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July 2014

Sunday Reading (Part Two)

Wizrd“I am Oz, the great and terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?”

When I was in Kansas in October last year, spending Fall Break with my daughter, I found a beautiful Penguin Threads edition of The Wizard of Oz in a bookstore, softbound yet housed in a multicolor, textured cover, with a long introduction about the author, L. Frank Baum, and annotations throughout. Never having read the story, I decided to spring for it. I didn’t like the movie — scary as a child, creepy now — and yet I knew the story was a bit different and, besides, the tactile pleasure of holding a book with a great cover is a pleasure.

Yet Baum’s words are even better. I was hooked from the first page with his description of the spartan homestead “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” the “great gray prairie on every side,” where the “sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass,” and a house that “was dull and gray as everything else,” and Uncle Henry who never laughed and Aunt Em who covered her ears and screamed when Dorothy would laugh. There’s a theme here. Not enticing. And not accurate, really, as the Kansas prairie glows golden in the sun, and even in the Flint Hills rises and falls, beautiful in its own way. But Baum is interested in contrast, his opinions of the harshness of rural life coloring his perceptions.

I’ll read that book. It’s a keeper, even if a tad dark. At least there are no singing munchkins.

While I have had great use for books on Christianity and the Arts, Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden is one I will store for reference. It’s an elucidation of themes more succinctly stated in Francis Schaeffer’s classic Art and the Bible, from the late Sixties, still a valuable guide. Barrs was a long-time L’Abri worker and associate of Schaeffer and now heads the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary, so it’s no surprise he echoes his mentor. However, his chapters on Tolkien, Lewis, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen may appeal to those who are looking for fresh insight into those authors and/or books. No munchkins here, thank goodness.

Another book on art and faith, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, is a great collection of essays you can dip into without wholly committing to the whole read. Essayists include Lauren Winner, Eugene Peterson, and Jeremy Begbie. I read Peterson’s “The Pastor: How Artists Shape Pastoral Identity,” and Barbara Nicolosi’s “The Artist: What Exactly Is an Artist, and How Do We Shepherd Them,” as I know a lot of artists and realize they have the capacity to provoke and disturb and bless all at the same time, and yet we don’t always receive them well. I’m saving this one, at least to read Lauren Winner, one day. And maybe, one day, in toto. Maybe on my way to Kansas.

My wife went to The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, from which I was excluded, even though I grew up with three sisters, talk to women better than men (well, women talk more and about more things), and wanted to go to Orlando. (Really, I wanted her to go, and I watched online, so went anyway and didn’t have to worry about having the right clothes or hair.) She brought me the book, Crazy Busy, by Kevin DeYoung, which, thankfully, is mercifully short (as its subtitle says). The cover has a person running with an exclamation mark for his head. I feel that way sometimes. One chapter is entitled “A Cruel Kindergarchy - Diagnosis #3: You Need to Stop Freaking Out Over Your Kids.” I better read that. In fact I better read the whole book. It’s only 118 pages long. I can do this. I detect in its pages heart, courage, and brains, and I need more of those in the whirling of my days.

That dastardly devil, Screwtape, has been annotated as well. The annotated edition of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters has red lettered annotations in the side column of each page, so you need not keep flipping to the endnotes. I like that, because when I have to flip to the endnotes, I get irritated eventually, like Oz, like “Ain’t nobody got time for this.” This hardbound edition of letters from Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood, the lesser devil, has beautifully large type (it’s kind of like a large print edition without being saddled with that moniker). His comment in Letter 13, that “It seems to me that you take a great many pages to tell a very simple story,” is what most people might say about lawyers, those henchmen of the Devil, stacking word on word to obfuscate. But I digress. I love this book, will read it again, and may even write a few more of my own such letters. Screwtape, like Oz, is terrible but cowardly, all smoke and lights behind his curtain. An impostor.

Nepal may as well be over the rainbow given how far away and remote it is. At the Foot of the Snows is an account of the late David E. Watters and family, who lived among the unknown Khami Magar of that mountain country, translating the Scripture into the Kham language. Never heard of this family, but I’m glad for however this book came to my attention, as it is engaging and inspiring, in even its first few pages shining with honesty and God’s providential care. I was on board after the Forward by Pastor Mike Jones, where he says that “the account of David and Nancy’s walk of faith encouraged me to embrace the story God is seeking to write in and through my life.” That’s not an original thought, but it continues to excite me — the idea of God as Author not just of life but of my life. I have 56 years of story, and yet I have an eternity of character development and plot ahead of me. There are amazing quotes here that preface each not-too-long chapter, like this one by Kenneth Hale: “Every language is a unique and collective human genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism.” Makes you think, doesn’t it? And yet it’s not just language that is wonderfully mysterious but literally everything, inscrutable.

