I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks for The Big, The Little, and The Chance to Start Over

Autumn Tree in Northern CaliforniaImage via Wikipedia

Happy Thanksgiving!

Well, the house is almost clean. Not quite. But no one can argue that I haven't been busy today. All you have to do is breathe and you'll notice a delectable aroma, as orange, apple and cranberries simmer on the stove. The onion and celery are chopped for tomorrow's dressing, and one pie is out of the oven. Another will get made after the kids come home from school – early today, in anticipation of tomorrow’s holiday.

I have a bit more to do before I’m ready for company in a few hours, but here I am writing a blog post instead of vacuuming. I have to write this down, because my heart is full this Thanksgiving. Looking back over the past year, I have a lot to be thankful for: my family, our health, friendships old and new, good times, full bellies, a warm church family, and a home. When you know what it’s like to lack any of these things, you understand how rich these blessings are.

Then there are the little things: the beauty of the crimson-leafed tree outside my window; the tea roses my husband brought me last week when I got some sad news; the fact that I have a husband who'd bring me tea roses; good books and movies; the kids’ giggles; a new package of eye shadow…Nothing is too small to thank God for. He’s given it all to me.

He’s also given me a lot of blessings with my writing this year: another contest final; my first conference; my first agent pitch to a woman who’s now my friend; and friendships with fellow writers, including the darling and talented Gina Welborn, who asked me to be part of her group blog, Inkwell Inspirations. Those things have changed my life.

God’s given me a bounty in the past year, and this week, He’s given me a something new: a blank page, if you will. A chance to start something fresh.

Change is a little rough for me. For the past eighteen months, I’ve had a goal in front of me. My Regency-set series (manuscripts and notes) was stacked at my right, and so many books on English history and landscape were piled on my left side that I should be thankful indeed that we didn't have an earthquake, or I'd have been buried under them. The books aren’t going that far, just on the shelf, but this last week, I made the decision to move my Regency series. With no more fanfare than a sigh, I put my two contest-finaling stories into a file. I’m not saying goodbye to them forever. They’re going into what my agent friend calls my Inventory. Sounds more impressive than the yellow file folders they’re actually sitting in, doesn’t it?

The files are close and accessible, should I find a nugget of research or have a thought about a character or plot point. And maybe someday, I can finish them and maybe, maybe, God will even allow their publication. But I came to the point where I’ve worked on them a long time, and I had to choose whether these were the only two novels I’d ever write and re-write until I’m dead. Or give up.

After I made my decision this week, I cleaned the office (this feat is probably on my husband’s “Thankful For” list). The space is fresh, tidy, and clean, all ready for me to begin researching and plotting a California-set historical on Monday.

I’m not giving up.

No matter what ups and downs there are in my life, my attitude must be one of thanks to God, Who’s sustained me through it all. I have so much to be thankful for, and this year I’m also thankful for you. May you be blessed this year as you rejoice in all that God has granted to you.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cowboy Christmas

Cowboy ChristmasImage by blahmni via Flickr

Yee-haw! Lasso up a copy of Cowboy Christmas, Mary Connealy's latest release, and sit down for a spell of inspirational Wild West romance, action, and holiday spirit.

It’s 1879, and missionary singer Annette Talbot has been imprisoned by the dangerous Claude Leveque, who intends to make money off of her angelic voice...and probably worse. Annie escapes, but she has nowhere to go other than her reclusive father’s ranch in Wyoming.

Wyoming rancher Elijah Walker’s heart was turned to ice by his fiancée’s role in his Pa’s death. He can’t ever trust a woman again, other than his saintly Ma, of course. Surely Annie Talbot is hiding something, too. So what’s he to do with her, half-starved and alone at the holidays?

