Dear Mr. Knightley

              My book club is going to think I am slightly off my rocker, and maybe they’re right, but I can’t help it. Every time I go to write a post about this book, I end up writing a letter to Mr. Knightley myself!  Who wouldn’t love the idea of a mysterious benefactor, bearing the name of a Jane Austen hero, whose one request is that you write to him? But it is more than that, isn’t it? In the end we discover that you, Mr. Knightley, were drawn to Samantha, even though you knew all her dirt. And that is why we love stories like this. Because we all desire to be loved just as we are with all of our dirt, baggage, and imperfections known. And overlooked.

               We all agreed that Samantha was not very likable in the beginning. But the story had a very real quality in that she dealt with her feelings and anger by running. We were able to see the changes happening in her through her letters. We asked questions like, “Are there people really as generous as Mr. Knightley?”, and even heard a story or two of real life generosity to match what we read. We noticed that Ashley, who at first seemed to be fake and not very deep, ended up being the friend who stuck tight to Samantha!  We wondered if you, Mr. Knightley, were anything like Jane Austen’s (or rather Emma’s) Mr. Knightley.

               I’ve been a fan of Jane Austen’s since I saw Pride & Prejudice (with the real Darcy, Colin Firth) back in 1996. I could not rest until I knew what Mr. Darcy was thinking and exactly how the change in him occurred, which of course, led me to the book. From there I went on to every other Austen novel &/or mini-series I could get my hands on!  Every time I finished a story I would think about the characters for days, or weeks. I decided the reason Jane Austen men are so appealing is that they all have Christ-like qualities. So we discussed who, in this story, was the most Christ-like?  Was it Mr. Muir who agreed to stand by Samantha even if that meant turning his back on the man who was “like his own son”?  Was it Mrs. Muir who was always giving of herself, making room for deeper discussion, and loving on people like they were her own children? Was it Father John who always had Sam’s best interest in mind, even when the decisions were tough? Or could it have even been you, Mr. Knightley, who were drawn closer to Samantha even though you knew who she really was behind the facade? Because that is what Jesus does to us, isn’t it?  Isn’t it the greatest love story ever told, that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us?

               All these questions lead me to this thought: We all have our own stories that we are writing. Who are we loving on in our story, and I mean really loving on? The kind of love that Samantha was surrounded by changed her world. Love that has no limits is life changing, and since we have received it ourselves, we can in turn share it with others.

               And since this is already much longer than I intended, I leave you with this verse, so timely mentioned by Bev Stitzel:  “Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8.

                And isn’t that what it’s really all about?  Thank you for these profound thoughts, Mr. Knightley. I thoroughly enjoyed discussing them with my new friends, the Book Club ladies!

               I remain,

                                                                   Sincerely yours,

                                                                    Anne Shirley……. er, Julie Neal   🙂

P.S. If you have not read this book, I *highly* recommend picking it up!  It will delight you!



Confession: I cannot stand this popular classic novel…

“Do not leave me in this abyss”   ~ Heathcliff

I recently returned to one of the first classic novels that I ever read.  I certainly don’t remember disliking it in the early 1990s as much as I dislike it now, but apparently age and wisdom affect the manner of books we enjoy!

The book is Wuthering Heights by a clearly disturbed Emily Bronte. I returned to this novel because I have a book called The Bronte Plot by the wonderful Katherine Reay on my “to read” shelf and I thought brushing up on my Bronte knowledge might be a good idea.

It was not a good idea.

The more classics I read and the older I get, the more I appreciate enduring themes that convey Christian principles in fictional settings. I am looking for themes like love, faith, hope, sacrifice, and redemption.  These themes are mostly absent in Wuthering Heights. Catherine and Heathcliff, I grant you, shared an innocent sort of love in their young years, but there were always darker shadows around them even then.

As they advance into their adult years, the main themes are regret, anger, hatred, jealousy, revenge, and even murder. Catherine seeks her own comfort by marrying Edgar. Heathcliff hurts everyone in his path because of his own anger and revenge including, but not limited to Edgar Linton, Edgar’s sister Isabella Linton, and Hindley Earnshaw.

