Saturday, March 26, 2011

And Another Book!

Royal Blood (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries, #4)Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For pure fun, Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness series fits the bill perfectly.  This is the fourth installment in the series. It's the mid 1930's.  Lady Georgianna is 34th in line to the British throne but also has the misfortune of being a penniless heiress.  So when Her Majesty Queen Mary requests the presence of her kinswoman at a luncheon, Lady Georgianna must attend.  Of course every time she's summoned to the palace, the Queen asks her for help.  This time she's asked to represent the Royal Family at another royal wedding in Transylvania.  Mystery, murder, and mayhem follow.  Prince Siegfried, Darcy O'Mara, Belinda, and Gerogie's new maid all play their roles as they attempt to avert a messy political situation.  I am really enjoying this light-hearted series.

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A Book Review Yet Again

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once again I am not disappointed in Lindsey Davis and Marcus Didius Falco.  This is fairly mellow installment in the saga.  Falco is engaged by to investigate an alleged senatorial suicide.  This eventually involves him defending an alleged murderer in the Roman courts.  Rome's legal system is the main character here, and Falco &Co are our guides.  I enjoyed the way Falco was less of a lone ranger this time, and really involved Helen and her brothers.  As usual, his wit and wily ways get him into some difficult situations, including defending himself against a charge of impiety in his role as the guardian of Juno's Sacred Geese.  

A Sunny Saturday

I was awake far too early this morning for a Saturday.  The moon was still shining strong and the stars were still out.  Now the sun has risen and is currently sending its strong spring light right through the window onto the right side of my face.  If I turn to look through the window, the light blinds me, but if I look away I can bask in it.
Surely a sign of God's presence, all the more telling since I have been meditating most of the week on  John 8:12.

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."  

The direct light is hard to bear.  If I stare directly into the sun, I will damage my sight.  And in fact, I really can't gaze directly into the heart of its light. If I try, my eyes clamp shut in self-defense, without  volition. But I keep turning my face towards the light, and I catch quick glimpses of its brilliance.  And I want to sit in the light, and walk outside in it.  I seek it out whenever I can.

So much like my relationship with God.  I catch a flash of the life we are promised.  Once in a very great while, for a very brief moment, I gaze directly into Light that is at the center of all things.  For a microsecond, I "get" it.   But I can't maintain that experience, that connection.  Without volition, I shut down.  In self-defense?  I know I think I want to live in the direct light, but somehow I keep turning away from it.  And yet, I keep seeking it out.  

Monday, March 21, 2011


I started this morning by reading a couple of the "Joyful" Psalms.  I spent some time with Psalm 66 
1Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
2sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.
3Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
4All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.” Selah
5Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
6He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,
7who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah

and Psalm 100

1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I started thinking about happiness and joy.  We use these words interchangeably.  But the more I thought about it, I realized that they are different emotions, at least for me.   I feel joy at a much deeper level than happiness.  Joy fills my being up completely.  There is no room for any other thought.  I experience it in every cell of my body.   Joy is exuberant and cannot be contained.  These psalms reflect some of that exuberance for me.  I don't feel it often enough. I think young children experience it easily and often, but somehow we lose this openness as we age.  I decided that this week I want to consciously look for joy.  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A New to Me Hymn

We sang this hymn this morning from the New Century Hymnal. (United Church of Christ) It was one we hadn't sung before.  I loved it!  I found this video on Youtube when I googled the hymn.  I think it's from an Episcopal service.

Praying through Lent

My prayer discipline has been challenging this week.  I have struggled with finding time, and I had a great deal of difficulty "connecting" with the prayer prompts I'm using.    All was not lost however.  I  did find myself praying more often, throughout the day, rather than a longer period of intentional contemplation.  I also did something I don't usually do.  I prayed for a specific-to-me physical problem to be resolved, and it was. Several years ago I had a very painful (though minor) health issue that took several doctor's visits, and several extremely painful treatments to cure.  Monday morning it appeared that the problem was recurring.  I started praying hard.  I asked God to take the problem away.  Wednesday afternoon, the problem resolved itself.  My prayer was answered.  The immense sense of gratitude is hard to express!  I find it much easier to pray for others than to pray for myself. I do pray for myself for the "big stuff"  -- clarity, wisdom, guidance, patience, etc.  but why is it so hard to ask for the "little things" - relief from a headache, a good conversation with a difficult student, a solution to a scheduling problem, etc???

