How hard is it, really, to be grateful? How ready are we, to show appreciation, to say “Thank you”—and totally mean it—knowing that without that person, without that experience, we would not be who we are today?

October brings Thanksgiving Weekend for Canadians, and helps turn our thoughts to gratitude. harvest_kitchen2019The second Monday in October, or the Sunday preceding it, is the day we try to get together with family and friends to celebrate with turkey and all the trimmings. For our American family and friends, the last Thursday in November is the great day. And autumn brings the biblical Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot. dining room

Wherever we find ourselves, harvest time offers great reason for gratitude: for what the land has offered us for our nourishment. And for what other nourishment we have been gifted with in the past year and in all the preceding years.

Typically, we give thanks for all the good things. And we’d be a sorry lot, I’d say, if we can’t remember too many. But if it’s hard some days, especially when it’s been a really hard season, that’s understandable. (If we haven’t quite been in a hard season, we’ll get there sooner or later.) For those suffering from Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, for example, gratitude takes on an entirely new dimension. And I think it’s in the hard and harder seasons that we especially need to ask for clarity of vision for reasons for gratitude.

But what about gratitude for the not-so-good things? Is that a possibility? Or do we just feel annoyed about the annoyances, and grieve over the deep losses? Might there be a good reason for having a certain genuine gratitude for those not-so-good things, some indeed very bad things, for what they offer us? (I must be feeling rather comfortable at the moment to even contemplate the possibility of my gratitude for the annoying and even the bad things. I’ll get back to this.)

For this October Thanksgiving season, I’d like to be more intentional about practising gratitude. Entitlement—shoo! Gratitude—hello! I’m thinking I need to invite gratitude into my soul, to be present to what I sense will be exponential reasons for grandly profuse gratitude. So I thought I’d prepare for this season by drafting

A Thank-You Note:

Thank you for the music

(yes, I’m remembering Abba: “Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing / Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. . . .”

Thank you for the music, yes, the Great Music that the Abba song also reminds me of: this Great Cosmic Song that sets our hearts singing with joy. This Music of the Great Cosmic Dance, the Great Cosmic Game that set creation in motion and sustains us all—the glorious song-dance-game in which each of us has a part, where we have our true place, and so discover our true selves. We, individually and corporately, and together with all things, were made for this harmony-in-community Music. I know of no better depiction of this mystery than chapter 17 of C. S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra which I’ve echoed here. Perelandra bookcoverGratitude for the music heightens my sense of hearing.

Thank you for the many tall shoulders

on which I stand. In remembrance, my parents and their parents all down through history. For your love and hard work and countless lessons that have helped shape and support me, then and always. That I got to be part of you. For teachers, for authors, for so many more people of these and other related callings—the Lord God knows you all and I am wanting to remember and honour you. It’s not hard to do so.

Thank you for those who walk

beside me. My family, my friends. My colleagues, my students. My neighbours, members of my community(ies). For your vital presence in my life, for your great wild generosity. For putting up with me when it’s not easy and loving me still. For being yourselves, your beautiful selves, and therefore helping me know what I could not otherwise begin to be and know. You help me to be a pilgrim.

Thank you for sweet nothings

that are not “nothings” at all—but truly great “somethings.” For the steady flow of daily blessings, multitudinous, Heaven-sent. Earth’s gravity never conquers you; it’s more like this: earthly gravity catches and resends Heaven’s streams in ongoing play, ongoing goodness. Would that I’d pay more attention so that my heart might more often leap up in worthy joy. . . . And so may my smiles and laughter increase. May my heart make greater room for the peace that the Lord offers me (John 14:27).

And now, to return to the question of gratitude for the not-so-good, the hard, and the harder. And within the outright terrible. Gratitude for the good, I’m sure, is the fertile ground in which to plant such seed.

But really, gratitude for or within the not-so-good and the outright hard, even terrible—really? How can that work?

Here’s a thought from my years of teaching of The Hobbit with my first-year university students: there is a path that leads from suffering to hope. the-hobbit-1975-238x300

Hobbits, as Tolkien depicts them (and he said he was one himself, which is a consolation to the rest of us who know we don’t look or feel like heroes by a long shot), don’t like to leave their comfort-zones. Even the ones who volunteer for danger do not do so by disposition or by fluke. They do so because something larger than their personal comfort is at stake—friendship, honour, and eventually all of life on Middle-earth. Like most of us, they try to avoid suffering and cannot see what it might have to do with hope.

Bilbo, as we discover, is no classic hero: he is no go-getter, no self-reliant strong man. He seems like a wimp, according to the dwarfs (which is ironic, as it turns out). Bilbo starts off looking rather unheroic but becomes the hero of the story (unconventional, mind you, but I’m getting ahead of myself).`

In The Hobbit, suffering and mortal danger arise quickly, and continue on a grander scale in The Lord of the Rings. In following Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit with my students, I have come to see that what St. Paul talked about in Romans 5:3-4 works like a formula for sojourners who want to travel well, whatever comes their way: “. . . suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” It’s obvious how this becomes true for Bilbo: once suffering hits, again and again, he learns to persevere. (He could quit, but he doesn’t.) As Bilbo perseveres, he develops character strengths previously unknown to him. And increasingly, the once reluctant, even fearful, hobbit grows in soul. He develops surprising resourcefulness, and with every step continues to move through suffering into hope.

Here’s another thought on practicing gratitude for or within the not-so-good, the hard, and the harder things. While I would have wished to have not had specific difficult experiences in my life, in hindsight, I gradually came to realize that I am grateful for the lessons that they have begun to teach me. I wouldn’t want to miss the riches I’ve gained (and am gaining) from the lessons. Lessons like these: “I can’t” gets replaced with “You must” and then “I can”; that I am never alone, never relying on my own strength and wisdom; and that God is to be trusted for bringing greater good out of any situation.

