Mercy to Generations

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Image URL at Amazon’s listing

Book review by Glenda Faye Mathes

Legacy of Mercy by Lynn Austin
Bethany; paperback; 400 pages; © 2018

Because I grew to love the main characters in Lynn Austin’s Waves of Mercy (Bethany, 2016), I was thrilled to read more about the lives of Anna and Geesje in her sequel, Legacy of Mercy. My hopes were not disappointed, and new characters found a place in my heart.

The novel is aptly-named as it effectively portrays the ramifications of withholding or extending mercy within family generations. Austin is at her best when showing the emotional turmoil of women who have been deeply wounded. The engaging plot gradually reveals secrets and provides satisfying resolution.

The first-person, present tense point of view from main characters pulls the reader into the story with a sense of active participation, while the first-person, past tense point of view from secondary characters helps keep perspective among the multiple narrators.

Geesje functions as a believable truth-teller, with wisdom based on personal losses and authentic faith. Her advice and observations in a multitude of situations reflect a soundly biblical perspective.

Austin’s literary touches delight the reader and help convey character. When Geesje meets Dominie Den Herder, she notes that he “has to duck his head as he enters the door of my tiny house. He looks around as if the house is for sale and he’s trying to decide if he will buy it.” While he’s a “handsome, distinguished-looking man,” he “carries himself with the rigid posture of royalty. He doesn’t return my smile, and his expression is one of a man who has been squinting into bright sunlight all his life.”

Another nice touch occurs when Mrs. Marusak describes the change in Christina after a year of marriage: “It was as if Jack had pulled a stopper from a sink full of water and drained all the life from her.”

And when Anna realizes the depth of another young woman’s deception, she observes: “Clarice is as phony as this beautiful conservatory—seemingly green and lush and fragrant, when the cold reality beyond the glass is startlingly different.”

This is another of Lynn Austin’s novels that combines an entertaining plot and delightful literary touches with a sound biblical perspective. Highly recommended!

NOTE: As a member of the launch team for Legacy of Mercy, this reviewer received a complimentary Kindle copy of the book prior to its October 2, 2018, release.

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Renewed Strength

This morning, two of my favorite Scripture texts became real to me as never before. You probably love these passages as well. The first is Isaiah 40:28–31.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

The second similar text is Psalm 103:1–5.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 
All my adult life, I’ve considered these as beautiful, meaningful, and true verses. But they hadn’t come to expression in my life. I knew God did all these things in the figurative sense, even in the literal sense for some people. I saw God blessing me in many of these ways over and over; however, I felt older and weaker as I aged.

Yesterday was particularly brutal for some reason. Perhaps recent grief sapped my physical strength. Maybe my adrenaline reserves had been depleted. I suspect I’m fighting off a cold. Whatever the reasons, my physical strength seemed at an especially low ebb. Immediately after dinner, I fell asleep in my recliner. I woke and spent a brief time on the computer, before stumbling to bed at 10:00.

cloudy-skiesAnd I felt just as exhausted when I woke this morning. Although I’d slept fairly well, I was still tired. I crafted some correspondence and did a little online research that initially seemed a waste of precious time. Then I did my devotions.

I’m reading The One Year Chronological Bible, published by Tyndale, and I finished Job this morning. I absolutely love that book of the Bible! I love God’s direct speech to a mere mortal: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7). I love God’s vivid imagery and relentless litany describing His power and sovereignty.

We’re all a bit like Job at times. When we suffer with no apparent cause, a niggling part of our sinful nature would like to give God a piece of our mind. Certainly, we’re tempted to ask, “Why?” But as someone once suggested to my husband and me, better questions to ask God might be, “What do You want to teach me through this?” and “How do You want me to serve You in this?”

As I spent time communing with God after my Bible reading, I realized how my earlier correspondence and online research had piqued my literary interests and fueled my flagging creativity.

The more I thought and prayed, the more I became aware of God’s blessings in my life and His awesome power. Is anything too hard for the God who laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions, who stretched a measuring line across it and laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4–7)?

My spirit was refreshed and my strength renewed. I felt as eager to tackle my work as a war horse spoiling for battle (Job 39:19–25). I’m rising on eagle wings.

Truth for today

In light of the state of our country and our current political climate, this text from my morning devotions seems particularly appropriate:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4, ESV).

