Mercy!

Mercy!

I’ve just finished reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  To give you an extremely brief introduction that really doesn’t do the book – or the man – justice, Stevenson is a lawyer who has dedicated his life to representing men and women on death row, people who were sentenced to very severe punishments as children, poor folks whose court-appointed counsel completely dropped the ball. This book centers on one particular case but also incorporates many other cases Stevenson has worked.

I don’t unreservedly commend to you all of Stevenson’s ideas, but I think the book is powerful and compelling. The most significant, eye-opening thing here is the histories. If you don’t know about these injustices, it’s easy to think they don’t happen. But when you learn about ways that justice has been miscarried and perverted, you start to appreciate that maybe there’s a lot you still don’t know. Maybe just because I am don’t know about something doesn’t indicate that it’s fictional. Knowing real stories about injustice should both soften our hearts toward one another and galvanize us to pursue justice through the law – to make the law an agent of true justice.

All that said, this quote is not about someone’s history – I don’t want to spoil  any of the stories for you. This is a powerful concept – the concept of where grace comes from between people.

[I want you to know I’m not spoiling any of the stories in this book by sharing this great quote with you. Read on without fear.]

Whenever things got really bad, and [my clients] were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us….

[…E]ven as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we’re also in a web of healing and mercy…. The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it is most potent – strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.

This mercy to the undeserving that Stevenson is describing is a miniature of Gospel mercy. It’s no surprise, given the way he talks about it, that he is very aware of this fact, that he is a recipient of Gospel mercy himself. We who have been shown mercy are marked by mercy toward others – if we aren’t merciful toward others, we have a disconnect that may indicate that we haven’t received that mercy. And, as my pastor said in his sermon on Sunday morning, for believers, as recipients of such great big Gospel mercy, caring about justice and extending ourselves towards others in mercy are not optional hobbies. It is our business when injustice is done – not to take justice into our own hands, but to pursue justice as best we can through the system and to treat everyone, not just whichever victim we perceive more clearly, with mercy.

Being merciful must include seeing and respecting the personhood of every human (including ourselves) – which includes what Stevenson talks about above, refusing to identify a person solely with one act, or, taking it a step further, one characteristic. We must see the dignity in others and ourselves; brokenness and wickedness cannot completely shatter the imago Dei, the image of God stamped on each human being by our Creator.

Seeing people this way is a challenging thing for most of us, I think – perhaps it’s harder for me to think of myself that way, and harder for someone else to think of others that way. But as people who are solidly loved and whose eternity is guaranteed, we are free to pursue this way of seeing. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal” – no brokenness either. Our job is to bring that healing into the future.

This is not something I am proposing we adopt as some sort of legal policy; instead, I think it is supposed to be the defining characteristic of the way we as individual Christians as well as the church interact with other humans. If other folks think it sounds good too, that’s great, but the call is specifically on us. If we really are just beggars telling other beggars where we found bread and where they can too, this kind of mercy should be dripping off of us.

On Memoirs

On Memoirs

I’m a picky reader when it comes to memoirs. Perhaps this is due to my standards being set by Augustine’s Confessions, CS Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Tough acts to follow. But here are some great memoirs:

My Life in France is the deliciously-told story of bringing French cooking to American kitchens, but it isn’t really about cooking. I mean, yes, it will make you so hungry and deepen your appreciation for beurre blanc, but the story told here is really of a beautiful life, not just the making of delectable food. Julia Child is an inspiration for a lot of reasons, but one is surely that she threw herself into pursuing a new career as a chef at the age of 37 after a successful and storied career as a US diplomat.

Walk-On by Alan Williams is about Williams’s four years as a walk-on member of my favorite college sports team, Wake Forest Demon Deacon basketball. Even for people who aren’t into sports, it’s got a lot to offer.

The Opposite of Fate is about the life of accomplished American novelist Amy Tan, but also about the mental and emotional and the effects of Lyme disease on such a mind, on such a life.

