Happy marriages don’t just happen.

It’s National Marriage Week! And we are celebrating with a $1.99 Kindle special (available here!) of Jerry and Claudia Root’s and Jeremy Rios’ book, Naked and Unashamed: a guide to the necessary work of Christian marriage. Enjoy the authors’ preface to their practical and inspiring guide.

Preface: The Purpose of this Book

This book exists because, despite the abundance of magazines, articles, and self-help volumes available, people continue to struggle with marriage.

On the one hand, the cottage industry of wedding planners, consultants, Pinterest pages, and independent bloggers has shaped young hearts to dream and plan for the biggest day of their lives. The day is everything, and they will plan each element with precision, from flowers to cake decorations to party favors. Acting on this crafted desire, couples will spend an enormous amount of time and money preparing for the wedding. Ironically, they will spend little to no time or money in preparation for their marriage itself. The investment into the perfect day is all out of proportion with the investment into life together after the day. At times it even seems as if people are more interested in getting married than they are in staying married. This book exists to help couples prepare for the rest of their life together.

On the other hand, it seems that too few couples comprehend the degree of work required to make a marriage successful. Divorce rates are clear evidence of this, but so also are the many married people who are in dire need of counseling and care, who persist in loneliness and difficulty, feeling ill-equipped to navigate the unforeseen difficulties of marriage. Many people hope one day to get married; few people seem to know what it really means to be married. The truth of the matter is that happy marriages rarely just happen. In fact, the majority of the time they will require at least as much energy and preparation as is directed toward the grand celebration on the wedding day. This book exists to coach couples through strategies that will assist them to succeed.

On the wedding day, a bride and groom will make a promise before God and the witness of their friends and family—a promise to have and hold one another, in sickness and health, in wealth or poverty, until death. Sometimes these promises are uttered in a rush of devoted emotion, at the same time sometimes their demands are glibly considered; yet no couple (we trust!) sets out intentionally to fail. While no book can promise perfect success, the best we can do—and this we hope to do—is to offer hope and guidance to couples in preparation for marriage, to couples struggling in marriage, and possibly encouragement to couples thriving in marriage. Marriage, in point of fact, is a living, growing thing, and a resource such as this one hopes simply to provide a plumb to what is bent, a balm to what is broken, and an enrichment to what is thriving.

If marriage is so difficult, and if the risks are so high, then it might be tempting to conclude that it is not worth bothering about. This is unsatisfying, chiefly because we are convinced that marriage—with all its difficulties—remains one of the best hopes for human happiness and fulfillment. A successful marriage is a thing of unprecedented and radiant beauty, and as G. K. Chesterton (a great believer in marriage) said “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”[i] This book is targeted for any person who wishes, given the liabilities of marriage, to attempt to maximize its benefits and experience the fullness of its joys.

Billy Bray, Welsh preacher and evangelist, hearing once about other people’s trials of faith stood and exclaimed, “Well, friends, I have been taking vinegar and honey, but, praise the Lord, I’ve had the vinegar with a spoon, and the honey with a ladle.”[ii] Many couples may feel that in marriage they’ve had honey by the teaspoon and vinegar by the ladle. As we said, no book can promise success, and yet the couple that commits to reading together, to learning together, to discussing together, to developing good habits together—that couple will gain a significant advantage in the management and enjoyment of their common life. All marriages ought to begin with the best possible foundation. All existing marriages ought to have the courage to reexamine and correct their foundation as necessary. And, by God’s grace, the honey will outweigh the vinegar beyond measure.

[i] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (London: Cassell and Company, Limited: 1910), 254.

[ii] Billy Bray, The King’s Son (London: Bible Christian Book-Room, 1874), 29.

New Year’s Resolution—be more like your dogs!

Author of Faithfully Yours for Kids, Peggy Frezon, shares her New Year’s Resolution—to be more like her dogs.

If we’re smart, we can learn a lot from our dogs. Following their example, we can learn to play with gusto, eat heartily, and nap often. We can learn how to forgive others and love unconditionally. We can also discover lessons to apply to our spiritual lives.

Keep Daily Quiet Time—My golden retriever Ernest’s quiet time consists of stretching out in a patch of sunlight streaming in through the window, resting his head on his paws, and closing his eyes. I can see his muscles relax and his expression fill with contented peace. Following his example, I curl up on my big green chair, relax my body, close my eyes and allow God to enter my mind. Allowing Him to direct my path fills me with contented peace.

Wait Faithfully—When we first rescued our senior dog Ike, he used to cry whenever I left the house. I could hear his heart-wrenching whines, even outside in the driveway as I was climbing into the car. After a while, Ike began to trust that I’d always return. He stopped crying when I left. He waited for me faithfully, in comfort that he’d be okay while I was gone. We are never truly separated from God, but when times are tough and it seems like He is far away, I can trust that He is always there. If I wait faithfully, I will hear Him and feel His loving touch again.