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Impatient for Green

We have had almost two weeks of thaw.  Yesterday the thermometer made it past 60°F.  Today it's more seasonable, but it still melting out there.  I get a little depressed when I'm driving around town.  Downtown, most yards are almost empty of snow.  The light is definitely stronger and longer, and the avian population around my yard is definitely excited.  Yet my yard is still full of stuff that used to be snow.  It's now more of a dingy blanket of  coarse ice crystals.  It's only when I compare then and now pictures that I see progress.

This was my yard 6 weeks ago:

From 2011-02-02

From 2011-02-02

Here it it is today:

From 2011-03-19

From 2011-03-19

From 2011-03-19

There IS a big difference.   I  can see that, when I compare the pictures.

There is hope, however.  I spied this on my way in from getting the mail.

From 2011-03-19

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Terrific Young Adult Read!

Swallowing StonesSwallowing Stones by Joyce McDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Swallowing Stones is a terrific young adult novel, posing some tough ethical questions.  Jenna Ward's father is killed in a freak accident after a teenager shoots an antique Winchester into the air.  The story is told from two different points of view: Jenna's and Michael, who fired the gun.  As Jenna deals with her father's sudden death, Michael is wracked not only with his guilt, but with the pact he made with Joe, his best friend, to keep the circumstances of the accident secret.  The portrayal of the two teens, their interactions with their friends, and their struggle with doing what is right, is quite realistic.  The story was gripping, and I couldn't put it down!  There is some mild sexual content (the description of very realistic emotions and physical reactions) that might prevent me from using this book with my 7th graders, but it's certainly a book that would capture their interest, and I think that the questions the book poses are probably worth a few "embarrassing" lines.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Catching Up on My Reading

In between everything else ---  a  couple of quick reviews:

Necessary as Blood (Kincaid/James, #13)Necessary as Blood by Deborah Crombie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always enjoy the Gemma Jones/Duncan Kincaid series, and I liked this one too. Tim Cavendish's friend, a Pakistani lawyer is murdered just a few months after his wife disappears.  Gemma becomes involved when Tim asks for her help, and she is immediately drawn to Charlotte, the 4 year old daughter left behind.   Kincaid is officially asked to investigate the murder in London's East End, but his hands are tied when the prime suspects are targets of big narcotics investigation.  The trail eventually leads to human trafficking and child abuse.  In their personal lives, Gemma is avoiding planning her wedding  -- she wants to be married, but doesn't to go through the business of "getting married."  Her mom is also battling leukemia.  The ending of this novel was very satisfying, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Here's why I decided to read this book:  I am trying to read more nonfiction, I usually enjoy biography, I teach middle school social studies and have taught ancient Egypt and Rome, and I really didn't know very much about Cleopatra.  The fact that it came highly recommended was another factor.

I really didn't know anything about Cleopatra other than the legends about her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, her beauty, and her suicide.  Stacy Schiff certainly filled in the gaps! She states quite clearly at the start of the book that there are a lot of unknowns.  Most of the primary resources are strongly biased, pro and con, and much historical record is missing.  Her tomb has never bee found,  her Alexandria lies buried under the Mediterranean, and 3 of her children either disappeared completely from history or were murdered after Octavian's triumph.  Schiff does a masterful job of sharing her research, commenting on the bias of the record she's citing.  I sometimes found the amount of detail overwhelming, and occasionally found my eyes glazing over.  But then I would be riveted by passages that I kept trying to share with my husband.  I "knew" the bare bones of her timeline, but didn't relate it well to other events.  I was surprised that she traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Herod, and in fact, I had had no idea that she owned many of the resources of Israel and Jordan.  Another passage that struck me was the description of how she tried to bring her naval fleet over the isthmus between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea after her defeat at Actium.  It would have been successful except for the Nabeteans who destroyed the 400 ft long ships as they came overland.

I have to admit that I sometimes find reading scholarly nonfiction is hard after a long day of teaching.  I mostly want to relax, and not tax my brain too much. And there were a few nights when I wondered why I was trying! I'm glad I put the time into this one.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Admitting Difficulty

It's only a few days into Lent, and already I'm having difficulty meeting my self-set goal for daily prayer and journaling.  I'm not giving up, but usually I have an easier time staying on track at the start of a new discipline.  It's later on that I struggle to maintain it.  Perhaps that's a good thing -- it isn't supposed to be easy.