As a homeschool mom, trying to raise daughters to be like Jesus, I love to look for Godly characters in literature that demonstrate the themes I mentioned earlier.  Then as a family we can  read the novels and discuss the characters and the roles they play in the story. It has actually become something of a hobby for me as I have found so many lovely characters throughout Dickens, Gaskell, and even Austen novels. My husband asked me, after I recently went on a little tirade slamming Wuthering Heights, if there were any redeeming characters?  I hastily said that this novel has no redeeming value whatsoever. But then after I thought about it, I realized there was one tiny glimpse of a character with love in his heart. That was Catherine and Hindley’s father, Mr. Earnshaw. When he discovered poor Heathcliff in the streets of London, and learned that he was all alone in the world, he brought the young boy home, gave him new clothes to wear, and tried to make him part of the family.

It’s a pity Mr. Earnshaw’s great love and generous nature did not transfer to his children.

My final assessment is 0.001 stars out of 5, and a strange sort of curiosity for the poor and seemingly hopeless life of Emily Bronte that I not inclined to look into.  My girls won’t have this novel on any of their reading lists, but I am now armed with greater understanding to begin reading The Bronte Plot, which is what I was after in the first place. Katherine Reay’s first novel was such a delight that I’m hopeful to find another. But how can she take the themes of anger, death, and destruction and create a redeeming plot? I will soon know the answer.

So what about you, dear reader? Are there any “classic novels” which you would strip of the honor of being considered “classic”?

My Childhood…. in Literature

“No matter what anybody tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”  

~ John Keating in the Dead Poets Society

And if not the world at large, then surely the worlds of the individuals who read. I cannot remember a time in my life when books where not important to me.

In the third grade my teacher started reading our class The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, one chapter per day.  Well, she was not reading fast enough for my taste so I got my Mom to purchase the book for me. I finished it over the weekend, and my life was never the same after that.

I started reading just about anything I could get my hands on.

As I tore through the pages in book after book I was no longer just a young girl growing up in Seattle. I found new worlds in the back of old wardrobes. I traveled from India to England on a boat to live with an uncle I had never met. I lived in the big woods with Ma & Pa, Mary and baby Carrie with not a soul around for miles on end and wild animals roaming around freely.  Then later I discovered a beautiful world where the smallest of people set out to recover gold  stolen by a dragon.

The years passed and I realized that I was not just reading about people in books. I was reading about my friends. I was there with them when they faced their fears, when they were scared, when they didn’t have a friend in the world. And the most amazing thing began to happen, as they learned lessons and fought their own monsters, so did I.  When real events in my own life were unsettling, I thought about my friends in my books, wondered how they would handle things, and tried to follow their lead.

My world was changed, and I began a life-long quest to find books where the characters knew how I felt, so I could learn how they coped. Because the thing about great literature, is that it’s themes are enduring.

One of the reasons I wanted to homeschool my children is so I could choose the books they read through the course of their young lives, and I find that I have become very picky! I don’t trust anything written in the last 50 years, unless I get a recommendation from a reliable source!  I have my own list of “must reads” in childhood, and more about them later. For now, I would love to hear from you. What are some of your most favorite books from childhood?

Life is Like a Football Game!

To begin with, I should tell you that I homeschool my three girls; which means I am always looking for educational opportunities.  I should also tell you that—being a Seattle native—I was a Seahawk fan LONG before it was cool, and LONG before they ever won anything.  In the late 1980s the Seattle Seahawks had one of the best wide receivers in football (the one and only, Steve Largent!!) and, I’m sorry to say, no hope of ever winning much of anything.  None the less, I went to most of the home games for several years, decked my car out with blue and green ribbons, proudly wore my blue & green, and screamed as much as I could with the other 12s in the Kingdome. It wasn’t easy being a Seahawk fan in those days.  We told ourselves, “Just wait—be patient and keep fighting. Our time is coming. You’ll see.”

We had long to wait.

I watched Super Bowl XLVIII from my hotel room at Disney World with my husband (who fell asleep—he’s never claimed to be a football fan!), while our 3 daughters closed out the Magic Kingdom with their aunt and uncle, but it was this last game, the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, that I got my new metaphor for life!

There I sat in my living room staring at my TV screen; with 5 minutes left in the game, we were down 19-7. Just five little tiny minutes left to go. 300 seconds. The loudest stadium in the NFL was silent.  I was becoming despondent, figuring out what it would take to win and thinking about how gloomy I was going to feel for the next several days. What we really needed was an act of God.

