The Secret Garden and the Lonely Bird

 

The Secret Garden

Mary Lennox is a stubborn, ugly orphan girl conveyed from India to stay with her uncle at Misselthwaite mansion. Having spent much of her childhood with only her Ayah to dress and look after her, Mary dislikes almost everyone she meets and finds little joy in day-to-day life.

Wandering the gardens, Mary encounters gardener Ben Weatherstaff. She has nothing better to do than to distract the curmudgeonly worker, and soon sees a beautiful robin skittering onto the scene.

02.14.2016“The robin hopped about, busily pecking the soil, and now and then stopped and looked at them a little. Mary thought his black dewdrop eyes gazed at her with great curiosity. It really seemed as if he were finding out all about her. The queer feeling in her heart increased.

“ ‘Where did the rest of the brood fly to?’ she asked.

“ ‘There’s no knowin.’ The old ones turn ’em out o’ their nest an’ make ’em fly, an’ they’re scattered before you know it. This one was a knowin’ one an’ he knew he was lonely.’

“Mistress Mary went a step nearer to the robin and looked at him very hard.

“ ‘I’m lonely,’ she said.

“She had not known before that this was one of the things which made her feel sour and cross. She seemed to find it out when the robin looked at her and she looked at the robin.” (Burnett, 44)

Much like the conceited red robin, Mary has been left behind. She understood that she was unhappy, but only when Ben Weatherstaff relates the robin’s tale does Mary realize that she, too, is lonely.

As Christians, we know that we are not created to walk alone. Life’s joys and sorrows are too great to bear in solitude. But how often do we convince ourselves that we can handle matters ourselves? How often do we get so wrapped up in our own path that we fail to listen to the lonely chirpings around us?

Paul exhorts, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification.” (Romans 15:2)

“Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification.” Romans 15_2

When we please those around us, we not only allow ourselves to be used by God to reflect His love, but we also experience fellowship and learn about ourselves. Both parties are edified.

What is remarkable about this scene is that Mary-quite-contrary pauses to ask Ben Weatherstaff about the robin. She makes a point to find out what makes him the way he is, and she responds, recognizing her own ailments.

When was the last time we took a moment on our journey to stop and consider our neighbor? Even just to ask them what their story is?

What holds us back from building relationships? Fear? Busy-ness? Apathy?

My challenge for myself this week, and perhaps for you, is to be perceptive enough to hear the lonely chirps around me, and to pause to show love through fellowship.

All of us are on a journey, and all of us need to be loved. As we love others, I believe that we will experience God’s love in return.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy reading, friends!

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The Scarlet Letter and Learning to Accept Mercy

Wishing You copyGod graciously extends His mercy to us, but we must be willing to accept it in order for the power to affect our lives. As we’ve discussed, Hester Prynne has confessed her sins to God and walks with new life in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She accepted God’s mercy, whereas Arthur Dimmesdale has been unable to find peace after stumbling.

After Dimmesdale confides in Hester his torment of serving in the church and having this sin fester in his soul. Hester chides:

1“You wrong yourself in this . . . You have deeply and sorely repented. Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore should it not bring you peace?” (Hawthorne, 131)

Dimmesdale responds:

“There is no substance in it! It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should have long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” (Hawthorne, 131)

Dimmesdale cannot see past his sin. He cannot believe that God forgives him, because his focus is on how He views himself rather than how God sees him. When we don’t accept God’s grace, we put the emphasis of our Christian life on works rather than focusing on God’s gift. This is the opposite of what God wants for us. His desire is that we would understand we don’t deserve grace but receive it nonetheless, and from that grace God’s work is completed in us.

Ephesians 2:8-10 proclaims:

2“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

When we allow sin and its shame to devour us from the inside out, we are limiting God’s ability to work through us. God wants to use our shortcomings to show us how great His mercy is and to enable us to walk by faith in that grace to do His work.

Have you accepted God’s grace in your life, or are you focusing on earning God’s favor through an exemplary Christian walk?

