" by our society that seems to be on steroids and has become a monster for the easy and the instantaneous, the traditional letter is generally overlooked and scorned along with the junk mail that invades our mailboxes. . .until one receives an actual letter addressed to him or her. Why is that? Because we all know, even those among us who neither write nor receive them, that a true letter is something special. It is a part of the sender's personality, love, wit, creativity and faith sent with great thoughtfulness to the recipient, the author's beloved friend or relative. Everything matters in a letter, from the paper or card selected, the type of pen used and its ink color, to the words chosen with care, and even to the envelope and the stamps on it. A letter tells the recipient, "you are valued," by the simple fact that the author of the letter has deliberately set aside time to compose it, so that it would bless the cherished soul who receives it. A letter worthy of the name is something to be kept, something one re-reads with pleasure, something that can even last from one generation to another. Among the most prized letters in my possession are those my grandparents exchanged while my grandfather fought in the trenches of the Great War, while my grandmother kept the home front. Each worried madly about the other, but they focused only on uplifting one another in love, peppering the lines with anecdotes and sweet "nothings" that meant everything. Although they have moved to Heaven many years ago, they left us a part of them that bind our souls to theirs.
A letter worthy of the name can never be dispatched in haste, nor can it lack substance. Its very nature demands meaning, depth and quality. I often spend many hours researching a topic to share with that grandchild or inventing a story especially for this grandchild. Thanks to modern technology, I can create my own cards, selecting pictures from the internet to illustrate the words. In the process I learn a lot myself and sharing discoveries on all sorts of subjects from, Annie Oakley to duels in hot air balloons fill me with true joy as I anticipate the reaction of my special grandchild of the week.
Time will tell if my weekly epistles will be worth keeping and remembering in years to come, but I believe nothing could better express my love for my beloved grandchildren.
Sunday July 21st 2019
Writing and Music
During my high school and in the infancy of my college years, I lived with my parents in an old French farm house. My bedroom was just above the kitchen and my mother constantly had either the radio or the TV on. Although I was never very good in science, I understood early on that sounds, like heat, tend to rise and that deplorable fact made concentrating on my studies quite challenging, especially with the handicap that I did not possess (as I do now) a set of headphones that covers the ears snugly; truth be told, I did not have at my disposal any set of headphones. What I did have was a record player, the kind that allows one to stack three or four records at a time and they drop themselves into place and start playing. So I would select some of my most vibrant classical music (Wagner figured predominantly, because he was the loudest) and play them close to my desk. The music did not eliminate totally the unwanted sounds from below (no headphones, remember?) but it would at least render them unintelligible and thus would clear my mind enough to think up the words I wanted to write in my papers. I also learned to enjoy staying up late into the wee hours of the night to read and write without interruptons. Over the years and especially as I started writing books, I realized that even without the distraction of unwanted sounds, listening to music was highly conductive to writing (provided, of course, that it is without words or with words that are indiscernible, either sung so blended in with the music or in a foreign tongue that I do not know) With the boon of modern technology, I now have computer and headphones and can even play the same tune over and over by simply selecting the "repeat" button. I find that the repetition of the same tune for several hours is more effective that a variety of melodies. I usually select a piece that I find particularly suited to my mood, or to the atmosphere of the passage I am writing at the time, and let it work its magic in providing a stimulating cocoon of inspiration and concentration. While I was writing Posthumous Invitation, my musical "fuel" included a piano rendition of the hymn "10,000 Reasons," (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPU-oKp4FcI&t=176s ) the Reformation hymn, "O, Rejoice Ye Christians Loudly," (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pntfsm8vFm0, even though this one has English words, one has to really pay attention to understand them clearly as voices blend in perfectly with this Renaissance melody) and a Youtube compilation from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" soundtrack (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u9r-AkFDzA&t=1208s). Of course as directly referenced in the story, I also enjoyed "We are a Garden Walled Around" (https://hymnary.org/text/we_are_a_garden_walled_around) and "The Seven Joys of Mary" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JshXYVcO3Zw). I never cease to marvel at the perfect complementarity of music and writing (even when there is no unwelcome noise to overcome). I still love staying up late reading and writing (preferably with music), though rising early in the morning always proves a challenge.
A Song's Story
Our first [unofficial] national anthem, at least from 1831 to 1931, was "My Country 'Tis of Thee," written by a Baptist minister, Samuel Francis Smith.
"The Star Spangled Banner" did not become our national anthem until a first initiative by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to use it for military ceremonies, and more definitely when the representative from Maryland, a Democrat, motioned to make it the official national anthem and President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, signed it into law in 1931. I think it is particularly significant and inspiring that both Democrats and Republicans were of one mind on this national choice.
