Grace for the Pharisee

I was eight years old, and had just been baptized, when I came upon this kid from my church (who had also just been baptized) picking on someone younger than him.  I challenged him to pick on someone his own size, and as I was the only one around anywhere near his size, he went ahead and clocked me.  I’m pretty sure I saw stars.  He apologized immediately, but I was in a lot of pain, and I’m pretty sure the very next words out of my mouth were, “And you call yourself a Christian?”

Somehow, my mom got wind of this incident.  I was outside kicking ashes from a recent bonfire around in our driveway, and she came storming out, and I just knew I was in for it.  I heard alot about my self-righteous attitude that day, but I remember more than anything these words: “And you call yourself a Christian?”

And I wished I’d never uttered those words.

Now, I hear them all of the time.

We all think we’re better Christians than everyone else. We don’t have much grace for our brothers and sisters who think and live differently than we do. We are entirely too comfortable saying (even if not in as many words), “And you call yourself a Christian?”  I think, if we’re being 100% honest, we’re all Pharisees on some level: we are certain our way is the right way, and any other person doing it any other way is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: self-righteousness is a BIG issue, but…

Jesus died for the self-righteous, too.

Jesus died for that eight-year-old girl who essentially challenged someone to a fight, got exactly what was coming to her, and not fully understanding what it actually was to be a Christian, spouted off.

Jesus died for my mom, who was absolutely humiliated that her daughter would even say something like that.

Jesus died for those people who call everyone who disagrees with them heretics.

Jesus died for those people who call everyone who disagrees with them Pharisees.

Jesus died for those people who secretly think they’re better than everyone else.

Jesus died for those people who not-so-secretly think they’re better than everyone else.

No, I’m not perfect.  I sometimes spout off to the people who hurt me, and I can make it sound really Biblical (thank you, AWANA), when I’m really just ticked.  Sometimes, I react passive-aggressively, rather than dealing with conflict in a healthy manner.  I have days where I get impatient, and give up way too easily.  I can’t seem to be victorious in my eating and spending habits.  I think I’m better off for being honest and vulnerable than those people who aren’t willing to talk about their own sin (yet are somehow always willing to get on me about mine).

Yes, I do call myself a Christian.  You know, because of Jesus.

I want to extend the same courtesy to other Christians.  In spite of imperfections and disagreements, I want to embrace my brothers and sisters in Christ as family.  I want to give grace, not just to those who appear to need it, but also to those who don’t seem to think they need it.  I don’t mean I want to dismiss sin, or bury my head in the sand about very real issues, I just want to grow to love people the way Jesus does.

And He does love people.

Even Pharisees.

 

‘Heart of Petra’ by Hilarey Johnson: A Review

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27 NIV).

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About Heart of Petra (from Amazon):

She longed for adventure…the safe kind.

Twenty-year-old Leah Petra Jones calls out to God for an adventure, something more than life as the dutiful daughter of a worship pastor.

Only, in a church filled with secrets, adventure already waits.

At first sign of risk she reneges—but it’s too late. A handsome intern pastor helps the church transition right into a scheme where she is both prize and pawn. Petra learns that the most dangerous adventure can happen right in your own church.

About Hilarey Johnson (from Amazon):

Hilarey Johnson teaches martial arts in Idaho with her husband and three children. She keeps a larger than normal, urban garden with chickens. When she isn’t writing or getting lost, she loves to cook foreign foods and read redemptive fiction. Someday Hilarey hopes to time travel.

You can connect with Hilarey on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

My Review:

I give Heart of Petra by Hilarey Johnson 4.5 out of 5 stars.

One of the themes (for lack of a better word) in my life over the past month or so is seeking, encountering, and knowing God, so I’m not surprised I identified so much with Leah Petra Jones, the main character in this suspense novel by Hilarey Johnson.

Like all good formerly-homeschooled girls, Leah lives and works at home, under her father’s spiritual covering, waiting for a husband.  Even though she leads worship with her parents, she feels like she’s in a fishbowl, and she doesn’t connect with God.  She wants an adventure.  After her church undergoes a leadership change, Leah becomes a secretary at the church (with her father’s approval, of course), and she sees everyone is hiding something, and the protection she’s been raised to trust unquestioningly may not be what she thinks.

I can’t remember a time when I’ve been so impressed with the fact that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  (Sarahbeth Caplin’s Where There’s Smoke, actually).  Every character in Heart of Petra is a big, fat sinner, including Leah.  I really liked that about this book.