Friday's meditation centered around 2 Timothy 1:1-6.  The purpose of the meditation was to reflect on and thank those people in my life who taught me the faith, and then to think about I can carry the faith forward.  Believe it or not, I had difficulty with this prompt.  There are many people who are responsible for teaching me about God -- my mother, my uncle, Sunday school teachers, ministers, friends, and I've tried to carry on that tradition in whatever way I can.  I was "raised" in Sunday school so to speak.  My mother and aunt taught the nursery school/kindergarten Sunday school class and I went to Sunday school with my mom as early as 2 months old.  By the time I was old enough to attend the class as an official student, the stories and songs were a part of me.  I still catch myself humming snatches of old tunes or remembering odd phrases from songs I used to know like the back of my hand.  (There was one lovely song about the Easter lily -- the bulb went into the ground all cold and dead, but on Easter morning it raised its head . . . There's a similar song in the New Century Hymnal, but it's not the one I remember well in dreams, but not during waking hours!).  I attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school throughout childhood, and was blessed with an amazing curriculum and set of teachers.  When I think back on my first church experiences, I remember sunlight, acceptance, and lots of hands-on experiences.  My church was an old New England one, dating its existence back to 1639. It was the First Church, having been established when the town was first settled.  It split during the Great Awakening  into 2 churches, and the second church was built one block down the road.  In 1926, the two congregations reunited, keeping both buildings.  During the 1960's, when I was a child in this church, the second building was where the Sunday school was located.  We had our own sanctuary where Sunday school started with a short worship service, and then we headed off into the classrooms for our lessons.  I loved the Plymouth Chapel.  I have strong visceral memories of sitting in the pew, sunlight streaming through the clear glass, as we sang "This is My Father's World" and "For the Beauty of the Earth."  I can't hear either of those hymns without tearing up!  What truly amazes me is how wide the curriculum was.  In addition to all of the usual Sunday school lessons, we learned a great deal about the ancient Hebrews and Judaism.  We built Succoth booths and we had seders, and we learned about Purim and Hanukkah.  I knew Jesus was Jewish.  This may not sound unusual nowadays, but believe me, it wasn't common back in the early 1960's!

I used to say I was a life-long UCC member, but then I realized the UCC was born after I was!  I do remember when my church added UCC to its name.  Then we when we moved to New Jersey we spent several years at a Congregational church that did not join the UCC.  But that church also had a dynamite Christian education program, again with a children's chapel where we met for a short worship service.  This church was definitely more conservative than my previous church. This is the Sunday school where we sang many of what I call "missionary" hymns:  "Onward Christian Soldiers", "Follow the Gleam"  (we sang this one lustily and at much faster pace than the link plays it) are the hymns that I associate with this dark, wood paneled inner sanctuary.  (The only chapel I've ever been in without windows).    I was confirmed in this church in 8th grade.  That was a traumatic experience as my mother had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage 4 days before my confirmation.  A neighbor (who attended a different church) drove me to church, and then to a gas station where my cousins from Ct met me to take me to my aunt's until Mom came home from the hospital.  No one in my family was there at church with me on that day because Mom was still in intensive care.  I've just now realized how weird that was ---- I don't remember any question of my not being confirmed on that Sunday, and I suspect, knowing my parents, that nobody told the minister that my mom was so ill!  It was a large church, and it was 30 minutes away from where we lived, so I don't think anyone knew!!
Two years later we moved further west, and joined a UCC church near Cleveland, OH.  It was now the '70's and we had what folks might term a "hippie" youth minister.  I remember great youth fellowship meetings watching thought-provoking movies like "A Gentleman's Agreement" with Gregory Peck, "Cool Hand Luke," and "To Kill A Mockingbird."   I also remember an overnight retreat at the minister's house.  It felt very risque', as it was co-ed.  We all slept on the living room floor and when the minister served communion to us, he used real wine!
When I went to college back east, I continued to attend church - this time Storrs Congregational Church at the University of Connecticut.  They had an active campus ministry and even had a minister hired specifically for college students. The ministry team held Sunday night dinners for college students and I remember being specifically invited to attend by members of the congregation who also came to the dinners.  I got very involved in the church, becoming the secretary to the campus minister, and eventually transferring my membership to that church.  When I got married, the campus minister co-officiated at my wedding.   What I took from those years was a deep sense of personal faith and community.  There was a small group of us who gathered on Friday afternoons in a small chapel at the church for communion.  (One of my jobs as the minister's secretary was to get the bread - a lovely loaf of freshly-baked bread from a small bakery).  We usually sat in a circle on the floor, 6 or 7 us, and shared the bread and wine, prayed together, and sang together.  The church opened its Sunday school classrooms to us, at night, and we'd gather there to study -- it was much friendlier than the college library, and much more conducive to study than our dorms! We were a small circle within the congregation who welcomed us, supported us, and prayed for us.