This season of Thanksgiving, I for sure want to rejoice in the Great Good that keeps coming my way. And when the easy becomes hard, then harder, I hope to practice the gratitude I need to do things well. To remember that it’s about “rejoicing in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3)—not because of them, no, but while I’m in these situations—because of the Greater Good that is coming.

Autumn isn’t necessarily seen as a growing season; the harvest is in. Continue reading

bookatsigningtableThe best fairy tales teach us that we live in community, and that we are offered countless gifts to help us on our way. Good magic happens through community.

Brother and sister hold hands, defeat the witch in the forest, and find their way back home again. The ugly duckling, so-called, finds his true identity among the beautiful swans. The girl who journeys to rescue her prince is given golden gifts and is carried by all four winds onto victory. Straw is spun into gold. The brave boy slays the giant and rescues all the knights and ladies.

This week my community created a magical evening to celebrate the launch for my fiction book Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After. Many hands and hearts joined to transform the glass room in the Trinity Western University library into a graceful fairy dream with soft lights, greenery, white tulle, lacy tablecloths, and harp music. whiterosesonlace(This beautiful venue came about through the artistic talent and amazing organization of one dear staff member and her kindly helpers.) Students, colleagues, family, and friends filled the gently lit room overlooking the lake. Family and friends from as far away as California tuned in online. A graduate drove up from Washington State, bringing a bouquet of flowers. Continue reading

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Growing up is really hard to do. And at different stages of our lives, we have a shortlist, maybe a longish shortlist, of what we “must have done,” we imagine, in order to qualify for having “grown up.” As life happens, we adjust the lists. Maybe the “fairy tale dream” gets shelved or just drops off somewhere, possibly irretrievable, or so we think. But the thing with fairy tale dreams is that they tend to haunt us, for better or for worse.

September is a great time for contemplating our current list for what it means to us to have “grown up.” The kingdom of summer might linger a little, at least in memory, as we learn to wave goodbye, often with a tinge of sadness.

Crescent Beach, bye to summer

And with the cooling temperatures of coming autumn we ask ourselves, “How am I doing with my hopes? How do I want to grow this coming year?” And maybe we dare to whisper to ourselves, “What aspects of my fairy tale dream have already happened—and might yet happen?”

As I said in my August blog about my new fiction book, Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After, this is not only the coming-of-age story of Annie for the first 25 years of her life where her grandmother, Omi, chronicles their journey together, this is also the coming-of-age story of Omi. Omi is lucky: not only has she had amazing blessings in her 63 years at which time Annie is born, she gets to forge a close relationship with her one grandchild until she reaches the ripe age of 88, still healthy and hale. Who gets that? (Let’s leave this question and our reactions aside for now.)

At age 63, Omi is definitely in “autumn” when Annie is born but has this extensive season of grace into advanced winter to discover how she has responded to the extravagant gift of life. With each letter she writes she realizes more that she is writing toward her own death. She’s trying to say the things that matter to her while she still can, and say them in such a way that Annie might be able to hear her (at the time and maybe when she is gone).

sunset, bye to summer

So what has this grandmother learned? As an aging senior, definitely well beyond many people’s hills, what does she think she knows that’s possibly worth passing on? How might she ease Annie’s way in life? And how might the act of writing to her beloved Annie help Omi as she contemplates her own long life?

Here are some things that Omi discovers in her coming-of-age story:

Time is an enemy, but also a friend.

If what the best of fairy tale has to offer is in our hearts, as Tolkien puts it, this glimpse of “Joy beyond the walls of the world,” then time can surely feel like the enemy that cuts us off from what, as we feel in our hearts, should never end. Death is that last enemy to be overcome (1 Corinthians 13:26). But time is also this gift which has allowed Omi to grow through her own childhood to young adulthood and far beyond: and now to remember who she was and still is and still wants to become. She is seasoned: she’s fought many battles, she’s won many victories. She has wept and laughed, fallen and danced again, and in the end, in the big picture, can pretty much “call it all good.” Omi knows there is a grace that journeys with us, blesses us, redeems us.

Her story is part of a much larger story.

Omi has had time to consider her own life, and now the life of Annie, in light of the lives of their ancestors: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Through Annie’s promptings, Omi gets to face her own fears and how the larger story of their family legacy continues to speak wisdom into her heart. Omi is not a lone ranger; Omi is a player in this larger story, and if she plays her part anyway half right, learning from her own fears and failures, then, well, courage and hope can rise. There is indeed a baton for Omi to pass along to Annie and doing so the best way she can matters (see Letter 12).

She can’t fix a single thing.

Well, wow, that’s a terrible thought—or is it? Aren’t we supposed to know what to do to make things better? Get smarter? Prevail over confusion? The idea that you can’t fix anything, not yourself, not anyone else, flies in the face of a culture that esteems the “You’ve got this” message. But through Annie, Omi comes face-to-face with all the times she’s blown it, past and present (okay, not all of the times, because who could stand knowing that?). In Letter 17, Annie’s rage brings Omi smack up against her own battles with having been a selfish pig and lashing out in rage. In Letter 23, Omi writes, “One thing I came to learn—and am still learning—is that I cannot fix myself or anyone or any situation. That job belongs to the One who can.”

But instead of “not being able to fix a single thing” being a cop-out, Omi has been learning that good change happens when we look for the grace that covers a multitude of sins. Omi remembers more often now that she can’t make herself better (because she’s “a good person”), that she can’t control situations, that she can’t change people. She’s still learning that in the act of letting go she becomes available to the grace waiting to do its work in her and others.

