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The Magnificent City

[Note: I wrote this many years ago, and very recently a friend asked for a copy. I had thought it was lost, but this friend managed to dig one up. I hope this story blesses you.]

© 1992 Shaunna Howat

There she was finally, in God’s presence, where she had wanted to be for so long. There was no need for sunshine, because all the light they needed radiated from God the Father.

She was clothed in a splendid white gown made of cool, silky rich cloth she had never felt before. Looking about her, she saw that everyone was dressed the same. They all glowed in their garments. Just how she imagined them to look.

She watched them as they stood or sat in small groups, talking, relaxed. They would laugh quietly at something shared intimately, all at ease with one another. Old friends, long departed, now reunited.

She had been told to wait where she was; there would be an Escort meeting her.

How she got to this place she couldn’t exactly remember. Most of the people with whom she had spoken here didn’t really remember their own deaths much either. Or they just didn’t need to talk about it. They had all died, hadn’t they? Nothing remarkable in that.

When she had first arrived, she was given a tour of the Magnificent City. Mansions of precious stones lined streets of gold. Marble, rose quartz, aquamarine, ruby, diamond, emerald—all the beautiful stones on earth, plus more she had never seen before. The mansions were huge, immaculate, with perfect gardens lovingly tended by numerous white-clad individuals.

She entered the Great Palace, an enormous structure the likes of which she remembered seeing before in pictures. The Temple in Jerusalem, she decided, must have looked much like this. Entering the Holy of Holies, the most central room, she looked out upon vast legions of saints like herself, all bowing before the throne of the Most High God. Angels flew up, around, and back, singing “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” The train of His robe filled the temple.

At the right hand of the Lord God sat His Son, brilliant in glory.

Then she had the chance to do what she had longed to do most of her life: She fell at the Lord’s feet to worship Him face to face. She dropped to her knees on the golden floor, tears of joy streaming down, and marveled at the look of pleasure on His beautiful face.

Countless others worshipped all around, singing joyously with the angels. Strains of music poured forth from a choir of golden voices, an orchestra of unearthly instruments.

“Welcome, my daughter,” He said. To her! “I have been waiting for you. You have a room reserved here. Your name is written in the Book of Life.”

She never tired of being on her knees in that splendid room. It seemed like years went by as she knelt at His feet, listening to Him speak, drinking in His glory. Then she realized that time had no meaning while she drank in the blessings and sang praises to her Lord. She never wanted to leave.

After a while, her Escort took her outside and told her she could return to worship any time she wished. She followed him to a mansion where large golden books lay open on tables. Their leaves shone with a heavenly light and spoke softly to their readers as, wonderingly, they each turned pages to hear more.

Going to a book, she stood amazed to find it speaking to her!

“Welcome, daughter, my chosen one,” it said. “You have been brought to this place because of your undying faith, because I called you and you believed in Me; because you held fast to your faith and I held you in the palm of My hand. You have wondered why so many times—why there was so much suffering in the world, why friends and family were taken from you, why the world is the way it is.”

She turned another illuminated page and listened as it spoke to her.

“Now you may spend time finding out the answers to all you have wondered and more. Understand how the earth was formed by My hand. Watch Jesus as He was brought to life again. Learn the answers to all the questions you have ever asked, to which there seemed to be no answer. Watch, daughter, and listen, to all the glorious, perfect answers. Then you will know.”

Tears of joy, of understanding, of thankfulness flowed, as she read endlessly, watching and learning. She didn’t want to stop. She had spent her years on earth asking, wondering, wishing she knew the answers to all of life’s questions—and here they were for her.

“At this time,” the book said softly, “you wondered why your father was taken from you. And here is the reason.”

And on yet another page she read, “At this time your heart ached because you lost your child in the womb. And here is why.”

The answers were so clear to her! On earth she had held fast to her faith that God, in His infinite wisdom, had reasons for everything that occurred in the world, and that God’s ways would be made clear to her in His time. And here, in her own book, were the answers.

Finally, her heart content with all she had ever wanted to know (and strangely aware that all of life’s mysteries really did not matter much after all, compared to where she stood right now), she was ready to move on.

She was ushered into a Banquet Hall where the others gathered to feast. There she found family and friends who had gone before her. Their appearances were different from what she had remembered, but they were still the same people she had known on earth. And though they were different, they were also the same.

Her earthly father, whom she had not known since she was a child, was the same smiling, tender man she remembered, only he was different. There was a countenance of peace upon him that had not been there. And the suffering body she had known in his last days was transformed to perfect, unageing health and clad in a pure white gown.

What a marvelous time all her friends and family had in the Banquet Room! They had no trouble getting to know each other again, sharing memories and talking about the Glory of the Lord.

She wondered aloud when she could once again sit at her Heavenly Father’s feet and worship Him. They all smiled and nodded knowingly at each other. It was the favorite pastime of all who lived in the Magnificent City. When they were away from Him, they hungered to return.

“You can worship whenever you like. That’s the beauty of this place. We like to worship regularly. We spend our moments in worship and fellowship. There is no measure of time here; all our moments are like grains of sand in a limitless hourglass.”

So her days were spent just as she liked: she walked down golden streets with her loved ones, worshipped the Lord, and marveled at His wondrous works. To worship endlessly at His feet was all they desired. Banquets of beautiful food were set before them, and they broke bread together in fellowship.

Soon she was made aware that others around her had tasks they were delighted to perform. Gardening, singing, playing beautiful instruments, preparing food for others to enjoy. Some escorted new arrivals. As soon as she became aware of these tasks, her Escort appeared beside her.

“Your job is at hand,” said her Escort, whom she had learned to find at her elbow just when she had a question that needed an answer.

“What is my job?”

She was so eager to perform a task for the Father that it seemed impossible she had spent so much time in the Magnificent City not doing anything for Him.

“Do not worry; everyone is expected to spend a large amount of time adjusting before beginning their tasks. Yours is now at hand. It was designed for you because of your deep compassion on earth for the little ones.”

She followed him to a mansion and through doors of precious jewels. They paused in a hallway before an enormous door of pearl.

“Inside awaits your task,” he said with a secretive smile.

She could hear the sound of bubbling laughter coming from the other side of the door. The sound that had always melted her heart: the chortling, breathless belly laughs of her own children and grandchildren. She smiled just remembering their laughter, almost wanting to return to that time.

Her escort pushed open the door and stood back to let her see. The room, bigger than nearly every room she’d seen in this Magnificent City, stretched as far as she could see. It was filled with babies.