And then, with less than 3 minutes left in the game, Russell Wilson ran into the end zone for a touchdown!

Next came the onside kick and, incredibly, the Seahawks ended up with the ball again.  They moved the ball down field *again* and scored *another* touchdown with less than 2 minutes left in the game. Instead of kicking for the extra point, an awesome play was made for a 2 point conversion. The game was now 19-22 Seahawks, with around 1 minute to play.

The Packers got the ball and after a series of plays, scored 3 more points with a field goal. The game was tied at 22 with 19 seconds on the clock.

Are you kidding me? I was in total shock.

The Seahawks won the overtime coin toss. They took possession of the ball again. They moved the ball down the field again, and Wilson passed down field to Kearse. Touchdown!!  Seahawks win.

To say I was wild with excitement would be an understatement. I was jumping up and down, shouting for joy, crying.  My 11-year-old daughter looked at me like she had never seen me before.  The presentation of the trophy came on the TV, and there was Steve Largent up on the podium—my most favorite Seahawk of ALL TIME—I started crying again.  When the dust settled and the interviews were over, my daughter looked at me and said, “Why were you crying?”

I could I put into words the enormity of what I was feeling?

I told her that this game was a perfect metaphor for life and that I did not want her to ever forget it. I told her I had been a Seahawk fan for almost 30 years, and all that time they never won much of anything.

I told her: there will be times in your life when you feel beaten, when you’ve messed up (was it 4 interceptions that Russell Wilson threw in the game?), when it seems like all is lost and there’s no possible way out.  But that is exactly when you cannot give up! Keep believing in your team. Keep believing in yourself, because God doesn’t make failures. And most importantly, keep believing that God has a plan for you.  That His plan is usually better than you could think or imagine, and that His glory will be revealed in the end.

The moral of this story is what Russell Wilson said, through tears, right after the game when a reporter asked him, “What are you thinking right now?”

This is what he said.

“God is so good…… All the time……. Every time.”

So in the end, life is like a football game.



For more information on the Seahawk’s journey since the 1980s, check out this article:

No Greater Joy

(This post is part of Margaret Feinberg’s Partymob for her brand-new book and Bible study, Fight Back with Joy. To join the celebration (and learn more), click here: To grab a copy of this book, click here: )

I suppose if I were to mount an expedition to search for true and lasting joy, I would start in Walt Disney World… that or I’d watch people at Christmastime.

Surely between “the happiest place on earth” and “the most wonderful time of the year” you will find people so full of joy that they’re dancing or skipping around, whistling or singing a song, and laughing with goodness pouring out onto all they meet? And if you go to a mall at Christmastime and watch people, surely you would find that the season of joy, the celebration of the Savior, brings out the most courteous, humble, and giving side of people?

It doesn’t.

I used to think that joy was a fleeting superficial emotion like being happy or sad, that I could summon it when I needed to, despite how I actually felt, and that joy would somehow magically become my disposition when things were going right. I was wrong. It took a long dark path, full of thorns, to lead me to great joy.

It took me moving to the far opposite corner of the country and waiting till after my 29th birthday for me to find Mr. Right.  We got married and then, after telling all our close friends and family that we’d wait 5 or 6 years to have kids, had our oldest daughter 10 months after our wedding!  It was a quick journey of life-changing events, but it wasn’t quite over yet.

Our wedding was outside on a lake in Tennessee and completely beautiful, except for the fact that my Dad was so sick with cancer that he could not make the trip from Washington.

It was almost a year later, when our daughter was about 3 months old, that we got the dreaded call saying Dad had taken a turn for the worse and would probably not make it another month. We got on a plane and took our small infant across the country to meet her Grandpa. We enjoyed our time as best we could. We took pictures of Grandpa with Grand-daughter, spent a lot of time talking, and even had church at home and shared the Lord’s Supper. Getting on the plane to return home to Georgia was one of the most difficult journey’s I’ve made. Two weeks after that trip I returned to Washington for Dad’s funeral.

My Mom and step-Dad spent a lot of time in Georgia during this time. I had spent all of my time as a teenager with one of my older sisters and her babies, but somehow that didn’t translate and I was a nervous wreck as a new mom. I had lived in a different state for seven years by this time and so I *loved* having my Mom around! The last time she and Jim visited they put an offer down on a house not far from us, and returned home to Washington full of anticipation.  I anxiously awaited the years of joy ahead of us, once again living in the same city. But it was not to be.

