My Favorite Fiction Part 4: Stepping Heavenward by Mrs. E. Prentiss

stepping-heavenwardAs I prepared to write this fourth installment of my favorite fiction, I took a well-worn copy of Stepping Heavenward off my shelf and read the words written inside the cover. “Presented to Amanda Barber on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, April 9, 2000.” Thirteen years later, I am still so glad my sister and her husband decided to give this little volume to me. I don’t recall how many times I’ve read this book, but it has been many more than twice. Written by Elizabeth Prentiss, the same woman who penned the hymn “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” Stepping Heavenward is the diary of young Katy and her spiritual journey. Katy begins her diary at age sixteen and often ruminates about what it means to be a Christian. She struggles with the tension between her natural desires for a smooth life, unwrinkled with troubles, and the Christian life which usually involves trouble and self-denial. She wants all of the Christian’s virtue without experiencing the trouble and suffering and self-discipline that bring about the fruits of the Spirit. She writes, “Somehow I have been behaving quite nicely lately. Everything has gone on exactly to my mind. Mother has not found fault with me once, and Father has praised my drawings and seemed proud of me. He says he shall not tell me what my teachers say of me lest it should make me vain…We are all very happy together when nothing goes wrong.”

Ah, but things do go wrong, don’t they? And Elizabeth Prentiss’ theme throughout this book is that spiritual growth only happens through the suffering that God sends to prune us and make us more fruitful. The second and third verses of her well-loved hymn are enlightening.

Once earthly joy I craved, Sought peace and rest;

 Now Thee alone I seek, Give what is best;

This all my prayer shall be:

 More love, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work, Send grief and pain;

Sweet are Thy messengers, Sweet their refrain,

When they can sing with me:

More love, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

As Katy grows older, marries a doctor and bears children, we see her gradual transformation from silly little school girl who must have nearly perfect circumstances to be happy in life, to mature wife and mother who learns to accept everything that comes to her as a gift from God. After two months of marriage, Katy’s father-in-law and spinster daughter come to live with the newlyweds. Father is gloomy and dour. Martha is grim and efficient. The two stay on with Katy and her husband for the next several years. Their personalities grate on Katy and bring her bad traits and character flaws into the light. Throughout her married life, Katy experiences the joys of love and all of its disappointments.  Years later, Katy says about marriage, “Happiness, in other words love, in married life is not a mere accident. When the union has been formed, as most Christian unions are, by God Himself, it is His intention and His will that is shall prove the unspeakable joy of both husband and wife and become more and more so from year to year. But we are imperfect creatures, wayward and foolish as little children, horribly unreasonable, selfish, and willful. We are not capable of enduring the shock of finding, at every turn, that our idol is made of clay and that it is prone to tumble off its pedestal and lie in the dust till we pick it up and set it in its place again.”

Suffering bouts of ill health and the deaths of loved ones, Katy’s love for God grows. Her last entry includes this paragraph, “It was the personal love of Christ of which my precious mother so often spoke to me, which she often urged me to seek upon my knees. If I had known then, as I know now, what this priceless treasure could be to a sinful human soul, I would have sold all that I had to buy the field wherein it lay hidden. But not till I was  shut up to prayer and to study of God’s word by the loss of earthly joys, sickness destroying the flavor of them all, did I begin to penetrate the mystery that is learned under the cross. And wondrous as it is, how simple is this mystery! To love Christ and to know that I love Him—this is all!”

I think we all know in our heart of hearts, that spiritual growth requires pain. After all, we begin our lives as Christians by nothing less than dying. We never stop dying, really. We die to our desires when God doesn’t  grant them. We die to our hopes when they never come to pass. We loosen our clutches on the outcome of our lives when God shows us for the umpteenth time that the control we think we have is a mirage. With each new death, comes more trust in God, more willingness to undergo trials and pains and disappointments if they will only teach us to love Him more.

Though I’m not married with children, this book has been a huge encouragement to me. I hope it will prove the same to you! It speaks of God’s patience with our sins and our human frailty as He leads all of us one step at a time and hand-picks our trials, tailored to our weaknesses.

 

…I have learned that he only is truly happy

 who has no longer a choice of his own

 and lies passive in God’s hand.

~ Elizabeth Prentiss

Speechifying and Busted Head Gaskets

“Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”

Job 5:7

My head has not quite stopped spinning since Friday afternoon. Sometimes there are weeks where three weeks-worth of trouble get packed into three days. But, some level of sanity has returned. The laundry is washed. (Though not quite folded.) I have transportation now, there is soup cooking on the stove and I have approximately two hours before I have to head into another snow storm that seems to have engulfed the area to go teach seven or eight music lessons.

As mentioned before, it all started on Friday afternoon. In last week’s post, I mentioned that I had about four events lined up for Friday and Saturday. So, Friday morning, I packed up the car and drove over an hour to my first stop in the Battle Creek area. I was to talk about my book to a Homeschool Partnership class and then show The Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club. It was a good time with a small but sweet group of friendly teens and younger children. At the end of the movie, all the girls were in tears and couldn’t say enough good about it. After my session, I peeked into the gymnasium on site to watch a folk dancing class in progress. Next thing I knew, I was right there in the middle of it and before the hour was through, I had learned the Virginia Reel and several other very old folk dances. It was tremendous fun, not to mention tremendous exercise. I was thoroughly out of breath and sore at the end, but it was worth the effort.