Looking for whip-poor-wills

whippoorwill
Image found on Illinois Raptor Center website.

Have you ever heard the whip-poor-will cry down the twilight? Years since I’ve heard the haunting chant, it still echoes in my mind. A chance glance recently reverberated melody and memories.

As a subscriber to Iowa Outdoors magazine, I receive its lovely DNR calendar each year. Each month features a gorgeous picture showcasing Iowa’s natural beauty. The dates are sprinkled with fascinating facts and timely reminders. May 2 tells us: 1890 Large meteorite strikes 11 miles northwest of Forest City, and Walleye season opens on Iowa’s Great Lakes.

A May 24 notation made my body pause and my mind reel backward: Look for return of whip-poor-wills.

Five years after my husband and I were married, we built our house on a wooded acreage. We would live in the basement and finish the hollow frame bit by bit. Soon after we moved, we discovered one of our location’s treasures: whip-poor-wills nested in the shrubbery along the fence line about fifty feet from our front porch. On summer evenings, we sat on the cement block serving as a temporary step and listened to the onomatopoetic call. (You can hear it at this link.) But we never saw the elusive and well-camouflaged nocturnal bird.

What a thrill to hear that rare call! And what piercing memories my mind associates with it. Little boys leaping to catch fireflies. A young husband’s strong arm cradling my shoulders. Stars sharpening in a darkening sky. Cool air. Warm hearts.

But one year the whip-poor-will was silent. The new neighbors on the other side of the fence had dogs. Whip-poor-wills don’t build nests, laying their eggs directly on the ground. We never again heard the whip-poor-will sing.

Some years ago, I wrote this poem, dedicated to my husband:

Vespers

 

When you and I

were in our prime,

we sat on the cool concrete step

with bare feet in dark grass

as dusk deepened.

 

Boys who had leaped

to snare random spurts of pale light—

squished into glowing rings on fingers—

quieted in beds.

 

Above our heads,

the Milky Way materialized

in a pointillistic arc

of bright blessing;

while the whippoorwill

sang vespers.

 

© Glenda Mathes, 2006; revised 2010

Standing and staring at the calendar created a melancholy feeling. If only I could look for whip-poor-wills with any expectation of seeing them return!

Thoughts and memories tumbled in my mind for a few days, until I wrote a new poem:

Look for return of whip-poor-wills

 

The tiny notation

On the calendar

Prepared by the conservation department

Puckers time as keenly as a pleat

Pressed by my mother’s hot iron

A quick stitch

Skips from childhood cotton

Past bridal satin

To parenting denim

 

And we two sit

On the front stoop

In evening’s cool

As the whip-poor-will

Sings its onomatopoetic song

Low tones bracketing

Rising trill

 

The melancholy notes soar

From earthy berth

Through honeysuckle blossoms

Past quivering cottonwood leaves

To echo in the deep blue

That turns black as a bruise

While the lonesome chords

Encircle my heart

And constrict

 

As I stare at the calendar

Alone

Waiting for whip-poor-wills

 

© Glenda Faye Mathes, May 2016

The poem’s persona is imaginary, but grows more real to me as I age. The whip-poor-will echoes in my mind may haunt me, but whatever losses in my life, I wait for a return far more significant. I look for the return of the King of whip-poor-wills and every other created being.

 

 

What inspires creativity?

Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006
Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006

How does a writer fuel the creative muse? What role could poetry or music play? Could sermons or scripture generate creativity?

For years, I’ve believed poetry–or at least being familiar with good poetry–elevated prose. The instructor for my first creative writing course (more than 20 years ago) taught a unit on poetry before teaching prose, saying, “If you know how to write poetry, you’ll write better prose.” He was right.

Being able to recognize assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, and a host of other literary techniques makes you a better reader. And being able to judiciously implement technique enlivens any writing. I’m not advocating going through your manuscript and thinking, “How can insert a literary technique here?” Rather, a literary mindset leads to fresh ways of expressing thoughts and techniques that tumble into the manuscript unsought.

My Word Weavers meeting this week discussed the place of poetry in prose writing. One of my fellow Weavers recalled advice to begin each day or work session by writing a poem. This reminded me of poets John Piper and Edward Taylor. Oh, you thought those guys were ministers? Yep.

