The Darkness of the Dungeon

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Last week I was reading a blog post by a friend, in which she said that she was feeling that rock bottom has a basement. The definition of rock bottom is the “lowest of the low.” Yet my friend felt that life had managed to go even lower than the lowest possible place.

In Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Christian and his friend Hopeful are caught by Giant Despair and put in his dark dungeon. There they lay for three days, terrified and without hope. They were also in the basement of rock bottom.

In Psalm 88, the Psalmist is also in that place beyond the lowest low:

You have put me in the depths of the pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. vv. 6-7

In fact, unlike the other Psalms that start in despair and end up on a positive note, Psalm 88 ends:

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;

my companions have become darkness. v. 18

The alternative meaning in Hebrew is darkness has become my only companion. The Psalmist has no hope left. There is nothing for him. He is in the black dungeon of Giant Despair. He’s with my friend in the basement of rock bottom.

If we left him (and Christian and my friend and us) there in that dungeon, then what would be the reason to go on? Where is there hope for the Psalmist or for any of us?

This man feels that God is against him, that there is nothing in life that’s good, that his soul is full of trouble, that he has no strength, that he has been forgotten by God, that his friends have all abandoned him and view him as a horror, that the only companion, the only friend he has is darkness, and that the only place lower is death.

However (praise the Lord, there is a however), despite all of these feelings and circumstances of darkness and feeling forgotten by God, the Psalmist still cries out to God, he still has the small kernel of faith that looks to God in the darkness and believes that He hears and that He cares.

Jesus says, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)

In our dark places, the tiny seed of faith that the Lord has given us strengthens us to turn to Him, the Light of the World, and cry out, pleading with Him for light, for hope, for salvation. When we are in the dark, we need only to remember to look for the light.

Despite the seeming hopelessness in this Psalm and in our lives, there are glimmers of light if we look closely enough. The glimmers of God’s promises:

  • He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Even if a mother could forget her nursing child, God will never forget us (Isaiah 49:15)
  • We are inscribed on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16)
  • He will with us in the waters and walk with us in the fire (Isaiah 43: 2)
  • He has loved us with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)
  • He rejoices over us with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

As we focus on these promises, even if the circumstances are still hard and our road seems endlessly black, we begin to see the glory of our Father’s face shine out in the gloom, the fingers of sun gleaming through the cracks of the dungeon walls, and to believe again in His love poured out for us in Christ. We start to grasp that if God is for us, which He is in Christ, who could be against us. We take shelter in His love and in His protection. And we take hold of the glorious truth that Christ is sufficient and will always be sufficient for all our needs, no matter what is occurring in this world. If we have Christ, then we have eternity and glory and unfailing love from our God.

Charitie Lees Bancroft wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see him there,

who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

my sinful soul is counted free;

for God, the just, is satisfied

to look on him and pardon me,

to look on him and pardon me.

Christ has become wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us. (I Corinthians 1:30) If He has done all this, how will He not also give us all things. (Romans 8:31)

As Christian lay in the dungeon, he prayed and the Lord reminded him of the promises of God, and these promises were the key that allowed Christian and Hopeful to escape into the sunshine. My friend, too, acknowledged that God’s light still shines even when it is clouded over by life’s circumstances and she can’t see it at that moment.

What about you, friend? Are you in the darkness of the basement of rock bottom? Do you feel abandoned, forgotten, and alone in your hard times? Can you see no hope and no light and no escape?

Go to Jesus. He loved you enough to die for you, He stands at the throne of God and pleads your case, He will give you all that you need to walk with Him in this life, and He will come and take you home to be with Him, basking in the sunshine of His love for eternity.

My Reading Life in 2018

best journal ever

My Reading Journal

Goodreads and my reading journal have been a good way for me to track my reading for the past couple of years. I tried to catch up in each place once or twice a month so that I didn’t lose track. My goal for 2018 was 80 books. However, unlike last year where I barely squeaked by with short books at the end of the year, this year I hit the goal in October. At the end of 2018, I had read 128 books, 60% more than I had aimed for.