I also appreciated how Hilarey Johnson handled the theme of spiritual covering/protection and how it’s often used as a cloak for control and manipulation; how in the places we’re allegedly protected (and by we, I mean all good formerly-homeschooled girls) can come great pain.*

Finally, I really enjoyed Leah’s journey with worship.  As a former worship leader, I understand the “fishbowl” life, the difficulty of connecting with God while worrying about making sure everything is just right for everyone else.  I appreciated how Truitt guided Leah through the nuances of worshipping God in Spirit and in truth.

The only issue (thus the deducted half star) was that this book was not well-formatted.  I really loved the story (can’t say enough good things about it), but because of the formatting, I got lost in dialogue and events a few times.

Other than that, I’m calling all good Christian girls to read this book.  And while you’re at it, read Sovereign Ground.

I also want to include the link to an interview with Hilarey Johnson that really influenced my decision to read the Breaking Bonds books.

*A few words of my own on protection, after the accusations against Bill Gothard came out:

Protection has been the ideal around which I think this movement revolves, and it has at times been beaten over my head.  But you guys,  I’m disillusioned with this ideal.  I’ve come to believe based on studying God’s Word and personal experience, that it was never my dad’s job to protect me.  It was his job to train me up in the way I should go (Prov. 22:6), and he did;  it was his job to bring me up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), and he did; but I can’t find a verse that says it’s his job as my parent to protect me, much as he wants to.  God would never have placed such an impossible burden on my dad, or any other father out there. On one level or another, every man would fail. (By the way, just to be honest, I did not come to this particular conclusion overnight, but after a season of a great deal of anger toward my dad for not protecting me in certain areas – which I will maybe someday talk about, but not today).  I’m honestly angry that people still place this burden on husbands and fathers, and that wives and daughters and (to a lesser extent) sons lose their autonomy before God.

 

The Name’s Lydia

So. Lydia and Linda. Similar names, right? Yeah, I don’t think so, either, but some people see my name (like, on a name tag or doctor’s form or whatever) and think it’s Linda.

Today, a guy was asking me about coupons, and I told him I didn’t have any so he does the whole “Linda, honey, just listen” spiel from that little kid on Ellen, and says, “I bet you get that all the time.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him my name is LYDIA.  After all, he was trying to cheer me up.

And seriously, I sometimes feel like Mateo’s mom about coupons or returns or, well, any number of customer-related issues. (I’ll bet some customer’s feel that way about me, too, so…)

‘Bad Blood’ and A Heart for Restoration

A couple of weeks ago I was taking inventory of a pile of stuff we’re getting rid of at work, and to keep myself sane while cataloging, I was rocking out to the Taylor Swift station on Pandora.  (Why? Because I love Taylor Swift.  She has a song for absolutely everything.) Anyway, one of the songs from her newest album, 1989, came on: Bad Blood.

The opening lines and chorus go like this:

‘Cause, baby, now we got bad blood
You know it used to be mad love
So take a look what you’ve done
‘Cause, baby, now we got bad blood
Now we got problems
And I don’t think we can solve them
You made a really deep cut
And, baby, now we got bad blood

I. Fell. In. Love.  Had-to-hear-it-again-immediately kind of love.  There isn’t a music video (yet), so I went to iTunes, shelled out a-buck-twenty-nine, and have listened to it and sung it out at the top of my lungs many times over since that day.

I get this song.

In the middle of one of my (many) listens, I was convicted because the message of this song is at times the anthem of my heart (even before it was written, probably).  Someone hurts me, sometimes in an already wounded place, and I distance myself so as not to give that person that opportunity again.  Even if I don’t write about it, or say anything at all, my attitude and actions will say, This. Can’t. Be. Fixed.  Just like Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood.

And that’s a problem.

You see, recently God has been teaching me about restoration – both His heart for restoration, and how He wants me to have a heart for restoration.  I petition God on a daily basis for restoration, telling Him it’s what I want.

But is it?

Is it really?

Because what is restoration but to fix something? To return it to its intended condition and purpose?

Is my heart for bad blood, or is it for restoration?

There isn’t room for both.

I choose restoration.

And I’m giving my heart a new anthem:  Worn, by Tenth Avenue North.

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart
That’s frail and torn
I wanna know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause all that’s dead inside will be reborn
Though I’m worn

Heavenly Father, give me a heart – Your heart – for restoration!

 

‘Sovereign Ground’ by Hilarey Johnson: A Review

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(Click here or on the picture above to buy).

Synopsis (from Amazon):

“It isn’t like I dreamed I’d take off my clothes for money when I grew up, but life doesn’t always happen the way you want.

“I was desperate when I walked into the Wild Lily. When I left, it was more than just a hundred dollars I’d gained. I had hope.

“But every time I think I’m in control—I’m not. Every time I think I have a friend—I don’t. And now, the footsteps behind me are getting louder.”