I got back in the car and headed to Kalamazoo around one-thirty. I had plenty of time to get to the recording studio by five o’clock…or so I thought. I had one errand to run  and a bit of time to kill before my appointment. Heading towards West Main around two o’clock, my car began to throw a tantrum. Klunk, bump, klunk, bump. That’s kind of what it sounded like. That, and there was all this smoke. After five to ten minutes of the noise and smoke increasing, I finally found a place to pull over. I checked the oil and it was somewhat low, so I put in some more oil. I hopped back in the car and turned it on again in the hopes that the oil might fix it. It didn’t. Actually, it sounded even worse, and the car was putting out enough smoke to form my own ready-made cloud. I put in a call to a mechanic I knew in Kalamazoo and he advised me not to drive the car and get a tow. I could feel my heart sinking to my feet and the dollars flying out of my bank account as I put in another call to Geico to get my car towed. And of course, there were the problems of getting to the recording studio in time, getting to my aunt’s house in the evening to spend the night, getting to my first speaking engagement Saturday morning, getting to my library appearance that afternoon, getting back home to St. Joseph, getting to all my students on Monday and an orchestra rehearsal in the evening, and getting a different car. I had a really, really bad feeling about the car. I’d had trouble with it before but this pretty much felt like the end of the road. And I didn’t handle it all very well. I was mad, frustrated, worried and greatly crunched for time. Added to all the keen personal disappointments which I have  felt this past year and a half (none of which my readers know about), I really wanted to throw up my hands, find a small hole, bury myself in it and just forget everything.

Amid the flurry of phone calls and arrangements I had to make in that small time period, the thing that kept coming to my mind was the message of the book I had spent ten years of my life writing and promoting. Namely, that God is love, that He is in control of everything, that everything that happens, good or bad, is a gift from God for my good. I have come to the conclusion that I end up writing these things to remind myself that they’re true, because I, of all people, have a hard time believing them. I, of all people, struggle with faithlessness, bitterness and cynicism. I know why trouble happens. I know why I have to suffer. I know that God uses it to purify me. But no matter that there is a philosophical, theological, experiential explanation for why trouble happens, it still feels like fire and brimstone when it does. God never promises the Christian immunity to pain. And every time I feel the pain of the trouble He sends my way, I face the age-old choice. I can scream and kick and fight against it, or humbly bow my head and thank God for it. I have to confess, I’m not very good at the later. Most of the time my inward prayer life consists of this, “Lord, please forgive me for my anger. Lord, please forgive me again. Can you please forgive me some more? Please forgive me.” Thankfully, His forgiveness never runs out. If there were a limit, I’d have used it up by now.

As it turned out, I was able to get a ride from the gas station to the studio in time to record my song. I got a ride from the studio to my aunt’s house to spend the night. My aunt took me to my speaking engagement with the lovely ladies at the First Congregational Church on Saturday morning. Another friend took me from there to the library that afternoon. And, after getting his own car fixed, Justin drove from St. Joseph to Otsego to pick me up and bring me home. Monday, that which I had greatly feared came to pass. The mechanic told me my car had busted a head gasket and I shouldn’t bother getting it fixed. I called an acquaintance in Kalamazoo who sells old cars and he had one for 1500. Another friend loaned me the money to buy it. I am now in possession of yet another old car. God willing, this one will last me until I’ve QUICKLY payed off the car and until I’ve saved up some money for the next car. If not, I guess I’ll have opportunity to learn my life-long lesson again.

This is not a very pretty post. I apologize. But it is true. Life stinks most of the time. But God is still good. Thankfully, He doesn’t make life go just as I want it, or I’d never realize how much ugliness remains inside of me. Last, but not least, He always provides. And now for a bit of humor:

Farewell, old car. You are forever immortalized by

The Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club in which you run out of gas

and break down on the side of the road

and make Megan run the rest of the way to a job interview for which she is late.

How appropriate.

Enter, my new Ford Escort, cherry red and rusty.

May your life last as long as it takes for me to save up money to replace you.

And so goes life with old cars.

Of Blizzards and Travels

1526322_10152084803344590_1648012390_nLast week, we intrepid northerners had our first blizzard of the winter. The snow was so lovely. The storm started rolling in on Sunday evening while I was at a friend’s house. So, Lydia and I did the most logical thing possible under the circumstances—went for a walk in it. Bundled up with scarves and hats and lots of layers, out we went. Lydia’s cat, Edward, followed us all the way there and back, complaining loudly to us as he brought up the rear. Lydia would pick him up and carry him for a few minutes until he complained again and wanted to get down. Down he went until he complained some more and wanted to get picked back up. This went on for quite some time. Silly, old cat. While we were out, we had to take advantage of the all the picture-taking opportunities, which I will now share with you.