Babies of all sizes and colors. Beautiful, happy, chubby babies held in the arms of loving men and women in rocking chairs. Babies crawling after sparkling, tinkling, golden balls on floors as soft as cotton. Babies nursed by mothers who sang heavenly lullabies as their infants drifted off to sleep.

Millions of babies.

“This, too, is reserved for you,” said her Escort. He indicated a baby who crawled up to her, sat unsteadily on her fat little bottom, and lifted her arms up to be held.

Tears flowed down her face as she stooped to pick up the dark-eyed baby. The infant laughed delightedly and clapped her dimpled hands.

“He knows, doesn’t He, just what I love?” She whispered into ringlets of hair at the nape of the baby’s neck.

“Yes,” answered her Escort. “This task was reserved for you and for all who love babies. And for all those who fought and prayed and argued and marched against the scourge of the earth, the devastation that killed millions of babies before they could be born. This room is filled with those babies.

“They need so much love and tenderness, because many were rejected before they took their first breath. They need patience and encouragement, because their earthly parents had no room for them in their busy lives. They need soothing lullabies and soft beds because they knew violence before they could see the light of day.

“Come and go as you wish. Worship whenever you like, and feast with your departed friends and family as often as you want. Your task will always be here waiting for you. These babies will always need you, and there will always be more.”

He turned to go.

“Wait!” She remembered a question that she had not asked before.

He knew the answer before she could form the question.

“The child you lost in your womb is in your arms now.”

She gasped and looked into now-familiar eyes, the same laughing, chocolate-brown eyes as those of her other children.

Her Escort smiled with pleasure as the secret was revealed. How he loved his job!

“Yes, she has been waiting for you. Waiting for you with confidence, for you to hold her and love her, too.”

“But you said this room is full of—”

“All babies who do not have a chance to be born come to this room to wait. All babies.”

He turned to go. “I must return to my tasks.” And he disappeared.

Her time was spent joyously. As she rocked sweet-smelling babies to sleep in the golden room of downy-soft floors and pearled walls, she looked forward to worship. After her hours of adoration at the Father’s feet, she reveled in time spent with family and friends in the Banquet Hall.

Angels who traveled from the City to the earth to bring messages to the faithful, to guard the believers, would return and share their stories. She was surprised that, as it seemed years had gone by for her in her deep enjoyment of the Magnificent City, only a day or two had gone by since she had departed from earth.


Time began to matter even less to her as she immersed herself in long worship sessions, endless family reunions, and armloads of babies who never seemed to get enough cuddling. Her task, her worship, and fellowship kept her busy, just as she loved to be.

One day as she left the Worship Hall, headed for a banquet, her Escort appeared at her elbow.

“You need to know that your dear friend is arriving shortly.”

“She is? How delightful!” Her friend’s face came to mind, a loving memory of one of the dearest friends she had had on earth. She remembered how they had been mothers together, raising their children to know and love the Lord, and wondering if they were doing the right things for their children.

She remembered how they longed to sit together on cold winter days before a fire with hot cups of tea, just to chat, and were never able to because they were so busy raising children.

They had spent time together with their husbands, the four of them, sharing dinners and evenings out, worshipping together in church.

Then, as they got older and their children moved away, they had had more time to spend together, just enjoying each other’s company. Children and grandchildren came and went, playing across their floors, and they grew old through winters by the fire and summers under shade trees.

Suddenly she longed to see her friend again and spend long days showing her the glory of the Magnificent City!

“I am her Escort, too, you know.” He smiled broadly. “I escort kindred spirits, and the Lord foreknew you to be kindred spirits of the first degree. You loved and worshipped the Father together with all your souls. You cried and laughed together in the raising of your families and in the loving of your husbands. You prayed fervently. You fought the battle valiantly. And she is coming to find her reward, just as you have before her.”

“You don’t know how pleased I will be to see her again!”

“Yes, I do.” And he disappeared.

Upon reaching the Magnificent City, her friend spent such a glorious time at the Lord’s feet, and in reading her golden book. And she, watching her newly-arrived friend, enjoyed seeing her happily reuniting with friends and family who had come to the Magnificent City before her.

“Now it’s your turn,” whispered a voice at her elbow. Her Escort nudged her forward, and then they saw each other.

With a little sigh of recognition, her friend called her name. “I knew I would find you here!”

There were hugs, and happy tears, and laughter as they reunited. Linking arms, they walked the streets of the Magnificent City, she telling her friend all about each mansion.

They worshipped together again, smiling as they remembered the countless times they had agonized over their families and how they were being raised. Now they knew how the Father’s Hand had worked in their lives, and they were comforted to know that He had superintended every moment, all according to His perfect plan. Not even the mistakes and messes could change God’s plan.

One quiet day in the Babies’ Room, the door was pushed open and their Escort stood, her friend by his side. She watched from her rocking chair, and he winked at her knowingly as her friend stopped to pick up a fair-haired child whose arms were raised up to her.

She could not hear what he said, but she knew. She watched her friend take in the room full of babies as their Escort explained. The task fit her so perfectly.

She knew, too, in the gasp of recognition as her friend looked at the child in her arms. She knew as she watched a soft, cushioned rocking chair appear next to her own, and their Escort pointed it out to her. As her friend made her way over to where she sat, she saw tears of joy and knew again the familiar, aching desire to rock a child so long departed from her.

Cups of tea appeared nearby, and they sat thus, rocking bundles of warm, cuddly babies, chatting, and laughing.

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Resting on a Promise

For the believer, a state of rest comes not from an emotional high or low. Rest is a quieting of the mind. In the midst of a pandemic, in uncertain times, when we aren’t certain about the world around us, can “rest” be found?

 

Christian, rest comes from knowing that your future is certain. Of course we do not “know the future,” like a fortune-teller claims to do. Instead, we look beyond our present situation, beyond the uncertainty of what the next few days, months, and years will hold, to eternity. That rest is a promise, a confidence, a contentedness, for today.

 

“Rest” can be a time or place of refuge or safety, shelter in the eye of a storm, in the midst of a hectic time, or at the end of a crazy day. A mental state—the ability to remain calm while everything else around you is a jumbled mess. Peace when you’ve lost a job or a family member. A quiet heart when you feel so alone.

 

What if you can’t attain that calm place of rest? Christian, I’ve been there too. The answer isn’t to do more or try harder, as Michael Horton calls the endless striving in his book Christless Christianity.

