IT ALL STARTED WITH A LONELY ONION. My family had travelled to a theme park for spring break and was staying in a 1970 rental nearby. As I was preparing a pasta soup for dinner that first night, I was trying to chop an onion, well, hew an onion. Like most rentals, the kitchen utensils were cheap, meaning no one would ever take them home, thus my dilemma. First off, my knife wouldn't cut straight, so rather than cut through the onion, the knife was trying to make a circular slash. Yes, the knife. Not me. I had to start sawing. I had really wanted to dice an entire onion to start my soup but barely got a third sawn off. Now to dice. Needless to say, I had already spent fifteen minutes. Mind you, diced onion was just the first ingredient. I began to slice and individually cut each piece simply because that knife couldn't handle any more. Sometimes, just sometimes, when something simple in my life takes such effort, I ask the Lord what is going on.
My frustration came down to two things—a dull tool and a vital flavor.
These are things that hinder and help, and I began to consider them both. I asked the Lord if I had any dullness. Was there something He had given me that I had left alone? Was there anything that I was trying to do without Him? I didn’t want to be the one who hid her gold talent in the ground because I was afraid to try [Matthew 25].
For everyone who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away.
This was two years ago, and the first hints of writing were working in my heart even then. It was time to act, to do. Please, God, let me be faithful with my small amount.
And then there’s flavor. How could I make soup without flavor? became Does my life have flavor? Is it truly fruitful? In Matthew 13, Jesus told them another parable:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches. He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.
Mustard seeds and yeast. Flavors that grow.
God’s kingdom is just that, an entire kingdom. It has everything we have need of, every resource, every bit of His goodness for us. EVERYTHING. And the kingdom’s nature is to multiply. In Luke 17, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is within us. My prayer, my trust, is that Christ in me is multiplying and leading me in fruitfulness.
ARISTOTLE MAY HAVE GOT IT RIGHT. His emphasis on logic allowed him to view slaves and slavery, men and property owners, more rationally and compassionately than any other leader. This single topic of his time shows us a broad yet thorough picture of how true reasoning works and works fairly.
The concept and practice of enslaving other peoples has existed for centuries. In most ancient societies, slavery was not only custom but also necessity. Without this foundation of labor, the very structure of early societies could fail. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that slavery was a necessity, and it could be either just or unjust in practice; yet he also acknowledged that rational slaves could have souls (which begs another question of course) and deserved to be freemen. This seeming discrepancy points to his growing awareness of slavery’s issues and perhaps his perspective of man. In Politics, Aristotle himself questions whether a man can be destined to be a slave at birth: But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave . . . or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? (1.1254a). I appreciate this last question the most. Aristotle is not a man set in his ways nor is he firmly cemented in popular thought.
Aristotle felt that a man’s natural tendencies, even inherited ones, could lead him to be ruled, one who naturally was subjected. However, he did see an exception to this “natural” slavery; essentially, he qualified his own proposition because subjection might have been true for some, but not for an entire peoples and not for those who didn’t choose it. Aristotle conceded, for example, that it was unjust to enslave through war those who were not slaves by nature (1.1255a). He even termed the conquering of others for this purpose a “great evil” (7.1333b) because conquered peoples were being forced into something they weren’t born to. Aristotle did see the injustice of this single form of slavery.
Could it be true? If slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Yet Aristotle also insisted that slavery was a natural, expected, and just foundation for a living society, for some should rule and others [should] be ruled (1.1254a). Typically, this same community required slaves, ministers of action, to function. Since they were his property, his possession, slaves were the means by which a master secured his livelihood (1.1253b). Aristotle saw slavery as just when the rule of master over slave was beneficial to both parties. He even allowed that they could share in friendship (1.1255b). Here, then, is where Aristotle concedes again that a slave might not truly be a slave by nature. They could have souls like rational men, unlike beasts of burden, since they were capable of friendship and considered part of the master (Ibid). The discrepancy lies in that they had to be rational in order to obey their masters. But if slaves had rational minds, then they would not be natural slaves and thus, using Aristotle’s reasoning, should not be enslaved.
Though Aristotle clearly advocated slavery in his time, he acknowledged his opponents’ arguments, too. If slavery was a violation of nature as others had proposed, then the distinction between slave and freeman exist[ed] by law only, and not by nature and was also declared unjust (1.1253b).
Since Aristotle allowed for such considerations, maybe by his generalization there couldn’t be one applicable definition for all slaves nor could there be an absolutist view of the issue. Aristotle could see that some slaves, a portion, were rational men, but he couldn’t apply that reasoning to all as a group. He could not allow for all slaves to be men, for that would destroy the infrastructure of his ideal community, the polis.