Piper is a contemporary Christian minister of Desiring God fame, the ministry name drawn from his bestselling book. He often prepares for writing sermons by crafting poetry. His poems can be found on the ministry website. He gives some great advice for how to begin writing poetry here, recommending Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook for beginning poets. I’m not familiar with Ted Kooser, but the title intrigues me. And I’m very familiar with Mary Oliver’s poems, some of which are among my favorites, especially this one with its beautiful conclusion: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

Edward Taylor may not be as familiar. He was a Puritan minister and poet and “one of the finest literary artists of Colonial America,” according to this biography. He became my friend many years ago, when I discovered him in this collection.

When I hear a vivid sermon by a passionate preacher, I often feel moved by my personal muse. Some of my best poems have been inspired by sermons. Reflecting on Scripture or other devotional material before beginning my work day can trigger creative energy.

My most creative thoughts arise from my daily early morning quiet time, lying in bed and communing with God in what I call “the votive silence” (you can read my 2006 reflections on how I came to adopt that phrase here). My joke, based on something a fellow participant said at a writer’s mentoring retreat several years ago, is referring to this morning time as being “sack-religious.”

Until this morning, I hadn’t considered music instrumental in fueling creativity. In fact, I thought it too distracting, believing I could accomplish more without jarring notes or someone else’s words drawing me out of my creative process. I even commented about this recently on a Facebook thread. Today I found this post on “Finding Your Way To ‘Other Time'” by Doug McKelvey over at The Rabbit Room website. McKelvey is a songwriter who also writes juvenile fiction, such as The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (another intriguing title).
And the music clips he links into his post definitely intrigue me. I haven’t taken time to check all of them out, but I’ve listened to enough that I believe I may have to adjust my thinking about music fueling muse.
What do you think? What fuels contribute to your creativity?

Pragmatism, inspiration, and redemption

The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe
The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

During the fiction workshop at Glen West, the first and most frequent question instructor Larry Woiwode asked was: “Does it work?”

That’s the primary consideration. Either a piece of writing works or it doesn’t. This may seem a rather pragmatic view, but it’s crucial to establish a work’s viability before going on to other important questions, like: “Can you trust this person to tell you the truth?”

Being able to trust the author is a key component of what makes a piece work. Those were questions asked about every submission we discussed.

During our discussions, we talked about some elements that apply specifically to Christians who write (note I didn’t say “Christian writers” or “writers of Christian fiction,” which should be explored in another blog post). Two elements Woiwode stressed that relate to believing authors were inspiration and redemption.

Each workshop began with Woiwode reading a Scripture text or spiritual writing excerpt. His comments brought each reading alive for the believing writer’s life.

One morning, he read from Psalm 51, noting especially verse 6 (text below from the ESV):

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

He spoke about wisdom in the secret heart as coming only from God, who delights in truth in the inward being. He said, “This is the closest thing we can get to inspiration.”

Another time Woiwode read from Psalm 37, including verse 3 (here in the ESV):

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

“How do you ‘befriend faithfulness?'” he asked. Pointing out that Christ himself is faithfulness, he said, “You need to be immersed in the Word to become closer to Jesus.”

The closer we become to Christ, the more we find ourselves delighting in him: He noted verse 4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4, ESV).

Woiwode warned writers, “The secret area of your heart will come out.” But when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our heart change. They become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

He also read verse 23:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way (ESV).

He pointed out how the psalmist’s “steps are established when he delights in the Lord” and encouraged us to walk in his way.

That idea of established steps ties in with what he read in verses 30-31:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip (ESV).

“The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,” he reiterated. “The more you receive him, the closer you move to his righteousness, the better you can speak justice.”

Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Woiwode later expanded on this concept: “As a person thinks, so that person is. The more Christ is in you, the more you’ll be disabled from doing anything but the truth.” He added, “Shine the light on evil. What is of the truth is built on rock.”

In an earlier class, Woiwode had spoken of “shining the light on evil” as “writing redemptively.”

In my mind, you can’t picture redemption unless you first depict the necessity for it. Writing “safe” fiction that avoids any distressing subject isn’t realistic. Evil exists. It should be shown and named for what it is. I’m not advocating graphic or nauseating descriptions. But I do believe evil cannot be ignored. Only when evil is exposed can writers express the power of Christ’s redemption.

Our writing then becomes realistic as well as redemptive. Our inspiration will come from Christ and will reflect his redemption. Fiction will stand on truth. The writing will work.