Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Recommended Read - Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Non-fiction. Published, 2008.

Our entire church family was encouraged to read Crazy Love during the season of Lent. To implement this, many small groups met to discuss it on weekdays and Pastor used it as a launching pad for his Sunday messages.

I read it along with most of the congregation, and I appreciated it. However, I’ve struggled with a review.

Francis Chan’s story will grab your attention. As a child he lost his mother, his step-mother, his father, and then his only remaining relatives—an uncle and aunt. His life wasn’t happy before those things happened, and the deaths were traumatic.

But God met him. And he has a message for Christians who live lives of relative ease: Get with it! Begin to follow God through personal commitment and sacrifice. Respond to God’s call by living out the Gospel on a daily basis.

Chan is hard on church-goers. I should mention that portions of the book offended some in the congregation.

I generally agreed with him on those portions. I think we do get comfortable in our pleasant lifestyle and fail to take God’s challenges seriously.

And yet I had problems with the book.

A chance statement by someone who was not discussing the book opened my thought process—and I understood why I was troubled. Because it is important and subtle, I can’t review the book without mentioning it. Chan didn’t talk about hearing the Holy Spirit or responding to God’s personal call.

I feel Christians need to hear from God. If we do something just to do something, we’ll spin our wheels, so to speak, and accomplish very little. On the other hand, if we do some small thing because God has led us to that point, we’ll accomplish something—perhaps even a great deal because God will use it in ways we can’t imagine.

In all fairness, Chan’s story demonstrates that he is guided by the Holy Spirit—and that he follows God’s personal leading. It’s unfair to judge a book by what isn’t emphasized, especially when it's part of the story. Perhaps he felt the aspect of a personal call was outside the scope of this book. And, on a positive note, the church responded remarkably to the message. (But that’s not the focus of a review.)

So, do I recommend Crazy Love?

Yes. Chan points out problems in Christians or church-goers and in churches, something we need to recognize. He challenges people to respond to God by serving others. He does this against the backdrop of his own story. The life-story of this man is enough in itself to make the book worth reading. His message will touch you, too.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Recommended Read - A Green Journey by Jon Hassler

Recommended Read – A Green Journey
by Jon Hassler
Random House, 1985
Ballantine Books Random House, 292 pages

I don’t understand how I’d missed hearing about Jon Hassler. He’s a true Minnesotan whose work is widely recognized by the literary crowd. One of his major themes is people’s response to change when they’re forced to deal with their changing world.

At a neighbor's suggestion, I dutifully began Hassler’s first work, Staggerford. The low-key, gentle story quickly drew me in because I cared about the people—and I’ve continue to go back for more of Hassler when the mood hits me.

Although set in a small Minnesota town dominated by the Catholic Church when both small towns and the Church experienced huge challenges, the book is strangely reassuring. We and our world are fallen, but God is bigger. Most disarming for me was that in spite of serious themes, subtle humor permeats almost everything. Humor grounded in complex human conflict and quandry.

Yes, Hassler is a Christian. And he writes about a narrow segment of society. This might be why, even though I discovered literary buffs admire him, he’s not widely read.

But narrow segments of society often reflect our larger society. That's the beauty of literature.

Perhaps A Green Journey is one of Hassler’s best, and I’m wondering how to share the pure joy the characters of this book offer. Agatha McGee, a spinster who recently retired from her position as sixth-grade teacher of St. Isidore’s Elementary School, is restless. Her history, her personality, and her unique acquaintance with seemingly everyone in the parish are in themselves rich fodder. Her nemesis is the new bishop, a gifted, confident man determined to bring in fresh air inspired by the new pope. Then there’s then Irish priest who becomes Agatha’s pen pal without telling her his vocation.

Agatha decides to visit Ireland as part of a touring group so she can meet her friend. The bishop, also in the group and acquainted with Agatha’s reputation, detects a romantic interest and feels obliged to protect the poor woman against the advances of a priest with less than pure intentions. The priest—well, discover him for yourself. When the three intersect—although never all three at once—well, I couldn’t resist reading choice scenes out loud to Ken—and we howled with pure delight.

Add an unmarried former student and her father—also a former student—who knock on Agatha's door during Christmas Eve blizzard. The girl is about to deliver a baby and the rural family might become snowbound, but the baby surprises everyone by waiting until the New Year. Then add townsmen--also former students, of course—who discreetly deny the mother and baby a rightful prize. They're confronted by Agatha’s righteous indignation--she's a wonder, that woman.

There are no wicked characters in this book. And there are no totally well-adjusted characters, either. Just real people who rub against each other—sometimes to the other's chagrin and sometimes to the other's delight.