I am now a member of the United Church of Jaffrey, UCC - a small but very active congregation.  For over 30 years I've worshiped here and I've been involved in almost all aspects of church life.  I've been a trustee, a deacon, on stewardship, taught Sunday school, senior high youth leader, confirmation class teacher, and now, I'm the moderator.    We're an Open and Affirming, Just Peace congregation and we maintain both an emergency shelter and a food pantry.  Like most small churches we are really struggling to raise funds and to balance the needs of our ministries with the availability of able hands.  We're in the position of having very willing spirits, but rather weak flesh!

I didn't really expect to trace my church history quite so extensively, but this where this particular meditation took me.  I have learned from all of the people I've encountered in all these places. I've learned to love, to share, to be open to new stirrings of the spirit in the many experiences I've had in these places.  I have seen faithful service modeled for me.  I've been provoked to new ways of understanding scripture by sermons and conversations and study groups.   I've grown in my faith as I've attempted to share and explain it with others, young and old alike.  Evangelism is being discussed right now in a study group that I can't actively participate in, but I'm attempting to follow the conversation.  I think that in my tradition, sharing the good news has been done quietly, subtly, through example, rather than by trumpeting it through the streets.  It's seeped into the pores of my generation and an older generation through osmosis.  That's not enough anymore --- we need to be more blatant, by naming our ministries as evangelism, and by speaking and sharing the WHY of our outreach and service.

My prayer this week is that I am able not only to make the time for this prayer discipline, but that I WANT to make time for it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Just a few thoughts on Bartimaeus

Today's reading is Mark 10:46-52.  This is the story of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus.  Jesus heals his blindness and Bartimaeus responds by following Jesus on the way.  I've read and heard this story before so it's not a new one for me.  But two new thoughts occurred to me.  First, Bartimaues is named and identified, not just as a blind beggar, but as the son of Timaeus.  In fact his lineage is noted before his condition.  Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, is how the verse starts.  That strikes me as significant.   It's a specific person, not just one of many anonymous beggars.  I'm not a biblical scholar, but it seems important that this story is about somebody recognizable. The 2nd thing I noticed is that Jesus did not go to Bartimaeus.  In fact the passage says "Jesus stood still."  Bartimaeus had to physically get up and find Jesus.  Once he got to Jesus, Bartimaeus had to specifically request Jesus to restore his sight.  I hadn't noticed that before --that the one in need had to go meet Jesus, Jesus didn't go find him (or her).

What does this mean for me?  God knows me, wife, mother, daughter, sister, teacher, bookkeeper, friend, individual and recognizable.   God knows where I am, physically, spiritually.  God "stands still" or waits for me, ready to give me what I need.  But before that can happen, I have to go and meet God.  I have to ask for healing.  That sounds simple, but it's not.  What do I need healed?

Actually a third thought has occurred to me.  The very last verse says that "Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way."  I think I've always taken this verse as kind of the "lived happily ever after" kind of ending, but I just realized it's not.  It's one of the key points here.  I may be willing to go to God, ask for healing, but I also have to be ready to accept my healing and follow him on the way.  And that's what makes this all so difficult.

Help me God to be willing to meet you.  Help me ask you for healing.  Help me be ready and willing to follow you.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Discipline

I am trying something a little different this year as a Lenten discipline.  I've been reading Unbinding the Gospel by Martha Grace Reese.  There's a group reading it at church, but I can't make the group meetings. But I bought a copy of the book, and touch base with the group.  They try to post questions and insights to our church's online "chat room" at least occasionally, to include others in the conversation.   This book includes a 40 Day Prayer Journal discipline, and that's what I've undertaken for Lent.  I've asked one of the group participants if she'd be a prayer partner with me, but we haven't worked out the details yet.  As another way of helping me I've decided to use this space as a kind of prayer journal, at least occasionally.  I'd love to say that I'll post every day with my insights or questions, but I know that won't happen.  I think I've carved out time daily for directed prayer discipline, but I'm not sure where the posting time will come regularly.  I'm "blessed" today because I'm home sick (for the 2nd day in a row!).  I've got a wicked sore throat and for 3 days I've had a matching headache.  The headache seems to have finally dissipated, but now I have swollen glands.  A doctor's visit may be on the horizon later today.

