Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle {Book Review}

In the new book A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Sarah Arthur depicts a legacy that is not without complications, as was L’Engle herself. The foreword and introduction lay out the structure and organizing premise of the book, that L’Engle saw many seeming polarities as “both/and” where most would see “either/or.” Thus, we have chapter headings such as “Sacred and Secular” or “Religion and Art.” This structure suits Arthur’s subject well.

Madeleine L’Engle, the writer known best for her fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time, was a mainline Episcopalian whose fiction and non-fiction reflected that bent. Her writing polarized evangelicals. The literary and visual arts community has drawn inspiration from her, especially from her non-fiction book Walking on Water. She spoke at conservative evangelical Wheaton, Calvin, and Westmont colleges, and her papers and journals are archived at Wheaton. Other evangelicals have vilified her ideas as New Age in Christian dress or even as demonic (178-181). This book acknowledges the critics in the latter camp but emphasizes the former, quoting extensively from the artists and writers L’Engle befriended, mentored, and influenced through her words.

Sarah Arthur has thoroughly and closely attended to those words, not only in L’Engle’s published works but also in a number of talks (at Wheaton and Calvin Colleges, for example) available online. This book also reflects her investigation of the books and articles, both positive and negative, written about L’Engle. One of the greatest strengths of her work is the breadth and depth of interviews she conducted with L’Engle’s family, with writers like Philip Yancey  who joined L’Engle in  the writing group the Chrysostom Society, and with artists and writers such as Makoto Fujimura and Leif Enger (Peace Like a River). Such a collection would not be complete without quotes from her dear friends the evangelical poet Luci Shaw and Barbara Braver, the flatmate of her final years in New York.

Those interviews highlight the strengths of Arthur’s subject. First, L’Engle was unique in the way she pioneered a specifically Christian union of faith, art, and science. She freed and paved the way for Christian fantasy writers like Stephen Lawhead, and string theorists have validated some of the self-taught physics behind the series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle didn’t come to a personal faith in God through theologians but through reading theoretical physicists like Albert Einstein.
“Einstein wrote that anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe and amazement at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle,” Madeleine wrote years later. “I had found my theologian!” (100-101).
For some evangelical readers, including myself, L’Engle gave too much credence to some scientific ideas and interpreted Scripture in light of them instead of vice versa, but that does not negate the significance of her accomplishment in this area.

The second and most beautiful legacy portrayed here is L’Engle’s friendships and mentoring. It was her friendships, her loyal community, that saw her through the times of attack on her faith and writing. Her friendship with Luci Shaw lasted decades and survived great losses, distance, and theological differences. Shaw came to L’Engle’s bedside in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident and in her final days in a nursing home. L’Engle’s flatmate and Shaw both cherish the memories of reading Compline when they were together of an evening in L’Engle’s home. Interviews with numerous younger writers describe L’Engle’s generosity in giving her time, prayers, and advice when they sought her out after a talk on a college campus. Such talks and Walking on Water (perhaps my favorite of L’Engle’s books) have mentored 2 generations of Christian artists to date and are likely to continue bearing fruit and growing her legacy, should the Lord tarry longer.

The more difficult parts of the book are those which address L’Engle’s weaknesses. This is most evident in the chapter “Fact and Fiction.” L’Engle shared perhaps too much truth about her children in the fictional but semi-autobiographical Meet the Austins series, but her family (and at times L’Engle herself) recognize that she fictionalized some of the stories in her memoirs. She had a tendency to regard the perspective in her journals as the absolute truth of an event, which could leave others feeling she rejected the validity of their differing experience of the same event. The most heartbreaking part of this whole section is the discussion of her youngest son’s death due to liver failure caused by alcohol abuse. He could never escape or live up to the pedestal his mother placed him in the fictional Rob Austin version of himself, and addiction was his response. Arthur includes an insightful and thought-provoking  response from author and blogger Sarah Bessey to this tragedy:
“My children need to know that they’re not copy to me. They need to know that their spiritual questions or moments or lives are not here for anyone else’s consumption.” But she also recognizes that this is hard for a lot of writers, “especially when parenting is a huge aspect of your life—a huge aspect of your own spirituality and awakening and how you understand God, how you’re moving through the world.” As with many women writers, “Faith is deeply connected to mothering for me. And how do I write about the ways mothering has been transformative, how it’s become this crucible, without turning my children themselves into content?” (164-165).
These are good questions for any blogger or memoirist to ponder, and I found this whole chapter challenging.

Overall, A Light So Lovely is a clear, thoughtful reflection on the impact in the kingdom of God made (and being made) through L’Engle’s life and words. Sarah Arthur has done a masterful job of gathering and organizing primary sources according to the predominant themes at play in L’Engle’s legacy. This is not a biography intended to introduce L’Engle to a reader unfamiliar with her works. Before diving into this book, I would recommend having read at least A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water, and The Irrational Season or Two-Part Invention from the Crosswicks Journals memoir collection. Devoted readers and L’Engle fans will find kindred spirits in this book, even though the author does not turn a blind eye to her subject’s faults.