When Omi is a mess, there is help for her. When other problems arise, Omi isn’t exactly off the hook either—she for sure is a burden-bearer. But she has freedom in the confidence that Great Good is coming. Omi’s maturation includes still learning to release her fear and egotism so that the Great Good that is always coming, as George MacDonald puts it, can have its way with her and with what she and others face (see Letter 32).

Love.

In a world badly hurting and divided, Omi learns love. When all seems to fail, love. When her heart seems broken beyond repair, love. When the happily-ever-after dream seems a dreadful cheat, whether through deception or death itself, love.

Love—really? What is it? humanity has asked throughout time. How do you know it’s love?  

Letters to Annie has been described as “a love letter written for all of us.” Yes, thank you Carolyn Curtis for putting it like that! Because the theme of the book is “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). (Gosh, that famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, bears regular rereading.)

Omi’s coming-of-age story includes these lessons and more. Now that she’s 88, let’s ask Omi our September question: “Are you grown up now?”

Omi smiles a little, with moist eyes, and answers, “Sort of, yes, sure. I like to think so, at least. Man, it’d be pretty awful if I hadn’t learned a thing all these precious years!”

Omi fumbles for words: “But, uh . . . I think you’re asking me if I’m there now, where I wanted to be, at my high age?”

Then she laughs out loud, and says, “And, well, yes. I’ve so much to be grateful for! It’s all been extraordinarily wonderful! I don’t mean, of course, that nothing hard or horrid has ever happened. I hope I’m not lying to you. My memory still serves me rather well, just so you know. . . .

“But, am I there yet? Goodness, that reminds me of when we’re kids and asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ You see, I’m still journeying. Didn’t you know? I ain’t there yet! (Yeah, I still really and totally love slang—in moderation.) I still need to exercise patience and, oh dear, from all I’ve learned, it doesn’t get easier. I’m growing up the best I can, and as the Good Book says, I won’t ‘get there’ until I get to the Other Side. Footnote: when I get there, I have the distinct feeling that I get to start growing up all over again. Boy, am I glad for that! Doing it right, at last, then. . . . Does that answer your question?”

view of sunflower decor 2020

Okay, my hope for readers is this: that the gems from the best of fairy tales can help you to travel better through your own coming-of-age stories. I hope you’ll enjoy rediscovering what you already know and find yet more for your journey!

To learn more about fairy tales, how we share them, their impact, and more, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.

Order Letters to Annie at FriesenPress, Amazon, or through your local bookstore.

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https://monikahilder.com/

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Watch for my October blog: “A Thank You Note.”

“And they all lived happily ever after.”

How do you react to these magical words from fairy tale? Is it delight over this dream from the land of wonder? Or is the gap between such beauty and your own lived experience too painful? And just what does “happily ever after” even mean?

How about this phrase? “He slew the dragon and all was well again”? Or this one: “She was as good as she was beautiful”? Do the fairy tales you know seem to give an impossible and therefore dangerous image of female beauty? Do the damsels in distress seem hopelessly helpless in contrast to their knightly male saviours?

Are these stories indeed sexist, giving females the wrong idea about life (i.e. you should be considered beautiful and remain passive) and males an impossible standard to live up to (“amazing you” can save the girl against all odds)? Perhaps you loved the world of make-believe as a child but shed this fascination along with other outdated childish things as you increasingly came to grapple with the real world? Do the fairy tales leave you cold, even at times angry?

But what if we’ve misunderstood many fairy tales? What if these tales from the land of make-believe are actually about our lives? What if they tell us about things we need to know as we journey along through mishap, strife, broken dreams, weakness, and outright terror? Could it be that the old fairy tales have survived for this very reason, because they are true—more true than the often-stated bare bones description of the human condition: “death and taxes”? So—and it’s a big “So”—if the fairy tales, or the best ones are true (more true than not) how might they inspire, instruct, guide?

Since I was a little girl, first listening to these tales in my mother’s arms, later reading them with my own children, and to this day when I teach fairy tales to my university literature students, these stories fascinate and nurture me. In my experience they point to hope, courage, joy. Rather than finding them disconnected from actual life in some vain never-never-land, the tales speak to me of hard things that happen to us—and how we must persist with courage if we are to overcome. In a world where we all face disappointment, ugliness, and cruelty, these tales show hope, beauty, and victory. Beauty is real. Dragons can be beaten. Hope can become reality.

I’ve written about these things in my newly released fiction book Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After. This book is a love letter from a grandmother, Omi, written to her granddaughter, Annie, for the first 25 years of her life. It’s the coming-of-age story of Annie in which her grandmother chronicles their journey together. It’s also the coming-of-age story for Omi as she ponders life in her senior years, forging a close relationship with her granddaughter, one that helps both generations in personal growth. The two find courage and hope when life seems bleakest. They learn to exercise greater courage, clearer vision, and stronger love.

My hope for readers is this: When your dreams fail, look at your life and the lives of family and friends through the moral and spiritual wisdom of the best fairy tales, Narnian and other fantasy stories that we love. There is surprising wealth there yet to be discovered. I hope that you will enjoy Letters to Annie! I hope that you will find in it just what you might be looking for!

To learn more about fairy tales, how we share them, their impact, and more, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.

Order Letters to Annie at FriesenPress, Amazon, or through your local bookstore.

Sign up to receive my blog posts on my website:

https://monikahilder.com/

Follow me on Social Media:

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Watch for my September blog: “Omi’s Coming-of-Age Story.”