 Love thy Neighbor— My dogs live for walks around the neighborhood. They think everyone they meet is their friend. I love the way Ernest approaches little children so gently. And how Petey wags and pulls me toward everyone he meets. Their open and accepting approach to people warms my heart. Sometimes I find myself too busy with my own life to pay attention to others. Or I make judgments about others’ interests and feelings. But if I act more like my dogs, I’ll greet others wholeheartedly without judgment or reservation.

Devour Enthusiastically—Ernest and Petey don’t pick at their food. They gobble it up heartily, wasting no time in consuming every last morsel. God is the nourishment for my soul. I want to receive Him eagerly and joyfully, and be filled with the Bread of Life. Just like Ernest and Petey, I will not hunger or thirst!

So this year, I’m going to try to be more like my dogs.

 Adapted from Pawprints on my Heart by Peggy Frezon, Guideposts.com Jan. 2015

Chapter 2 – The Cry of the Poor

This week’s blog post is excerpted from Jean Vanier’s “We Need Each Other.” This week get the Kindle version for just $1.99 on Amazon.

CHAPTER 2
The Cry of the Poor

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

(from Genesis 3)

I started L’Arche because I heard the cry of the poor. The cry of the poor is, “Do you see me as important? Am I of value?” The underlying cry of the poor is, “Do you love me?” At the very end of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter the same question, “Do you love me?” By asking this, Jesus shows his vulnerability and his need for love. Jesus teaches us that he is one with the poor.

A few years ago, we welcomed Eric into our community. Eric has his own story, which began with a lot of pain. When his mother discovered the seriousness of his disability, she was devastated and heartbroken; she did not want a child like him! Both mother and Eric were wounded. His mother kept him at home until the age of four, but she did not know what to do with her little boy. Eric was not growing like other children his age, and he was also deaf and blind. At this tender age of four, his mother took him to the local hospital, where it was recommended that he be put into the regional psychiatric hospital. This is where we found Eric twelve years later. He was sixteen years old.

Eric was blind and deaf. He could not speak. He could not walk, and he had a severe intellectual disability. His mother had only come to see him once because she could not bear the lack of love and care that she saw in the hospital. I can say that I have never met a young person so vulnerable and with so much anguish. Eric was living with so much inner pain, yet within that pain lay a mystery.

Eric had not been baptized when he joined our community, but we still took him to the chapel. I remember him sitting in there, in his fragility, blindness, and deafness. There was a quietness about him, and his face was filled with peace. Did he know that he was in the chapel? He may not have known, but it seemed evident that God was present in him.

When Jesus announced the Last Judgment and told the people to come into his kingdom, he said: “When I was naked you clothed me.” The crowd responded, “But we never saw you.” Jesus continued, “When I was hungry you gave me food.” Again, the crowd responded, “But we never saw you.” It is clear that the entrance into the kingdom is through compassion, through clothing the naked, welcoming the foreigner, and visiting the prisoner; it is through welcoming the vulnerability of Eric.

Each one of us was born as a little child. This is an incredible reality in our forgotten histories. When a baby is born, the baby is vulnerable, easily wounded, fragile, and without any kind of defense. This child, held lovingly in the arms of the mother, learns through the tone of her voice, the tenderness of her touch, and her unfailing attention that he or she is loved. The child is not frightened of being vulnerable; he or she learns that it is okay to be weak and to have no defenses because he or she knows, I am loved. The message of the mother who says, in some way, “You are unique, I love you, you are precious, you are important,” is a source of joy for the child.

What happens if a child does not hear this? What happens if the child is caught up in a world of conflict, of hate, and of fear? Such is the vulnerable and broken heart of Eric. The anguish of Eric arose as he sensed that he was not wanted, that he was alone and unloved. We can understand his mother’s pain and the pain of parents who discover that their son or daughter has a severe disability. How will a mother in pain gradually discover that it is okay to be the mother of a child like this? To be the mother of Eric?

At the beginning of his life at L’Arche, Eric was incontinent, so one of the first things we did was to try and help him urinate in the toilet. One day he did! We all had champagne that day. People came in and asked what we were celebrating, and we said, “Today Eric has peed in the toilet!” Life is made up of little things. You do not have to do big things to celebrate together in joy. Every morning, one of us living with Eric would give him his bath. Even though he was sixteen, he was small. Bath time was a very precious moment. Through the touch involved in bathing Eric, we helped him to relax and to discover that he was loved.

Over the last few years, I have felt growing within me the recognition of the incredible vulnerability of Jesus, the wounded heart of Christ. The heart of Jesus is wounded because of his yearning to bring us together despite the fact that we are often resistant. The wounded heart of Eric and the wounded heart of Jesus are one. So what is L’Arche about? L’Arche exists to say to the Erics of the world, “I am glad you exist. I am happy to live with you.”