THIS TIME OF YEAR seems to both sadden me and lighten my heart. In the school year, I grow sad because I realize that my time of influence with my students is even shorter. Only months remain, not an entire school year. Yet, I'm grateful for a two week reprieve. Not seeing each other for a time does help us appreciate each other more. I get to be a full-time mom in person for more than a few hours at a time. I'm not thinking of work to-do lists, which parent to call, which student to encourage, which grade to update, which novel to reread, which meeting to attend, which article to prepare. In the natural, my focus shifts. I have a feeling many of us have these halfway points whether in the course of the natural calendar, the work world, or in the spiritual sense.
So what is it that makes a halfway point so poignant?
First, it's a blend of a sense of accomplishment and an understanding that more remains to be done. For me, I become thankful. Yes, I can see that more work lies ahead, but I can also see that some things have come to completion, and it's not because of me. My accomplishments are not my own because I am God's creation, and He is working through me. "But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works" (Psalm 73:28). In Hebrew, this word work means something that God has made or done. This is the same word used in the Genesis account, things that are created like ourselves. In the same way, as His created, we "bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:22). We praise Him for for what He has created, that's us, and we praise Him for the works He creates through us. Psalm 90:17 reiterates this: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Another way to read this within the context of the Hebrew meaning is "Let the beauty of God be upon us, and let the active work of our God be firm in us, so that our active work would be firm as well." It's really a simple idea. As I walk with God, the act of creation through my hands is like His act of creation. I am creating and working because I am in His image. And I am thankful that He chooses me to create and work.
Secondly, this halfway point is poignant because I have time to reflect. If I truly reflect—turn back and look again—I will hopefully see both my successes and failures and even moments that are neither. James 3: 13 asks "Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom." In the Greek, work here means work that completes an inner desire or purpose. I hope I'm honest with myself, especially in the meekness category. I admit that my reflection often turns negative, yet that doesn't imply something horrible or discouraging. These are moments to renew purpose especially if the fall semester didn't go as I had hoped or planned. I intentionally think of which students I have truly helped, where relationship is strong, and yet I now have the time to consider how to better help those I didn't connect as well with. I'm often disappointed with myself for things I've said or situations I didn't handle with wisdom, but I know I'm learning alongside my students, and God is with me. As I reflect, I once again grow thankful.
And that may just be my point. I'm only halfway. Things aren't finished. I'm unfinished, but I'm thankful. "I give thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart . . . On the day I called, you answered me, my strength of soul you increased . . . for the Lord will fufill his purpose for me. Do not forsake the work of your hands" (Psalm 138:1,3,8).
originally posted December 2016
1656. THREE WIVES, BLINDNESS, PRISON, AND AN EPIC.
Before Milton went completely blind, he married his second wife Katherine Woodcock, the love of his life. She died, also in childbirth, less than fifteen months later, and her daughter lived only a month. Milton still had three school-age daughters to care for, yet he spent his time writing for Cromwell and for himself. By 1658, however, Cromwell died. His son was unable to rule, and Charles II was restored to the throne. Milton's life was in very real danger now because of the propaganda pamphlets he had written for the Cromwell administration, and he was imprisoned for three months.
In the meantime, his spoiled girls were in need of discipline and attention, so in 1663 amid his daughters' protests, Milton married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull. It was a marriage of convenience. Milton was independently wealthy by this time and could provide a stable home while Elizabeth could care for his girls so that he could have freedom to both tutor students and write without interruption. According to letters at the time, Milton would compose parts of his epic in his mind before he slept, and upon waking, would recite entire passages of blank verse to his aides and secretary. In that manner, all of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (1671) were written. From the time he was a teen until now, he had determined to write an epic and he did. Fifty years in the making, Paradise Lost remains one of the most eloquent and lush features of the English language.
Of True Religion and Poems, &c. upon Several Occasions were published in 1673. In summer 1674, the second edition of Paradise Lost was published in twelve books, two more than the first. Milton died peacefully of gout in November, 1674, and was buried in the church of St. Giles, Cripplegate. His funeral was attended by "his learned and great Friends in London, not without a friendly concourse of the Vulgar." A monument to Milton rests in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.
*post originally published December 2016
No, there's no such thing as husband poetry. I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Bronte poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Bronte sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do? Consult with your English teacher wife of course. As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem, sweetie? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required skills or genius of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to. Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton. This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level. Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATION
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples AND include their commentary on how the poem works and what it means. So, so helpful to learn from their wealth of experience. Brooks also has his own poetry textbook titled The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Though I haven't read it yet, it comes with high reviews.
And as a bonus, read Dwight Longenecker's essay "Why You Need Poetry." He provides much needed motivation for why poetry benefits our minds, ourselves, as a creative outlet.