Advent, the season of growing light. The season of growing hope. The season of waiting for the celebration of the birth of Christ—and ultimately, waiting for His Second Coming. A holy time, Advent. But then, every moment is holy, unless sullied or outright desecrated—as Douglas Kaine McKelvey has so beautifully helped us think about in his book Every Moment Holy.

bookcover Inklings & CultureThis Advent, in the midst of my end-of-semester professor’s grading of student papers (all so interesting and worthy), in the aftermath of torrential rains that have recently hammered and flooded parts of my province of British Columbia with a vengeance unimagined by most of us, and just in the midst of a very hurting and divided world, well, I pause to consider a marvellous event that happened last Advent. A space for gratitude. Our Advent miracle. With my wonderful colleagues, Drs. Sara L. Pearson and Laura N. Van Dyke, I co-edited and published a book that saw the light of day this month one year ago! In the midst of many things, the Covid crisis being one of them, this book came to birth in December 2020: The Inklings and Culture: A Harvest of Scholarship from the Inklings Institute of Canada. Twenty-seven chapters from contributors.

(Check out the contributors—a beautiful mix of well-known and new scholars:

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6014-7)

Addressing the famous group of seven: George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers. Five critical appraisals. Much celebration last Advent and ongoing. Our Advent miracle.

And now one year later, what have I learned from working on this book? Some thoughts from our blog in March 2021:

“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a warm, wise, and wide-reaching community to develop a fellowship of scholars like the Inklings Institute of Canada.” 

Oh my, yes. I’m not sure why anyone would wish to try to be a lone ranger. (I say “try” because, I believe, nobody is that in truth.) And again, why would you wish to be a lone ranger (if you could) when all the fun is in being connected with your community locally, nationally, and internationally? And as for this book, I knew with certainty that it would not have come about if my brilliant, kind, and visionary colleagues had not shared the load with me. As for community, wow, this is what the Inklings and friends were all about and this is what we’re all about in the Inklings Institute of Canada. We do community really well! Live events on campus and elsewhere, virtual participation also, conferences, coffee chats, prayers, laughter, sometimes tears, food, stories, music—we do community really well. How else could we get anything done? Anything that we loved doing? Anything that anybody else loved?

“Good things take time, but sometimes miracles accelerate the process.”

Xmas tree at TWU 20191128_165024Amen to that. This book, like all good things, took time. If you tend to impatience, like me, then you’ll know all about that jerking at the tether when things don’t happen according to your preferred schedule. The proper unfolding of events in the twin tether of time and space is not quite our favourite idea. But then, oh, glorious, just when you think something is maybe not going to come about at all (because you’re still struggling with impatience, among other rotten things), the miracle happens. The job is done! And you truly know that the energies invested which you thought were yours solo (lone ranger problem), but were mightily infused with the heavenly source of all energy, and then, ta-da! the perfect opening of doors followed—all this birthed the miracle. In hindsight, it happened faster than you could have guessed. (Meanwhile, the naysayers have all vanished, which is what they should have done in the first place—there’s my impatience again. But let’s remember too: naysayers have their place: they can make you stronger and when that happens you get to prove them wrong. Double-bonus. But don’t get too proud about it. Maybe you can’t quite or shouldn’t say, “I told you so.” But you might whisper, “I’m glad I didn’t listen to you, not very much anyway.”) So YAY, the job is done! Big WOW. And you got to have a part in it—how amazing is that! You end up shaking your head, wondering how you got invited into the grand dance. I love how Madeleine L’Engle once said that every book has its own angel, its own perfect time for appearance. (At the moment, I don’t recall whether I heard it in one of her live lectures or read it.)

“It’s a humbling thing to read the greats and to grapple with their ideas.”

Indeed. Period. Full-stop. And, from that place of looking up—or back down through the ages, as we all stand on very tall shoulders—no doubt about it, we have so much to learn. There is simply so much to learn that enables, enriches, ennobles (I’m running out of alliteration right now, but you get the point). So, yes, let’s do it! Let’s sit at the feet of the greats. Let’s listen with humility. They have so much to say to us that we really do need to hear. They can help change our lives.

“In working on our book, all of us got that much closer to these authors who could speak hope into a hurting and deeply divided world.”

Well, wow. A very big WOW. What can you honestly try to do and say in and to a world that is hurting so much? And that is so deeply divided that many of us, perhaps, are afraid to say anything at all? There’s a whole lot of self-censorship happening today, for all sorts of reasons, so much so that we are numbed at times into believing that there is nothing one can say, perhaps even nothing that can help. But, not true. So not true. These writers never believed that. They exhibited genuine hope. That’s why we’re still reading them today.

You can read our full blog on the book here:

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/news/item/book-in-focus-the-inklings-and-culture-a-harvest-of-scholarship-from-the-inklings-institute-of-canada

Wishing you a Blessed Advent, my friends! Wishing you many snapshots of hope this Advent season!

And remember: God wins. Always. No contest: God wins.

Christmas can be the best of times when we gather with family and friends to celebrate countless blessings, and it can be the worst of times when loneliness and grief seem too great to bear. On this Christmas Day 2020, in this year of starker awareness of uncertainty on our “swiftly tilting planet,” one where the loss of in-person gatherings is more keenly felt, what does the celebration of our Saviour’s birth look like? Perhaps some of us are spending Christmas alone, are ill, are mourning the death of a loved one, or have some other sorrow deeper than we even know?