Hassler knows his material—I can vouch for him because I know these people, too. I grew up in a small Minnesota community equally divided between Catholic and Protestants. Pure Minnesota and a microcosm of the world at large.

Who knew it could be so much fun!

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Recommended Read - Lit: a Memoir by Mary Karr

Non-fiction. Published, 2009

If any book ever depicted resurrection power, Lit by Mary Karr qualifies. This is a story that takes the reader through a person's life from virtual death to victory over the forces of virtual death.

Karr grew up in soggy, musty East-Texas lowlands. Her brilliant, creative, educated, but paranoid mother is incapable of nurturing her daughters. However, she is capable of neglect and even violence as she descends deeper and deeper into alcoholism. Karr's brilliant, creative, undereducated, and comparatively dependable father is unable to rise above his circumstances. In the end, his lifetime of heavy drinking also culminates in alcoholism.

Karr’s remarkable earlier memoirs, The Liars Club and Cherry, describe her childhood and adolescence respectively. After hearing an interview and reading one review, I supposed Lit would begin with the turn around. Not so.

After a brief foray into the hippie world of California, Karr pursues academia. An interesting detail here is that, although she cannot escape the demons of her childhood, several friends from schools and professional encounters maintain a relationship with her throughout her life-and-death struggles. Meanwhile, she receives limited recognition as a poet. And she marries the man of her dreams—handsome, from a more-than-respectable background, dependable, steady. He's also emotionally distant.

When their son is born, the baby becomes the center of her life. But at that point Karr begins to unravel at every level. Never having received mothering herself, already careening down a path of self-destruction, and overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, she escapes from the responsibilities of motherhood by descending the alcoholic pattern of her background.

Reading about a drunk mother's inability to care for the child she loves more than life itself—let alone the demise of her marriage and the difficultly of her professional life—is a painful. Karr is brutally honest about herself and about human foibles in general.

An almost-deadly car accident forces her to face reality, and she connects with Alcoholics Anonymous. But her cure isn’t quick and easy. She'd been an avowed athetist since childhood. One of her mentors points out that, for someone who didn't believe in God, she sure was angry with Him.

Karr describes her friendships with alcoholics and, later, her felow-patients in a mental institution where she's treated for depression. They are without judgment and priceless. Her poetic sensibilities here and throughout the narrative often took my breath away.

Attempts at prayer are initially directed toward an unidentified higher power—and they’re not gracious. But, although she doesn’t want to admit it, prayer makes a positive difference and she experiences a measure of victory.

At the request of her son, now in grade school, she begins attending churches. One—a church attended by many of her colleagues at the university—taught there was no evil. She knew better.

She finally settles—still unconvinced on the issue of Jesus and God—in a Catholic church that accepts her as she is but that doen’t sugarcoat the realities of sin. The concept of salvation from sin by accepting the death of Christ was an added bonus that hardly factored in until later.

Karr's pen is sharp, her humor is dark, her language is often vulgar. Surely God would strike someone dead for talking to Him the way she talks to Him. Instead, He draws her to Himself. And while He draws her to Himself, He empowers her to overcome her addiction.

Reading Lit was, in some ways, a traumatic experience, but I came away with a renewed picture of God’s grace. Grace that both covers sin and that gives people the strength to stand against it. That’s resurrection power.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and TEstimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Recommended Read - The Coming Shift by Larry Randolph

The Coming Shift
by Larry Randolph
MorningStar Publications, 2006
Non-Fiction, 170 pages

Change is an operative word in today’s culture. And change or transition is the subject of Larry Randolph’s book titled The Coming Shift. Using the story of Christ’s appearance on the shore after His resurrection (John 21), Randolph makes fourteen points about what he believes will soon affect both individual Christians and Christian groups.

In his Opening Thoughts, Randolph cites historic changes of the past. He explains how he feels God spoke to him in 1987, telling him that a time of transition is ahead for the Christians. He also says of himself, every time I think I have figured out my future, the Lord seems to rearrange my tomorrow. Perhaps this is why his emphasis is on internal responses to change rather than on concrete prophetic statements.

Chapter headings include Direction Shift, Lifestyle Shift, Performance Shift, Gift Shift—you get the idea. Each of these changes comes directly from the Biblical text.

I found the early chapters insightful and interesting. The middle less so—perhaps because content seems somewhat obvious.

This changes again by chapter 10. And chapter 11 takes off. Titled Significance Shift, the focus is John 21:7 which reads in part, So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he…threw himself into the sea. The long subtitle reads, You Know You Are Fishing From the Right Side of the Boat When You Are Willing to Give up Ownership of What Is Rightfully Yours. From my perspective, releasing what is rightfully mine is always challenging and worthy of attention.