I would like to challenge us to transform our thinking, and allow God to heal us of all self-deprecation. God loves you, and loves me, enough to extend grace when we don’t deserve it. We don’t have to earn his love. He is our merciful Father God, who sees beyond our blemishes and our imperfections to our hearts.

Allow this love to heal you so that you can walk in His love and do the work that He has called you to do.

The Scarlet Letter and the Power of Confession

Wishing You copyWhile Hester Prynne bears the shame of her sin in a crimson emblem, there is more than one scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s tale. Comparing the lives of Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale, the other bearer of the scarlet letter, the reader learns of the power of sin to wreak havoc in our lives, and the greater power of confession to overwhelm the shadow of sin.

Hester pays daily for her sin in the form of her shame, the ridicule of others, and in watching her daughter grow up the scourge of society. Though Hester was forced to face public condemnation for her sins, her daily response to this sin is a decision that Hester makes of her own accord. When Governor Bellingham threatens to have Pearl taken away, Hester explains how her response to her sins can effect positive change in the future:

“ ‘I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!’ answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

“ ‘Woman, it is thy badge of shame!’ replied the stern magistrate. ‘It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer they child to other hands.’

“ ‘Nevertheless,’ said the mother calmly, though growing more pale, ‘this badge hath taught me,-it teaches me,-it is teaching me at this moment,-lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.’ “ (Hawthorne, 76)

Because Hester has confessed her sins to the Lord, she is able to look at her sin as an event of her past that she can learn from and teach her child. Hester is not bound to the shame of her sin, but through it is able to see truth.

Dimmesdale, however, harbors the shame of his sin because he has not confessed it. Daily, he wallows in his guilt, unable to realize the mercy extended to him by the Lord, nor the invitation to walk in new life. Dimmesdale expresses his misery while he meets with Hester in the woods:

“What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls?-or polluted soul, towards their purification? And as for the people’s reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem I, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it . . . and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (Hawthorne, 131)

Because Dimmesdale bears the scarlet letter of sin on his soul, he cannot walk in the light of Christ’s redemption. His focus is on the irreconcilable difference between what people perceive him to be and what is in his heart. Unlike Hester he has not learned to cope with the sin of his past, but instead bears it on his own soul, a weight not can bear.

God promises us that when we confess our sins to Him, he will take away the burden of our shame and give us the lightness of living in His light.

“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:5-9)

Wishing YouGot knows that in our sinful nature, we will make mistakes. That is inevitable. But what He calls us to do is to recognize the gift of redemption He has given us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins to the cross so that we could have life. Refusing to give our shame over to Him limits our ability to recreate us.

Are there sins in your life that you’re still allowing to shame you? If you’ve confessed your sins to the Lord, He will forgive you and cleanse you. Pray that God would help you to realize that forgiveness and walk in the newness of His life.

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy Reading!

The Scarlet Letter and Casting Stones

Wishing You copy

The Scarlet Letter is a fascinating exploration of the impact of sin and confession in our lives. It is not difficult to draw numerous parallels between this text and what God says about sin and our response to it, and to learn a great deal about ourselves in the process.

Because this story is set back in the 1700’s, some of the shock of the story is lost on us modern readers. A woman who has a child outside of marriage is not scorned as she once was, though perhaps a woman who is married and has a child by another man receives some public disgrace.

Even if we cannot relate entirely with the circumstances of the time period, the fact remains that we are prone to pass judgment on others, belittling them for our own benefit.

Though Hester Prynne is publicly shamed for her actions, repents, and is yet compelled to wear the emblem of shame on her breast, the Puritan townspeople cannot dismiss her past and allow Hester to live in redemption from sin.

Looking on as she leaves her prison cell, the townswomen converse:

“ ‘The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch . . . At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,-the naughty baggage,-little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!’

“ ‘Ah, but,’ interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, ‘let her Wishing Youcover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.’

“ ‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? . . . This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statue-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thanks themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!’ ” (Hawthorne, 36)

Through these voices, we hear judgment on Hester. Though the second shows a modicum of mercy, the others come from women who believe they are in a position to pass judgment, distancing themselves from Sin in order to feel better about their own conduct. Further, they believe that they are in the position to suggest what Hester’s punishment should be.

In the book of John, we see Jesus’ response to very similar circumstances. The Pharisees bring a woman to the temple where Jesus is teaching, a woman caught in the act of adultery. They refer to the law transcribed by Moses calling for the woman to be stoned, trying to maneuver Jesus into a corner where they wished him to either refute Jewish law by letting her go or to refute Roman law which did not allow Jews to enact their own executions.

Wishing You copy 2“But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when the continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’

“And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

“When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers or yours? Has no one condemned you?’

“She said, ‘No one, Lord.’”

“And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”

“Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.’” (John 8: 6-12)

Jesus’ response is perfect. He acknowledges that while adultery is sin, as outlined in scripture, there is redemption in Him. The woman was not defined by her sin, rather, she was permitted to start anew walking in the light of Christ.

Jesus’ focus is not exacting punishment for sin. Jesus’ focus is on breathing life, his life, into the woman. In telling the woman to sin no more, He shows that his focus is on her future.

God has given us great grace and mercy, and by His example we ought to offer the same to our fellow man. This does not mean we don’t know sin for sin, but that our focus is on the future rather than the past.

What if we treated people with the same love? What if we, rather than chronicling some sinner’s past deeds, considered the potential they have in Christ.

This week, the challenge for us is to second-guess ourselves when we think and talk about other people. Are we gossiping as the townswomen did about Hester Prynne, distancing ourselves from Sin to appear more righteous? Or do we show mercy to others as God has shown to us, by allowing us to walk free from the sin of the past?

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy reading!

The Great Gatsby and the Meretricious American Dream

4Interestingly, Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece The Great Gatsby in 1924 when he and his family moved to France. With trans-Atlantic displacement and the author’s stage of life, having achieved reputational and monetary success, Fitzgerald was able to reflect on his experience of pursuit of the American Dream and his culture as a whole, a theme that anchors the events of the novel.

It is important to begin our discussion by considering what we mean by the American Dream. Through generations, I believe the definition has changed drastically, but here is a basic definition from Merriam-Webster.com:

“An American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.”

Years ago, I believe that social idea tended toward the egalitarian component by which individuals sought a comfortable life for their families and their communities. As time went on, the pursuit of “material prosperity” became the chief objective. People realized their capacity for advancement as individuals, and measured their success in terms of monetary gain, thus sacrificing communal good to outpace their neighbors and even losing sight of the motivation behind this pursuit.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald offers great insight into the pitfalls of this pursuit. While Nick Carraway’s character offers a great study for this discussion, Jay Gatsby embodies the fall of the American Dream. We learn through Nick that Gatsby, originally James Gatz, came from humble beginnings and forged his way to success. Nick relates:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God-a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that-and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (Fitzgerald, 98)

This passage describes Gatsby’s early conception of the American Dream. He envisioned a future version of himself, an affluent self, and discarded his past self to become this person. Through his endeavors, he remained faithful to bring this person into being. He was regimented in his plan to evolve into Jay Gatsby, creating a stringent schedule and personal goals to tailor himself into that personage (Fitzgerald, 173). He is, by all accounts, successful in becoming Gatsby and all his character entails, except for one missing piece.

As we considered last week, Daisy was part of Gatsby’s dream. Gatsby constructed the image his perfect existence, and believed that Daisy was a part of that. We discussed how she was part of his process of self-actualization, of seeking identity. Another way of looking at Daisy is to think of her as the object of Gatsby’s American Dream. After five years of separation, the two are reunited and Nick reflects on the afternoon:

1“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams-not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.” (Fitzgerald, 96)

Here we see Daisy-as Fitzgerald’s conception of the American Dream-falling short of what Gatsby believed her and his dream to be. In the end, he cannot win her. After all his toiling, Gatsby finds what he believes to be the missing part of his dream and realizes it isn’t what he imagined it to be, and was not worth the pursuit. All the fame, fortune, and success leave him feeling empty. Incomplete.