The reason is simple. After struggling to get in 80 books read last year, I decided to make reading more of a priority in 2018. I purposely created routines in my daily life that gave me time to read. I added books, print and digital, to every room and device in the house and at work so that I was never at a loss for material. When you have plenty to read, have books available, and set aside time to do it, reading is more likely to happen.
Here is a snapshot of my reading from the last year:

Books read – 128
Nonfiction – 18
Fiction – 110
Audiobooks – 12

I think I would have had a higher percentage of audiobooks if I didn’t also listen to podcasts. However, as that is unlikely to change because I like podcasts in the car, an audiobook a month is probably my goal again this year. My nonfiction percentage is too low. It would have been about right if I had read 80 books as I originally planned. I’d like to see if I can bump it up to 25% of my total reading this year.

I might have read even more if I had had more focus on what to read next. Often, I would be torn between several choices and be paralyzed by which one to read so that most of my reading time was gone by the time I decided what to choose. I’m hoping to forestall that problem this year by having a couple of guided reading challenges, already filled out and several of the books at hand. I should then be able to work my way through the lists and not have as much decision paralysis. More on that next week.

My favorite books of 2018:

Fiction 

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – I would never have picked this up and perhaps I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been following the Close Reads podcast as they discussed it. As I read along with them, I was overcome by the beauty of Stegner’s prose, I grew to love the characters, and I began to appreciate what he was doing in the book. This is one I will reread in the future. The library copy had a hold list so I bought a copy and I’m glad. I kept underlining beautiful phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien – a delightful book of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children every year at Christmas, telling of Father Christmas’s adventures along with his great friend, North Polar Bear. The book contains drawings Tolkien did as well. I loved every second of it. The audio was well done, but I found a copy afterward so I could see the pictures Tolkien drew to go with the letters.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – I’ve been enjoying Atkinson’s work since Life After Life and this one did not disappoint. The story of a young woman, who is asked to spy for her country during World War II. After the war she goes on with her life, but leftovers from her war years haunt her. Full of twists and turns, Atkinson kept me guessing until the very last page.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – this was my first Pym novel, but it won’t be my last. A quiet story about people but so full of truth and wit that I enjoyed every moment. The audio was excellent.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson – this was an ARC* that I picked up out of curiosity and I loved it. It’s a novel of letters between a middle-aged farm wife and a museum curator. On the surface that may sound dull, but their conversations and how those conversations affect each of their lives is so well done. This is probably a sleeper novel because it’s in the form of letters, but I have been telling everyone I think may like it to try it. It’s a beautifully written story. I look forward to more from this author in the future.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton- a debut novel that was like Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie. Full of twists and turns and unexpected events, this mystery novel/fantasy is absorbing. I couldn’t put it down until I reached the very last page.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – a delightful tribute to English country house mysteries with a twist. The audio is superb with dual narrators, one who narrates the real-life protagonist and the other who narrates the book she is reading. If you love English detective fiction, do read this up-to-date version of the classic English detective novel.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson – the story of a girl who is left a bookstore by her uncle along with a mystery about her family to solve. I enjoyed this story about family and secrets and, of course, books.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – This is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which I adored and which won the Man Booker Prize. This volume also won the Man Booker Prize, but I couldn’t believe that it could be as good as Wolf Hall. However, when I finished it, I thought, “She did it again!”. Mantel not only gets you inside Thomas Cromwell’s head so that you find yourself not just rooting for him but admiring him, but she also portrays the court of Henry VIII and all of the political machinations so that you will find yourself, like I did, being very, very thankful that you did not live and work for that man. If you like history at all, English history in particular, or even are interested in the Reformation in England, you have to read this book. It’s excellent!

A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake – set in Charlestown, which charmed me from the start, this book tells two stories—the modern-day story of a young woman and her search for the truth of her family and the story of a slave revolt in the early 19th century. I couldn’t put it down and really loved it.

Nonfiction

Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson – I borrowed this from the library but as soon as I finished it, I bought myself my own copy because this book got who I am as a person. Sarah Clarkson is definitely a kindred spirit and I have since started reading her blog and following her Instagram, loving everything she writes and shares. Full of bookish talk and lots of lovely book lists, I reveled in every word. I can see myself rereading this and going back to this book again and again until I have read every last suggestion in it.

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin – A great book about God’s attributes, how they set Him apart, and who we are in comparison. I listened to this but plan to go back with a paper copy and a pencil to underline and take copious notes. Lots to think about and appreciate about the God who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Off the Clock by Laura Vanderkam – I’ve appreciated Vanderkam’s work since I first read 168 Hours and started reading her blog. She has helped me to think about my time differently, which has enriched my life. A small book but well worth reading if only for the idea of your past, present, and future selves when it comes to events. Several times now I have gone to things I had planned to attend even when I didn’t feel like it because of her advice. Every time I have been so thankful to have made the effort.