At this point Randolph begins to obviously write toward a conclusion. Chapter 12 focuses on leadership—and the emphasis is teamwork and diversity. Chapter 13 looks at the foundation for cooperation.

Finally, Chapter 14 focuses on preparation. There’s the business of accepting changes when they happen—to realign us with our initial destiny… This will require we embrace the discomfort of change . . . repent of hopelessness . . . learn proper stewardship . . . repent of performance mentality . . . let go of the past . . . develop new vision . . . practice obedience . . . relieve for a resource shift. . . walk in humility . . . embrace the centrality of Christ . . . prepare, prepare, prepare . . . and more.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. If you are not acquainted with this genre, it is a good introduction. It's also meaningful because, eventually, what had seemed a surface treatment becomes an intense, meaningful challenge.

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Recommended Read - World War II Liberator Series by Tricia Goyer

Recommended Reads - World War II Liberator Series
by Tricia Goyer
From Dust and Ashes, 463 pages
Night Song, 512 pages
Dawn of a Thousand Nights, 509 pages
Arms of Deliverance, 313 pages
Moody Publishers, 2003 through 2005

Because we’re out of town, I thought this would be a good time to repost recommended reads from one of my earlier blog sites.

Tricia Goyer was unknown to me, but after stumbling onto her blog—which I read for several months—I decided to take a chance on her historical novels. Since these books were published, Goyer has added to her body of work, but today I’m going to look at her first series. They're a group of four novels with unrelated story lines—yet connected because all take place during World War II.

While this post doesn’t actually provide reviews—I’m covering too much territory for that—I definitely recommend them. As historical novels set in an important time frame, they're intense and enjoyable.

From Dust and Ashes: A Story of Liberation begins as American troops discover the horrors of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. Central character is the abandoned wife of a corrupt SS officer. Other characters include the young woman’s father who actively participated in the resistance, an American GI, and a concentration camp survivor who returns to Poland after her release to minister the gospel of Jesus.

Night Song: A Story of Sacrifice features a young Jewish violin prodigy—and his violin—interred in Mauthausen. Other important characters include a beautiful member of the Austrian resistance, an American GI, and an obsessed Nazi officer. Only one character overlaps the two books.

Dawn of a Thousand Nights: A Story of Honor takes place primarily in the Pacific arena. Scenes from the Bataan Death March are riveting, and some pilots are moved to work camps within Japan before the war is over. But the subplot is interesting, too. Did you know a select few female pilots flew troops to various destinations within the US during the war? The protagonists open the story in Hawaii and close it when they come together in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, Arms of Deliverance: a Story of Promise is primarily about two American reporters with competing interests—but who become key supporters for each other in the clutch. It also features an American GI. And there’s the beautiful Czech Jewess who passes for Aryan, dates a Nazi, becomes pregnant and is sent to a Nazi breeding camp.

Goyer’s strength is her attention to historic detail. When details intrigued me, I looked them up and the facts were accurate. On her site, I learned she researched by interviewing GI’s who experienced the specific events.

I can't say I enjoyed reading passages focused on an evil Nazi in Night Song, This was also true of her description of life in the death camp before and after liberation as well as the death march and life in a Japanese prison. But I knew these aspects of the story were essential for understanding. It’s not fun to read about ugly.

And you've probably guessed by the presence of the beautiful young women and the American GIs that these books are also romantic novels. Goyer's story lines are seamless; she brings history into the lives of believeable people. While her characters are not her strong point, they are more than adequate. Anything more might have distracted.

Goyer expanded my understanding of specific aspects of the Great War, and she gave me appreciation for how the pressures of living in fear and horror will bend and tear at the human soul. The Christian message comes through loud and clear through the lives of the characters. She lets God do His thing—nothing feels contrived or preachy in order to appeal to a Christian audience.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements in Advertising."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Recommended Read - The Boat of Longing by O. E. Rolvaag

Recommended Read – The Boat of Longing
by O. E. Rolvaag
translated by Nora Solum
Norwegian publication, 1923; English publication by Harper and Brothers, 1933; republished by Minnesota Historical Society, 1985
Fiction, 303 pages

While roaming the stacks of our local library, I chanced on the works of O. E. Rolvaag (1876–1931). Rolvaag the writer was an icon in my home as a child, and I was pleased that this library established by people of Norwegian and German descent offered his work. What surprised me, however, was a titled I’d never encountered: The Boat of Longing.