National Change a Pet’s Life Day!

Enjoy this delightful Q and A with Peggy Frezon, author of The Dog in the Dentist Chair – which releases today, National Change a Pet’s Life Day!

Q. Faithfully Yours for Kids is about animals who “visit, cuddle, help, heal and love kids.” What is one of the most surprising ways an animal helps children?
A. One of my favorite stories in the book is about JoJo, a golden retriever who jumps up
onto the dentist chair with kids who are afraid of getting their teeth worked on. I think it’s a wonderful, non-medicated, non-invasive way for a child to be calmed at the dentist. Just stroking the dog, and feeling her warmth close to them, helps comforts them. I think I like this story too because just maybe I’m a little uncomfortable at the dentist office, too.

Q. What is the most unusual animal in the book?
A. I’d have to say the most unusual animal in the book is Bacon Bits, the therapig, or therapy pig! He loves to be around kids and visits them at schools, libraries, fairs, group homes, hospitals, airports, parades, and many, many events. He’s a mini (well, at 125 lbs, not so mini!) local celebrity. The next most unusual might be the therapy rats. Kids love them! We also have stories about a cat who encourages kids to read, a black lab who helps a boy when he’s about to have a seizure, a golden retriever who surfs with special needs kids, a draft horse who helps strengthen the muscles of kids with cerebral palsy. There are many, many other ways animals help kids.

Q. Many of the animals in the book are service or therapy animals. What is the difference?
A. A therapy animal is a dog, cat, or other animal which provides comfort and affection to people. They often visit hospitals, schools, libraries, nursing homes, and group homes, offices, airports…just about anywhere. People are encouraged to pet and interact with the therapy animal. A service animal (dog) is specifically trained to perform a task or tasks that help an individual. Guide dogs for the blind, seizure alert dogs, and mobility assistance dogs are examples of service dogs. Service dogs perform tasks that the individual cannot do himself or herself, due to a disability.

Q. Are pets good for children?
A. Pets are great for kids when the whole family is on board and ready to welcome them into the family. Pets help children learn about nurturing and compassion. They help kids learn responsibility. Pets may even help a child be healthier–there is evidence that having a pet in the home during a child’s first year of life may help reduce the child’s risk of developing allergies. But most of all, the family dog or cat is often a child’s first friend. When we foster a loving connection between children and pets, and teach them to be respectful of all animals, the bonds will be forever strong.

Q. You’re a dog lover. Tell us about the dogs in your life.
A. My husband and I adopted a special dog about five years ago—he was eleven years old and had been dumped on the streets to fend for himself. He was just so sweet and loving—he’s the dog who helped us realize that God put it on our hearts to rescue senior dogs. We take them in and give them a nice retirement, a loving home for their golden years. We now have a golden retriever, Ernest, who is 10 years old. Just after we adopted him he was diagnosed with cancer. He now is a therapy dog for people with cancer. We also have a golden retriever, Petey, who’s one and a half, and doing his best to keep us all young.

Now available!

 

Racial Justice, Peace Not War, Human Suffering | Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God by Lon Allison

This week’s blog is an excerpt from Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God by Lon Allison. The chapter is titled Racial Justice, Peace Not War, Human Suffering and discusses Rev. Billy Graham’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

… The other person God would use to educate Billy on this journey was the famous Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Leighton Ford, who was heading up communications with churches in New York City in the summer of 1957, remembers that unlike invitations from many other cities, the invitation to come to New York had been offered by the Protestant council of pastors, which included many men of color. Racial Justice, Peace Not War, Human Suffering

The invitation and the connection with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Clarence B. Jones (King’s lawyer and close personal advisor) probably came to Billy by way of these men. Leighton sent a telegram to Dr. King asking if he would be willing to be on the platform and pray an invocational prayer at the beginning of one of the Madison Square Garden events. King agreed, and on July 18, 1957, he and Billy were on a crusade dais together. Over time, a friendship blossomed between the men. Billy would also have Dr. King speak to his executive staff on retreat to educate them more on racial justice. And for his part, it seems that King learned from Billy how to better hold large rallies, and Billy’s organizational structures and training were offered to him as well. At one point, the two men wondered if they should even travel together promoting the fullness of the kingdom of God: both changed hearts (the new birth) and changed societies where right replaces wrong. Billy writes:

Early on, Dr. King and I spoke about his method of using nonviolent demonstrations to bring an end to racial segregation. He urged me to keep on doing what I was doing—preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and supporting his goals by example, and not to join him in the streets. “You stay in the stadiums, Billy,” he said, “because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets. Besides that, you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people, who may not listen so much to me. But if a leader gets too far ahead of his people, they will lose sight of him and not follow him any longer.” I followed his advice. 