Another great memoir that deals with chronic illness is A Walk with Jane Austen, a book most likely to delight people who love England, Jane Austen, and Jesus.

Rescuing Sprite is heartwarming for us dog people, especially if you have (or want) a soft spot for rescue animals.

Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas and Micah Sparks provides a unique twist on the genre – the memories and reflections of siblings recounting their past together give this memoir a different feel.

You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again was interesting – who doesn’t love a little peek into everyday life in Hollywood?

Despite skipping a couple chapters that were too much for me, I count Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Dry among my favorites. It has given me some essential tools to understand addiction.

Anna Broadway’s Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity was raw and real and hilarious and beautiful and hard. I read it when I was single and just as frustrated as Broadway (a pseudonym), and it was so refreshing to find out I wasn’t alone, that there was someone else struggling with the whole “sex drive with no outlet” phenomenon experienced by a Christian woman committed to chastity. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Sadly, celebrity memoirs typically don’t quite hit me right. Even Bossypants was only mildly interesting to me, and just not funny. Maybe it’s because writing funny things to be read in silence and writing funny things to be delivered aloud require somewhat different things? I don’t know.

But right now I’m flying through Danielle Fishel’s Normally, This Would be Cause for Concern, and y’all, it’s delightful. It’s fluffy and silly and humble. Fishel’s writing is peppered with too many trying-to-be-funny asides, but I do that too (right?). I’m still enjoying it. And I wanted to share this passage with you, because it describes my sister SO PERFECTLY and I just love it when that sort of thing happens.

Fishel apparently went to college at 27, a decision that took courage and openness to failure. And she worked hard, enthusiastically pursuing academic excellence. She explains that her academic drive came partly from how badly she wanted to be there: “It took determination, courage, and overcoming years of fear for me to be on that campus, and I wanted to make the most it.” And this is where we get to the part that sounds exactly like my sis:

I’m also competitive and looked at getting good grades as winning in the imaginary game of college. That’s what you do when you get older. Make up imaginary games so you can win them.

I mean, y’all. She once made up a game in which someone would ask a question, and whoever answered it first won – and the question-asker could answer the question. At one point I remember her asking “Who’s our mom? MOM! I WIN!”

She was almost 21.

*drops mic*

The Creative Imagination of God

The Creative Imagination of God

I was recently reading Tony Reinke’s Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. To be honest, I was quite unimpressed except for this chapter, “Chapter 6: The God Who Slays Dragons: The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination.” The following two paragraphs are magnificent. I felt quite compelled to share them with you.

But God’s imaginative genius is also displayed in the gospel. Think about it. The gospel weaves together a genealogy of dodgy characters into an unlikely ancestry for the Savior. The gospel was foretold by centuries of ancient prophecies, many of them fragmented and scattered throughout the Old Testament, to a people who could not make sense of it all. In time, the genealogy and the prophecies merged together into a cohesive plan that lead to the birth of the incarnate Son of God.

So ingenious is the gospel plan, that when men and Satan conspired to kill and bury the Savior, they only hastened the Father’s plan for his Son’s victory. This entire plan developed in God’s imagination long before the world existed. (Eph. 3:7-10; 1 Pet. 1:18-20)

I love viewing the Gospel from this vantage point. There are so many things we know about God’s character from His redemptive plan and actions, but it’s easy to lose sight of this creative side of Him. I mean, in creation, sure – everything from subatomic particles to the platypus to the Horsehead Nebula  reminds us of it – but there’s more to divine creativity than that.

Changes in Reading Habits

Changes in Reading Habits

If you followed me over to this blog from its predecessor, Theology in Heels, you probably know how very much I love to read. Indeed, my sister Katie, who is two years younger and more extroverted than I, grew up jealous of reading because I spent so much of my time doing that instead of playing with her. (I think she finally got over her grudge after college; she reads to her kids every day.)