A few weeks after her last visit, seven months after Dad’s funeral, Mom passed away suddenly from what we would later learn was Marfan’s Syndrome.

My world came to a screeching halt. Two and a half years prior to this I had been single with no view of marriage on the horizon. I met the perfect man for me, we got married, we had a baby, I lost my Dad, and now Mom was gone. All of it happened before my second anniversary. It was too much. Hope seemed lost. Joy eluded me. I looked in the mirror and did not even recognize the person staring back at me. I wondered, how do I act as the Mom? The wife? A 31-year-old with older siblings, but no parents. I didn’t know. I cried out to God. I got angry. I wanted to know why.

Then somewhere, in a place I didn’t even know existed, a voice began whispering to me. I was reminded of Job and how he lost *everything* and was still able to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed is the name of the Lord.”  I thought about my own situation. I had been alone as a single person at age 29. But God saw fit to bless my life with a husband AND daughter before taking both my Dad and Mom. Two people gained. Two people lost.  I said the words out loud, willing myself to believe them. The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

An amazing thing started happening. Slowly, over the following months—and even years—I started believing it. Even though my path was dark, and my way seemed dim, God in His infinite mercy had been gracious to me. The pain was still there, but how much more would it have been if I was still single and alone. The name of the Lord was indeed to be praised, I could see that more clearly while walking the thorny path.

In the movie Last of the Mohicans there is a scene where an Indian chief demands the heroine (Cora) be burned at the stake for atonement. With her are the man she loves, Nathaniel, and the man who loves her, Duncan (who also happens to be a soldier). When the chief demands her death, both men begin arguing to take them instead and Duncan wins out due to the fact that he is a decorated soldier. The men begin to haul Duncan away to tie him up and Nathaniel and Cora are set free.

The first time I watched this scene it cut me to the heart. I imagined myself in Cora’s place. How would I feel after having such an experience? Wouldn’t I spend the rest of my life telling everyone I knew, my children and grand-children, and even great grand-children, that I was only alive because of this man’s sacrifice? How could I ever truly despair or feel worthless if such a thing ever happened to me?

The reality hit me like a slap in the face.

It has been done for me. It’s been done for us all. Jesus came and took our place just as the chief was demanding our lives. Jesus went to the cross, willingly, and suffered a horrible death—so that we might live.

That is where true joy lies.  In taking that journey through pain, darkness, and doubt and realizing God is actually on your side, carrying you through as a parent carries a sick child. That there IS someone who loves you so much, that they gave up their own life so you might live.

I love Christmastime. I love all the many references to this deep and true joy that comes through much pain.  The angel appeared to the shepherds, scaring them half to death, and proclaimed, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of *great joy* that will be for ALL people.”  The songs on the radio shout joy to the world, the Lord is come. And another says “Because our God loves us so, there is *no greater joy*.”

I go to Disney and I am so thankful that God inspired such a man as Walt Disney to create such a magical place. I feel the joy that I used to long for, and I want to spread it around to as many people as possible.

I was so excited last year when I learned that Margaret Feinberg’s new book would be called Fight Back with Joy.  She has been to some dark places, and made it through. She is willing to share her dark night of the soul, in order to spread hope. And joy. It takes great courage to share the most intimate struggles of your life, and for that I applaud her.

The book does not disappoint!  It is a great read, with a great message. After you read it, share it with all you know.

When we make the decision to fight back with joy we are declaring that the darkness does not win.

You can purchase the book using these links:

6-Session Bible Study Kit:

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The Greatest Story Ever Told

They sat opposite each other at the dinner table with a topic hanging between them in the air: two different people with very different personalities, two different life journeys.  One was male and one female. One was from the big city and one from a small town.  One was trying to explain the larger story and one was on the brink of a life-changing experience.  I sat off to the side, watching the scene unfold, waiting to see the Holy Spirit leave His mark.

Then it happened. He told her that the blood of the lamb that saved God’s people from death during the Passover foreshadowed the blood of Jesus saving us from death today.