N.B. Zondervan sent me a complimentary prerelease copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, August 24, 2018

One Year at Wingshadow

This post was intended for May, our anniversary month in the new-to-us house, but Ebony's illness and death altered the trajectory of the end of May and much of June. Since then, I have received and had to decline a bucket-list opportunity that required travel too strenuous for me, celebrated Father's Day with a family movie, held down the fort without Special Agent Hoover's help so Amore could move his mother to north Texas, started chiropractic treatment, hosted a foster dog for 5 exhausting days, and tried another foster dog for a week who turned out to be a keeper (but still exhausting...ha ha). We wrapped up the summer with a week of Minion Camp and a big family celebration of 2 milestones that occurred within days of each other.

(Another milestone, the eighth anniversary of this blog, passed unnoticed in that blur, save in my heart and mind. Happy belated birthday, Crumbles!)

The chiropractic treatment, with a specific practitioner at the prescription of my physical medicine/pain doctor, seems to be helping, although I'm sore for a day or so after each one still.

But I digress. The first week of May marked one year in residence at the house in my parents' neighborhood. After months of deliberation, we named it Wingshadow. The trees overarching two sides of the house remind me of the shadow of God's wing over us, protecting us. Several verses from the Psalms refer to this:
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me (Psalm 17:8-9).
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 36:7). 
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by (Psalm 57:1).
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me (Psalm 63:8).
In the wilderness, whether minding his sheep or fleeing from Saul, David, the shepherd-king, had perhaps observed mother birds sheltering their young under a wing in stormy weather and taken similar refuge in Yahweh when he so frequently needed protection.

On a similar note, David wrote, "He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler" (Psalm 91:4). The version of this Psalm in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer reads, "He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers."

Little did we know when we moved how much we would need that truth in the forefront of our minds. It has been another hard year in a series of hard years... almost a decade of them now. We lost Cindy, Ebony, and Amore’s favorite job he’d ever had (when his employer was acquired). We’ve had health setbacks, home maintenance surprises, and family crises of varying degrees. The Moore family home no longer has any Moores living there.

Yet we are no less sheltered beneath the shadow of God’s wing. No hard or happy thing can touch us unless He permits it, and He only appoints what is for our good and His glory. So it is for you, dear Crumble, if you are His child. Courage, dear heart!

Here are the first 16 months at Wingshadow in photos (minus the gazillion photos of the young nephews here, which I omit out of respect for their privacy, but which do very much exist... should their grown-up selves ever come across this post and take offense).

Monday, August 13, 2018

Love Notes: for My Mother's 70th Birthday

There are so many lovely parts of Mom’s  character I could mention in honor of her birthday: her service, her generosity, her cooking, and plenty more. Instead of saying a little bit about a lot of different qualities, I’d like to focus on one action she has repeated over and over again throughout my life: her love notes.

The first time I was ever away from home for longer than just a sleepover at a friend’s house was for Camp Goddard in 5th grade. I was nervous about it and not at all sure I wanted to go, but fear of missing out won the day and I signed up to go. Mom wrote a little note for every day I was gone (maybe one for morning and one for evening) and sent me with a big Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies for my cabin. I was so surprised when I opened my duffel bag and saw those notes, and they really did help me get through the week with less homesickness.

This continued through all my school years. Even when I wasn’t going out of town, there were a lot of days I would open my lunch sack and find a sticky note on my sandwich wrapper reminding me God loves me or telling me she was praying for my book report or choir audition or test… whatever she thought I might be anxious about that day. Sometimes she would add a little Pass It On encouragement card from the Christian bookstore down the block from our house, and I would carry it around in my pencil case for… probably the rest of the year.

When we moved last year and I went through some memory boxes, I found more of her notes, including the ones she wrote for a mission trip to Tennessee that I chaperoned during a college summer. Part of my responsibilities included driving  a small group of teenagers in the 15-passenger church van through winding 2-lane mountain roads to pick up the children we were serving in day camp. We were all nervous about that! Not only did Mom write me a note for each day, she looked at the calendar, thought through what was supposed to be happening on each one, and wrote the notes as though on the given day and not a week or two in advance. She told me things such as my sister’s medical test having gone well, her and Dad arriving safely at their vacation destination, and my sisters having a good time with the woman staying with them in our absence.

The last time I remember Mom writing me special notes for a trip was when Amore and I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, halfway around the world. Even though I believed it was what God was calling me to do, I missed the family so much that I think I started crying before our flight even left the runway. I definitely remember crying in the international security screening line at LAX. Once again, Mom came through for me with a couple of weeks worth of daily or twice daily notes to help family not feel so far away.

Now she sends me encouraging words by email or text or a phone call, and I’m the one writing notes. Amore got at least a couple of dozen in his bags last year when he needed to travel so much to help his family.

Mom, you are a treasure. Thank you for loving us so well when we’re with you and making sure we don’t forget your love when we’re apart. Happy 70th birthday! May the Lord richly bless your 71st year with joy and strength. We love you! In honor of your Irish heritage, “May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live. Sláinte!”

a few sunrise photos from our old backyard... God's love note reminders to me