Critics, and other miserable ones.

imageJust got to see my favorite Broadway show of all time, now repackaged as my new favorite movie. May I just say: Wow.

I read a snatch of review: “there will always be people who like overblown emotion,” smug critic said. I kept replaying his words in my mind as I watched (and yes, I cried like a baby. Don’t judge me.) Listen, I understand that sentimental drivel appears on the scene way too frequently, but that is altogether different than gut-level emotion — passion, grief, joy. Why are we so afraid to feel?

This movie is crazy awesome on so many levels — incredible characters, at least 4 intermeshed plots, beautiful music, hilarious sideshows, unvarnished horror alongside of shining grace — and in the midst of all that the cast and crew were trying to do, they make us feel. Jean Valjean has to be a criminal, must be a criminal, can’t possibly escape his past — and yet, here he is, heroic, transformed by grace. (Of course, that couldn’t be possible, Smug Critic would say. No one changes. There is no grace.) Fantine is any young girl we know, backed into a corner, slammed to the mucky floor by unforgiving, cruel fate. She is the face of 10,000 girls enslaved right now at this very moment, and as we feel her agony, we understand, and we are made to care. Poor Eponine, loving and forever unloved, willing to give her life for another — we see, and the sacrificial love blows us away. And the boys, the countless boys who rise up for freedom, for justice, whose blood runs in the streets, for what? How many mothers spent Christmas bereft because of sons and daughters killed in war?

Poor Smug Critic, never to feel.

Les Mis is at bottom, a love story: the love of God for a lost soul and the pay-it-forward chain of events that fly imageinto motion as a result. It is grand, epic, because Love is epic. If it doesn’t rip your heart out to realize you are a beggar and a thief impossibly, lavishly, ridiculously loved, then like Javert you have chosen a cold, hard, tit-for-tat ethic in its place. And consider how things turned out for him.

Sing me a song, Mr. Mandolin-man.

English: Chris Thile and The Punch Brothers at...

He wants to play like Chris Thile, wants his fingers to fly across the strings, wants the notes to dance.  We gave him a little mandolin for Christmas, an armful of song. His excitement is contagious — what could be! The little polished bit of rosewood is a dream, a possibility. It reminds me of my first typewriter. No one adds a letter to the alphabet or a note to the scale, yet all the books ever written, all the songs ever sung spilled out of that limited set. It is incredible that we haven’t exhausted the possibilities, that anything new could ever be! Amazing, too, that there could ever be a new human being, a new personality, a new face. How are we not all repeats?

Today you will probably say sentences never said before, think thoughts never thunk. The world will be richer for it.

In my living room the mandolin is plunked. Not really much of a song yet. Wait for it…


Want to share a video with you of our brave friends, Peter and Alana, and their beautiful girls, Katie and Ellie. Ellie suffered an aneurysm five weeks into her life on this planet, and has since spent way more than her share of time in the hospital. Usually when I think of Ellie, I think of sorrow and struggle. But sorrow and joy are kissing cousins. Here’s joy:


thankfulness hymn

for the small things: light on water, shaded forest, laughter ringing
clear my mind to see your beauty
make me thankful, Lord
for the moments gone forever, conversations, love so fleeting,
give me power to remember,
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your kindness,
joyful Father, loving Friend,
make me long for you, my portion
sweeter, higher, without end

for the shocking incarnation, setting glory to the side,
Jesus, King come as a baby
make me thankful, Lord
for the shocking death you suffered, love propelling Love to die,
Jesus, King killed as a pauper
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your goodness,
humble Savior, loving Friend,
make me long for you, Redeemer,
sweeter, higher, without end

for the breath of God upon me, blowing through me, to renew me
in my weakness, grace unstinting,
make me thankful, Lord
for the suffering, give me vision of your purpose, of your wisdom
tease out meaning, comfort me
make me thankful, Lord

all the gifts declare your mercy,
tender Spirit, loving Friend
make me taste your kind compassion,
sweeter, higher, without end

for the final destination, journey ending, sailing home
rest and healing, joy and beauty,
make us hopeful, Lord
for the moment we will see you, hear you calling, “welcome home!”
feel your arms in love surround us,
make us hopeful, Lord

all the gifts declare your brightness,
glimpses in the dreams you send,
make us thankful for a future
sweeter, higher, without end

A beggar at Christmas.