May this holy day then be one where we draw still nearer to the God who came to tabernacle with us. May we experience His gentle peace, His deep and widening joy in increasing measure. May we be evermore conscious of the sacredness of every moment, every day, because of the riches that the Father has bestowed on us through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Here’s a prayer from the treasure chest that my English 103 students and I experienced this semester:

May you have the courage of Little Daylight in George MacDonald’s fairy tale and dance to your own music in the midst of trial;
May you have the compassion of Daylight’s prince and love with a true heart;
May you have the humility of Felix Moore in L. M. Montgomery’s “Each in His Own Tongue” and be God’s instrument so that others can discover God’s love;
May you, like Elwin Ransom in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, experience the awe of the Lord and grow more courageous;
May you, like some of the people in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Omelas, walk away from what you need to walk away from;
May you, like Bilbo in The Hobbit, resist consumer dragon-sickness and enjoy your life like a “child of the kindly West”;
And may you fight all your battles in the strength of the Lord as you journey through Middle-earth on your way to your eternal home.

As we hold Christmas in our hearts today, and look forward to his Second Coming, let us affirm the prophetic words of Zechariah: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79).

Merry Christmas!

And come what may, have a blessed new year!

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will most likely happen: this weird thing people call “bifocal vision.” When your vision starts going wonky so that your arm isn’t long enough to decipher what’s right in front of you, you need help: you need bifocal glasses.

When it happened to me, it seemed to have happened all at once. From one day to the next I’d apparently gone from fine vision to being unable to read without holding the book farther and farther away (that extensible arm movement which is humorous to behold in others but doesn’t help the blinking, squinting, squirming would-be reader–you.) Yet, with the right glasses, yes indeed, you get to see the short and long view of things again: two realms, near and far.

20201021_182535Bifocal vision marks the end of a youthful era. What has this possibly to do with hope? I suppose leaving one’s youth behind can be a kind of good? (Let’s try to count the ways in which loss also leads to gain.)

Stephen Prickett, the renowned literary scholar, died last week. Full stop.

If you haven’t yet encountered Stephen’s work, this tribute by Jeffrey W. Barbeau is a good place to start.

When a dear friend gave me the news, something in me came to a full stop. Then a kaleidoscope of memories arose. (Isn’t it remarkable how in time all the details of life resound with fuller meaning?) Stephen’s kind email to me this past July. The last thing I probably heard him say to a few of us two years ago. On a frosty November evening walk in Romania, Stephen announced in his perky, cheery way: “The weather is changing. It’s thawing.” Ah, such a simple thing to point out. And in the big picture, so pregnant with meaning.

Frost and thawing. In me, in us, we experience both frost and thawing as we are deeply saddened over Stephen’s passing, and at once also deeply grateful, joyful, for his life and how he impacted us. Frost and thawing, sadness and joyous gratitude overlay one another. I suppose that’s a kind of bifocal experience: feeling two things at once.

unnamed (1)Stephen was the first person who invited me to give a keynote address. It was for Oxford, at C. S. Lewis’s Magdalen College, no less. What?! Me?! Oh, what a marvelous time it was, that Oxford conference by the George MacDonald Society in 2014. (You can read a lot of what we thought and said in the book, Informing the Inklings: George MacDonald and the Victorian Roots of Modern Fantasy.)

I remember how glad Stephen was when I quoted A.D. Nuttall in my paper (“Nuttall hailed Lewis as ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ for having fought and slain one giant of the intelligentsia: the giant of subjectivism.”) Stephen said he’d known Nuttall and he was glad—so very glad, as his warm voice attested, that Nuttall’s work is remembered. And me? Of course, Nuttall’s voice is remembered! How could it not be? But also, it was like my voice had joined the choir. Singing in a choir—there’s nothing like it, really, is there? Your voice gets to join something great and growing greater. Shockingly amazing. How does this happen? My small voice, the multitudinous voices: bifocal vision.

In 2018 I got to sit beside Stephen as we gave keynote addresses for the C.S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits Conference at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iași, Romania. In the brief moments after my address, Stephen swiftly pointed out to me that he disagreed on my point about Christians and the culture wars. We didn’t pick up on this important subject on that busy day, but his candid, friendly remark has sat with me ever since. What had he thought I’d said? What did he disagree with and why? I’d cited folks who’ve spoken to increasing persecution of Christians in the culture wars. Clearly, one can see current culture wars being fought with the perception of Christianity as public enemy number . . . pick a number. My first reaction to Stephen’s brief comment was to disagree, naturally, but the more I thought about it, I began to see what I think he might have meant: culture wars do not result in Christianity? Christianity cannot be fought through culture wars? Political savvy, however important (or not), is not the way to Christ? It helps no one to view Christians as being against the general culture, because in the truest sense it isn’t? On a smaller scale, Christians serve in and vote for any number of political parties for various reasons, obviously.

Stephen properly checked me that day. If only because one thing I’d said could have triggered what I hadn’t intended, or had intended but would need to unpack further in future. I’m so grateful for Stephen’s commitment to courteous dialogue. I keep wrestling with his comment because it helps me to keep foremost what Jesus was so firm about: His kingdom is not of this world. Bifocal vision again: the culture wars where Christians are sometimes targeted; and the kingdom reality that cannot be reduced to culture wars.

unnamedI have another reason for associating Stephen with bifocal vision. Every time I teach George MacDonald, which is a fair bit, I refer my students to Stephen’s comment on this Victorian author. MacDonald, Stephen said, had “bifocal” vision, meaning that he saw two worlds at once, the temporal and the eternal (“The Two Worlds of George MacDonald”).

Brilliant: the metaphor of bifocal vision, the short and long view of things, the now and the beyond—and both at once, neither displacing the other. Yes, MacDonald sees this world so very clearly, in all its beauty, ugliness, and suffering. And the whole time that he’s showing us ourselves and our world he’s also showing us all these things in the light of eternity—how everything might look from God’s perspective: our beauty, ugliness, and suffering taken up by God’s majestic grace and so transformed by forgiveness into redemption. MacDonald never sacrifices one kind of vision for the other.