In Exodus Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt after the final plague, the death of the first born. The people were to kill a lamb and paint their doorpost with its blood to protect them from death. God said, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.  I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”  ~ Exodus 12:12-13

Then in Matthew 26, the night before Jesus was crucified, He celebrated the Passover with His disciples for the last time. He took the cup, gave thanks, and offered it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” ~ Matthew 26:27-28

God said to the children of Israel, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” and He says to us today, “When I see the blood of Jesus, I will pass over you.”

Passover lambThe topic no longer hung between the two people at the table. The connection was made and the woman’s eyes were opened to a God who was bigger and more loving that we could ever hope or imagine.  She saw a God so full of love that He set His plan in motion centuries before it was fulfilled.  His love is everlasting. It endures through all generations.  The Holy Spirit gave her a new glimpse of this unfathomable love in a way she had not known before, and then placed her in the story as the recipient of that love. The power of revelation in the air.

And she wept.

It happens that way when the literature of God comes alive. It leaves its mark on you, and you are never, ever the same.

I am blessed when I witness experiences like this first hand. Our God is a glorious God who loves us more than we could ever understand. Look for Him in your life. Open yourself up to the wonder, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you. His story is the greatest story ever told, and you are a part of it.

The only question is, what part will you play?


The Parable of the Lost Hubcap

One Wednesday night a few months back we were leaving church when my middle daughter, Sydney, noticed that a hubcap was missing from one of my tires. And as much as I’d like to think of myself as a deep thinker, not bothered by exteriors, I learned that night that I actually can be very shallow!  I could not bear the thought of driving a car missing a hubcap! I obsessed about it all that night and into the next day?  Did someone *take* it? (Surely not in a church parking lot???)  Did it just fall off?? Wasn’t it just there this morning? By the next afternoon I had a replacement, but I still could not stop thinking about *my* hubcap.

Over the next few weeks I watched the roadside and intersections along our standard route to church. I had my girls look with me. I memorized the pattern of the hubcap so I could spot it easily, and even thought about the black scuff mark it bore after an ill-fated parking attempt. Surely I would recognize it!

Finally, on one of these trips I saw a hubcap, lying against the median just off a busy intersection. It was lying face down but seemed, from the bottom, to have the same pattern as my lost hubcap.  The next time we drove to church I slowed down and had the girls look and, sure enough, as far as we could tell, it was the same pattern!  We made plans to stop in one of the parking lots just off that intersection the next time we were on our way to or from church.

It was another week before we were driving that same route to church again, and plotting how we would retrieve the hubcap from a busy intersection on a main highway. I pulled slowly into the turn lane planning to pull off into a nearby parking lot, and then my husband, Wayne, noticed it leaning against a pole across the intersection and more easily assessable. We pulled into a gas station and when Wayne brought it back to the car and showed it to me. There it was.  There was my once lost, but now found, scuffed-up hubcap.

Jesus told a story of in Luke chapter 15 about a woman who lost a coin. He said of this woman, “Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

When Wayne turned the hubcap to where I could see the exterior of it, I screamed in shock! The girls started laughing, saying, “Mom! That’s your hubcap! You found your hubcap!!” We got home and it was given a place of prominence where we could look at it every day.  Uncle James came to visit us when he was in town on business, and he was ushered in and shown the hubcap after being told the wonderful story.  For the next week whenever the girls and I met up with friends, I was encouraged to tell The Story of the Lost Hubcap.  And here’s the thing, it’s just a plastic hubcap. We had 3 others exactly like it. We had even replaced it!

To me, one of the most miraculous things about Jesus was the way He spoke in parables. We consider great works of literature “classics” when they endure the test of time and prove that the message they contain applies to people of all generations. Some classics have even been translated and cross the boundaries of language and culture.  But here is Jesus, the God-man, telling stories that apply to *every* generation and *all* cultures.  And told in such a way that they still come to life, and you can still become part of His story, 2000 years later on the other side of the world.

We became the woman in the story of The Parable of the Lost Coin. We lost something. We searched for it. We found it again. We rejoiced, told our friends the amazing story, and put our lost hubcap on display. But more importantly, we realized on a much larger scale, that we became part of the Jesus Story; the one where He died on the cross because He loved us so much; the one where just one sinner repenting and coming back to Jesus causes the angels in Heaven to rejoice. We looked at our experience, compared it to Bible literature, and our little story was made BIG.

Analogies are made. Meaning becomes clear. You can get a new lease on life….. through literature.