 

First, last, and always, go back to what you know to be true.

 

Christian, the one source of truth is the Gospel. It is found in God, through His Holy Spirit, and guaranteed by the Lord Jesus Christ. I–and all believers–need to remind ourselves of the Gospel every day. Here’s the Gospel—the truth and the promise:

“Remember that you were [once] separated from Christ, … having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (ESV Ephesians 2:12-22).

 

This is the promise for rest and peace, a peace that is soul-deep. More than I rely on myself, my family, my friends, I trust the promises of God: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 81:8).

 

Remember the promises of God to help you in the midst of trouble, when you’re not sure who your friends are, why you are so sick, things are going so badly, or when it will all end. Remember how Psalm 27 opens, written by someone who had seen his fair share of turmoil:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who will stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident ” (Psalm 27:1-3).

Do not fear. Remember Who is greater than all your troubles. Rest.

 

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Pursue Peace

In 1776 the British pastor Augustus Toplady penned a familiar hymn called “Rock of Ages,” a beautiful statement of his assurance of faith.

This assurance, this confidence gives him a sense of peace, a sense of rest.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

The world is full of trouble. Dangers lurk everywhere, as we saw especially in the year 2020. We didn’t know how bad the pandemic would become; we couldn’t believe the destruction we saw in the streets of many cities. We wondered whose business would fail next, who would lose their jobs.

We worried, we fretted. We lived day to day, week to week, in a sort of daze. What could possibly happen next? Can it get much worse? Is this the new normal?

As much as we’d like, we can’t see the answers to such questions. But there is a comfort in the midst of the heavy, haunting weight of anxiety and unrest.

Think of worries as twofold: the temporal—what is happening in the present time or the immediate future, and eternal—where this is all heading at the end of days.

To some measure, we are able to affect our temporal worries, soothe them, perhaps change them, or try to manage them. But those eternal worries—who can know? This is the question that every generation has tried to answer. Whole religions have been invented trying to answer them. How can we know for sure?

History from all over the world tells of people who claimed to have the answers to all that troubles us. They begged wise men to impart some truth, something they could hang onto. Imposters every day invent new schemes to gain followers, enriching themselves and plunging poor souls into debt and depths of despair.

The prosperity gospel, for example, promises your best life now, but it ignores the truth that regardless of how much we pray against it, hard times do come. It ignores the truth that Jesus promised: “In this life you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The promises from man-made religions might make you feel okay for awhile, but eventually the nagging worry creeps back in.

That’s because the answers are only skin-deep, and they leave you feeling dissatisfied. Ultimately all the pretense cannot bear up under the weight of uncertainty, and you are back where you started.

But one God, the true God of Heaven, Creator of the universe, offers the only answers that hold up under scrutiny, answers that soothe the soul and offer a deep sense of peace and rest. Promises that are not empty, because Jesus has guaranteed them with His own life, which He laid down. And then, to seal the promise, He came back from the dead.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Peace, comfort, and rest come from this assurance: the God of the universe is my shelter. Knowing that the almighty, all-powerful God cares for individual souls like mine. Knowing that there’s nothing I can do—not the labor of my hands, but simply trust.

Trust in God’s grace, given to those of us who recognize how sinful we are. Realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from the deadly consequences of those sins, and repent: ask for and receive the cleansing power poured out for us at the cross by Jesus Christ.

In this I have confidence, comfort, and contentment, and I know God will never leave me nor forsake me.

My worries, my doubts, my fears can plunge me into despair if I don’t stop and remind myself: What do I know to be true?

Emotions can cause me to doubt, cause me to run, and when they try to take over, I have learned to ask myself that question.

What do I know to be true?

The answer is the Rock I cling to, the Rock in whose cleft I can hide my face, my shelter in the storm. The answer is that God is the one true source of peace and rest, even when the heaviest burdens weigh me down.

What do I know to be true? What about when things are at their worse and I can’t stand on my own? I must remember—and Christian, you must also remember—that you have been saved by the grace of God, and not the work of your hands. This is what you retell yourself when everything around you seems to be crumbling.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

Let me hide myself in Thee. I cannot save myself. Wash me, Savior, or I die.

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Goodbye 2020: The books I escaped into while locked in

Enough has been said about that year, that I don’t feel like I need to add any. But in addition to COVID lockdown, we were confined to our home—inside—because of smoke from the West Coast. Enough about that! I found time to escape into books of all sorts.

Some books here are not always “my” genres. Usually that happens when we are setting out on a long drive to visit relatives. My husband doesn’t like most of my novels, so we find something we can both enjoy reading, with enough action to stay awake on the road. So we will call those “driving reads.”

Here’s my rundown.

Fiction:

By David Baldacci: Walk the Wire. This was another book we listened to while on the road. Baldacci turns out myriad thriller and intrigue novels. He’s even ventured into the fantasy genre (look up his Vega Jane novels, the first of which is The Finisher—really excellent). This novel is part of Baldacci’s Memory Man series, about an FBI detective with a photographic memory. Some take place in the desert southwest, which I love. This one was just as good as others of his novels, and if you like Grisham, you should pick up a few of Baldacci’s novels.

By Lee Child: Blue Moon. This is book 24 of 25 Jack Reacher novels, on which two movies are based, with Tom Cruise as the title character. I haven’t read any of the other books; my husband has. This was a “driving read.” Reacher is former military, drifting around the country and meeting up with impossible and dangerous  situations. You’d think that by the end of 25 novels, he would change his habits, if a nomad existence means nearly always meeting death and destruction. Not my cup of tea, but distracting enough!

By Ann Cleeves: Cold Earth, Dead Water, Thin Air and Wild Fire. These are the last books of Cleeves’ Shetland series, on which the British TV show is based. It takes place on the islands north of Scotland: windblown, harsh, and beautiful. Its characters are beautifully described. She takes us into the heads of a few characters in each book and drives the stories through their perspectives. She leaves us wondering, at times, which of these might have been the murderer. I’ve liked her books so much that I began her books that have inspired another TV show, Vera. I have to say that they don’t even begin to feel like her masterful Shetlands books. I put down the first book about halfway through.

By Suzanne Collins: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. When an author pens a well-told story, or in Collins’ sake a good trilogy, I sometimes cringe to think if another book could possibly work. The author of the Hunger Games books takes her readers to a time before her trilogy takes place. She explores, from his point of view, how President Snow became the ruthless ruler we saw in her books. And I’ll say this works extremely well. I was pleasantly surprised. I even want to read more!