A bit of background: Rolvaag was born on an island in the Nordland or Northland of Norway, approximately five miles south of the Arctic Circle. He emigrated from Norway to America in 1896 and initially worked as a farm hand in South Dakota. After completing his education, he became a professor of Norwegian literature at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

Rolvaag’s novels explore the experience of Norwegian-American immigrants in America. Written in the Norwegian language, they were initially published in Norway. After being translated into English, second- and third-generation Norwegian-Americans became Rolvaag’s second audience.

Most discussions on Rolvaag focus on his trilogy, Giants in the Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Father’s God. I recommend them, too—especially Giants in the Earth.

But The Boat of Longing is unique. It’s tragic, painful, poignant, beautiful. And poetic.

The story opens in Nordland with the ever-present ocean: a world of both the midnight sun and total darkness, a world of folklore including a strange boat that is often seen by people as a harbinger of impending death, and a world where a strange but beautiful young woman is washed ashore one day and taken into the family because she has nowhere else to go.

Nils, the only child of Jo and Anna is enchanted by the girl. When her identity is discovered and she returns to her family, he is lost. Over time, his idealism and undefined longings, along with the encouragement of a neighbor, play on his imaginations until he leaves for fabled America.

In the second and third sections, after a long ride on a boat of longing in the form of a ship, Nils is unsettled by his life in urban Minneapolis. It’s a city of confusion where people speak many languages and he’s assaulted on every side. Not wanting to disappoint his parents, he gives accounts of only good things when he writes home.

Life improves somewhat when he meets a Norwegian-American widow who lives in a meager dwelling under the Washington Avenue Bridge. She bequeaths her husband’s violin to Nils—her only beloved possession—because he captures the homeland when he makes music with it.

When Nils loses the violin in a train depot, he can no longer express himself. That loss and another tragic event overwhelm him. Feeling like a failure, he becomes a vagabond, and he stops writing to Jo and Anna altogether.

The fourth section returns to Norway to focus on the hurting parents who worry about their son. Again, the poetry is breath-taking, a stark contrast to the American city. His father Jo eventually makes a trip to America in another ship to find his son—but is rejected by immigration officials. As he stares at the Atlantic coast, unable to deal with his loss, he imagines what could be true.

When Jo arrives home, he tells Anna tales of wonders in America: And in that marble palace you and I are to live with him . . . But I’ll have to explain that to you some other day, for now I want to go out on the sea!

In his familiar boat on the familiar sea, he spies the fabled, dancing boat of longing. Going after it he rows and rows and rows. His boat is never found.

Even with this synopsis, you will not be disappointed if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on a copy of this book. Details are stunning. Long out of print, it’s only available in libraries or through a channel offering used books. I checked, and it can be purchased through Amazon.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products,or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Recommended Read - The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

The Prodigal God
by Timothy Keller
The Penguin Group, 2008
Non-Fiction, 133 pages

As suggested by the title, Keller’s Scripture base for The Prodigal God is the story of the Prodigal Son. But I thought prodigal meant someone who was wayward—someone who didn’t show proper respect or love. The title confused me.

It turns out, prodigal means rashly or wastefully extravagant. And according to Keller, this describes our God who, in a rashly and wastefully extravagant manner, loves His children.

Keller identifies the two sons as representatives of the two types of people in our world—both lost. And he points out that the story is pointed not toward the younger son who rashly and wastefully spends his inheritance but on the elder son. Jesus’ parable condemns the elder brother’s moralistic life in the strongest terms. (p. 10)

What? Condemns a moralistic life?

Yes. Step by step Keller explores motives in the section titled Redefining Lostness. The elder brother’s motives are revealed by his response when the younger brother comes home. As a type, he represents people who do good not out of delight in the deeds themselves or for the love of people or the pleasure of God. [When they do good works] they are not really feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, they are feeding and clothing themselves. (p. 62)

This section is actually quite frightening because it exposes the anger, bitterness, and prejudice that pervades elder brothers. Keller's experience in ministry has led him to believe many people break ties with churches because the elder brother's problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievement and performance, so he must endlessly prop uyp his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault. (pg. 77)

With our human duplicity exposed, Keller offers an alternative—the person missing from the story: Jesus Himself. In the section titled The True Elder Brother, we have a presentation of the gospel of grace that cost the father and elder brother everything. Looking at the customs of the time, he informs, The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. (pg. 84)

The problem is pervasive. Keller says, We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ. (pg. 89)

Then Keller suggests that regardless of our position as elder brothers, all contain within themselves an element of the younger brother—a longing for home. This leads into Keller’s understanding of the father’s feast at the close of the parable.

The feast is not glossed over lightly. It depicts the life we have when united to the true elder brother—an experiential life that impacts human interaction with the world at every level.