It was also during the New York City crusade of 1957 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower called and asked Billy’s advice regarding sending National Guard troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in order to enforce desegregation laws. Billy’s answer was, “I think you’ve got to, Mr. President. You’ve got no other alternative. The discrimination must be stopped.”

In 1960, Dr. King and Graham were again together, in Brazil for the Baptist World Alliance meetings. During that time, Billy arranged a special dinner for King to meet with US Southern Baptist leaders to try and bridge the chasm between blacks and whites in the American South. “Our friendly relationship with Mike [Dr. King had by this time asked Billy to call him Mike as his other friends did] made the point with my Baptist friends,” Billy records in Just as I Am. There were, no doubt, times when King wished Billy would be more pronounced and public regarding racial discrimination, and there were probably times when Graham wished King would tone down his rhetoric, going slower on social justice, and preach the new birth in Christ more. Yet the friendship between the men was genuine.

Toward the end of his autobiography, Billy writes of the day he heard Dr. King had died. He was in Australia in the spring of 1968 preaching crusades, but taking an afternoon off to play golf, when journalists ran up and informed him that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis. They asked for a comment. “I was almost in a state of shock,” Billy writes. “Not only was I losing a friend through a vicious and senseless killing, but America was losing a social leader and a prophet, and I felt his death would be one of the greatest tragedies in our history. There on the golf course I had all the journalists and the others gathered around, and we bowed in prayer for Dr. King’s family, for the United States, and for the healing of the racial divisions of our world. I immediately looked into canceling my schedule and returning for the funeral, but it was impossible because of the great distance.” Billy devoted his life to proclaiming the Good News of the changed heart brought about by Jesus Christ in all who love and know him. His own heart, and that of his team, were changed in regard to justice, equality, and racial diversity by special men like Martin Luther King Jr…

This week only, get the Kindle for just  $1.99 on Amazon.


Piggy and the Bracelet

This blog post was written by Melinda Johnson, author of Piggy in Heaven which releases today!

 

One of the hardest things about death is the end of physical presence. All of your love is still present in your heart, but it loses the tangible outlets it once had. You can no longer hug your loved one, see that wonderful smile, hear that infectious laugh. You can’t run to open the door, or cook a favorite food to share. Your heart is full, but your arms are empty.
 
Imagination can be a healing tool when we grieve, and it’s one children turn to easily. Losing a pet is often the first time a child encounters death. In fact, that’s what prompted me to write Piggy in Heaven. It was the story my family needed as we mourned our adorable guinea pig. 
 
Now that this story has become a book, I am touched and delighted (and sometimes on the verge of tears, just for a minute) at the hilarious, adorable, beautiful creativity this book has inspired among my artist and crafter friends. One drew a pattern and sewed a Piggy plushy from scratch. Another made finger puppets of each character, to give you “a hand” while reading and telling the story. And my friend Meghan Inlow, jewelry designer and mompreneur at VioletandVines [https://www.etsy.com/shop/VioletandVines], offered a bespoke, limited-edition “Piggy in Heaven” bracelet. It’s something sparkly and tangible to hold, something to hang those memories on. Today I’m interviewing Meghan about how this bracelet came about.
 
1. First, tell me about your creative process when you are making a piece like this.  
 
I feel like there is so much chaos in our lives. I want each piece that I make to provide joy, inspiration, and a sense of calm to the person wearing it.  So picking out the flowers for each piece, or greenery, the shape of pendant they are hand placed in – all elements are gathered to create that calm and inspiration. The same was done with the bracelet for Piggy.  I wanted something that encompassed the book as well as a tangible way to give comfort to the child receiving it. 
 
2. What are the elements of this bracelet, and how did you choose them?
 

The bracelet that I designed and crafted for “Piggy in Heaven” includes gold sparkles, feathers, and resin, all mixed in and cradled with crystal beads in between the hand-made beads.  I wanted something to represent the heavenly aspect of the book, and I wanted it to embody peace for the child who receives it.  So after playing with a few different designs, it was finalized with these elements as well as a hand-painted charm at the bottom of the bracelet.  
 
Get a Piggy Memory Bracelet here! https://www.etsy.com/shop/VioletandVines
 
3. How did your perspective as a mom come into play for this piece?
 
As a mom, if my child lost their beloved pet, I thought about what would bring them a little joy and peace, but also what would be a tangible way to help comfort them. As a parent, I feel like the goal and thought was, “How do I make this time of grieving a little bit easier for my child, is there something I could give them to help them remember and feel close to their lost furry friend?”
 
4. Your jewelry is a wonderful example of art and nature intersecting with each other. What got you started using natural materials in your jewelry?
 
The beauty and diversity of nature is something that is so important for me to place into my jewelry.  I dabbled with different jewelry styles, but when I started mixing flowers with resin, they flowed together almost like a painting, and I knew that I was sold in creating nature-inspired and infused pieces.
 