By Andy Green: The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s. The Office is more popular now, I think, than when it first aired. It’s a binge-watchable show with characters you love and characters who make you cringe. This is a behind-the-scenes account as told by many of the cast and crew who took part in the making—the good and the bad. The show always makes me smile, and this book did too.

By John Grisham: The Confession, The Guardians, and A Time for Mercy. I’ve completed reading all of Grisham’s books, except for his collection of short stories. I’ve stayed with him over the years because I enjoy his storytelling, the intrigue, and the characters he creates. Each one of these was just as good as all the ones that have come before. The last one, A Time for Mercy, takes the reader back to the familiar setting and characters that we met in A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row. Well done and riveting as always.

By Gill Hornby: Miss Austen: A Novel. I’ve been burned before by books attempting to feed off of Austen’s genius, so I’m not sure why I picked this up. Pride and Prejudice is one of my top 10 favorites, and I don’t like people messing with it! This one has a different take. It uses all the people in Jane’s adult life and takes a moment in time, after Jane’s death, to visit her dear sister in her own last few weeks. We don’t know much about Jane, except from what her immediate families recorded and what letters she wrote to family and friends. Inexplicably, Jane’s sister burned a whole collection of letters they wrote to one another. This story is a fictional attempt of explaining why. The book was okay but a letdown. Someone stop me from making that mistake again!

By Jennifer Robson: The Gown. In post-World War 2 Britain, Princess Elizabeth marries Philip, in a time of continued rationing and rebuilding. This is a semi-fictional account of two women who worked in the design house making and embroidering her gown. I enjoyed the setting and the characters, but the story was pretty predictable.

By JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Ickabog. Every so often, especially while driving, we like to reread the Harry Potter series. Goblet of Fire is probably my favorite, and we both agreed that the movies, while very well done, don’t hold a candle to the books themselves. And The Ickabog is Rowling’s newest book, unrelated to Harry Potter. She bills this as children’s literature, but it holds together very well for adults. The characters come to life, and her impeccable use of language shines forth.

By Brandon Sanderson: Starsight. This is book 2 of Sanderson’s Skyward series. Sanderson is an incredibly prolific writer, putting out several books every year. How does he do that? I have liked some of his series, but not all, so I started Skyward, book 1 of this series, a little skeptically. This is a SciFi fantasy of a people ravaged by war from aliens and who retreat underground for protection from the continued alien bombardment. Meanwhile, some fearless pilots train so they can do battle with these aliens in the skies. We watch a young woman who wants not just to fly and fight, but also to try to understand how her father failed as a fighter-pilot when she was a girl. This is well told, a good read.

Nonfiction:

By Thomas Cahill: Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World. I had read another book in this series of what he calls Hinges of History, titled How the Irish Saved Civilization. For a history buff with a biblical worldview, it was surprising and well-done. Heretics, also excellent, was well-researched and meaty. This could be a supplement of the high school or college classics student. I’ll be looking to read another in this series.

By Winston Churchill: A History of the English Speaking Peoples. This is book 2 of Churchill’s survey series, this one covering the 16th and 17th centuries. I was surprised and delighted with how readable these books are, and I look forward to the third one of the series. He wrote these in his retirement years, after he had left the office of Prime Minister in the 1950s.

By Frank Dikotter: How to be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the 20th Century. Not surprisingly, the author looks at the lives of four of the most notorious dictators of the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il Sung. He narrates the rise of each man and the ways in which each one took the reins of power to exact their vicious strategies. I encourage you to read The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to see what I mean. Surprisingly, each ruler’s methods look fairly similar. Can we learn from them? I certainly hope so.

By Donnie Eichar: Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. I have no idea how this topic came up as I searched for good books. Amazon will provide suggestions of how best to use my money on more books, based on my recent book orders. Sometimes I bite, and often I will order a sample of the Kindle book. In this case I was hooked after reading their sample. In the 1950s the members of a university adventurers’ club in the Soviet Union decided to climb a mountain that not many had ever attempted—in the Urals, in below-zero conditions. They disappeared, and searchers later found their bodies, all of them at some distance from their tent and all in some bizarre conditions. Many were partially clothed, some had no shoes, one had a skull bashed in, another had a tongue missing. Yet another had a badly broken leg. What caused them to race out of their tent onto the frozen mountainside? Eichar chronicles their journey and even heads to Dead Mountain himself to see where they died. He provides an interesting hypothesis. Warning: there’s a lot of science here. Not sure why I held onto a book with actual science in it! But it kept me rivetted until the end. You know it’s a good book when something outside your comfort zone holds your attention all the way through. I may have even learned some science! Or maybe it slipped out of my brain as soon as I ended it.

By Nancy Goldstone: Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. If you like author Alison Weir’s histories, you might also enjoy Goldstone. Very well researched, this is the tale of 13th-century queens Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice of Provence— of France, England, Germany and Sicily, respectively. This was a bit more dry than Alison Weir’s books, but still a good read.

By David Howarth: 1066: The Year of the Conquest. This is a bite-sized look at the year—the principal players, the countries involved, the lifestyles of the common folk, and how they all played a role in William’s Conquest of England. This is short and easy to get through in a few hours. It could be used as a reference source or extra reading for the high school or university student.

By Con Iggulden: Stormbird: Wars of the Roses #1. I love this topic and this time of history. Told in novel form, not boring or dry, the author brings forth the men and women whose lives centered around the upheaval of the throne of England. Looking forward to reading book 2, Margaret of Anjou.

By Sharon Kay Penman: The Land Beyond the Sea. Sometimes that Amazon suggestion of books related to what I like to read will pop up with some very interesting topics. This was one I didn’t know I needed to read! I hardly know anything about Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades. This is the account, told in novel form but faithfully adhering to history, of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. He was a child when his father died, and Baldwin learned how to become a king during a time of  great turmoil. When he was diagnosed with leprosy as a boy, he knew his time as king would be short and he would need to both rule this great city and find an heir. Probably one of the best nonfiction books of the year for me.

By Sarah Rose: D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War 2. While sending men and materiel to the Continent, Churchill needed spies who would live in France and commit all sorts of acts of sabotage in order to prepare France and the Resistance for D-Day. Over 3 dozen women were recruited and trained, and this book looks at just 3 of them. These little-recognized women faced dangers, privations, with astounding strength and bravery–some of whom paid with their lives–and should be recognized and honored for their sacrifices.