It took a long time to get home that night. Lots of snow, lots of wind and lots of ice. Thankfully, my brother was driving.  Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, all of the schools in my area were closed, so I gave myself  and my music students an extended Christmas vacation which I spent by 1514994_640876972636406_2071139016_ndrinking a lot of coffee and tea  and catching up on writing assignments. I finally emerged on Thursday to get back to teaching.

And that’s when I remembered how full this coming weekend was going to be! Tomorrow, I need to be up at the crack of dawn, pack a day’s worth of clothes, my violin, my books, a bunch of The Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club movies and other sundries into my car and take off for the greater Kalamazoo area for another round of presenting my book to various audiences. On Friday, I’ll be at a Homeschool Partnership class where I’ll give the kids a talk about my book, why I wrote it, etc…and show The Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club.  That evening, I’ll make my way to Broadside Productions studio to record a song my dad wrote a long time ago. It’s called How Fail Thee I, My God

Lydia and Edward
Lydia and Edward

and King. Written for voice and guitar, it is simply beautiful. My goal is to record it first and then get together with the video guy, Seth Haley, who filmed The Wednesday Morning Breakfast Club, and turn it into a non-corny, very low-key music video. I have plans to use that video for a larger project that I will announce at a later date.

After all that, I’m going to crash at my Aunt Karen’s house, where I will visit with my two cousins, Anthony and Johann, plus Anthony’s wife and two kids, whom I have not seen in a very long time.

Saturday morning will find me at a lady’s book club where I’ll give my talk and play a few tunes on the violin. That afternoon, I’ll head to the Otsego Public Library, where I will give the same talk I gave earlier in the day! Afterwards, I will be hoarse and go back home.

That’s all for now. I must do a bit of cooking so my brother has something to eat while I’m gone! Take care, all. And if you’re interesting in coming to the talk I’m giving at the Otsego Public Library, you can check my Facebook page event for more details.

 

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My Favorite Fiction Part 3: Lord of the Nutcracker Men

download“My dad was a toy maker, the finest in London. He made miniature castles and marionettes, trams and trains and carriages. He carved a hobbyhorse that Princess Mary rode through the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. But the most wonderful thing that Dad ever made was an army of nutcracker men. He gave them to me on my ninth birthday, thirty soldiers carved from wood, dressed in helmets and tall black boots. They carried rifles tipped with silver bayonets. They had enormous mouths full of grinning teeth that sparkled in the sun. They were so beautiful that every boy who saw them asked for a set for himself. But Dad never made others. ‘They’re one of a kind,’ he said. ‘Those are very special soldiers, those.’”

Some books are like that–special in such an intangible way I don’t really even know how to begin writing about them. Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence is just such a book. I discovered the book in my teens during a trip to the library. It snatched me in from the beginning. Mostly because it contains so many of the things I’m fascinated with—history, childish imagination and bigger-than-life characters.

After Johnny’s father joins the service during World War I, Johnny’s mother sends him to live in Cliffe with his maidenly Aunt Ivy out in the country for safety. Taking his precious nutcracker men with him, Johnny settles in at Aunt Ivy’s, using her garden as a pretend battle field where he can dig trenches, set out his soldiers and mimic the battles that are taking place just over the English Channel. At first, the letters from Dad are bright and cheerful and so are the whittled toy soldiers he sends. But as the war progresses, the letters begin to express the true horrors of war and each new soldier Dad sends takes on more realistic features. One day, after fighting a battle with his soldiers, Johnny is struck with the fear that somehow the results of his battles in the garden effect the war raging in France—a fear that turns to hope. “From breakfast to lunch, from tea until supper, I battled with my soldiers. In rain and cold I crouched there, hoping it was really true that whatever happened in the garden would happen again in France. If there was the slightest chance of that—if there was any hope at all—the war might end by Christmas, and my father might come home.”

There are so many side stories going on in this book, woven together perfectly. There’s the relationship between Johnny and his aunt, Johnny and schoolmaster Mr. Tuttle, Johnny and Murdoch the mysterious wounded soldier who haunts the countryside. Best of all is the letter from Johnny’s dad describing the Christmas Truce of 1914, when both sides put away their guns for an entire day, come out of the trenches, sing carols, play games. As unreal as it sounds, it actually happened, and Mr. Lawrence does beautiful justice to that reality in Lord of the Nutcracker Men.

It doesn’t seem to matter how often I’ve read the book (it’s been several times). It always brings tears to my eyes. The story is warm and compassionate while dealing with the entire gamut of the human experience. Get it and read it. You won’t regret it.

 “The German voices rumbled to us across no-man’s-land, and we cried to hear them, Johnny, we really did. We stood sniffing and wiping our eyes, looking up at the stars because that song was just so beautiful. So sad. And when it finished, some of our lads started singing the same carol, with the English words. And the Germans listened to us for a while. Then they joined right in, enemies singing the same song, as perfectly as a church choir…And then, when we’d finished, one of the Germans called across to us in English. ‘Good night, Tommies,’ he said. And someone shouted back, quite gently: ‘Good night, Fritz.’  And Johnny, we wept like schoolgirls.”