Today I read Isaiah 40:10-17, 28-31.  This is passage is a hymn of praise to God and reminds the exiled Israelites that God is the Creator of everything, and that God is the source of strength for all who "wait on the Lord."   The verse that resonated the most with me is verse 11:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

I am not a keeper of sheep, but I am familiar with them (what knitter isn't?).  It's lambing season, and I know that those who have sheep spend long nights and days with their flocks, being ready to help if the ewes have trouble giving birth, keeping track of the lambs as they're born, and making sure that mother and lamb are faring well.  Most of the sheep farmers I'm familiar with have small fields, and during this season keep the pregnant ewes in a fairly small enclosed field with shelter so that they don't wander off and give birth in a well-hidden place.  But I know that in other parts of the world, and in other times, sheep were kept in unenclosed fields and in rocky terrains, and it was easy for them to wander away from the larger flock, and hide to give birth.    This image of God gathering the sheep, carrying them close, and leading the mother sheep is comforting to me, even as a non-shepherd.   God knows me, knows each and every one of us.  We are gathered into God's arms and cared for. A shepherd watches carefully over the flock, provides shelter and protection.  God is our shelter and God will not only watch for us, but will search for us if we are lost.   The question that I'm pondering right now is two-fold:   How is God searching for me, right now?   Why do I keep hiding from God?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Soppy Sunday

It's raining.  That's news because for most of the past 2 months, it's been snowing.  Rain is good.  It means that it's above freezing.  It means that maybe, just maybe, we might see bare ground in a month or so!  My brother down in Virginia keeps posting pictures of crocus.  I look out my kitchen window and see about 2 feet of snow on the level, and driveway plow piles of 5 or 6 feet.  The last 2 days have been warm enough for snow to melt.  Yesterday, the dripping of melting snow hitting the overhang by the door, and the lower roof  in the kitchen, made it sound like it was pouring!  At least my roof is now snow free!

March is usually the start of mud season around here too.  As the snow finally melts away, the ground is saturated, and there is mud everywhere.  Many of the back roads around here are gravel or dirt, so some of them become impassable for a week or two.  I give up trying to keep my kitchen floor clean for about the same time.  (Not that I am know for a spotless kitchen floor!)

It's been a long winter, especially considering the fact that we had no measurable snowfall until Jan.9.  Since then we've officially received 115 inches of it! All since Jan. 9.

So I don't mind that today it's raining, and that it's pretty foggy as the snow sublimates directly to a gas.  I do worry a bit about flooding in some areas.  The lakes are still frozen as is a lot of the ground.  Low-lying areas are prone to flooding, and some of the faster flowing rivers will overspill their banks if the melting occurs at too fast a rate and we get a lot of rain.

On the reading front, I just finished this book:

Mini Shopaholic (Shopaholic, #6)Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every once in a while I pick up something I consider pure fluff, and Sophie Kinsella never disappoints.   Becky Brandon is at it again, this time with 2 year old Minnie in tow.  As a serious economic crisis threatens everyone's financial stability Becky and company embark on an attempt to cut back on expenditures.  For Becky this means a promise not to buy any new clothes until she's worn everything in her closet at least 3 times.  As you might suspect, this puts a serious cramp in her style (pun intended). Minnie is also a real challenge, and her behavior (she's banned from Santa's Grotto) brings "Nanny Sue", a leading child expert, into their home.    At the same time, Becky decides to throw a surprise birthday party for Luke, and of course, keeping it a surprise becomes more and more difficult as word gets out.  I needed something frothy and light-hearted, and the frenetic pace of the novel suited me just fine.

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I've started reading the new biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff.  It's  packed full of information, so it's not a fast read.  I haven't gotten too far yet.  I'll be posting about it later on.

I'm busy with a new knitting project - a sweater from a Family Circle knitting book. I'm almost finished with the back.  I'm using a Valley Yarn, Goshen, in colonial blue.  By the time I finish it, it will end up being a fall sweater.  

I'm looking forward to the rest of today.  My church is joining with the other UCC church in town for a "union" service. Both choirs will sing together, along with a band.  I love when our two churches join together for worship because together we create something new and wonderful.  I'm secretly (and possibly not-so-secretly) praying that we ultimately find a way to join together permanently.  We are both proud and active churches, and each of us has a different style, but we are also both struggling with aging congregations, diminishing congregations, and of course, finances.  There would be all sorts of obstacles to surmount, not the least of which is BUILDING.   And of course, nobody is actually talking about uniting.  But that's my dream.  
The really cool thing is that my church was a church "plant" by the other church back in the early 1800's.  Several members of that church saw a need for a new worship center in another part of the town as the existing church was so far from the population center which had moved since the founding of the church.  So they were commissioned to leave the original church and start a new one three miles down the road!  Wouldn't that be cool to re-unite!