By JD Vance: Hillbilly Elegy. I mentioned to one of my sons that my own father was probably a hillbilly, based on where and when he lived, and he suggested that I read this book. Vance grew up right in the area where we lived for 15 years, Cincinnati. He recounts the harsh and brutal lives of people right in our own back yards, right now. Though his life was unimaginably chaotic, he somehow escaped the cycle of poverty, addictions, and abuse to graduate from high school, college, and law school. This was not a book you could say you enjoyed, though it is an important book that demands you be aware of these little-known folks and the harsh lives they live—often right close to you.

By Alison Weir: Queens of the Conquest. Weir thoroughly researches the subjects of every book she writes, all of which concern Medieval and Renaissance Europe, so I know I can expect an excellent and fascinating read. Here she gives a picture of four queens who ruled right around the time of the Conquest of 1066. She depicts these women as strong-willed, intelligent, and loyal to their countries and their families. She shows rather than tells, which makes all the difference.

Biblical Worldview/Theology:

By Robert W. Godfrey: Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort. I love to read about theology and the development of biblical thought throughout history. The canons and confessions of early church fathers can be instructional and enlightening. Other important canons and confessions would be The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, and the Book of Concord. Inspirational, informative, and important for the Christian who wants to study theology from early Reformation days. These confessions were written to respond to heresies that arose in the Christian church.  Just like the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds, these statements can be studied, Bible in hand, to know how to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (2 Peter 1:12). If you’re really interested, Ligonier Ministries has a Church History series in which Godfrey gives 25-minute lectures of a survey course.

By Abdu Murray: Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World. Murray claims, and rightly so, I believe, that today can no longer be called Postmodern; instead he calls our age today “Post-Truth.” This is a time in which truth is relative: “You may believe one truth and I can believe in another, and that’s okay.” I may lay out all the facts in an argument, and my opponent (my student, my neighbor, etc.) will acknowledge all those facts but will still decide to believe some other conflicting idea, one that does not comport with the truth. How do you persuade folks who think this way? Read this in order to arm yourself for the Post-Truth age.

What I’ll read next:

I’m currently almost done with Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline. Book 1, Ready Player One, compelled me to race through it–a very good sign of a great book. The sequel also has a thrilling, breathless race to solve a quest, however I got impatient with the long, detailed slogs through 80s movies, songs, and video games. I felt like I was just reading Cline’s geeky infatuation for anything 80’s pop culture.

On my Amazon Wish List, but who knows what other books will cross my path this year?

  • The Age of Revolution by Winston Churchill.
  • The Affectionate Theology of Richard Sibbes (A Long Line of Godly Men Profile) by Mark Dever.
  • Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood.
  • Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin.
  • The Brothers York by Thomas Penn.
  • The Cottingly Secret by Hazel Gaynor.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Ferrell.
  • Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman.
  • The Lady Queen by Nancy Goldstone.
  • Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac and Margaret Collins Weitz.
  • The Queen’s Secret: A Novel of England’s World War II Queen by Karen Harper.
  • The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
  • She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.
  • Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman.
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  • The Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden.
  • When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Edwidge Canticat.
  • Winter-King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn.
  • The World’s Last Night and Other Essays by CS Lewis.

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The Illusion of Control

There’s been nothing like this.

Such a strange time we live in.

What’s next?

Will we ever be the same after this?

Have you recently spoken these words with friends or family as you connect in some of the only ways we are able–online, on the phone, or from six feet away? But it’s true: we haven’t lived through anything like this.

Our expectations for 2020 have been blown up as COVID-19 makes its way around the world. Graduations, weddings, sports events, even funerals have been canceled or postponed. Millions out of work, the economy limping along.

“It stinks,” said a high school senior, wearing a face mask, leaning out the window of a coffee drive-up window. “I’m finishing my senior year online. I don’t get to graduate with my friends. But,” he continued, “at least I have a job!” With a big thumbs-up he handed me my coffee and wished me a good day.

“Well put!” I responded. “Gotta see the positive side!”

We miss our friends and coworkers. Some of us hadn’t realized just how much we need face-to-face contact with others! This isn’t solitary confinement, but our circle of contacts has been made so small.

We each have stories to tell, I’m sure, that we will recount to our children and grandchildren. “Gramma, what was it like during the Big Shutdown of 2020?” “Did you really hide hundreds of toilet paper rolls in the attic?”

Don’t tell anyone, but a friend heard our local garden center was open in late April. (I may or may not be that friend.) It is big, open-air; what could go wrong? This friend wondered if it would be called cheating if she “happened” to meet another friend at the garden center and stroll around together–but 6 feet apart, of course. Lo and behold, at an appointed–“coincidental”–time, the two friends met and wandered around. What a joy to talk face-to-mask, as it were, after a long separation! That is, ahem, if I was indeed that friend.

And, funny thing, a hundred or more people, the largest crowd I’ve seen at that garden center, seemed to be thinking the same.

At times, though, it is difficult not to be depressed about our imposed quarantine. Events around the world and in our own communities seem so out of control. Rulers give us seemingly conflicting stories and projections. Angry mobs protesting, officials threatening with jail anyone who reopens their business before the appointed time. Who can we believe, actually? Whose numbers are right? We won’t know until this is way past us. But right now? Right now, we’ve lost whatever control we thought we had over our own lives.

Sometimes don’t you wonder if God is trying to get your attention? What else could go wrong, you ask. Is this one of God’s messages–to pay attention, get your life straightened out?

We think we are in control; we hate to give up control to someone else.

When disease, disaster, or other problems big or small strike, we face three options with three very different results:

1. Take control myself: failure rushes in.

Out of desperation or the need to keep everything under my control, I will circle my wagons, panic-buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, meat, or canned goods. I’ll empty my savings accounts and buy gold and stuff it in my mattress. I’ll turn in those neighbors who are having a small party against the lockdown orders, or whose business is staying open in defiance of the rules. No kidding: some cities have snitch-line websites where you can turn in the names of rule-breakers. Ever heard of McCarthy, or the Salem witch trials?

Trying hard to keep control while all the world seems out of control is the epitome of desperation. We grasp even tighter. We fight even harder. We don’t really know that we have already lost all semblance of (or never really had) authority over our own lives. What follows is increasing anger and impatience, lashing out at others, alienating the few people we have in our small circles of contact.

Then emptiness, frustration, and desperation overwhelm you. You give up.