Ever since Health and Welfare dumped Sparrow at her half brother’s house, she’s lived in fear of her grandfather’s curse. When her sister-in-law decides to kick her out, Sparrow lies about her age and applies as busser in a strip club. After playing dress-up, the dancers nudge her onto stage.

The possibility of independence is fleeting. Within weeks, a stranger stabs one of the customers and strangles the dancer next to Sparrow. Helpless, she wakes in the arms of a police officer while the bar burns down.

Hayden, the Christian cop who rescues her might have ulterior motives. Do the footsteps near her window at night belong to him—or is her curse getting bolder?

About Hilarey Johnson (from Amazon):

Hilarey Johnson teaches martial arts in Idaho with her husband and three children. She keeps a larger than normal, urban garden with chickens. When she isn’t writing or getting lost, she loves to cook foreign foods and read redemptive fiction. Someday Hilarey hopes to time travel.

You can connect with Hilarey on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

My Review:

*This review contains a spoiler. I give an alert directly before the spoiler begins and immediately after it ends.

I give Sovereign Ground by Hilarey Johnson 4 out of 5 stars.

Desperate to get away from a bad home life and break free of a curse spoken over her as a baby by her grandfather, Sparrow takes the first job she can get: dancing in a club. As she goes deeper into the night life, she meets Hayden, a cop who invites her to church and even helps her find temporary shelter with a Christian family.

One might think that when Sparrow is presented with Jesus and the reality of Christian love, that would be the end of that, especially coming from a Christian author.

Hilarey Johnson stays real. Hayden’s Christian friends think Sparrow is bad news for him, and Sparrow is drawn back to dancing again and again. For her, dancing is money, and money is freedom.

I completely identify with Sparrow’s desire to be free (and also, her love of grape pop), so while I have never had to face the choices she faces, I understand why she makes them. Sparrow is direct, smart (an avid reader), and strong, and so not only is Sovereign Ground a great story, Sparrow is a great protagonist.

I really appreciated the reminder that Christian terminology makes little to know sense to those who haven’t really been exposed to church, but love and pursuit and care speak volumes. I also enjoyed the exploration of how powerful words spoken over us can be in impacting how we see ourselves.

I was about halfway through this book before I considered how someone in the sex industry or having come out of the industry might feel about it. (Having struggled with depression most of my life, I wrestle when a Christian author misses the mark writing about it, no matter how praised they are). I was relieved to read positive feedback from a former madame and a former stripper at the end of the book. It really affirmed how I felt reading the book.

SPOILER AHEAD.

I am not sure how I feel about how Sparrow and Hayden’s relationship ended up. Not because of their differences, but because I am confused about why Hayden pursued Sparrow the way he did. Attraction? A genuine concern not just for Sparrow, but for all women in the sex industry? A combination of both?

END SPOILER.

I highly recommend Hilarey Johnson’s Sovereign Ground to Christian adults and fans of suspense. This may even be a good book to read and discuss in a youth group.

Can’t wait to read Heart of Petra!!!

Gender Roles and ‘The Cleft’ by Doris Lessing

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Synopsis (from Amazon):

In the last years of his life, a Roman senator embarks on one final epic endeavor, a retelling of the history of human creation. The story he relates is the little-known saga of the Clefts, an ancient community of women with no knowledge of nor need for men. Childbirth was controlled through the cycles of the moon, and only female offspring were born—until the unanticipated event that jeopardized the harmony of their close-knit society: the strange, unheralded birth of a boy.

About Doris Lessing (from the back cover of The Cleft):

Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time.  She has been awarded the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, Spain’s Prince of Austurias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature, as well as a host of other international awards.

She died November 17, 2013 in London.

My thoughts:

As with Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, I am not comfortable assigning a star-ranking to The Cleft by Doris Lessing, although I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much.

The premise of the book is based on scientific research found by Lessing that as a species, women existed before men.  Whatever my personal views on the matter, I thought it would be an interesting premise for a work of fiction, and so I picked it up.

The story is told from the perspective of a Roman senator during Nero’s time, and it reads like a history lecture, with the professor stopping intermittently to relate history to today’s events. (There is nothing new under the sun).  I didn’t find the narrative or the characters particularly compelling, but I was very interested in Lessing’s portrayal of gender roles.

A quote from Robert Graves at the beginning of the book really sums it up: “Man does, woman is.”

First of all, although she is often labeled as such because of works like The Golden Notebook (which does address second-wave feminism), I am not aware of Doris Lessing ever claiming to be a feminist.  Anyone coming into The Cleft with expectations of feminist conclusions are sure to be sorely disappointed.

While Lessing did turn the concept of woman being other on its head in The Cleft, she resorted to gender stereotypes and even relational stereotypes throughout, which took away from what could have been a powerful comment on gender.