Mary Connealy's Cowboy Christmas (A Barbour publication, September 2009, $10.97) is an enjoyable inspirational romance that starts off with a bang. The villain, Claude Leveque, is suitably vile; the supporting characters are essential to the plot and I found them enjoyable, especially Ma and the secretive Gabe Michaels (whom I think will be getting his own story soon. He deserves it.). The lead couple, Elijah and Annie, are well-drawn, with Connealy’s famous wit and style. Elijah is my favorite of the two; he's a manly guy, and behaves more like a real-life guy than many heroes I've read about. He gets angry when upset; hates tears; his conflict is compelling and enjoyable; and the way he resists his feelings for Annie made me chuckle aloud a time or two. I especially enjoyed their bickering sessions, but I appreciated how the characters grow, spiritually and emotionally, from the challenges they face.

Though the word “Christmas” is in the title, this book could be read any time of year. Connealy’s descriptions of winter in Wyoming are crisp, but there is not a strong Christmas theme, other than the characters marking its approach.

Connealy is a shining star among writers of historical inspirational romance. If you've never read her books, this story is a fun way to get to know her style.

The book is pictured below, on the Shelfari widget. I couldn't get a photo, but the book is available on Amazon, or at your local Bible book store among the Christmas books.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Do All that You Do With Love: St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Ste Thérèse de Lisieux Quality PictureImage by Thérèse de Lisieux via Flickr

Today on Inkwell Inspirations, it was my pleasure and honor to post a piece on a woman of historical significance who’s impacted my life. Choosing my subject could've been sticky, as God has offered me inspiration and hope through the stories of numerous women, from Mary Magdalene to Corrie Ten Boom. But there has been one woman whose life and writings have changed me, and I had to seize the opportunity to share her with others: St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Thérèse was born into a particularly devoted and godly family in 1873 (both her parents had wished to take holy orders, and three of Thérèse’s sisters also became Carmelite nuns). From the age of three she devoted herself to serving God, and she became a Carmelite nun at age fifteen. Once in the convent, she lived a quiet, unassuming life. It was only after her painful death from tuberculosis, nine years later, that the world learned there had been something very special about her.

She’d lived wholeheartedly for God. To honor and serve Him, she did ordinary things with extraordinary love, using even the smallest of her behaviors and thoughts as tokens of love to Jesus. “I have no other means of proving my love for you [God],” she wrote, “than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love” (Story of a Soul, 196).

This manner of life became known as her “little way,” a means of holiness, or as she told her sister Mother Agnes, “It is the way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute surrender.” Thérèse was so thoroughly convinced of God’s love for her that she didn’t question His appreciation of her attempts to return His love despite the limits on her ability. She simply offered Him everything she had: the choices she made moment by moment, whether they had to do with her tasks, her health, or the frustration of living among irritating people.

While ailing from tuberculosis, Thérèse was asked by her sister to write down childhood memories. She also obeyed her superior in the convent, who asked her to write about her spirituality so that there would be something to put in Thérèse’s own obituary. These writings were bound and sent to other Carmelite convents in place of a usual obituary, and forgotten…Until those other Carmelites passed the books on to the outside world, and at once the writings grew roots in the hearts of its readers. Within seven years, the book had been translated into six other languages; by 1915, 200,000 copies of the French edition had been published, and 350 pilgrims a month were visiting Lisieux. In 1925, she was canonized. Truly, her spiritual way has impacted millions.

Writing about Thérèse for my Inkwell post was hard. I couldn’t narrow down my focus. I wanted to tell everything I knew about her, which isn’t a tremendous amount, compared to others. But I struggled anyway.

Fortunately, I have another outlet in this space, so today I’d like to share just a few of my favorite of Thérèse’s quotes. They come either from the collection of her writings, Story of a Soul; or are attributed to her in conversation, as recorded in Storm of Glory by John Beevers. I pray that something here blesses you as you read, and that perhaps you might take an opportunity today to offer Jesus a token of love, however small: a look, a word, a phone call.

When I was in the world, I sometimes woke in the morning and felt gloomy at the thought of what the day probably held in store for me. It’s very different now. I get up full of joy and courage because I see ahead of me so many opportunities of showing my love for Jesus and of saving souls. (SOG 105)

This is the conclusion I draw…I must seek out in recreation, on free days, the company of Sisters who are the least agreeable to me in order to carry out with regard to these wounded souls the office of the good Samaritan. A word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom; but it is not principally to attain this end that I wish to practice charity, for I know I would soon become discouraged .... I want to be friendly with everybody (and especially with the least amiable Sisters) to give joy to Jesus and respond to the counsel He gives in the Gospel [referring to Matthew 6:4] (SOAS, 246).