Just a couple years ago I was clocking about 120 books a year. Most of them fell under fiction (including a large dose of children’s fiction) or theology/Christian living (which I think we should call practical theology – that might remind us enough not to get all weird about things, making up extra rules and such nonsense). I still managed to watch a decent amount of tv, hang out with friends, and needlepoint in my spare time. My, how times have changed.

Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that I am now reading a LOT more online…and keeping house…and make dinner most nights…and have to drive for quite awhile before I get to most of the places I go (like the grocery store)…and have access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and so forth…but y’all, I finished 24 books in 2015.

Apparently, meeting Stephen caused a disturbance in the Force. In 2014, I read 72 books before I met him…and 3 books after.

And that includes international flights to Italy then France then back to Texas.

He was on them too, of course. And there was so much talking to do – we were getting married and had to plan everything from the playlist for the reception to the times we would have the party change floors. (We got married in a science museum. It was a progressive reception. It was absurdly fun.)

ANYWAY, the bottom line is that my reading habits have changed drastically. I am currently attempting to change the rhythm of my life – at least for the low- or no-pain days. Part of that is getting up with Steve and blogging (!) and eating breakfast (!); part of it will incorporate regularly scheduled reading. I’m not sure how all that will go; I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s my “finished” list from 2015.

  1. Blood Work by Michael Connelly – Fine but forgettable.
  2. Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter Book 1) by Thomas Harris – Classic of the genre.
  3. The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown – Apparently, if you assign each of your daughters roles from Shakespeare plays and refer to them constantly as such, and quote the Bard all the time, your daughters may memorize a lot of Shakespeare and be super dysfunctional. I did enjoy this quite a bit, but it was weird. (Not trying to be cute – I don’t think there’s a more appropriate word, if you use the modern colloquial meaning.)
  4. The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney – A Romany disappearance is hard to solve, even if you’re half Romany yourself.
  5. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi – Absolutely riveting, endlessly fascinating, especially in light of the whole Making a Murderer fascination here in the US right now. This true crime book is referenced by Thomas Harris quite a bit in the Hannibal books, so I had to check it out. I did a ton of online reading after Red Dragon, and this book came up like 400 times, so I knew it was coming in the later books. Tied for best book of the year.
  6. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Wolves Chronicles Book 1) by Joan Aiken – While I heartily approve of the use of the dastardly scoundrel from Sense & Sensibility‘s name (pretty sure I just punctuated that wrong) as a name for a dangerous place, this children’s book was too dark for me. And when you consider the other books I read this year, you’ll probably concur that that is quite a statement.
  7. Innocence by David Hosp – I mean, I have a copy if you want it. I don’t need it anymore. It was forgettable. But if you’re bored… maybe can I send you Sense & Sensibility instead?
  8. Redwall (Redwall #1) by Brian Jacques – Read on hubby’s recommendation, though it was on my list for years. Enjoyed it as much as I enjoy any anthropomorphic tale involving battles.
  9. Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey No. 1) by Dorothy Sayers* – Delightful.
  10. Clouds of Witnesses (Lord Peter Wimsey No. 2) by Dorothy Sayers* – Not quite as delightful as most of the rest of the series, but still miles more interesting than Innocence.
  11. Love or Die: Christ’s Wake Up Call to the Church by Alexander Strauch
  12. The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan – Enjoyable foray into a new fantasy world. I’m certain at least Book 2 will be on my 2016 list.
  13. The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers edited by Michael Haykin with Victoria Haykin – This was a very kind wedding gift, and I really enjoyed it. Also, it’s sad that letters have, for the most part, gone the way of bears in England.
  14. The Hundred-and-One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith – Smith is one of the few authors I’ve come across who has pulled off books in different genres and styles that are pure delight for entirely different reasons. I love JK Rowling and all, but her Cormoran Strike books just aren’t as much fun as Harry Potter. And The Casual Vacancy was good for my soul much the way breakfast is good for my body- I’m glad I ate it, but boy did it take a lot of slogging through.