5. People often have special memories attached to their jewelry. Why do you think that happens?
I believe that people have memories attached to their jewelry because jewelry is usually a special and important gift given.  For example, when I was 16, my grandparents gave me earrings they had created for me.  I have a pendant that my Grandmother gave me before she passed away, and my engagement ring is laced with all those special memories including my husband and when we prepared to start our lives together.  All of these beautiful memories are created around special and unique pieces of jewelry.
 
6. What do you love most about your creative work?
 
Making jewelry fulfills an extra sense of purpose within me.  It helps to relieve stress, helps me to focus on prayer, and I’m able to create wearable art and bring peace, joy, and inspiration to others. There’s also one of the bracelet by itself, if needed.
Meet Meghan Inlow!
I am a mom of 3 kiddos currently residing in Pennsylvania while my husband is working on his Master’s degree at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.  I was born and raised in California, and our family converted to the Orthodox Church about 6 years ago.  I have always had a passion for art and grew up in an artistic household.  I began doing water-color painting in 2014, which opened my eyes to different types of art I had never tried before. About a year ago, I started entering the world of jewelry making.  I started with essential oil diffuser jewelry, then moved on to wire-wrapped pendants, then finally found my niche with resin and dried flowers.  Each piece inspires me, and I love the way the flowers flow differently with every pendant.  I never thought I would have a passion for jewelry making, but I was pleasantly surprised.  I am so thankful to be part of this sweet story, and I am glad I get to share my art and creative love with everyone.
You can see Meghan’s work at Violet and Vine – here[https://www.etsy.com/shop/VioletandVines]

Children, Grief, and Imagination: An Interview with Dr. Chrissi Hart

When our much-loved guinea pig died, I wrote Piggy in Heaven to help us grieve for him. The story made us laugh, and it made us cry all over again. But story-telling opened a mental window, and we could “see” Piggy again, playing in the grass, wheeking, hopping, waiting for us somewhere in eternity, with love. In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to hear the wonderful Dr. Chrissi Hart sharing Piggy in Heaven on her podcast, “Readings from Under the Grapevine.” Dr. Hart is a psychologist who works with grieving children, and she kindly shared some wisdom with me about helping your child come to terms with death.

 Melinda: At What age do children understand death?

Dr. Hart: Children discover the unpredictability of the world when a pet dies. Age and developmental level also determine how a child experiences grief. For example, younger children below age 6 years, do not understand the finality of death, which they see as temporary and reversible. They do not understand the pet is gone and is not coming back. They may have many questions, like how the pet will breathe, play or run in the ground. At around age 6 years, children develop a concept of death and that it is permanent.  They understand then that their pet is not returning.

Melinda: How does a child’s experience of losing a pet compare to grieving for a family member or friend?

Dr. Hart: The death of a pet is usually a child’s first experience of death and loss. The grief is similar and can be as profound as losing a family member or friend. Children experience similar stages of grief as adults do after the loss of a pet as they would for the loss of a family member or friend. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kubler-Ross). Children may get stuck on the sadness part or may have alternating anger and sadness.

Melinda: What are some ways that children use their imaginations to handle grief?

Dr. Hart: Young children often express their grief through play and in their drawings or paintings. They can use their imagination by thinking of the pet in a happy place like dog or cat heaven, or with God, playing, eating and running around in wonderful places. One of the best ways for children to use their imaginations to handle grief is by reading books on the subject. This can not only be therapeutic, but also an opportunity for parent-child discussions about feelings, anxieties and fears and answering the child’s questions.

Melinda: How can parents and caregivers help their children grieve in healthy ways?

Dr. Hart: Talk to your child about how they feel, listen to their responses and observe their behavior. Read books together on the loss of a pet. Have a ritual for the burial which may include a prayer. Keep a memory box of photos. Understand the grief process and where the child is at present and know that children are generally resilient and can recover quicker than adults.

Children between the ages of 2 and 7 years may have magical thinking about a loss and may feel responsible in some way, believing they caused the loss. They can be reassured that the pet’s death has nothing to do with anything they thought or did.

Melinda: What are some warning signs that a child may need extra help with grieving?

 Dr. Hart: Look for changes in behavior, such as sleep problems, nightmares, irritability, anxiety, sadness and crying, and verbalizing struggles. Regressed behavior such as toileting problems, clinging and separation anxiety are other warning signs.

Melinda: Tell us about some pets you’re hoping to meet in heaven!

 Dr. Hart: I hope to meet my cats Flopsy, Ellie and Natalia again one day!