…as soon as this Sister arrived, she began making a strange little noise which resembled the noise one would make when rubbing two shells, one against the other….it would be impossible for me to tell you how much this little noise wearied me. I had a great desire to turn my head and stare at the culprit who was certainly unaware of her “click.” This would be the only way of enlightening her. However, in the bottom of my heart I felt it was much better to suffer this out of love for God and not cause the Sister any pain. …Everything was useless. I felt the perspiration inundate me, and I was obliged simply to make a prayer of suffering; however, while suffering, I searched for a way of doing it without annoyance and with peace and joy, at least in the interior of my soul. I tried to love the little noise which was so displeasing; instead of trying not to hear it (impossible), I paid close attention so as to hear it well, as though it were a delightful concert, and my prayer (which was not the Prayer of the Quiet) was spent in offering this concert to Jesus (SOAS 249-250).

…you can see that I am a very little soul and that I can offer God only very little things. It often happens that I allow these little sacrifices which give such peace to the soul to slip by; this does not discourage me, for I put up with having a little less peace and I try to be more vigilant on another occasion (SOAS 250).

I don't believe that I have ever spent three minutes without thinking of God.... one naturally thinks of Someone one loves (SOG 94).

Your life is one that is humble and hidden, but remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love (SOG, 107)

I only will what He wills, and I am pleased with whatever He does….I would never ask God for greater sufferings, but if He did increase them I should endure them joyfully because they came from Him (SOG 187-8).

Her final words were, "Dear God, I love You!" But in the days before, as she lay dying, Thérèse was visited by the infirmarian, who suggested Thérèse sleep. When Thérèse replied that she could not rest, and so she prayed, she was asked, “What do you say to Jesus?”

Thérèse answered, “I say nothing. I just love Him” (SOG 187).

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Edward Cullen: Perfect Romantic Hero, Pale Imitation of Christ

Somewhere, somebody’s counting the hours.

The second movie based on Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight saga is coming out soon. Chatter has increased on all things related to it: what the stars are like; whether or not the vampire stories are ok for Christians to read, much less enjoy; and why people like them so much. And boy, do they like them. Approve of the series or not, it’s indisputable that Twilight fever has gripped America’s female population.

Compared to Twilight, a totally different sort of book sits on my reading stack: Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, by Fay Weldon. Originally published in 1984, it was loaned to me by a friend, and as an Austen fan, I’m enjoying it. My reading came to a hard stop on page 13 when I read:

'CoverCover via Amazon

The other books [not Austen's]…are thrillers and romances, temporary things. …[The] characters exist for the purposes of plot, and the books they appear in do not threaten the reader in any way; they do not suggest that he or she should reflect, let alone change…. And because they don’t enlighten, they are unimportant. (Unless , of course, they are to be believed, when they become dangerous. To believe a Mills & Boon novel reflects real life, is to live in perpetual disappointment. You are meant to believe while the reading lasts, and not a moment longer.)

Mills & Boon novels, by the way, are like category-length romances. And though I can guess her feelings, the author leaves her opinions about inspirational novels to the imagination, whether “thrillers [or] romances,” despite the fact that they sometimes come with discussion questions and Bible studies.

But to expect that any novel “reflects real life” is, as Weldon states, a danger, especially if a person allows her views to be formed by fiction, romance or not. I’ve read plenty of literature which enlightened and challenged me, yet also depressed me. I would not want to coexist with some of the characters invented by almost every college-taught novelist I’ve read.