  15. The Counterfeit Heiress (Lady Emily Book 9) by Tasha Alexander – On the one hand, this book is rooted in a fascinating history that Alexander found inspiring. On the other hand, I think I’m done with Lady Emily. Despite the lack of their presence on my 2015 list, I prefer Julia Grey and Charlotte & Thomas Pitt for my Victorian mysteries.
  16. The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter Book 2) by Thomas Harris – Takes classic to a new level (imho).
  17. Hannibal (Hannibal Lecter Book 3) by Thomas Harris – What goes up must come down I suppose. This wasn’t nearly as convincing as the other two, especially at the end.
  18. Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning by Nancy Pearcey – I would love to know what actual artists think of this book. I appreciated it a lot, and think Pearcey is really onto something with her multi-storied explanation of reality, but I’m a philosophy-theology-history-literature person, so it hit me right on a lot of levels.
  19. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris – Sedaris might be funny. I’m not sure. This book certainly isn’t. She does have a good piece of advice about just making decisions when a host asks for your preference, because “I’m sure whatever you decide is fine” puts pressure on them rather than making it easier for them, which is probably what you intend by saying that. Now that I’ve told you that, you have absolutely no reason to read the book. You’re welcome. [PS – I don’t think pictures of women in their pantyhose are funny. I mean, nobody really looks great in just a dress shirt and pantyhose with the shirt half tucked in and wholly awkward. But it’s not like it’s comedic fodder either.]
  20. Hannibal Rising (Hannibal Lecter Book 4) by Thomas Harris – I totally get why Harris wrote this book, and I think criminal psychology is fascinating, but…it just didn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s too explanatory, too self-consciously justifying all the twisted evil Harris had shown in Lecter in the other three books.
  21. For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards by Jen Hatmaker – Unlike Sedaris, Hatmaker is indubitably funny, and good for the anxious, perfectionistic, overly busy soul. While I will admit that this book doesn’t fully address the Gospel, 1) that’s not because she tried and missed, but because this book didn’t set out to fully address the Gospel, 2) I think that’s okay, and 3) this book is mostly about giving grace to ourselves and each other, and not just for sins – Hatmaker points out again and again how we create these standards (like I have in my head of the “ideal wife”) and then treat them like Law, expecting ourselves and others to meet them or “face the consequences.” Hatmaker is telling us that this is bogus. I think she’s totally right.
  22. The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry – It’s like if The DaVinci Code saved up its obnoxiousness till the last 100 pages of the book.
  23. The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones – I’m not sure what exactly was going on in this book – magical realism, psychological thriller, study of human psychology (especially pack behavior), and a twist on the typical Downton Abbey-esque, manners-driven British story are all in play. It was good, it was disturbing, it was saddening, it was unexpected.
  24. The Savage Garden by Mark Mills – This book was SO FUN. It ties The Monster of Florence for best book I read in 2015. Interestingly, it also takes place in Italy and is a murder mystery. There’s lots of fun art history and classical myth (connected, of course) involved, and the characters are vivid and believable. I’m excited to read more of Mills.

My most obvious reading achievement of 2015 was Thomas Harris’s Hannibal books, but Saving Leonardo was no mean feat (I believe I started it in 2012?), and I think reading the first Wheel of Time book (clocking in at over 800 pages) is a notable accomplishment as well.


* I am an incredibly huge fan of Dorothy Sayers and her gentleman-sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. (I thought about naming my dog after him, but my father rightly noted that hollering “Lord Peter!” into the backyard would be a bit strange.) I decided last year that I would reread the entire canon, this time according to internal chronological order, including short stories, which I am color-coding by order in my copy of The Complete Stories. I derive great pleasure from this. (I will note that I intend to skip the one I read for the first time most recently – The Nine Tailors. I know it’s widely regarded as brilliant, but I regard it as exhausting and dull, probably due to the insufficient amount of Lord Peter in it.)