*****************************

Dr. Chrissi Hart is a Licensed Psychologist in York, Pennsylvania where she lives with her husband, adult son and daughter and their orange cat Ginger. She has a private practice with her husband, helping children and adolescents with anxiety, psychosomatic disorders, loss and bereavement. She has publications in child psychology, is the author of several Orthodox Christian children’s books and hosts the popular children’s podcast, Readings from Under the Grapevine, on Ancient Faith Radio.

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/grapevine

www.chrissihart.com

His Eye is on the Sparrow

This week’s blog is written by Melinda Johnson, author of “Piggy in Heaven,” coming soon from Paraclete Press! 

“When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is He. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” – Civilla Durfee Martin, His Eye is On the Sparrow, 1905

We don’t take small animals seriously. If you’re an adult who owns a hamster, you’re probably the only one you know. At the movies or in the library, it’s easy to find a horse or a dog saving the hero’s life or demonstrating wisdom and loyalty. Epic tales about small herbivores are hard to come by. We expect to find these little creatures in cartoons and picture books or serving nobly as the comic relief. In a serious story, you might find a canary or a perky rat accessorizing a character the author hopes will be eccentric.

I have been the fortunate human guardian of, at various times, two bunnies, seven hamsters, a rotating selection of fish, and one guinea pig. All of these animals are considered children’s pets – small, adorable, and inconsequential. Yet I learned important things from each of them, and these epiphanies built on each other into a staunch belief that the tiniest members of creation are as precious and intelligent as the largest and most obviously heroic. Caring for these little pets through their lifetime and at the moment of their death has taught me beautiful lessons. I will share three with you here.

God is in the details.

Two of our tiny friends were dwarf, or miniature, hamsters. These hamsters are less than 3 inches long, and yet they are complete living creatures, with exquisite little eyes and hands, tiny beating hearts, and downy fur. When you hold one in your hand, she feels light and warm. Her fingernails and whiskers tickle equally and seem about the same circumference. If you can keep your eyes on the shy, busy little animal and let your mind leap outwards to the edges of the cosmos, you can begin to see what a miracle she is. Think of the painstaking attention it took to create one hamster. Think how many hamsters have graced our planet since time began. And that’s only hamsters! What about bunnies? Birds? Caterpillars? Lemmings? Think of every little voiceless creature you pass without seeing every day. They are all testaments to the infinite, loving creative Essence who could invent life in such diversity and detail.

Words are not the only measure of intelligence.

One of the first ways a child learns to distinguish between humans and animals is language. “I love my doggy, but he doesn’t talk.” Animals are a long step up from toys, which don’t talk or move, but that absence of words is a disappointment.

We grownups publish books and articles about animal intelligence, and we consider it newsworthy because it surprises us. Who would think a crow could make a tool? How amazing that dolphins use their own language! What if dogs can discern right from wrong? I believe our surprise results from our strong tendency to perceive animals as lesser editions of ourselves, rather than as separate and inherently mysterious creatures. Little by little, we are learning to ask how an animal expresses its inner life, instead of assuming it does not have one. We hamper these efforts by anthropomorphizing, often with the best intentions. We’re likely to offer mercy to an animal that seems “almost human” to us, and mercy is a good gift. But I hope we can stretch ourselves to admit how much of the world and its creatures may be outside our knowledge or in need of our kindness.

Pets are not replaceable.

I overheard a conversation once between a child and an adult. It went like this:

Adult: “I’m sorry about your hamster. Your mom told me it died.”

Child: “That’s okay. I’m going to get another one.”

I don’t blame anyone in this scenario. We all comfort our children as best we can. The words stayed with me because they reflect the way we gloss over the individuality of small animals. If no two snowflakes have ever been alike, no two hamsters have ever been alike. Every animal is a single instance.

Every death leaves an empty space, even the death of a miniature hamster, a bunny, or a guinea pig. You are left with love that has no outlet, and your heart hurts. A new pet is wonderfully healing, but it is a new pet; it is not the old one back again. We lessen our ability to understand and treasure life if we reduce it to a mass-produced commodity.

So when I think of that old hymn about the sparrow, and I reflect on the beloved little animals who have shared our home, I remember that not one sparrow falls to the earth outside the Father’s care. Yes, Jesus says we are “of more value than many sparrows,” but in the same moment, He is telling us that He loves the sparrows, too.

From Tain Gregory — This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Our youngest author, Tain Gregory, and his mother and co-author, Sophfronia Scott, were deeply affected by the events of that day, and wrote about their experiences and their faith in the book This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. Tain is 14 now, and today he shares some thoughts on how he has grown since that day six years ago.

This past October, I stood with my mom in front of a crowd of people of all ages at Trinity Church in Asheville, North Carolina. We gave a speech about our book, This Child of Faith to an audience of 160 people. Many people in the meeting asked me questions about my experiences and my strong faith, but it was really nice when I got to talk to a younger boy named Collin. Collin was very energetic, and asked questions as fast as a cheetah. We talked to each other after the speech, and he asked questions about people who act mean to others. I think I really helped him a lot. My mom and I have been giving speeches in other churches in many different states. We’ve been doing this for about a year. When I started writing This Child of Faith I was only in 7th grade. Now it is almost the 1 year anniversary of the book, and a lot has changed since then.