In many ways the book is an easy read. It's not long, and the text on the page is not dense. Also, Keller writes so well—presents things so clearly. A person could race through the book, identify its value, and move on. Don’t. This is a book worth thinking about and praying through.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Recommended Read - Exposure by Brandilyn Collins

by Brandilyn Collins
Zondervan, 2009
Fiction, 268 pages

We have so many reasons for reading: picking up new knowledge, spiritual growth, delighting in wonderful images or other writing techniques, gaining understanding of a different culture, learning “how to” do something, escape through introduction to interesting characters. All are good reasons.

There are several genres that I’ve not seriously explored when reading, and one is works of suspense. Oh, perhaps an assignment now and then—such as The Pit and the Pendelum by Edgar Allen Poe. But even then, when the work is clearly identified as art by literary experts, I remain untouched. I tried a Sherlock Holms story once and gave up before half through.

With that as a background, I’m hardly the person to review Exposure. For this is a suspense story through and through. Creepy feelings of people watching abound from page one. That may be your thing and I won’t argue with you, but I was bored all the way through Part 1.

In Part 2, however, plot elements became more interesting. Two story threads never seemed to connect. I wondered how Collins would bring this all together.

The resolution in Part 3 took me completely by surprise—and I’m usually the one who irritates family members by knowing how the story will end. Perhaps it’s because I’m new to the genre, but I’m not so sure. And regardless, the conclusion was eminently satisfying.

And then the Epilogue—a shot of ironic humor that bemused me when I read it and that generates a chuckle now as I remember it again.

Where does Christianity fit into the story line? The main character has only recently been introduced to Jesus and faith. When she’s afraid, she remembers what she’s learned about God, and she prays.

Is this truly a Recommended Read?

Well, I admit I’m not going out anytime soon to find another suspense novel. But I saw genuine merit in the creativity and craftsmanship. I think I can enthusiastically recomend it to people who enjoy suspense. And if, like me, you aren't into suspense, you might enjoy it in spite of yourself. As a quick read, it provided escape and pleasure. There are times when that is exactly what a person needs.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Recommended Read - The Secret Fire of Mother Teresa by Joseph Langford

The Secret Fire of Mother Teresa
by Joseph Langford
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2008
Non-fiction, 301 pages (including appendices)

I picked up Secret Fire because I knew little about the woman so many people look to for inspiration—and I thought I should learn something. The first section, Fire in the Night, provided the information I wanted—basics about her origins, how she arrived in Calcutta, the supernatural experience that motivated her to begin the ministry that would eventually catapult her to fame, and essentials of her spiritual orientation.

Langford doesn’t provide the story succinctly. Getting through Section One required discipline, but I wanted to know. That completed, I wondered if I wanted to read more.

It scares me to think of what I could have missed. Langford returns to the mystical experience in Section Two which is titled Illumination. Implications of the I thirst metaphor are examined, and this is where my reading pace truly slowed down—not because the narrative was slow but because the material required meditation.

A quote: As a thirsty man thinks only of water, so God thinks constantly of us . . . As a thirsty man will give anything in exchange for water, so God gladly gives all he has, and all he is, in exchange for us: his divinity for our humanity, his holiness for our sin, his paradise in exchange for our pain. (pg. 77)

And another quote, The intimate, spontaneous drive to embrace those we love points to the full merging and eternal union with the Godhead for which we were created, and which is symbolized in every human embrace. (pg. 118)

Section Three, Transformation, focuses on how Mother Teresa daily relied on her intimate time with God. The key to her metamorphosis was not human effort, but her encounters with the thirst of God. It was the mystery of this grace at work over time that transformed . . . The thirst of Jesus, which she clung to throughout her dark night. . . . (pg. 143)

Mother Teresa’s goal was becoming transparent so others would see Jesus in her, and she sought to draw others into the same experience. She embraced holiness because, Holiness points to the ultimate dignity of our human nature, and to the heights any human can attain, even when burdened with poverty and pain. (pg. 160)

I could go on and on quoting nuggets of truth. I can’t forget to mention that when she visited western countries she saw a different kind of poverty—poverty of spirit.

Two meditations are included, one within a chapter and another as an appendix. Other appendices include additional supporting Scripture texts, an anthology of quotes from Mother Teresa, and a overview of the thirst metaphor throughout church history.