If nothing else books like this remind me that life is not, as Baum said, just a different shade of gray, an endless prairie of the mundane, drab and unchanging. It’s an adventure, full of color and mystique. Full of books, and companionship, and a yellow brick road and a real Oz that one day will take us Home where we’ll have all the heart and brain and courage we need. And looks. And better songs.

And that is a good place to end on a Sunday afternoon. “Oh, Aunt Em, I’m so glad to be home again!”



Sunday Reading (Part One)

The most notable feature of Carl Sandburg's preserved home at Flat Rock, North Carolina is its 11,076 books. There are books in bedrooms, hallways, dining rooms, and the kitchen, and a second home full of books he did not deem worthy of including in the main home. Little slips of paper marked pages in each book that had something worth coming back to. He worked his collection, mined it's combined insights, treasured its wisdom. I'm still working on that.

On the table behind my office desk, there is a teetering stack of about 18 books that I have intended to read. Some have been waiting a few years, gathering dust. I keep adding to the stack, and the ones on bottom are slowly sinking, compressed, to be dug out by some future archaeologist who will draw gross and silly conclusions about American culture from my books. (I have imagination.) In my bedroom nightstand, there are something like 25 more books. I mean to read them, I really do. But you begin to lose consciousness of them; they melt into the paint, lay dormant. Then, when I add to it the sample books I have added on my IPad, there must be 60 books or so I mean to get at. I'm getting behind. Guilt nips at me as I imagine what their authors might say to me.

So, Sunday afternoon I decided to do something about it. I drew out ten books and decided I would at least skim the contents of each, read the preface and first chapter, and then decide if I really needed to read the book. Books not worth having around I would put in the disposal pile; books worth keeping but not to further read, in another pile; and, in what I hoped would be a very small pile, I would place books that I really wanted to read and felt would be profitable. . . now.

So, I read one short story out of John Grisham's Ford County, a collection of short stories. I had never read Grisham, figuring him not literary enough, but he is an entertaining and capable writer. The story, entitled "Blood Drive," a rollicking late night journey to Memphis by three good old boys to give blood for a friend, one sidetracked by a strip joint, gang shooting, and other antics, was hilarious. That book's a keeper.

Then it was on to Algebra: The X and Y of Everyday Math. I know. . . what was I thinking? (It was on sale.) I appreciated the philosophical way it started, with a quote from Augustine of Hippo about how "mathematicians had made a covenant with the Devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell," the clarity and playfulness of its prose, and the mini-bios of mathematicians inserted throughout, but it doubt I'll continue. I will save it for when I retire.

Next up: The New Media Frontier: Blogging, Vlogging, and Podcasting for Christ, a collection of essays on such matters. I'll save this as a good resource and a book to loan out. It has, for example, an essay on blogging for pastors and attempts to address how such tools might be used as a help for pastoral care, as well as an essay on theological blogging and one on youth ministry in the Facebook age. While generally upbeat, it sounds plenty of cautionary notes along the way. Given the rapid way media use changes, I give this one little shelf life and plan to hand it off to pastors pretty quickly.

My sister loaned me The Pleasure Was Mine, by Tommy Hays, a local North Carolina writer. It's a story of Prate Marshbanks, a man losing his wife of 50 years to Alzheimer's. It's moving, and yet the sadness is lightened by the humor and the relationship Prate develops with his grandson (well, not much yet in one chapter). Hays' characters are believable, and so I plan to return to this book. . . in the future.

A friend suggested Daniel Taylor's Letters to My Children: A Father Passes On His Values, years ago, I am ashamed to say. Taylor tells good and true stories to his children, answering questions he imagines them having, as if (or in the event) he's not around to answer them. And yet, serendipitously, he is also answering his own questions, like "What Price Popularity," where we all get a sense of what people-pleasers we can be, of how conscious we are of appearances. I'll keep it, and even recommend it, and yet I feel like I have already been writing about such things for years and so doubt I'll read more. It's signed: "To Steve: Blessings in all your stories." Yes. "Calvin, '08." Thank you for the in person prompt, Daniel Taylor, all those years ago.

Oh my goodness. The Gospel According to Lost, by Chris Seay, really takes me back. Our family watched all nine seasons on Netflix in six months and, in the end, turned to each other and said "huh?" Seay teases out the questions and tries to shine the light of Scripture on them. I'll keep it, but I have lost so much of the story that I don't think it profitable reading until I can watch it again, if ever. His statement that "the Lost narrative is uniquely intertwined with the Judeo-Christian and the beauty of Christianity found in its unyielding proclamation that no one is beyond redemption," is provocative. Maybe in a long cold winter I'll take the plunge again.