I find it amazing that I have been going to church for nearly 8 years! I’ve gone from being a novice in the children’s church choir to being the crucifer leading the church service. I have just started confirmation class, and I have been enjoying it. Confirmation is when you confirm your faith in Christ. We are learning about ways to connect with God, and we are also learning more about Christianity. I have some really nice teachers, and really nice classmates who are there to help me on my confirmation journey. In one of our meetings, we talked about things that society wants us to believe. For example, you should listen to specific types of music and wear specific types of clothes. We wrote these on a big sheet of paper… and burned it in a fire. Then, on another sheet of paper, we wrote things that we believe. Things that no one else tells us to believe, but that we choose to believe ourselves. This was a really good exercise to show that we control what we believe, and that you can expand your faith by believing what you want. I know that believing has helped me expand my own faith a lot.

I’m thinking about this now because this week is the 6th anniversary of the shooting at my former school, Sandy Hook Elementary, and the death of my friend Ben. Ben was very close to me, and losing him was really hard. But I think that the experience of the shooting brought me a lot closer to God. When it happened, I began praying to God a lot more often because I felt sad. But God was helping me with what I was going through because he was there for me.

Today Ben reminds me of the character Asriel Dreemurr, a child, from a video game called Undertale. Both of them had a very innocent nature, and they were both very kind and friendly. And the main thing they share is that they were both killed. Recently when I was playing through Undertale, I noticed this connection between Ben and Asriel. I started to cry during Asriel’s speech at the end of the game. It was a sad speech. He died for no reason, like Ben. But I love playing Undertale anyway because I like seeing Ben and so many of my friends in the game’s characters.

Asriel is still a powerful character. Ben was also powerful and he still has the power to be here. Even though he’s gone, I feel his spirit is still here and still determined to make us happy.

And God is always there for me, and I know that he always will be there for me. Whenever I am feeling worried about myself, my family, or any of my friends, praying to God is always helpful because I can always ask him to watch over the person I am praying about. I can always trust God to watch over my friends and family because I know he will always find a way to make things better.

All you have to do is ask him for help. It’s like what Dumbledore says in the film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “You will find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” This is the same with God. You can always ask God for help. I have learned more about talking to God. There is one part of my book where I talk about places that I am able to pray. It explains that you can pray to God wherever you are. You don’t have to be in a church kneeling down at an altar. You can talk to God at your house, at the supermarket, even at a gas station! God is always free to listen to you because he cares about you.

Tain Gregory is a freshman at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, Connecticut, and co-author with his mother Sophfronia Scott of the book This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. He enjoys watching anime, playing video games, and making Minecraft Hacks.

For Advent I from David Bannon

Blessed Advent! We invite all of our readers to enter this holy season with these words from David Bannon, author of Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations. As David notes: Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.  

“Your hurts, small as a child”
Communion in Friedrich Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children
Text and translations by David Bannon

Friedrich Rückert was a compassionate man. Visitors often commented on his enthusiasm, whimsy and humor.1 Hailed by The Atlantic Monthly as “the last of the grand old generation of German poets,”2 many of his lieder, or songs, were set to music by the great composers of the day. But for three decades Friedrich hid from view his most personal work.

The day after Christmas 1833, Friedrich’s youngest child, three-year-old Luise, showed symptoms of scarlet fever. She died on New Year’s Eve. His son Ernst died on January 16, twelve days after the boy turned five. Friedrich’s four remaining children survived. He was kind and attentive to them, grateful for each moment, yet his grief for Luise and Ernst was unassuaged. “That I should drink and eat, eat and drink,” he wrote, “forgetting all the while that you are lost to me!”3

Over the first six months of 1834 Friedrich composed hundreds of poems on loss and mourning. “Spare me these delights!” he cried. “They cannot fool my heart, adding grief to grief.”4 He averaged 2–3 poems each day. Some are his finest, others less so; none was intended for publication.5 He kept Luise and Ernst’s pastel portraits with him for the rest of his life.6 Six years after Friedrich’s death, in 1872, his son Heinrich compiled 425 of the poems in Kindertodtenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).7

Your hurts, small as a child,
you brought to me, mother-like,
for consolation and care.

Now my hurt, not so small,
I bring to you:
Oh my child, console me!

So we exchange love for loss:
a heart full of care;
a hurt inconsolable.8

Friedrich’s life resonates with me. He was a scholar, translator and professor. We both taught college for years; both published on Asia extensively; both translated from Asian and other languages. We both lost children on the same day: his son died on January 16, 1534; my daughter died on January 16, 2015.