A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Books 1 and 2 of the Crosswicks Journals) by Madeleine L’Engle – both of these rated five stars for me and I’m stingy with my stars. If you love L’Engle or you love family or you love the idea of place and home or you are a writer wannabe, all of which I am, these books are for you.

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser – If you always wondered about the reality behind the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder then you will enjoy this book. Fraser delves into the geography, politics, and history behind those famous books. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to hearing Caroline Fraser speak about her book this winter when she comes to town.

New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp – I read this devotional throughout 2018. It was encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it if you want to grow in your understanding and growth in the gospel of Christ.

Rereads

I believe in rereading books regularly—some require rereading in order to understand them and some are so lovely that I want to experience them again and some are so comfortable that I want to sink into their embrace. So I will reread books despite my ever-growing To Be Read tower of books because a good book is always worth reading more than once.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – a reread for the 10th or 11th time, but oh how I adore this book of redemption and second chances.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – I listened to this on audio and loved it just as much as the first time. Of course, any epistolary novel wins my heart but one set in England during World War II and about books…I loved every second.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – I listened to the audio and fell in love with this book all over again. Reams have been written about it so I won’t go into detail, but this is worth reading and rereading, not only for its structure, but for the main character and his ability to adapt to his circumstances, his intelligence and humor, and his wonderful sense of honor and dignity.

Overall 2018 was a great reading year. I look forward to 2019 and all of the lovely books I will read and think about and write about and share with all of my friends. I hope your reading year is a good one, too.

Reading Shakespeare

Hamlet

 

When you first approach reading Shakespeare, it can be a daunting experience.  Even though I grew up reading the King James version of the Bible with similar language, I still found Shakespeare a difficult read unless I had a teacher holding my hand throughout the play.  I could understand the basic plot line and even some of the language, but many of the jokes, the history, and the language went over my head.

When I first started planning to teach Shakespeare to my children, I knew I was going to need some help.  Three things especially have made an enormous difference in our Shakespeare studies.

First, whenever I could find them, we would use the Oxford School Shakespeare editions of the plays.  Each volume contains a synopsis, commentary, and extensive line by line notes on the language, jokes, people, places, and history.  There are also discussion questions and a book list in the back for more information.  Throughout each book, there are black and white photographs of the play being performed.  I have grown a lot in my understanding of each of the plays for which I’ve had this version.

Second, we listen to the play while we read.  The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare recordings are the best approach to the play, in my opinion.  While many people say that everyone should take parts and read it aloud, I did not feel confident to do so and neither did my children.  Now we can listen to Shakespearean actors act out the play on audio while we follow along.  These recordings are brilliant and make all of the difference in bringing Shakespeare alive.

Third, I read commentaries on the play for myself before, during, and after I read the play.  The two books I read most often are Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and  Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays by Peter Leithart.  Both of these books have been a great help in understanding what Shakespeare is doing.  I may not always agree with the author but at least it gives me a starting place in my thinking about the play.

Just recently I heard about Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber.  I just picked it up at the library today and am hoping to dip into it for my reading of Hamlet.  Another resource that has been a great help is Peter Saccio’s lectures on Shakespeare, two of The Great Courses lecture series.  My library carries these series and Dr. Saccio is an engaging teacher who “unpacks” each play thoroughly and winsomely.  I recommend them.

Of course, many teachers recommend watching Shakespeare whenever possible and we do that, too.  I will write about some of our experiences another day.

I hope these helps in reading Shakespeare will make a difference in your reading, whether you are reading on your own, for a class, or with your family.

Who wants to read Hamlet in January?

TLCOBC Bkmk

There is a new online book club, The Literary Classics Online Book Club, which plans to read a classic work of literature every other month.  The first month TLCOBC will post interesting facts and background information on their blog and social media sites while everyone reads (or listens to) the book.  Then the second month, the club will host discussions about the book for anyone to participate in.  The first book they have chosen to read is Hamlet by William Shakespeare, often considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.  Andrew Kern from The Circe Institute has spoken and written about this play many times and is he is in the middle of a podcast series on Hamlet (the first of which you can find here). Before listening to the podcasts I have been meaning to re-read the play and this seems like the perfect opportunity.  Besides, wouldn’t it be fun to read the play, listen to Andrew talk about it and then join in a discussion?  Who’s game?