I eventually used this book as devotional material. If you’re looking for a quick read, look elsewhere. If you want to be challenged by the possibility of a closer walk with God, Langford's Secret Fire would be of great interest.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Recommended Read - Poetry by L. L. Barkat

by L.L. Barkat
International Arts Movement, 2009
Poetry, 112 pages

L. L. Barkat made a decision to spend about fifteen minutes in her back yard every day for one year—or at least long enough to drink a cup of tea. Did she know when she began that she’d emerge from her experiment with a book of poetry?

insideout is of special interest to me. When I began exploring the internet, I somehow landed on Barkat’s blog, Seedlings in Stone. (I really can’t remember how, and I didn’t know what a blog was at the time!) Because I enjoyed her writing, I kept coming back. And so, from time to time, I read the occasional one-sentence poetic word-images she shared, images written to reflect her experiences in the back yard.

Daily exposure had heightened Barkat’s senses, and her work appeals to them—sight, sound, feeling, and even taste and smell. However, her poetic expressions reveal not only sensual responses but also the thoughts she took with her when she went to drink her cup of tea.

Now that the International Arts Movement has published insideout, you can experience many of these word-images as well as her longer poems. The longer poems usually fill most of one page. I like them.

But I believe the unique short images set this work apart. Many are untitled. Each stands alone as a slice of life—perhaps two or three to a page. Together, they provide a satisfying, balanced, but intense reading experience.

The book is divided into the four seasons, each with its own mood. I especially appreciate winter—perhaps because, as adults, we don’t usually expose ourselves to winter elements.

Barkat employs poetic devices: even rhyme at the close of lines in some of the longer poems.

But other devices abound as well. An example of internal rhyme: sears dares

Some of her poetic devices surprised me. But they work to convey an impression. An example of alliteration: wind whips / flakes fleck

Other poetic devices invite the reader. An example of both alliteration and assonance: Snow sifts / softly, oh / so gently, covers / me

Wanting to include one poem in its entirety, line by line, I opened the book and discovered the first poem will do beautifully. It’s even has a title.

Autumn Milkweed

A thousand seeds
burst from this
rough belly,
fling themselves
to the wind…
a tumble
of silken forgetfulness.

And I must add one more, one without a title.

Shall I teach
you the way of a blossom,
the way of a cherry
twisting beneath
her stem,
shall I.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Recommended Read - Fiction by Mary DeMuth

Watching the Tree Limbs
by Mary DeMuth
NavPress, 2006
Fiction, 239 pages


Wishing on Dandelions
by Mary DeMuth
NavPress, 2006
Fiction, 257 pages

DeMuth has shared her own story of sexual abuse as a child, and she knows whereof she writes. Clearly, although the subject and themes of these two books are difficult, they read with ease and grace. That in itself is a triumph.

Watching the Tree Limbs takes place in the small town of Burl, Texas. Heroine Maranatha Weatherall is a nine-year-old, imaginative girl with a life readers quickly identify as unsatisfactory. Then she meets a young boy named General who repeatedly rapes her, and she has no one she can turn to for help.

There are other themes. Mara’s identity is uncertain. Childhood friendship factors in. Mara’s friend Camilla, knowledgeable about much but secretive about her family, offers helpful hints for coping with events. The relationship between two young girls shines through their antics, and Camilla often provides necessary comic relief. Inter-racial marriage is also introduced.

Mara’s safety and healing begin when her identity is revealed. She receives a new family, becomes Natha Winningham, and through Uncle Zane's housekeeper Zady, she's introduced to authentic Christianity.

Wishing on Dandelions picks up on Natha’s story when she’s 17, a young woman still struggling with the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Again, DeMuth knows her subject. Some things don't go away easily.

Although twisted motives drive some events in this book, most conflict occurs when familiar characters fail to respond to each other as they should. Natha regularly misunderstands others because her self-image is marred by her past. As does her Uncle Zane, Camilla, Charlie, and even Zady. DeMuth's story is excellent, but her strength is her ability to create vivid characters.

Inter-racial marriage becomes a major theme by the end of this book. Charlie has what Natha wants and needs—except that he’s Black. And because he's Black, he has only a limited education and no future.

I also appreciated God's role in these books. He lives in the hearts of characters who respond to Him and the content never becomes preachy. Mara’s—and then Natha’s—thoughts about God are so human—she’s not crazy about everything that happens in His world. Nevertheless, she finally meets Him under the pecan tree before the close of the first book. We learn in the second, however, that she continues to keep Him at a distance. Deep healing doesn't begin until she’s willing to go into the dark places and face her fear. Then, and only then, is she free to experience the love of God and of other people. By the conclusion of this book, true healing has begun. But only begun; DeMuth is realistic.

I reviewed these books on one of my earlier blogs, Sunny Pathway. However, in light of tomorrow’s poem and Thursday’s essay, they fit a theme of sorts for the week. Almost too neatly.