English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, pai...
English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, painted just outside his clothing store in Bordeaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I have calculated correctly, Christmas is 8 days away. (I was an English major; you do the math!) So maybe, like me, you are watching old movies and pulling out favorite Christmas stories for an annual read-through. Last year, we discovered a story new to our family, a beautiful little old-fashioned tale called “The Family Under The Bridge” by Natalie Savage Carlson. It is the story of a recently homeless family in Paris and the ragged old hobo who pledges to find for them a new home. It’s great.

Armand is the old beggar who reluctantly finds himself helping the three shell-shocked children, the little “starlings,” he calls them. And despite their mother’s disdain and revulsion for the old man, the family is soon inextricably linked with him (isn’t it always the case when we let the walls down — gah! Inconvenient love!) Armand promises Suzy a real, honest-to-goodness house for Christmas, a promise he can’t possibly keep, of course. Christmas Eve rolls around…

“Then the crowd of hoboes and their ladies and friends sang Christmas carols to the accordion music. Most of their voices were cracked and off key, but they sounded beautiful to themselves.

“Armand was ready to go by midnight. He clung to the big carton that had been given him at the tent as a gift. He knew it was full of jam, fruit and cigarettes. It would be his Christmas present to the gypsies.

“But Madame Calcet wouldn’t think of going straight back. ‘We must go to the midnight mass on the quay,’ she said. ‘The girl told me about it.’

“An altar had been set up on the Tournelle quay right out in the open. The priest in his bright vestments, followed by his altar boys, had just approached the altar by the time Armand and the Calcets arrived. Many of the hoboes stayed for the mass.

“Evelyne fell asleep in her mother’s arms. Jojo was quiet and respectful although it was the first time he had ever been to church.

“Armand swayed from one foot to the other uneasily. It had been so long since he had gone to mass. Lucky this one was out here on the quay. They never would have pulled him into one of those great fancy churches.

“The hobo had other things to make him uneasy. The plight of this family. Just how had he got himself so tied up with them? How had he blundered into such a trap? It was the way those starlings had begged hi to stay with them. That is how they had stolen his heart. No one had ever made him feel needed before. And now he’d lied to them. There wasn’t any house growing out of the ground — not for them.

“In his misery he raised his eyes high over the altar — up to the stars in the Paris sky. ‘Please, God,’ he said, moving his lips soundlessly, ‘I’ve forgotten how to pray. All I know now is how to beg. So I’m begging you to find a roof for this homeless family.’

“Then he was ashamed to notice that he was holding his beret up in his usual begging way. He quickly pulled it over his head.”

What do you pray for, so earnestly that you would beg, hat in hand under the starry December sky? Aren’t we all beggars, no better off than poor old Armand? It’s only when we forget what ragamuffins we are that our prayers get stale and ugly. May we all remember the state of our beggar souls, cry out in earnest to the only one who can do the impossible. Then watch and see if the miracles don’t begin to unfold.

In the meantime, sip that eggnog latte and remember, there are those in our midst who will spend Christmas on the concrete. A little compassion goes a long way.

Photo by Xuan Che on Visualhunt /  CC BY

Ah, books.




“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
― Oscar Wilde

I was just thinking about bookstores and how I love them so and how I wish I owned one so that I had an excuse for being there all day. Growing up, my favorite was an independent children’s-books-only place in Greensboro, NC — I wonder if it is still there? I would save all of my allowance to spend there; the boxes of mildewed books that my mother kept in the attic all these years could stack to the moon and back. The shop was called B. Dolphin, and I think I could still spend my allowance there. To this day I adore the kids’ section of any bookstore best, and the books I foist on my children I want to read myself.

Besides B. Dolphin, there was Atticus Books, which I am fairly sure was crushed by the mighty Barnes and Noble, and the Tattered Cover here in Denver, which is hanging in there somehow. Now even B &N is in danger due to the Kindle revolution. And though I don’t mind my e-books, the real tragedy of paperbacks’ extinction is the death of the bookstore, the experience of swimming in books up to the eyeball, stumbling across unknown authors and being snagged by a book of an unfamiliar genre. Somehow the virtual reality world just can’t compete.

And while I’m at it, I have to mention Signs of Life in Lawrence, KS, which is a paradise of books and art and coffee. There’s a bookstore with the wisdom not to categorize based on the faith or lack of faith of the publisher, knowing the importance of the reaching and the wrestling, not just the arriving.

So today as I finish my Christmas shopping in a bookstore, three cheers for books! Maybe if we all buy as many paper-and-ink tomes as we do plastic-and-metal toys this December, the bookstore itself will be around another year, for another 52 excuses to wander among deep thoughts, big laughs, and beautiful art. Ah, books.

A carol for Sunday.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1640)
The Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1640) (Photo credit: lito)

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!