This kind of bifocal vision is surely the vision of hope. MacDonald even emphasizes that such vision doesn’t come with age in and of itself. Quite the opposite. Proper bifocal vision is tied to childlike wonder. You have to have that open-hearted wonder which we associate with young children in order to properly see. MacDonald qualifies this further by saying that not all children have childlike wonder—it’s truly an attitude of the heart. It grows in the soil of humility, slowly, as we wage war with pride, I think.

Temporal alongside eternal vision gives me hope. Like MacDonald, I can wish to see both worlds at once, which leads to cherishing this world all the more but saves me from despair in the light of the coming one—the coming world which is already, always, mysteriously operating in our present. We are here, now, in earthly fellowship such as it is; and we also belong to the communion of saints that is everlasting. Deep breath!

In her chapter in the forthcoming book, The Inklings and Culture: A Harvest of Scholarship from the Inklings Institute of Canada, scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson writes of authors like MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, and countless others who “intentionally place themselves in . . . a tradition of storied conversation.” They don’t write out of an individualistic vacuum. They join a conversation. Looking ahead to life everlasting, Jeffrey Johnson adds, MacDonald “even dares his reader to read (and to ‘sub-create’) in the eschatological awareness that this ‘cloud of witnesses’ may yet someday be engaged face-to-face.” Oh! Heart-stopping and heart-quickening reality. One day face-to-face with all the company which has gone before us. Reading them now; speaking with them then. The communion of saints in life everlasting, each of us taken up into this fellowship, starting in this here-ness where we live and move and have our being. Bifocal vision: here and there, now and then, both: ultimate hope.

5867So when I walk darkening wintry streets, I want to remember that the weather will change. Stephen’s comment to us that one night also helps me to remember. Frost for a time but not forever. The Great Thaw is coming. The White Witch’s reign is temporary; Aslan will return. And as I walk along I need to see what’s right in front of me as clearly as possible; but I also need to have the long view of life everlasting. The short and the long view—bifocal vision—enables hope.

Maybe it’s only when we can’t decipher what’s right in front of us that we’re more open to bifocal vision correction? And so the short view, clearer, may also enhance the long view?

We salute you, Stephen. We will miss you very much.

Thank you.

“This is a Thanksgiving house,” a niece said one year as we gathered around the hearth and table for our extended family celebration. That warm remark has resonated with me over the years: Thanksgiving, really like Christmas, but without the gift preparations that can truly take a bit away from the sheer joy of it all. And our home a sweet place for such a time—how good is that! But that was then and this is now. As Thanksgiving approaches in Canada this weekend, we’ll be recalling yesteryear celebrations, perhaps trying not to focus on the differences this year brings.

Early morning fog blankets the world. Is it a shroud, like the heaviness that we might feel as we approach a season unlike the festive ones we’ve enjoyed in the past? Or is it a canopy, a soft blanket protecting our memories and our hope?

Sukkah_Italy_1374_Brit-Lib, wikimedia public domainA few evenings ago my immediate family circle celebrated the beginning of Sukkot, the biblical Feast of Tabernacles or Shelters. As we made our preparations, I contemplated again the first time we did so some years ago. I recalled so vividly the wondrous moment when I put my head back and gazed up through the mini-forest of cut bamboo branches decorating our backyard deck: up through the swaying green fronds into the deep blue autumn sky before sunset, and came awake with this startling thought. “So, this is Sukkot,” I pondered. “So this is why the Israelites were to build booths to dwell in for a week. They were to begin to understand this amazing fact: that the God of the universe had come to tabernacle with them, to dwell with them.” And somehow in that split second the cosmos opened in my heart, even more profoundly in that instant than each lovely Christmas year after year. This God, yes, this God has come to tabernacle with us, with me, now, always. Christmas in October—Christmas always.

This year, a cooler Sukkot evening, we brought bamboo branches indoors, and their greenery rose up to the ceiling from which we had hung white lacy curtain fabric. The gauzy netting floated above the dining table, enveloping us as we sat at our meal: we were under a gossamer canopy. Our traditional homemade white paper Christmas stars floated overhead, each cluster ruled by an angel. We named the pink one the archangel Michael (“Michael can handle pink,” someone said), the white one Gabriel. The lights of the crystal chandelier transformed the curtains into a wedding-like bower, a delicate reminder of heavenly presence, even of the Marriage Feast to come.

dining roomMaybe the Lord Jesus really was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. Makes sense. That the God who came to dwell with us would be as precise with His calendar as in all other things. But whether we think of His birth especially on December 25th or in the autumn, let’s focus on the miracle itself: He has come to tabernacle with us, to be with us. No matter what, He is with us in all things, blessing us in the midst of trials, working through all things so that we can enjoy Him forever.

For some of us, this Thanksgiving will be different. For others of us, we have never known a Thanksgiving or Christmas family and friends celebration. Either way, the Lord has come to dwell with us and so make all things well. At this time, in the absence of what we have had before, or have never had, perhaps His presence may be even more keenly felt. That He himself is our Shelter, our Home.

My friends, it’s Christmas in October—and any time—because He came, and that makes all the difference.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every autumn some of us might wonder, “Just how did August become September?” Do you ever whisper to yourself, or want to shout, “I’m a summer child in a winter world!”? Probably all of us take stock of what happened over the summer when September arrives—favourite things we could do, good things not done, and the various challenges and sorrows that have come our way. What are we taking with us into this fall season? The sweet along with the sad, always. (“Autumn” does sound so much better than “Fall,” but words can only do so much).