I am not arguing, by the way, that Twilight can or cannot “enlighten,” or is or isn’t “unimportant.” I will not get into that discussion here. But since reading that statement of Weldon’s, I've thought about how women's (and girls') views of men and marriage are shaped by romance novels, and it’s recently been a hot topic of discussion over on Inkwell Inspirations. I can’t help but wonder about the subject in light of the phenomenon that is Twilight, which is arguably the most popular book series among females today. The universe of human Bella Swan, her vampire-love Edward Cullen, and her werewolf friend Jacob Black is a fun place to visit. But if the characters are believed outside of the novel (and here I mean their essences, their characteristics, not their states as mythical characters like vampires), as Weldon says, disappointment looms.

I should note that Jacob the werewolf has his fans too, but right now I want to look at Edward, Twilight’s vampire hero.

Mr Edward CullenImage by Ezyan Y. via Flickr

Why is Edward so popular? Well, he’s smart, handsome, brooding (get a load of that intensity!) and he chooses to do the hard thing in order to do what’s right. He doesn’t “want to be a monster” (187) so he feeds on animal blood instead of humans’. He’s a guy with a conscience and a (metaphoric) heart.

Another appealing thing about Edward is his love for Bella. He is so attuned to her that he knows what she needs (encouragement, a loving touch to her cheek, or a hand-crafted meal). Always. He spends 24 unsleeping hours a day devoted to her. Among a few other faults, he’s seriously overprotective, but I think many girls, perhaps left emotionally or physically undefended by the men in their lives, might find that a desirable trait rather than a negative one. Edward doesn’t cheat, abuse or shame like some real-life boyfriends or daddies.

He has great lines. He says, “You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever” (273). He compliments her wardrobe: “I’m very partial to that color with your skin” (320). He promises to stay with her forever (498). What girl doesn’t want that?

I think females are attracted to Edward because in being moral, protective, faithful, and totally in love with Bella, he’s practically the epitome of “perfect love,” which is something we all yearn for.

Romance writer Lori Lundquist is writing a thought-provoking series on how Twilight brought her closer to Jesus, and she gave me permission to quote her: “The attraction is born out of our DNA. We all crave a perfect love because we were made by the Perfect Love. Humans, created by the Creator, God Almighty, are designed to love, because He is love, and also to be loved perfectly by Him. We read and write fairy tales, consciously or sub-consciously, because of the proverbial God-shaped hole in our souls.” (October 26, 2009, www.lorilundquist.blogspot.com)

Perfect love has only ever been found in one man, Jesus. No matter how wonderful or rotten the men in our lives have been, Jesus alone will never let us down or abandon us. He is the only One who can save us, restore us, and bring ultimate healing to our hearts. He is Right, protective, and totally in love with us.

This does not mean that love between a man and a woman isn’t godly. Christian marriage is one way Jesus has given us to experience, understand, and reflect His love.

“The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people…. The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind, is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord…”(Book of Common Prayer, 423).

When we look to a man to be near-perfect like Edward, however, Weldon’s point about believing fiction only while you're reading it holds. It could be dangerous for a reader to compare Edward (or Mr. Darcy, Romeo, or any other fictional hero) to the real men in her life, holding him up as a standard of masculinity. If a woman or girl thinks her husband (present or future) will be as intuitive, affectionate, and slavishly devoted to her as Edward is to Bella, she’ll be disenchanted, fast. One bout of your husband suffering the stomach flu ought to do this trick.

Not to say that my husband doesn’t have any of Edward’s qualities. He’s cute, smart, and thoughtful. But I can’t read his mind, I get tired, and I selfishly want my way sometimes. If I can’t be everything to him, why should I expect the same from him?

As much as I may want my husband to be able to read my mind when I want a shoulder massage, what I really want is for his life to be devoted to God. No human man's existence is supposed to be entirely all about their women, as Edward's is with Bella. Edward’s “perfect love” for her is, after all, fictional, a pale imitation of the Perfect Love that is Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve never had an issue confusing real-life men with fictional ones, but have you ever compared a character to someone you know? Have you ever tried to take specific lessons from characters to apply in your own life? (For example, "I want to be more attentive to my spouse in the little things, like Edward is to Bella.") Do you think fiction can inspire or enrich you this way?

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