Carraway offers a stunning visual of the culmination of the American Dream. While reflecting on his experience, he considers his view of the East as the region of affluence and achievement, and how he took his own turn at pursuing that dream.

2“Even when the East excited me most . . . even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco . . . In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the sides, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house-the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.

“After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted my eyes’ power of correction.” (Fitzgerald, 176)

Because of Gatsby, Nick realizes how the flawed ideals of the American Dream, and gives us this memorable image to embody his realization-a woman completely drunk on success, dripping with jewels, and still, a woman who has no worth in this world because she is not known by anyone.

I think that Fitzgerald hits a powerful note with his observations. It is possible to achieve reputational and monetary success, just as he did with his literary career, but to come to the culmination of his dreams and realize how empty it all is. Every labored step on the path to glory was a waste because one can never reach the pinnacle of success. There is no fulfillment in the actualization of the American Dream.

In our culture, there is a strong push toward the individual experience, the New American Dream. Be all you can be. It’s your life, your journey-make life what you want it to be.

But what is all that you can be? Can this goal be quantified?

How can one determine what one “wants” life to be without some sort of standard to measure success by?

Here, we find our way back to one of the inherent questions of humanity. If the satisfaction level in reaching the end point discounts the journey, then he flaw must be in the motivation for the journey. Hence, what is the purpose of life?

I will not presume to answer this question with a few tidy paragraphs, but instead, turn to God’s word for direction to continue this discussion with a Christian lens.2016

Firstly, the flawed idea of the American Dream implies that our lives belong to us, that our lives are lived for our own happiness and comfort. When we commit our lives to Christ, we give up our selves. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

When we decide to follow Christ, we relinquish authority and choose to live our days as Christ-an impossible pursuit for our selfish nature, but a goal nonetheless. Jesus is our standard, our benchmark for success in day-to-day life. God doesn’t expect us to reach the pinnacle of Christ-likeness–to do so would be impossible–but His desire for us is to live lives that are characterized by love. Love for God, and love for people.

Fitzgerald, while he did not connect the flawed American Dream with a higher calling to follow Christ, understood that his society was pursuing a goal that could never be actualized because our own satisfaction is insatiable and vapid. In our last discussion, we considered what our “green lights” were, what things we hold up in our lives as the epitome of success. Today, I would like to consider what our lives are characterized by.

When people think of you, how would they describe you?

Perhaps more importantly, what do you desire your life to be characterized by?

With these questions in mind, what steps can we take to live as Jesus lived, to show love in our daily walk? Perhaps it’s something as simple as providing an act of service for someone you encounter regularly, or praying for a friend. Maybe it’s speaking words of encouragement. Let God inspire you with new ways to share in His love, today.

Do you have an idea or question about today’s discussion? Please share your comments below to keep the discussion going!

Happy Reading, Kindred Spirits!

Love the Classics? Read on!

This year, I’d like to take you on a journey with me through Classic Literature. Why? Let me begin by saying this:

I love the Classics.

FullSizeRenderGrowing up, my favorite place to buy books was at thrift sales, where I could nab a 1970’s copy of Great Expectations for 25 cents. I think you’d agree, antique books are the best books. They’ve been lived in. Like a wonderful old house with floorboards that creak, the pages of old books are wrinkled with use, sometimes ripped as their reader flipped a bit too zealously in anticipation of the events to come.

Then there’s the smell.

Yes, I said it. I’m that nerdy. The smell.

The pages waft that earthy, smoky, delicious aroma and for a moment you’re transported into the past, years back when the book was first printed and the binding crinkled as it was opened for the first time. As your eyes skim those yellowed pages, they travel the same path that many a reader have traveled before. You share an experience with those readers, and you leave part of yourself in that book.