2. Give control to government: tyranny walks in.

This is a familiar pattern throughout history. When chaos walks in, and we can’t control it or cure it, or run away from it, we beg the government to “just do something about it!”

Governments love to rescue people out of their emergencies…as long as they have unlimited funds. No unlimited funds? That’s okay! We can borrow or tax or both! The more, the better! And of course, the government says, we need to pay ourselves to administer the funds! No one will notice the millions we have skimmed off the top!

The more power the government gets, the more it grows, and the more areas of life they can oversee. The more willingly we give them authority to take power, the more powerfully they will rule. Note, just in relatively recent history, how chaos in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Germany in the First World War led to the tyrannic rule of Napoleon and Hitler, respectively. Once tyrants rule, it will take another war (or more) to restore more peaceful rule.

3. Give control to God: peace walks in.

We probably should go this route initially, but I seldom do the right thing first. I thought I could take care of things on my own. I lose sleep, become anxious, my auto-immune conditions hit me badly, blood pressure rises… It’s pretty ridiculous. Then I remember what I should have done first.

Jesus’ disciple Peter watched him walking on the water during a storm. Peter impetuously jumped out of his boat to walk on water too, and he actually took a few steps when the storm and the waves and wind alarmed him. He took his eyes off of Jesus and immediately sank into the storm-tossed sea. He had forgotten that Christ was his safe harbor.

It’s important to note that as Christ walked in that stormy sea, He didn’t at first calm the waves. He told Peter to walk to Him in the middle of the rough waters. Why is that important?

Sometimes we can call to God and He will calm the waters:

And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:24-26).

Other times we call out and He chooses to let us go through the storm:

And after [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:23-33)

It seems a cliche, but it is true: We must go through the storm, BUT–and this is vital–He will accompany us on that rough journey. He will not abandon us, He promises to those who have put their trust in Him. That is the source of our peace.

 

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Books–and Movies–from 2019

I can’t talk about books I read this year without also telling you what I recommend from the list of movies of 2019. I guess since my two sons each write for movie review sites (The Next Best Picture and Ready Steady Cut),  as well as hosting podcasts (The Screeners Podcast and Geek Card Check), and because they spent Christmas time talking about their favorites, it’s fresh on my mind.

Books first:

My goal was to read a book a week. I read half of that. I have no excuses! But maybe if I have a goal of two books a week for 2020… Well, we’ll see.

Remember that I told you I am an eclectic reader. History, biography, fantasy, science fiction, mystery thriller–just give me something well written. Also it doesn’t hurt if it is also in a British setting; I’m an anglophile.

History:

  • Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. The account of the tragic lives of the last Russian tsar and his family. The royal family were victims of the Bolshevik revolution in the early 20th century, but they were also trapped by their own refusal to recognize that their people cried to be released from the feudal bondage from which the rest of Europe had departed.
  • Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury. Having just finished Nicholas and Alexandra, I wanted to take a look at the progeny of Britain’s Queen Victoria. An astounding number of her descendants sat on or near the thrones of many European countries in the 19th and 20th century, including Russia’s Alexandra. Many even found themselves on opposite sides in World War 1.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. This is the story of the development of the FBI in the US. In this department’s genesis, investigators find themselves racing to discover the killer of many members of a Native American tribe in Oklahoma because of the money they were set to inherit from property and mining rights. Since my own grandmother was born and raised in that vicinity, I was fascinated by the intrigue. This is a story well-told.
  • Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. I’ve known that this was a great story, and that it spawned a miniseries, but I never took the time to read it. So my husband and I, driving to see family, listened to this book. It’s compelling, grim, inspiring.

Theology:

  • The Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer. My Bible study uses this book for 2019-2020. It’s a small book with short, bite-sized discussions about the nature of God. If your Bible study is interested in using it, please let me know and I’ll send you the study notes.
  • Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by RC Sproul. I used this book to supplement our reading of Tozer’s book. These chapters are small–around two pages for each attribute of God. So you can imagine it can’t go terribly deep. It makes an excellent companion to Tozer’s book, though.

General Fiction:

  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This was probably the most delightful book I’ve read in quite a few years. A Russian aristocrat is “imprisoned” for life in a hotel in Moscow, never to set foot outside. This is a better alternative to what many of his social circle received at the hands of the Communists, so he makes the best of his situation. Every character is perfectly depicted; I didn’t want the book to end. Up through the very last page, this book had me entranced. It’s what prompted me to read Nicholas and Alexandra, just to get a feel of the setting and of the people.
  • Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley. If you’ve read my reviews of the past few years, you’ll know that I love this series of books. They are like dessert: delightful, funny, and sweet. This is the ongoing story of Flavia de Luce, a 12-year-old genius living in the huge but run-down ancestral home of her family in post-World War 2 England. She loves to solve mysteries and also enjoys mixing up the occasional poison in her great-great uncle’s laboratory. If you haven’t read these, drop what you’re reading and pick up the first book of the series, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. If you have to ask why the books have strange titles, you’re not as smart as Flavia, and she’d tell you that herself.
  • Tidelands by Phillipa Gregory. This is the first of a new series by the author of The Other Boleyn Girl. Her characters are portrayed beautifully, and she has researched the time period  well (Tidelands is mid-17th century). Her books can get a bit racy. This one isn’t too bad.

 

Mystery/Intrigue:

  • I needed to catch up on many of the John Grisham books I’ve not read. Each one is rewarding. How he manages to come up with fresh plots and characters, I have no idea, but he depicts his characters so well and keeps you guessing until the last. I’ll recommend all of these to you:

The Litigators
The Broker
The Last Juror
The Racketeer
The Reckoning

  • The Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci. This author is prolific. He’s got several series of books, including a fantasy series. He must never sleep! Anyway, this is the start of a new series that promises some interesting plots set in the American Southwest.
  • I binged on a TV series called Shetland (remember I love nearly anything British), so I decided to read the books on which the show is based. Ann Cleeves writes them, as well as another series on which the TV show Vera is based. Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Raven Black
White Nights
Red Bones
Blue Lightning

 

Re-reads:

  • The Lord of the Rings  trilogy by JRR Tolkien. If it’s been a few years since you read it (and DON’T tell me you’ve never read it!), I recommend it to you. Great books invite repeated readings. This is very nearly a perfect story.
  • Another series that invites frequent re-reading is Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I re-read the first two toward the end of 2019. On to the next five!

