George MacDonald: A Brain Reeling in the Refining Fire & Spinning Potter¬â„s Wheel

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When I cannot understand God’s working in my life, I find comfort in George MacDonald, Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister, whose vision of the Christian life crackled with spiritual, intellectual and creative energy, whose passion for God was joyfully unswerving, yet whose professional pursuits kept him on the margins of the faith community and on the edge of financial ruin.

Each day I read a selection from his “Diary of and Old Soul,” finding in him one who understands the paradox of seeking God fully, while experiencing our human fallen-ness profoundly. I sit adjacent to a dark, brooding yet inviting painting I bought from artist Chris Anderson. It is from her series inspired by MacDonald and painted on location in the community in Northern Scotland where he lived and worked.

Though MacDonald is relatively unknown today, this prolific author and financially strapped pastor lives on in his works, and perhaps most significantly, in the works of other luminaries he inspired, among them (according to Wikipedia), “W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle. C. S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master”. Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day in a train station, he began to read; “a few hours later,” said Lewis, “I knew I had crossed a great frontier.” G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had “made a difference to my whole existence”. Elizabeth Yates wrote of Sir Gibbie that “[i]t moved me the way books did when as a child … Now and then a book is read as a friend, and after it life is not the same … Sir Gibbie did this to me.” Even Mark Twain, who initially despised MacDonald, became friends with him upon their meeting for the first time¢â‚¬¦

MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson); it was MacDonald’s advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald’s three young daughters that convinced Carroll to submit Alice for publication. Carroll, one of the finest Victorian photographers, also created photographic portraits of the girls and their brother Greville¢â‚¬¦. MacDonald was acquainted with most of the literary luminaries of the day; a surviving group photograph shows him with Tennyson, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Ruskin, Lewes, and Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of Longfellow and Walt Whitman¢â‚¬¦

His best-known works are Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, all fantasy novels, and fairy tales such as “The Light Princess”, “The Golden Key”, and “The Wise Woman”. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” MacDonald also published some volumes of sermons, the pulpit not having proved an unreservedly successful venue.”

MacDonald’s life bore fruit, yet not as he anticipated and not in ways apparent to him in his own lifetime. As he struggled to make his way professionally, he came to see God’s work IN him as the larger symphony in which to situate the less important theme of how God was at work through him.

These readings serve to illustrate:

Remember, Lord, thou hast not made me good.
Or if thou didst, it was so long ago
I have forgotten and never understood,
I humbly think. At best it was crude,
A rough-hewn goodness, that did need this woe,
This sin, these harms of all kinds fierce and rude.
To shape it out, making it live and grow.

But thou art making me, I thank thee, sire.
What thou hast done and doest thou know’st well,
And I will help thee: gently in thy fire
I will lie burning; and thy potter’s-wheel
I will whirl patient, though my brain should reel.
Thy grace shall be enough the grief to quell,
And growing strength perfect through weakness dire.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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