Stories have power to touch hearts, and I must admit that while I'm not aware that these stories changed my opinion, they perhaps solidified some things. One is about childhood abuse, the other is about dealing with the past. Both offer gut-wrenching, delightful, and realistic insight into the depth of the human experience.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255; "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Recommended Read - The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns

The Hole in Our Gospel
by Richard Stearns
Thomas Nelson
Nonfiction, 279 pages

Richard Stearns was a corporate CEO enjoying success beyond what most people can imagine. Then God called him to become president of World Vision, a move he made in 1998.

The strength of this book are the stories. Stearn's accounts include his development as a youth, meeting the woman he married, the challenge of coming to Christ, and his immersion into corporate America. Strung together under a bigger theme, they alone are exciting to read.

The story that stays with me, however, is the story of his move to World Vision. Both touching and funny—who wants to give up a modern-day mansion and a company Jaguar to live in a modest home and drive an adequate but used car?—this book provides perspective on God’s preparation of a man for a big job. And Stearns shares it candidly. Not many men would reveal they were so dispirited by God’s call that they went home, pulled the covers over their head, and cried.

The Hole is the Christian’s lack of response to the world’s needs. Story after story illustrates his point. Whenever Stearns stays with the stories, the book is riveting. Statistics less so, but they provide important details. While the book is shameless about soliciting others to join World Vision or other Christian humanitarian groups, he wouldn’t be faithful to his beliefs if he didn’t do as much.

The Hole in Our Gospel was both an enjoyable read and a call to action. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review - Shadows by John B. Olson

By John B. Olson
B & H Publishing Group, 2009
Fantasy, 390 pages

Shadows opens with a young girl named Mariutza (Mari) who was raised in isolation by a grandfatherly gypsy in the swamps of Louisiana. Conflict begins when we learn that prophetic powers of a spiritual nature made the elderly man a target of what Mari calls the badness. After he dies in the opening pages, the badness follows Mari as she leaves the swamps to look for Jaazaniah, grandson of her mentor.

Jaazaniah, (Jazz) is a New Orleans jazz artist raised by a father who rejected his heritage. The young man's story (beginning in the second chapter) opens with strange visions that interfere with his performances and turn life into a nightmare. A rich benefactor, medical personnel, police, and even the military enter the action.

Readers may not understand the concept, but will notice the limited third-person viewpoint. When reading about Mari, readers see the world in third person from Mari’s point of view. When reading about Jazz, readers see the world in third person from Jazz’s point of view. The effect can be comical, as when Mari receives miscue after miscue because she cannot decode the culture of New Orleans. More often it causes crisis. Jazz tries to reject the strange occurrences he can’t understand when they invade his world. The twi misunderstand each other. Readers immersed in the limited viewpoint of the characters feel their struggles.

A predictable romance is a key to resolution, but aspects of suspense held my interest. Powers offers an enjoyable, quick read.

I purchased this fantasy because it came with a writing tutorial that sounded helpful, and because I thought it would be interesting to learn something about a genre I rarely read. In the process, I discovered I was interested for another reason. I believe a spiritual realm with good and evil elements is real. And although Christian elements are toned down, much of the narrative seemed within the realm of possibility. But some did not. So was it or was it not an attempt to describe spiritual reality? Or was it supposed to be total fantasy? Or did Olson intend to leave lingering questions?

Perhaps readers who pursue the genre could answer that question.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reviews - Man's Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

I don’t know where this title ranks now, but a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress lists it as one of the ten most influential books in America. Frankl wrote it shortly after his release from a World War II concentration camp. It presents theories he formulated during and shortly after his prison experience.

Frankl was interred because he was Jewish. Everything about his status was unfair and he had no recourse. While in camp he performed the normal debilitating labor duties of all prisoners. But because he had been a practicing psychologist prior to the war, he eventually also worked in a clinical setting, doing what he could to help the severely depressed patients interred with him.

He was also an existential psychologist, and he did not accept the Christian concept of Truth as an objective reality. Yet I believe Frankl did not undermine Christianity because he made room for the Christian experience. Understanding his theories can be a key to understanding and dealing with many of the theories presented today. And yet, it isn't simple.

The printing of the book that I read was 192 pages. In the first section (about three-fourths of the book), he gives an account of his concentration camp experience with stories of heroism and degeneracy. Some of the images of death—and people’s lack of response to death—overwhelm.

But Frankl’s training enabled him to analyze people’s lack of response as clinical depression. He observed his own depression and the despair/depression of those around him, and he concluded that although individuals do not choose their circumstances, they choose their responses. Their choices define their moral character.