Science Fiction/Fantasy:

  • The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky by Mary R. Kowal. This is Hidden Figures meets The Martian. Such good books! This is an alternate history book set in the 1960s, in which a meteor devastates the Earth and they need to rush the developing space program in order to establish a new colony of survivors on Mars before the Earth succumbs to a new Ice Age. Very well written, with a woman as the scientist who plays a key role as “calculator”–human mathematician–and also longs to be one of the astronauts who goes to Mars..
  • Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. This is the first in a new series by this prolific author. I have liked a couple of his other series, but not all of them, but this one was quite good. A young woman dreams of becoming a pilot like her father, fighting an alien race that threatens the planet from just beyond the planet’s atmosphere. The main character is brilliantly depicted, and I look forward to the next volume to come later this year.

Finally, books waiting in my queue for 2020:

  • The Guardians by John Grisham
  • The New World, Volume 2 of Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People. I read the first volume a couple years ago.
  • Dead Water by Ann Cleeves
  • Star Sight by Brandon Sanderson
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (re-read)
  • Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller
  • The Gown by Jennifer Robson
  • Saving Truth by Abdu Murray
  • The 36-Hour Day by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins, a guide for those caring for people who have Alzheimer and other dementia diseases. My sisters and I are watching our mother unravel, and it’s heartbreaking, and I need to know more.
  • Also I received The Book of Common Prayer for Christmas. I will use it during my quiet times, to supplement the Scripture I read every day. I’m looking forward to reading this more than all the other books on any list!

 

And now I can give you my list of movies from 2019. My top favorites are listed first, but the rest have no particular order.

  • Yesterday: Maybe one of the top films of the year for me. Drop what you’re doing and watch it.
  • Little Women: Beautifully portrayed in a unique manner that really works. I need to re-read the book!
  • JoJo Rabbit: This was a complete surprise to me. The subject might seem off-putting: it’s about a little boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. But wait! Go see it! It is funny and sweet and emotional, very much worth your time. It sits in my top favorites list.
  • It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Such a good movie. One of my top favorites. I just re-watched it and love it even more. Sweet, honest, evocative. I hope Tom Hanks earns an Oscar for it.
  • Knives Out: This is on my favorites list. Hilarious. Well done who-dunnit film you should see.
  • Honey Boy: This is harsh and gritty, devastating and honest. Shia LeBeouf wrote this autobiographical script and plays his father. Give yourself a few minutes to digest it once the movie’s over. So well done. This makes it to my list of favorites.
  • Avengers Endgame: You have to see the Avengers movies in order, and this one follows nicely but (spoiler alert) kills off a character I will miss terribly.
  • The Farewell: Sweet and honest, could be emotional but pulls back from the edge nicely.
  • Toy Story 4: Pretty good, but the best was #1.
  • Captain Marvel: This is an Avengers movie, so read what I said above about Endgame. Well done!
  • Apollo 11: The documentary. It’s a must-watch for everyone.
  • Shazam: Nope. Waste of time.
  • Aladdin: Will Smith’s genie was great, but for the most part this was a yawner.
  • Late Night: Funny and sweet story of a talk show host facing dwindling audiences and finally decides she needs to make some changes–not just in the show, but also in herself.
  • Missing Link: Good animation but predictable story line.
  • Ford v Ferrari: Another sweet, funny movie, well done.
  • 1917: Well done. Non-stop action, gritty, depicting the horrors of that war in a new perspective.
  • The Aeronauts: Not on my favorites list but interesting.
  • They Shall Not Grow Old: On the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, this film relies solely on real film footage and old recordings of the voices of British soldiers to tell the tale. It’s not for everyone, but if you like documentaries, you should watch this.
  • Star Wars Rise of Skywalker: Honestly, my husband and I didn’t like this very much, which scandalized our kids. So we went again (yes, I know…), and on second viewing it came together better for us. Not my favorite Star Wars film, but it was okay. (Sorry guys!)

Now let me hear from you! What books and movies are on your lists?

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An Attack on Pro-Life Governor Aids the Pro-Life Cause

Jim Carrey on AbortionAnti-Life actor-turned-cartoonist Jim Carrey scored a major point–for his opponents. Without meaning to, his pictorial depiction of a late-term abortion is disgustingly accurate, but it doesn’t help his cause.

He depicts the governor of Alabama being suctioned out of a womb, using a late-term-abortion technique of a powerful suction that quite literally sticks a needle into the skull of an unborn baby and sucks the brain, and all living material, out of the mother’s womb.

This could be laughable if it weren’t so heinous. Did Carrey stop to think twice about the truth behind his cartoon, or was he so bent on bloodying his opponents that he just dashed the cartoon out in a moment of creative inspiration? You be the judge: does this help or harm the pro-abortion argument?

 

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My 2018 booklist: picking up more history

…and a helpful must-read list for Christians who want to study their faith

Last year’s list of books highlighted the theme of how eclectic a reader I’ve become. This year is no different.

I’ve wanted to pick up certain genres “once I’m retired,” and finally into my third year of retirement I’m beginning to blow the dust off that list. British history fascinates me, and I’ve been reading British lit for most of my life. Heck, my degree is in British lit, so no surprises there. So in addition to sticking with my penchant for all novels British, I’ve begun to pick up history books on that subject.

Winston Churchill wrote an enormous, 4-volume History of the English-Speaking People, completed in 1956, and I’ve always been curious about it. The first volume, Birth of Britain, spans from the earliest days of Roman occupation and ends after the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century. For such a heavy subject, this is surprisingly readable and interesting. I’ll be picking up the next volumes in the coming year: Volume 2–New World, Volume 3–Age of Revolution, and Volume 4–Great Democracies. The last volume finishes right before the first World War. Churchill mostly focuses on the political and economical developments in this first volume.

Along that theme, I also read The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, documenting the royal family spanning from 1066 to the late-15th century when the Tudors rose to power. (Not coincidentally, this spans nearly the same time period as the first Churchill volume!) I had attempted a book on this same subject by Thomas Costain and couldn’t slog through it, even though I do like Costain. Jones’s book, on the other hand, was a smooth and compelling narration from beginning to end. (I’ve added a few more of his books to my to-read list.)

A  more modern British history book, Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, follows the story of a most unlikely spy during World War 2. Eddie Chapman, a con man serving a sentence for numerous petty crimes, ends up a most valuable double agent. A frustratingly narcissistic thief, always hungry for the next con and/or the next woman, leads such a complicated double life that neither side–German or Allied–can really be sure of his alliance. This reads like a James Bond novel, and I’d love to see it made into a movie.