Rückert had a gift for understatement and a penchant for allusion. Before my daughter’s death, the depth and breadth of his sorrow would have been beyond my grasp. Now I find communion and solace in his poems. Occasionally I’ll come across a piece that defies literary analysis; that dares me to capture in translation a moment many bereaved parents know well:

Here rests in this chest
much that was yours;
sacred and silent:
like you, undisturbed.

Your dress in this chest,
camisole in your coffin.
Your little shoes
never to remove.

Each day from this chest
I lift dress after dress;
seeking sorrow, perhaps:
or solace or mercy.9

Friedrich chose a double entendre for this poem. Truhe, meaning chest or trunk, is also a word for coffin. It took me a year to finally go through all of my daughter’s things. Her chest is here with me as I type, carefully preserved in my office closet.

Research shows that fathers who have lost adult children are at the highest level of grief for men in every bereavement category except guilt.10 Such comparisons are useful to counselors and medical professionals—may in fact be necessary and helpful—but to the bereaved, they seem obscene. Friedrich’s children were young, my daughter was an adult; he lost two of eight, I lost my only child. A moment’s thought reveals how such measurements lose all meaning. In Rückert’s songs, I stumble through the same dark valley he walked 180 years ago. Friedrich and I share something else: an affinity for the waldesgrund. Literally translated as forest ground or floor, the term is seldom used for a glade or park; only the deep wood:

Deep in the wood
and the rocky valley
my heart and voice cry
a thousand times:
Children, are you there?
‘Here!”
Where is here? ‘Here! Here!’

Dark wooded brush
stands between us,
I do not see you;
tell me, are you
far? near?
‘Near!’
How near? ‘Near, near!’

Do you want to draw near
from where you are?
Always mine, the one
joy in this pain?
Mine? No? Yes?
‘Yes!’
Always yes? ‘Yes, yes!’11

Gustav Mahler later set five of Rückert’s poems to music; his Kindertotenlieder premiered in 1905. Gustav’s interpretations are moving but his most profound work was still to come. In 1907 his four- year-old daughter, Putzi, died of diphtheria and scarlet fever. As a musician, Mahler may have appreciated Rückert’s subtle tonality, cadence and repetition. Now in his grief, Gustav knew the harm and hope Friedrich put in each song:

You were the slightest:
are you, then, unharmed?
Your country, that fineness,
are you, so, unspoiled?

Your country, your slightness:
preserved, then, in
such purity, so
preserved and saved?

The slightest, dearly loved;
brightest now, and gone,
radiant once, always:
Will I see you there?12

Mahler’s next composition, Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth), speaks of life, death, parting, and redemption. 13 It was Gustav’s masterpiece.

__________

Some text portions of this article were excerpted and edited from Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, which features ten Rückert poems not printed here. As with those in the book, the Rückert poems in this article are original translations that have never before been published in English.

__________

1 fancy and humor: Bayard Taylor, Critical Essays and Literary Notes (Putnam’s Sons, 1880): 97

2 The last of the grand: Bayard Taylor, “Friedrich Rückert,” Atlantic Monthly, 18(105) (July 1866): 33; collected in The Atlantic Monthly, v18 (Ticknor & Fields, 1866).

3 That I should drink: from “Daß ich trinken soll und essen,” Kindertodtenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children], ed. Heinrich Rückert, trans. D. Bannon (Sauerländer, 1872): 69.

4 Spare me these delights: from “Rathet mir nicht zum Vergnügen,” Rückert, 142.

5 Some are his finest: see Peter Revers, “Kindertotenlieder” in Karen Painter, ed., Mahler and His World, Revers section trans. Irene Zedlacher (Princeton University Press, 2002): 174.

6 pastel portraits: Friedrich had the portraits made in autumn 1833.

7 Six years after: In 1881, after Heinrich’s death, Marie Rückert rearranged 241 of the poems according to Friedrich’s diary in a new edition, Lied und Leid [Song and Sorrow]. See Friedrich Rückert, Gesammelte Poetische Werke, v12, ed. Conrad Beyer (Sauerländer, 1882): 477.

8 Your hurts: “Wie du sonst dein kleines Leid,” Rückert, 173.

9 Here rests: “Hier lieg’ in der Truhe,” Rückert, 279.

10 highest level of grief: William Fish, “Differences of Grief Intensity in Bereaved Parents,” in Therese Rando, ed., Parental Loss of a Child (Research Press, 1986): 223, 417, 426.

11 Deep in the wood: “Tief im Waldesgrund,” Rückert, 206-207.

12 You were the slightest: “Weil ihr wart die Kleinsten,” Rückert, 279-280.

13 Mahler’s four-year-old daughter: Maria Anna, called Putzi, 3 November 1902 – 5 July 1907.