Romans 1:9-12 (CJB)
For God, whom I serve in my spirit by spreading the Good News about his Son, is my witness that I regularly remember you in my prayers; and I always pray that somehow, now or in the future, I might, by God’s will, succeed in coming to visit you. For I long to see you, so that I might share with you some spiritual gift that can make you stronger — or, to put it another way, so that by my being with you, we might, through the faith we share, encourage one another.
In verse 11, Paul simply says sharing our spiritual gifts make us stronger. In verse 12, Paul says his presence, that is being together and being of the same faith, encourages us.
We share our faith. We share our gifts with each other. We are strengthened. We are encouraged.
When I shared this message in our school chapel, I asked the littles on the first few rows how we encourage one another. One girl said she could offer a compliment, like how she liked my hair. A second grader said we could play together. I then asked how we can encourage someone who is sick or sad. One student said we could wait and then ask them to play when they feel better! It seems that play time is important, or I would add time together is.
In Romans 2, Paul speaks of a circumcised heart. It’s a heart that is actively listening to God, soft and responsive, not hard like Pharoah’s. It’s set apart for God, dedicated wholly to Him. It longs for what He longs for, and it is why I think we are able to encourage one another and respond to one another as He would.
Growing up, I would describe my older sister and myself as bookworms. In the summer, I brought home twenty books a week! Or at least, I think it was twenty. Once I was able to read chapter books, we could share and compare books. We both brought home stacks from our school libraries. Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Narnia, Hardy Boys. I even binged my way through every Louis L’Amour in my junior high school library.
One afternoon I brought home a new Hardy Boys and left it on my bedroom desk for after chores and dinner. But when I returned to grab it, it was gone! I was positive I had left it on the school bus until . . . my sister emerged from her room with it. I reacted immediately in anger, with a flare of injustice I’m sure, and we promptly began a tug of war. In Hebrew react means to answer by hitting back or striking with words. I know I chose sin in that moment, and I am sure I sinned more than once with my mouth and my actions before our mom intervened. My heart was not responsive to God but quite hard.
In Hebrew, the word respond is hinneni or hinnen meaning “here I am.” It shows a yielded heart.
Consider young Samuel as a boy serving Eli the priest in the temple. In I Samuel 3:3-4, The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” Samuel did not act in fear or react in emotion.
In Exodus 3, Moses saw the burning bush. I’m sure he was stunned in the moment and possibly fearful. When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
And after all the consequences Isaiah declared to Israel, he may have been weary and could easily have been embittered, yet he responded in Isaiah 6:8, And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Yes, response is a choice, and yes, we won't always choose well. But I do want to choose what God would choose for me because I trust Him. I trust His love for me. I choose to respond instead of react to people and things because I want to keep a soft heart, one that listens to Him every part of every day.
A man of the theatre . . .
It was a classic when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Life of Shakespeare is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage.
Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming: “William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather.”
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
. . . he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which . . . were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.” He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
*Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
OBEDIENCE IS A SERIOUS THING. The Book of Judges clearly speaks of an absolute obedience that brings peace and blessing. In Judges 2:1-4 and 6:8-10, God sent both an angel and an unnamed prophet to remind the Israelites that they had not obeyed His voice. What a distinction! Obedience is not just about obeying the laws or rules—it’s about hearing God’s voice.
True, the laws that God gave His people are His voice at this time, along with His messengers, but would the people listen and walk in His way as their fathers had? (2:22). Previously in Deuteronomy, Moses explained that God’s law was no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land (32:47). Think of that. Your very life. But His people were forgetful and many times did not choose to listen, to follow, to obey.
Whenever a judge arose who was aware of God’s covenant and who led the people in hearing and obeying God, the people enjoyed peace in the land for a few years or even forty. Consider Gideon. Although he was timid in personality and quite unsure of himself at first, Gideon was able to obey God. Yes, he was the least of the least, and yes, he questioned God's angel, but once he truly knew God was speaking to him, he obeyed. What mercy. God allowed Gideon to question. God gave him time. God even allowed Gideon to test Him twice, and most amazingly, God equipped Gideon to bring deliverance to His people, for the Spirit of the Lord clothed and covered him (6:32). It's almost as if once he knew he was chosen, once he knew without doubt that God was with him, then Gideon was able to choose obedience with ease.
But Gideon wasn't the only one. Once God's angel appeared, Manoah and his barren wife obeyed God, followed the Nazirite vows, and were blessed with the birth of Samson and his siblings (16:31). Here, Samson was raised with a purpose--to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (13:5).
