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Two Books for Eastertide

It is Eastertide, the fifty-day season in the Church that has as its theme the Resurrection of Jesus. It is a time of awe, elation and beauty; a time for sharing the joy of salvation and new life. This Eastertide two books have helped to add to the jubilation for me: Thumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace by Luci Shaw and Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season, published by Plough Publishing House.

Thumbprint in the Clay (InterVarsity Press, 2016) is the latest book by writer and poet Luci Shaw. In the Acknowledgement she writes, “I have been pursuing the torturous conception and growth of this baby [Thumbprint in the Clay] for many years, sometimes forgetting and almost aborting it by neglect. It first showed its embryonic self as an idea for a plenary address at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing…Thereafter, like an unborn child, it somehow survived in the womb of an old laptop…Years passed. At another Glen Workshop in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, I rediscovered the text in my laptop, read it over and wondered, Is there something usable here? Might it still come to life?… It was then the unborn but tenacious thumbprint theme began again to take over.”

So, can we consider this book as an “almost death” of a work that has been resurrected? I think Shaw would be pleased with that Easter-inspired idea.

Because of the number of years Thumbprint in the Clay took to complete and due to the stories that Shaw tells of her life over many different decades, this volume feels autobiographical. Throughout the nonlinear telling of her life-journey, Shaw leads the reader on a physical trek across the span of her life, telling of people, landscapes and art that have left their marks on her. As Shaw moves back and forth in time through Thumbprint in the Clay, she intersperses poems as the metaphysical thumbprints of her spiritual journey.

In the chapter entitled “God-Printed People,” Shaw writes of the period of time during her school years when she tried to adjust to relocations that took her and her family halfway around the globe. These moves left Shaw free-floating in her adolescent years, negatively affecting her view of herself as a student and depleting her confidence to question her parents’ vocational choice for her future. Was a missionary’s life God’s thumbprint on her, as her parents believed? Was that path the one-and-only vocation for which she was designed? Discovering that God had another calling for her was an epiphany for Shaw which changed the trajectory of her life. Shaw quotes poet and Boston College professor Paul Mariani as he spoke to other poets about their mission: “Cultivating your art — that’s your spiritual discipline.” The professor that helped Shaw recognize her primary calling, Dr Clyde S. Kilby, professor of English at Wheaton College, was, Shaw writes, one of the “God-Printed People” in her life.

In extending the metaphor of the thumbprint to other kinds of impressions, Shaw notes in the chapter “Seals of Authenticity,” that in the Old Testament book of Haggai, God chose to use Zerubbabel, a Jew in captivity but also a governor of a Persian province, to be God’s “signet ring.” God tells the prophet Haggai that God is about to use his servant, Zerubbabel, to make an important impression – an authoritative impression such as a king would make on a royal decree by pressing his signet ring into the hot wax of an official document, thus authenticating it. “On that day…I will take you, O Zerubbabel,…as my personal servant and I will set you as a signet ring, the sign of my sovereign presence and authority…I’ve…chosen you for this work.” (Haggai 2:23 The Message). Shaw writes here, “When we look closely at what Yahweh was saying through his prophet Haggai we see…”I am extending my authority through you, Zerubbabel, so that you may make my mark on your people.

“But how was this “marking” to begin and continue? Not only was Zerubbabel one of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, but that seal of divine authority has been passed on to us by Christ himself to make a mark on our own culture, many centuries later. ‘Go and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.’ ” (Matthew 28:19 The Message) “This opens up a deep, personal, practical contact between deity and the human being…[if] we listen with ever-opening ears.”

The following is a poem included by Shaw in “Seals of Authenticity”:

Maestro

I love god not as

the conductor of a distant

orchestra that makes of

the universe a band

shell and space an acoustic

device but god who

takes me by the wrist

firmly and points ahead.

Thumbprint in the Clay is an exquisite fusion of prose and poetry. Shaw both enlarges and sharpens our metaphorical vocabulary by pointing to God’s artistic thumbprint in the marks of a river on the landscape, then contrasting that vast impression with the thumbprint of the Creator on DNA. Throughout the book Shaw attests to the glory of God even as she admits that doubts about God have troubled her deeply in her lifetime. This penchant for doubting is yet another mark, I believe — one that identifies the human condition.

Thumbprint in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Grace and Order by Luci Shaw is the kind of book that leaves its own singular, marvelous mark on your mind and heart. Take your time as you read it– it is superbly suited for use in personal devotions.

The second book that I’d like to suggest for Eastertide reading is Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season (Plough Publishing House, 2015). This is a collection of short stories that go straight to the heart of the Easter message. Compiled by Miriam LeBlanc (Home For Christmas: Stories for Young and Old, Plough Publishing House, 2002) and featuring evocative woodcuts by Lisa Toth, Easter Stories contains offerings by such authors as Lew Wallace (Ben Hur), Alan Paton (Cry the Beloved Country), Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov and many others. Some of the stories are about the events of Holy Week, but others are about the meaning of Easter and the power of Christ’s Resurrection to bring about a transfigured life. Because the majority of the stories are from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they contain the melodic language and robust imagery of those times; that means reading them aloud would make a captivating family time.

My current favorite of the tales is Two Old Men by Leo Tolstoy. This story takes place in ancient Russia and features two old peasant friends who long to live as fully devoted Christians. “How is this best done?” they wonder. The two decide that what they need is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Through the genius of Tolstoy’s writing, the friends trek to Jerusalem and back home to Russia in fewer than twenty pages. In those pages scores of situations arise that cause the two old men, and the reader, to search their hearts and ask, “What is true worship?” The conclusion of the story is surprising and thought provoking.

Because it is an anthology, Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season, is a good choice when reading time is scarce. The short-story format keeps reading time to a minimum, but the power of the story of Easter makes the time meaningful. The spiritual theme and the literary caliber of Easter Stories could make this book a favorite to read every Eastertide.