I, personally, deplore the fact that not all stanzas are sung. The fourth one reflects the Christian soul of our nation and is written in the same spirit as the Declaration of Independence:
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand Between their loved home and the war’s desolation! Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
In 1861, famous poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. added a fifth verse to Francis Scott Key's initial four. Clearly abolitionist in spirit, this verse spread widely in the north, but faded into oblivion after the Civil War. (I think we should have kept it, as a historical landmark, if for no other reason):
When our land is illum’d with Liberty’s smile, If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory, Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile The flag of her stars and the page of her story! By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained! And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
Incidentally both "My Country" and the "Star Spangled Banner" have a "British connection." The first shares its melody with the British National Anthem ("God Save the Queen/King), which appeared during the reign of George III in the 1740s, and whose composer remains uncertain and may have been British, French, or German. The second was composed by British organist John Stafford Smith for the drinking song of the Anacreontic society. The melody was extremely popular and used for various lyrics. In September 1814, Francis Scott Key had it undoubtedly in mind when he wrote his famous verses that were intended not as a poem but as a song, which he titled, "Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry." In fact, Key had used the same melody for another song in 1805 (in which he mentions "the star spangled flag of our nation), called "When the Warrior Returns," to honor naval officers and heroes, Stephen Decatur, Jr. and Charles Stewart, after their victory against Barbary pirates. Two months after the victory of Fort McHenry, a musician and music seller from Baltimore, who was a fellow church member of Key, published music and text together under its present title. By the way, the flag had 15 stars then.
Interestingly, in Gloucester Cathedral (UK) there is a plaque honoring Smith's memory and bearing both the Union Jack and our Star Spangled Banner.
Today is the Day! Have you experienced the frustration of looking at your long (and growing!) to-do list and seeing that day after day it remains undented? Except for organization wizards, it is a very common experience. What is to be done? A memory suddenly flashes in my mind. I am two years old and I have been in the garden playing princess or something equally elegant, but I tripped and fell flat in a mud puddle—quite embarrassing for a princess. My pretty dress –yes in those days little girls wanted to play in their dresses—is covered with dripping brown blotches; I am dirty from head to feet and comes rushing home to my mother to make it all disappear. Although my vocabulary was limited, I knew how to express vital things, like "Mommy I'm dirty" with a tone that conveyed panic and urgency. I was fortunate enough to have a stay-home mother. Among her many talents she could make all the ugly stains on my clothes and me disappear. She fixed the situation and in no time the "princess" was able to return to the garden, as dignified as ever in a new, pristine dress, rosy cheeked and freed from all grime. This little episode carried two long-lasting effects that stayed with me: I loathe mud and I abhor uncleanliness in the house or on my person or the persons who live around me. God, who has an infinite sense of humor, made me the wife of a wonderful history professor who is also a farmer and loves to build all kinds of things and has no compunction about getting dirty when necessary (every day) as well as the mother of three boys and a daughter who, even though they are adults now, certainly do not share my conviction that a house neat and well-ordered is far more pleasant to live in and more welcoming. More importantly, this story also makes me reflect that the failures of yesterday do not have to dictate the outcome of today. When it comes to marking off items on my list, today can be more productive than yesterday, and tomorrow better yet. The internet is full of advice on how to be more efficient. Some formulas may work better than others, but they all offer practical ideas that are bound to help. However, the key to accomplishment resides in not giving up. Each new day brings us a new "banking account" of time of some sixteen hours within which possibilities are almost endless. As for my dress, a new start is possible as each new day brings a clean slate, no matter how messy our slate was yesterday. Experience has proved that rushing into the list yields less fruit than starting the day with God, reading His word and putting all worries, hopes, lists, appointments, setbacks and disruptions in prayer. After all, the reason for my list is greater than my list: I want to serve Him in all I do, whether it is moping the floor or writing a novel; so, if He allows for difficulties or interruptions to enter the day, He has a reason. While my heart often goes to Martha, there are time when the Lord calls us to be Mary, to drop everything and listen. Listen to His voice or that of a friend, to be an encourager, or simply to smell the roses together. Having purpose does not mean we should become robots, operating on strict schedules and focused unwaveringly on productivity. On the other hand, idleness is like sugar: a little makes thing sweeter, too much is harmful. Accomplishing worthwhile tasks yields unadulterated pleasure and encourages our godly stewardship, but, as in most everything, we must have balance. Sometimes, we let ourselves focus on what has yet to be done, but if we keep our lists of New Year's resolutions from year to year, we may discover that we accomplish more than we thought. For instance, in our family, we had hoped to enlarge our house in the early 2000s, but we were not able to build that addition before 2014 but we did it (by ourselves), and now our home is more enjoyable on a daily basis, big enough to accommodate our growing family with married children and grandchildren, and more welcoming to friends and visitors. If I were to follow a guideline, it would look something like this:
Submit the list to God: I am working for Him
Start each day refreshed in determination and positivity
Do one thing at a time as well as possible, keeping track of progress and dealing with emergencies
Consider when I am to be Martha and when I am to be Mary