Frankl observed that prisoners who found meaning had the will to live, and he said meaning comes from three sources: relationships, a vital life’s work, and ability to embrace meaning in suffering.

The second section titled Logotherapy in a Nutshell (just over one-fourth of the book) explains Frankl’s theories systematically. It’s not easy reading, but his experience in the concentration camp continues to provide his supporting evidence.

The emphasis is freedom of choice. He notes how the best often sacrifice to save others—and find meaning in their suffering while achieving moral greatness. In addition, he recognizes Christianity as a viable source of meaning. That fact alone makes it possible to receive Frankl's theories as non-threatening. In fact, I think it indicates Frankl's objectivity as a scientist.

When considering Frankl together with Christianity, we must recognize that traditional Christian doctrine is a dichotomy. While it states faith focuses upon objective fact, the journey of faith is subjective and personal.

Christians can intuitively live this paradox whether or not they analyze it, while no one outside of Christianity fully appreciates it. Yet Frankl’s scientific approach recognizes Christianity as a vital source of meaning on the subjective level. In fact, on several occasions he uses Christian terminology when he identifies suffering as accepting or as enduring the cross.

Although Frankl’s insider views of life in a concentration camp—and of human responses to the events in the camp—are disturbing, they are important and cannot be ignored. In addition, his theories impact on present-day thinking are huge. Even a cursory understanding paves the way for insight into a variety of schools of thought today.

I have not received compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned or pictured. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, January 1, 2010

On Larry Woiwode and "What I Think I Did"

Have you ever heard of Larry Woiwode? My first exposure was an off-the-record statement by an English professor: One of the best prose writers today is Larry Woiwode, but we don’t study him because he’s a Christian. The man didn’t say it with glee or as a judgment—just as a statement of fact. I was too shocked to react and later checked with a classmate to get the name of the writer for future reference.

It turns out Woiwode was a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker as well as to numerous other literary magazines. His first novel, What I Think I’m Going to Do, received the William Faulker Foundation Award for best novel of 1969. When I read it, I thought it insightful and enjoyable. But his second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, deals with a family struggling with loss. It took my breath away. Published in 1975, it was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Book Critics Circle Award.

I’m not trying to make a case for Christian writers—some might even argue as to whether or not Woiwode’s work is truly Christian because he doesn’t present an overt Christian message. In fact, he didn’t claim to be a Christian when writing his early works—but he was dealing with his Christian heritage. The secular university has trouble with him because he never moves away from a Christian worldview. The Catholic denomination of his background is present and vital to his life as he struggles to make sense of it all.

Right now Woiwode looms large in my mind because I spent time with him during our Christmas blizzard. I wanted to dig into something meaty, so I finished the first installment of his three-book memoir. What I Think I Did was published in 2000. (A Step from Death, which I haven't read yet, is the second. It was published in 2008.)

Although there are several themes, a blizzard—how fitting for my circumstance—held everything together. Not a small blizzard, but a blizzard of epic proportions. As he struggles to literally survive while maintaining and feeding a wood burning stove (in southwest North Dakota where trees do not grow naturally), his mind moves back and forth from the blizzard to incidents of his youth in Illinois and his early years as a writer in New York. The scenarios might seem disparate, without possible connection—but the struggle for survival binds them together.

Portions featuring the blizzard focus on family connections and the need to think practically. Portions featuring his development as a writer feature mentors (such as William Maxwell), colleagues (such as John Updike), and friends (such as Robert DeNiro). Considering his contacts and achievements, he could hardly avoid dropping names when writing about his life among them. I found his portrait of Maxwell—another writer generally ignored by academia—especially intriguing.

The surprise was DeNiro whom he met when he took an acting job because he had yet to sell a story and was desperate for money. Woiwode trained as a classical actor but decided against acting because he had trouble walking away from the characters he developed. DeNiro trained as a method actor and the description Woiwode offers of him changing the position of moles through the movement of his facial muscles was priceless.

Woiwode’s sentences are complex. While the flow in his novels could perahps be described as gentle and flowing, the sentences of this first memoir seem convoluted at times. And yet, once I yielded to the experience, I discovered the rhythm and syntax of what must be an unusual mind. He's worth reading for his use of language alone.

At the same time, while Woiwode is sensitive by nature and excited by art, the rigidity and reticence of his northern European background shows up at times. Reading What I Think I Did is a bit like stumbling onto a road not taken.

I was also fascinated by the influences on his life as a writer. In the end, the people he lived and worked with were significant because they impacted him rather than because they were interesting. I couldn't have asked for a better read to absorb my thoughts when bound by the constraints of a blizzard.