Which is also why I have a hard time giving up my books.

Books, in my romantic mind, are part of my history. I look at my bookshelves and see seasons of life. The girl who loved fairy tales. The college student compelled to read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope who actually loved *almost* every minute of it. The young woman who shed many tears in the latter pages of Jane Eyre. I remember the experience of reading them for the first time, and re-reading my copy of a beloved novel is like settling into a familiar chair that contours to my form. It’s comfortable. Comfort-ing.

My husband will tell you I have too many books. I prefer to say that I am building a lifetime of experience to bequeath to my children : )

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(And no, that is isn’t even close to all of them.)

But that doesn’t really explain why I love the Classics, just old books. Nowadays, there are “antique” copies of Danielle Steel books. (No offense to Danielle’s fans out there- she’s just not my favorite!)

The truth is, the making of Classics, by definition, is history’s way of sifting through shelves upon shelves of books and presenting future generations with a grand bookcase of The Best of the Best- the books that have withstood the test of innovation, adaptation and cultural shifts. Books that epitomize an era, that represent the ideals of a generation or a change in perspective. The Classics.

I love reading stories of ages past and realizing how much we’ve changed and, paradoxically, how little we’ve changed.

I love visiting bygone eras, immersing myself in the societies, the lifestyles, the flavors, scents, and textures of the past.

I love looking for God in those pages, seeking Truth in words written or left unformed.

All that to say, here’s what I would love to share with you:

I’d love to read the classics with you. I would love to journey through those stories with you, learn about about life and God through the study of Classic Literature.

You, dear reader- who loves to read classic literature, who may even surreptitiously smell books at bookstores, just like I do- dare I say that we are, as dear Anne Shirley would say, kindred spirits?

In the weeks to come, I’ll share weekly devotionals with you based on Classic novels, focusing on one novel for a month at a time. We’ll look at different themes, symbols, and cultural perspectives alongside scripture in order to learn about life, God, and ourselves.

What do you say? Will you join me?

You are most cordially invited to join me on our new adventure through the Classics. Let’s brew a pot of tea, find a comfortable chair, and peruse those oft-read pages.

I am thrilled to commence this venture with you, and I am eager to hear your ideas, questions, and book suggestions!

Cheers, kindred spirits. And happy reading!

 

Diary of a Teenage Girl: Becoming Me by Melody Carlson

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 Summary
Sixteen-year-old Caitlin O’Connor is pretty sure that her life is too boring to write about in a journal. But at the start of a new year, Caitlin begins to chronicle her day-to-day life as she encounters the drama of peer pressure, popularity, and dating. Her life becomes more interesting than she bargained for when she uncovers a dark secret about her dad and when she gets caught between the attention of more than one popular high school boy. As she abandons old friendships, makes new ones, and asks where God is in her life, Caitlin struggles to find out who she is and who she wants to become.

Pros
Written through diary entries, Caitlin’s voice is realistic, candid, and relevant to young adult audiences. She doesn’t hold back how she feels about the cute boy she know she shouldn’t like, or how she isn’t sure how she feels about God anymore. In her diary, Caitlin is completely open about her experiences, even when she is making excuses for her actions.

Caitlin’s story explores various issues that teens face today, such as teen drinking, peer pressure, teen sex, and affairs. Many young adults will be able to relate to different aspects of Caitlin’s story and appreciate her honest voice throughout the novel.

Cons
While Caitlin’s voice is realistic and honest, I didn’t personally like Caitlin. Perhaps this is because I am a bit more removed from this age, but I found her to be rather whiny, self-centered, and not terribly interesting. That’s just me. I’m sure that other readers, be they adult or young adult, will find Caitlin’s brash journal entries engaging and will like her for that reason.

Conclusion
While this book didn’t tickle my fancy, there is certainly merit in the way the content connect with a young adult audience. This is a great read for young adults struggling through the dramatic high school years, or those trying to make sense of what they believe about God.

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