When the first male is born, the women (Clefts) are terrified of this thing that came from them, but is different from them.  They label him a Monster, mutilate him (I’ll leave the details of that to your imagination), and leave him out on a rock to die.  As more boys are born and left on what comes to be known as the Killing Rock, eagles from the mountains carry them away to a valley, where they are nurtured by wild animals instead of mothers.

Eventually, a younger generation of women follow the eagles over the mountain and see that the boys (now men) have created a society of their own, and this is where the trouble begins.  As they begin mating with the men, the women lose their ability to conceive independently.

Now, they need the men.  And the men, they don’t like to be needed.  There is nagging from the women, and resistance from the men, either because they are not thinking things through or because they’re just being stubborn and not admitting the women are right.  (I swear, there is even this part where the men are lost on an expedition, and the few women who came with them are always the ones getting them back on track).

Eventually, the women and men come to terms with each other, but not before the men accidentally destroy the women’s longtime home, the Cleft.

First of all, I don’t think this book is fair to women.  Whether you are a creationist or evolutionist or somewhere in between, to think that there was ever a point in history where all women did was sit around and have babies is decidedly misogynistic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with having babies, but that’s not the point of a woman’s existence, and this book seems to propagate that to a degree.  Besides all of this, women are portrayed as users, depending on men only for babies.

Which brings me to my second point: this book isn’t fair to men, either.  That men are thoughtless by nature is an idea hammered into this story from the start.  After all, they do, not think.  If their obligations to women didn’t hold them back, they would play and adventure and definitely not think all of the time.  Men are considered utilitarian, a means to an end: babies.  If they couldn’t “fill wombs” as the Clefts put it, they would have no use.

By nature, it seems Lessing is saying, women will always hold men back, and men will always hold women back.  And nothing can be done about it, because we’re all codependent (since we need babies, which is another subject for another day).  Perhaps if we had continued to exist independently (darn those curious girls), things would be differently.

Personally, I think Lessing’s take on gender roles is cynical.  I like to think of women and men as interdependent – that on an individual level we all bring something to the table that others can benefit from, and that extends far beyond procreation.

Then again, I’m an optimist.

Update on ‘A Year with the Baptists’

Well, it’s February.  You know, the month I was supposed to release A Year with the Baptists into the big, wide world.  (Best laid plans, and all that jazz).

Several months ago, I was plugging away at the first draft of A Year with the Baptists, a little over half way through one of those stories-within-stories (the story of how Emma came to be the way she is at the beginning of the book), and I had an epiphany.

This was not the story I wanted to tell.

A Year with the Baptists was always supposed to be about Emma finding her voice, from the first note I made.  Instead, I found at the end of October, the majority of the story (about 70K of 90K words) was about Emma not having a voice, and not really caring, until she runs herself into the ground.  Obviously, that kind of history is important, and being part of Emma’s story, I have to reference it, but it was never where I wanted the bulk of the focus to fall.

I made a decision to nix the 70K backstory, and write A Year with the Baptists as a short story instead, and as it turns out, it was a good decision.  These later drafts have been more focused and more what I want them to be.

But.

I don’t just want to release one short story, so I’m pulling together a collection on identity.  Faith and family are strong secondary threads.  As it happens, I have quite the arsenal when it comes to these themes.  I plan to include Emma’s story (A Year with the Baptists), a poem about growing up in a passionate (read: strongly-opinionated) and faith-filled family (Heretic Is a Word), the story of a minor character from A Year with the Baptists who kind of took off on her own (P.K.), and a story about four sisters that I’ve been working on for over ten years now (no title yet).

So, A Year with the Baptists is now A Year with the Baptists and other stories.  I’m not sure when I’ll be releasing it, or even how.  I’d like to say you’ll have it in your hands before my big relocation, and that I’m taking the self-publishing route again, but the truth is, I really don’t know.  I will just be taking things one step at a time, and keeping you all posted as I go.

A friend recently asked if I felt bad about having written so much that I’m now leaving behind in favor of a shorter story, both in A Year with the Baptists and the final story in my collection.  Honestly, it’s hard to leave behind beloved characters and scenes – it’s known as killing darlings for a reason, but it’s ultimately going to make for better stories.  I’ve come to view these backstories as notes, the kind where I’m really getting to know my characters and how they tick, and I’m reminded of that every time I try to make something happen in the story that’s just not gelling.  I think, “Oh, yeah, no, so-and-so wouldn’t do that.” In other words, I feel a little bad, but not too bad.

I have this weekend to really focus on writing, so guess what I’ll be working on?  That’s right, A Year with the Baptists and other stories.

Let’s do this!