How are we all doing on this “swiftly tilting planet” (as Madeleine L’Engle entitled one of her novels)? How much more perplexity, confusion, unrest, and outright chaos can we take? Will need to take? Do you hear more sirens in your neighbourhood too? (Another siren just went off as I’m writing and is getting louder. And from different sources I’m hearing that the stats on domestic violence and drug use, are up, up, up.) How palpable is the worry, fear, even rage that you encounter? That you struggle with yourself? How are you coping? Maybe let’s just switch the topic. Enough bad news.

The other day I again raked leaves from our big maple tree in the front yard. Large orangey leaves, dry, crackly: beautiful still in their descent onto the driveway, the lawn. What a joy—after something like a week of thick smoke from the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington State layering our region, so acrid that you couldn’t open windows—a new afternoon of blue skies and sunshine. A wonder. Thank God for autumn rains! Children playing on scooters in the neighbourhood. Folks going for walks. An older sister pushing the stroller, her mother following. High schoolers traipsing home, talking loudly. Raking leaves is for me a delightful respite from other tasks, tasks also delightful in their different ways.

20170906_184515A line from Laura Ingalls Wilder rings true: “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things in life which are the real ones after all.” And I wonder, in this season of approaching harvest, which sweet, simple, splendid harvest fruits might we notice? Enjoy? Sure, we count what we have lost, and must, but what might we have also gained?

I recall the young mother outside our local grocery store a few weeks ago, quietly coaxing her three young children into a shopping cart. Her voice was gentle, protective, and firm: “No, you’re causing a problem for other people. They don’t want you to come around them.” This mother’s shopping cart solution to the “problem” that the existence of her children pose to some sits with me. An older woman had walked out of her way to avoid this family, looking, it seemed to me, displeased and possibly fearful of catching the infamous virus. Case in point. So much has changed—or is it just that our circumstances only more clearly show our condition? What then is our gain?

How therefore do we do life in this new season? How do we deal with the little annoyances and the bigger bad news? How do we become and remain resilient, human, in such a time as this? Is it really true that the tough times, lived well, can make you stronger? I’m reminded of this idea by a sign in my herb garden: “Where there is struggle, there also is strength.” Perhaps what we need to do is salute all who have gone before us, many of whom have endured great trials, some beyond our imagining, and pray for similar courage and faith for whatever lies ahead. Perhaps pray for a double portion of their strength since many of us need to exercise muscles we didn’t know we had.

20200427_085129-1Meanwhile, as we’ve been wisely told, take one day at a time, one moment at a time. And count the joys, keep counting the joys, as we go.

In my basket of gratitude I see things like

  • Gales of laughter over a silly joke (the joke fades from memory but the laughter shared rings on in our hearts);
  • Kindness smiling in a passerby’s eyes, all the brighter when so many avoid eye contact altogether;
  • The greeting on a closed theater’s sign: “Be calm. Be kind. Be safe.” (so much more compassion in this world than I’d noticed in “normal” times);
  • People beginning a professional email with the hope that I am well, followed by another email beginning with gladness to hear that I am well (and exclamation marks in professional emails are, yes, noticeable!);
  • Humongous red and white impatiens flowers that spell welcome at a friend’s door;
  • Sunday evening home-cooked dinner, with candlelight too yet, experienced even more deeply, with a greater sense of awe that we are alive and together this day;
  • Being able to go to church on-line, greeting everybody with a typed phrase or two;
  • Chatting and praying over the telephone with a dear friend who lives over 3,000 kilometers away (and just knowing that she made butternut squash soup from scratch the other day warms my heart);
  • The cheerful IT fellow patiently helping me use the tools I need when I’m stuck, as often as I ask, ever patient and kind;
  • Creating new classroom communities this semester via Zoom technology, all of us giggling when one of us in a region far away says it’s so cold at 26ᵒ Celsius the same day that another of us elsewhere on the continent is cheering that summer has returned at 22ᵒ Celsius!;
  • Talking about George MacDonald’s fairy tale “Little Daylight” with my students, experiencing how their somewhat hidden “oh no, another princess-meets-prince fairy tale—so not true!” response changes to “This is different! Cool! Love isn’t about appearance, but. . . .”

Little DaylightWith this basket full of autumn joys, I’m thinking more about how MacDonald’s Princess Daylight, who in spite of the evil spell that was put on her, is “dancing to her own music.” In the end, evil is overcome, as it always is. But here’s the thing: how important it was for Daylight in the long meanwhile of suffering to dance to her own music as much as she could. No, she wasn’t always dancing, but as much as she could dance she did—perseveringly, repeatedly, joyfully. Some days she was just plain too worn and decrepit to dance, and the only thing to do was sleep and, more than that, especially when sleep didn’t come, wait.

MacDonald really got this right. The curse can’t necessarily reach your heart; and we should guard our hearts against its force. But we need to choose to rejoice. No matter what happens to us, we’ve got to celebrate the precious moments of the precious days that we’ve been given. (For how long or short our days, we leave to Heaven.) Keep dancing to our own music through the brief and also the enduring trials. Remember that good always has that miraculous way of bringing even greater good out of evil—and we want to be ready to revel in this greater good when it comes. Meanwhile, we practice: we dance and keep dancing through it all, as best we can. Like Daylight under all the many silvery moonlit nights, we dance when we can.

20170929_140840This autumn I could pray for a double portion of courage and faith. That’d suit me fine to get it. But right now maybe I’ll just ask for an outbreak of sanity in my own heart, in this hour, on this day. Start where I am. Maybe that’s how to get ready to receive more courage, more faith. And when I can, which is most likely oftener than I suppose, I’ll dance to my own music, celebrating all things bright and beautiful.