[Title deleted], a self-published title by a good friend, is, sad to say, not good. This one I need to move out. I barely made it past the first page. Friend yes, good writing no.

Christian Aid Mission publishes the thin volume, Finishing the Task: How Indigenous Missionaries Are Reaching the Unreached in the 21st Century. Reading these amazing stories of healings, answers to prayer, escapes from danger, preservation during imprisonment, and the such I vacillate between near cynicism (a product of a smallish faith) and a hunger for a fuller reality of Christ's life in me. Are these stories embellished, containing elements of legend? I might have thought so until I met Pastor George in Uganda last year. Thank you, whoever gave me this, or sent it, like God-mail. This is the real thing, an antidote for unexercised belief. (Get the book free here.)

Choosing Your Faith (In a World of Spiritual Options), by Mark Mittleberg, is much better than I thought, a bit easier to read than Tim Keller's Reason to Believe. Good for skeptical yet inquiring friends, it makes the case that faith is inevitable --- the question is faith in what or in who? I don't know that I'll read more, but I definitely want it as a resource and as a giveaway.

Finally, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Churches, and Charities, sounds an alarm for how we individually and corporately can stay true to our commitments, to our mission. It documents how some have gone astray (YMCA becoming simply Y) and others stayed true (Compassion International). It doesn't encourages stasis necessarily, but helps us own up to and examine carefully how we change and if we should change. As I serve on a church Session and several non-profit boards, and sense the pull of circumstance on my own priorities, I think this book will be a valuable resource, one I will read and loan out.

The stack is getting smaller. Sandburg would smile at my pittance of books.


The One Jesus Loves

When you first meet someone, she might ask, “Who are you?”

And you might say, “Well I’m So-and-So. And I’m very good at this thing and that thing and here’s where I live and this is my family and —“

But do you know who God says you are?

The one Jesus loves.

(“Who Are You?,” from Thoughts To Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd Jones and Jago)

When I was a very young child — oh say pre-school — I didn’t think much about questions like “who am I.” I wasn’t philosophical. That changed of course when school started and self-awareness set in. I wasn’t smart, I would say, but not dumb. I was no good at sports, I’d say, but at least not the worst. I was musical, but as that wasn’t so cool, I kept it to myself. I wrote things and read books, but you don’t score any points with girls or guys at the younger ages with such interests, so that too I kept close.

In sixth grade my friend Bobby and I dressed up (well, our mothers helped us dress) and went to our first dance at General Greene Elementary School, which was a pleasant old-style school: single-level, no air conditioning, with classrooms that had big windows you could fling over to let air flow and even doors that opened on the outdoors and through which we cascaded at recess. The dance was in the cafeteria. I’m not sure what we were thinking, but I suspect we had some unstated hope that a girl might dance with us. That didn’t happen. We stood around a while and left, as I recall, made light of the whole dumb affair. Walked home. Who needs girls? So add to my identity that I was musical, read a lot, wrote some things, was relatively bad at sports, and now, wonder of wonders, had no girlfriend. But I did have one good friend, a Mom, and a Dad, and you can go a long way on that.

By ninth grade, things were pretty well sorted out. If you did Google Earth on the patio where we congregated after lunch at Kaiser Junior High School, you would have seen perhaps four nodes of activity — the cool people (made up of guys and girls, the popular ones), the jocks (which intersected with the cool people at certain times), the freaks (long hair, spaced out, weird), the rejects (oddities, either deemed unattractive, uncool, or just creepy), and the musically obsessed (a grouping defined by conversation about music and toting of LPs, and sometimes intersecting with the freaks and the language of which was completely foreign to the cool people). So, now I had identity: I was musically obsessed. I had found my tribe. My membership card was an LP tucked under my arm, banding about names like Jethro Tull, The Who, Yes, and even Blind Faith or Audience, known almost exclusively to the insiders. My identity seemed settled to my adolescent mind.

That same year, however, I became the kid whose Dad had died. I didn’t know anyone my age whose Dad had died. For that matter, I don’t think I knew anyone whose parents had divorced. These things were uncommon. I remember going back to school after that and thinking how weird it was to be walking around as the kid whose Dad had died. No one really talked to me about that. But my friends did. I had two good friends by then. You can go a long way on two good friends. It begins to matter a little less who you think you are.

Nowadays, of course, I am husband, father, elder, attorney, writer, and so on. I like to think I am thoughtful, reasonably intelligent, and articulate, and sometimes I am. I’m still no good at sports, girls don’t matter (except one), and I remain musically obsessed (but not as bad as that guy, I opine). I still don’t like to ask questions, make phone calls, raise my hand in class, or dance. But I am more settled into Me, that what I do and where I live and who I know aren’t - as important as they are - the basis of who I am.

I am the one Jesus loves.

You can go a long way on that.

I have to keep telling myself that.