Yet Samson was far from obedient. He lied, murdered, retaliated, wreaked vengeance, manipulated, and contaminated, yet God was with him. Mercy again. He was destined from before conception to save Israel (13:5), and God used him as a tangible show of strength and power to weaken the Philistines and strengthen the Israelites. But Samson may not have fulfilled the breadth of God’s plan because of his poor choices (eating from a carcass and making himself and his parents ceremonially unclean, entanglements with three Philistine women, et al). These choices and others impacted his effectiveness—twenty years of peace versus forty or more (16:31).
Most of all, I wonder if this mutt mix of obedience, forgetfulness, and sin symbolized his own people. Like them, He did not know that the Lord had left him (16:20) until too late. What could he have done, how could God have used him if Samson had wholly obeyed by hearing God's voice for himself?
originally published November 2016
MOST OF MY STUDENTS would like to do other things than read a few chapters of required reading of an evening. For any literature teacher, what’s worse is that they can easily find free poem, chapter, novel, and play summaries with great ease online. After all, summaries are so much shorter, aren’t they?
So one of my first tasks of the year is to appeal to their integrity with a lesson from the Psalms. Let’s start with this. If I read a summary of a chapter in the Bible, what do I lose? Consider Psalm 23. This version comes to us from Shmoop:
The Lord (God) acts as a shepherd to the speaker. He makes sure the speaker isn't lacking any necessities. The Lord takes the speaker to peaceful and relaxing places, like green fields and calm waters. He also tends to spiritual well-being, making sure that the speaker stays on the right path. . . . This happy state of affairs will continue for the rest of the speaker's life, and beyond. He doesn't ever plan to leave the protection of his host and shepherd.
It’s a summary alright, but where’s the richness? Where is the personal sense of me being the sheep? Adonai is my shepherd. He’s not a neutral speaker unless David somehow knew of political correctness. What happened to vivid verbs like leads, guides, refreshes, comforts? With David, I feel the certainty of his prayer. Adonai prepares a feast before me publicly in the presence of my enemies. How is that a happy state of affairs? Does the summary even capture the essence, the flavor, the mood of David’s perspective? I am anointed by God, and his love and goodness practically chase me. I know like David that I can abide with God, dwell with Him. Not leaving his protection sounds so shallow.
This type of example is simple and clear. It's more than a matter of wording. It's as if the summary reduces not just the number of words but the intention and truth behind them. The experience of reading the word of God simply cannot be redacted or it's no longer reading the word.
In the same way, the experience of reading literature is just that—an experience. Shortcuts cheat us. The wealth of reading remains with us just like living moments do. Reading allows us to walk through, to live beside, to express, to imagine within the lives of others.
OR WHY WE SHOULD SEE LIVE PERFORMANCES. Yesterday, our entire high school of 125 students and a handful of teachers saw Thornton Wilder's play Our Town at a local university, free I might add. For a play written in 1938, it is indeed a snapshot of its time approaching mid-century America post World War I and the Great Depression. After a country had seen so much loss of life and the loss of quality of life, it was no wonder that a certain hopelessness invaded the story. In essence, Wilder simplistically depicted the passing of time in the place and people of Grover's Corner, Americana.
Yes, Americana. It is predictable and normal and mundane, and the characters are every bit flat and stereotypical. But that's intentional. Surely all of us can identify with the bright student, the champion baseball player, the town drunk, the mom who makes thousands of meals in her lifetime.
When I asked some of my students about the performance and story, I heard some unexpected things. "Mrs. Norvell, I didn't like it. There wasn't any real hope, not in a spiritual way at least. I mean, I get the message from the cemetery people, like appreciate the present and the details in life, but it felt so hopeless. Like, do the dead people just forget everything, and that's it?"
And that is why such a performance is critical. Here this young man observed, not read, that a REAL hope was absent. Here he discerned the apathy of an atheist or the absence of eternity. And I think he fairly questioned the wisdom of such lives, living without hope in God.
This live performance did more than just bring life to the imagination. The experience itself brought a reality to bear because it cemented his personal belief that his choice of Christ was indeed the way, the truth, the life, not some vague hope that things would just work out.
Yes, I realize that Wilder was both praising the simple life and criticizing America. I know he hoped to turn his audience to living an appreciated life, but he missed something. In 1956, the Paris Review published an interview with the Pulitzer prize winner. Wilder admitted that most of his plays and novels dealt with one or two ideas. The most dominant one was his
unresting preoccupation with the surprise of the gulf between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast stretches of time and place in which every individual plays his role. By that I mean the absurdity of any single person’s claim to the importance of his saying, “I love!” “I suffer!” when one thinks of the background of the billions who have lived and died, who are living and dying, and presumably will live and die.
Wilder was and is right. Perspective is necessary. Unselfishness is a virtue. But maybe he lost sight of the individual, the one created in God's image and the one created for eternal life, in the midst of the crowd of common men.