P.S. My music? Well, actually, if it’s anything like half right, it’ll be my way of dancing to that Great-Music-Like-No-Other which heals the world—not really mine to tell the truth, but also mine when I make it so.

P.P.S. My friends, let’s revel in the blessings.

(One more tinier P.P.S. Did you spot my paraphrase of a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost?

These words by George MacDonald in the novel Phantastes always challenge me: “Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love” (ch. 10).

phantastesSorrows’ Doors—the portal to deepest truth, deepest joy? What thresholds must I overcome to agree with MacDonald? Suffering, sorrow—this we try to avoid, at all cost, do we not? But that Sorrow is the very doorway I must pass through in order to enter Joy? And therefore should I succeed in avoiding it, or rather ignoring it, I would miss what I most long for? Is the Victorian author right to insist, “As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows”?

This past week I visited my university campus for the first time since its closure mid-March to retrieve some needed books from my office. My day’s experiences brought me closer to this sweet sadness, to this “linger[ing] with Sorrow for very love” that MacDonald speaks of. I lingered over the moments for the love of times past, present blessings, and future hopes. These are some of the snapshots.

Under grey skies I spot a lone colleague walking under the Japanese cherry tree lane, no longer in bloom. This spring is the first that I didn’t see the blossomy extravaganza in person; in other springs my students would act out scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream under their pink canopy, sometimes climbing into the lower branches, laughing with Shakespeare. I wait as my colleague approaches and we speak of the heaviness that we and the whole world shares, even the sheer emotional toll of uncertainty as countries begin to navigate emerging from lockdown after this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our smiles don’t lessen the enormity of things but perhaps make them just that much easier to bear. A little lightening of the load can go a long way. Then he unlocks the doors to our building with his key (I haven’t missed not having one until today) and we part to our separate offices. I call Campus Security to let them know that they don’t need to come to help me out.

Trinity Western University, Spring 2017

As I walk the empty halls tears rise, close to spilling. The weight of grief over the near vacant campus is tangible—our collective memories of life “Before” are here, everywhere, where we are not. The only footsteps I hear are my own. I peer through the window into the classroom where I taught my last face-to-face class on March 12th. There is a half-full bottle of Pepsi in our department fridge. Outside my office door is our beautiful poster for the event that didn’t happen on March 30th: “Celebrating Creative Writing in Community: An Inklings Institute Coffee House event.”

I stop before another dear colleague’s closed door. Her carefully chosen words on her Sabbatical poster remind me of her dedication to the Lord, to her calling, and to us:

rest · research · write · pray · travel · grow
∼ a seventh year of rest ∼

Her colour postcard of an aisle in the Bodleian Library draws me into the realm of soft daylight streaming over old world bookshelves and quiet study spaces. Ah, the Bodleian—Oxford, itself. I was there; I am here; I may be there again; and the longings that all these memories and desires stir will be ever with me. In sweet sadness, I am filled with gratitude.

In the outer foyer to my office area I pause before the poster of our Theatre Department, as I always do, and mourn a little more about their last play that we couldn’t see: The Tempest, March 17 – 28. The image is of a girl on a headland looking out over a sinking ship. I reread the caption: “Lost on a mystical island, revenge lurks in the shadows. Nothing is quite what it seems.” Those words strike me with prophetic force. Words composed Before; words so poignant Now. We, this tempest, these shadows … revenge? Mystical things? Indeed, “Nothing is quite what it seems.” We’re in a cloud of much unknowing. (The Tempest is one of my favourite plays. I recall seeing 85-year-old Canadian actor William Hutt’s farewell performance as Prospero in Stratford, Ontario in 2005. Marvelous! Later, at home, in my copy of the play I find a golden bookmark with these words: “God is the King of all the earth; sing to Him a psalm of praise. Ps. 47:7.”)

I meet with many local colleagues over a Zoom chat where we learn more about what further technology we might use in the coming semesters. We are greatly helped; we are not lone rangers.

After some time in my office, footsteps down the hall. A live person! Which colleague?! Three doors over from me, kitty-corner, we greet each other. “Brother!” I call out, as I’d hardly do on so-called ordinary days. But these are not so-called ordinary days, as we are all very much more aware. Without missing a beat we extend arms for a potential hug, at least six feet apart, of course. Later, when I’m stumped on a computer question, I hesitate, then knock on his door. Smiling broadly, with characteristic cheer, he comes, and moments later, the technical question is clear. And soon I’m on my Zoom call with about 75 colleagues all over North America.

Here, all at once, in all the time zones, we gather. I see friends. I see and hear folks I’ve only met through email. We’re together, we’re a community—we’re part of the Body of Christ that is forever and ever. Nothing, nothing, can change that. We begin with a Scripture reading, and as I gaze at the many faces from many places in their offices and homes—Indiana, Texas, Arizona, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and more—tears of glad joy rise, close to spilling. Our key organizer comments, “The best work happens in collaboration.” Oh yes, yes, and yes. And what drew us and draws us together? It’s no surprise, is it, that it’s C. S. Lewis, his writings, his faith vision, and ultimately, the Lord Christ? (If you want to learn about this group, contact the CS Lewis Center)

Lingering at Sorrow’s doors has its place. There we might discover how well-connected and supported we are by our many fellow pilgrims. There we might discover old things that we took for granted and have not lost. There we might remember the new things that we want to participate in. There we might renew the gratitude that is perhaps the one threshold we need to cross, the one which leads us into the deepest truth that is always deepest joy.

May it be so for us in the days ahead: Sorrows’ Doors opening to deepest Joy.

Take good care, friends.