So historical survey aside, I hope you’re ready for my seriously eclectic reading list from 2018. You are welcome to recommend more!

First, a report on the books I promised myself I would read in 2018, taken from my 2017 reading list. I just could NOT get into several of these books!

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This was going to be my summer-by-the-pool read, since it is in paperback and therefore safer to take to the pool than my iPad, on which I do most of my reading. Unfortunately we didn’t have much summer by the pool, because our sky was filled with ash and smoke from early-July through November, so no pool reading. (We live in Northern California, just a few miles from where the Carr fire started. We were evacuated for 7 days, but thanks to the heroic efforts of first responders, our neighborhood still stands.) You might say that this is not an excuse, but I’m using it anyway.
  • Rooster Bar by John Grisham. A very good read, building excitement and intrigue as he tells the story of a trio of law school students who go off the reservation and try to con their school.
  • The Whistler by John Grisham. This one follows an investigator for a board of Judicial Conduct, who finds herself looking into a judge who gets wealthy off of the bribes of a Native American-run casino. Her investigation turns deadly, and the story is a fast-paced race to find the truth before the judge disappears with her fortune.
  • The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro. I just couldn’t get into this one. I was told it was beautiful, but it just didn’t capture me.
  • Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro. Tried this one as well. What’s wrong with me?
  • The Conquering Family: The Pageant of England, Volume 1 by Thomas Costain. As I said earlier, this was too dry, so I picked up Dan Jones’s history instead.
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. Another one that just didn’t capture my attention. I’ve read many delightful British mystery novels, but I couldn’t get into this.
  • Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson. I love Sanderson’s fantasy novels. His Mistborn Trilogy and Stormlight Archives held me riveted to the very last pages. And then there are some fantasy books in his collections that I just didn’t have the patience to endure. This one, I felt, needed me to go back and re-read everything else just to understand the first chapter. Too many characters, too much happening all at once.
  • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. Ditto.
  • The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki. The true story from Austria-Hungary of two sisters who traveled to the palace of Emperor Franz Joseph to fulfill the betrothal of the older sister to the emperor. Unfortunately the younger sister, Elisabeth, was the one who fell in love and married him. If it hadn’t been a true story, I would not have believed the events that followed. The emperor’s shrew of a mother took every opportunity to rule the couple’s lives, including taking away their babies–literally from the birthing room–to raise them herself, claiming that Elisabeth was not a fit mother. The book was well-written (enough to make her readers angry at the dragon-lady and at the emperor’s inability to stand up to her. I’m still seeing red).

Now follows the list of also-read for 2018. (Not sure I want to tell you what’s on my 2019 list since I am embarrassed that I didn’t get through my to-read list of 2018.)

Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • Artemis by Andy Weir, author of The Martian, which I enjoyed a couple of years ago. My one (very minor) complaint about The Martian was its exhausting use of physics, so I wondered if Artemis would be the same. Thankfully, it’s not! There’s still plenty to keep the geeks engaged, but this one was a little less…physics-focused (read: more dumbed-down for people like me). This takes place on the moon, where a city called Artemis has been established. Great protagonist, wonderfully crafted supporting cast. If you like Sci-Fi, pick it up. And listen to it on Audible if you can. The reader was absolutely perfect.
  • Skyward by Branden Sanderson. I mentioned above that I couldn’t get into a couple of Sanderson’s novels. For me, he is hit-or-miss. But this one is fantastic. Humans in a world where they escaped a devastating war, living underground and building spacecraft so they can fight the aliens who threaten to destroy them all. The protagonist is a young woman who wants to be trained as a pilot/fighter, not just because she wants to save her people, but also because her father was said to have cut and run during battle, and she is compelled to get out from under the disgrace she feels as the daughter of a coward (and really not willing to believe that he was a coward). Well done, exciting, great characters, a must-read.

Intrigue and Mystery:

  • Long Road to Mercy by David Baldacci. Riveting adventure of an FBI investigator who mans a one-man (one-woman in this case) office near the Grand Canyon. She’s a compelling character with a dark history. The story is well-told (like most of Baldacci’s novels) and gripping. This looks to be a new series by Baldacci, so I’m keeping an eye on his upcoming books.
  • The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova. Written by the author of The Historian, a tale of Dracula, this dark, mysterious novel takes its readers to Bulgaria, where a young American woman has come to start a new life, escape her demons, and find adventure. The slow-moving book didn’t capture me at first, but the two principle characters are compelling. You will wonder about them both through the entire book. I recommend it.
  • Camino Island by John Grisham. As always, I thoroughly enjoy Grisham’s novels. For some reason I stopped reading him a few years back, so I have a treasure trove of novels to make up. This centers around a rare, expensive book heist. While the main characters are not his best, the book is still fun and satisfying.
  • The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley. This is a novella from the author I have loved for a few years now. Bradley’s main character, Flavia DeLuce, is a precocious, genius 12-year-old in post-war Britain who solves mysteries. Yes, this is probably categorized as a YA (Young Adult) novel, but don’t let that keep you from picking up Bradley’s first book in the series, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is hugely entertaining.

Theology/Bible Study

I never felt like I had the time to do some more in-depth studies while I was a teacher. I’m so grateful to have the time now. None of these books ever take the place of daily Bible-reading, which I urge you to do. These books supplement the study of the Bible. Some study books become more about me-me-me, so be careful to discern the intent of the writer.

  • The “Be” books by Warren W. Wiersbe. He wrote in-depth commentary on books in the Bible. If you’ve decided to study, either in a group or on your own, these are great help and insightful aides for further study. In the past year we have read Be Faithful (on 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon) and Be Mature (on the book of James) in our small group study.
  • Women of the Word by Jen Wilken. If you know me well, you might see me resisting a twitch or two when considering Bible study books written just for women. I won’t get started on that rabbit trail for now. But wanting to take the women in our church’s Bible study group into examinating of books of the Bible, rather than the self-focused study books used by many other groups, a friend recommended this book as a starting point. I highly recommend it to you. This book tells us the WHY and the HOW of Bible study, then launches us out of our nest to go study books of the Bible on our own. Having finished it, we are now studying the book of Colossians–one of my favorites. If you’re interested in seeing the study questions I’ve put together, please let me know!
  • Westminster Confession of Faith. I recommend every believer to read this at least once, with a Bible open. This is from the description on Amazon:

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a Reformed confession of faith, in the Calvinist theological tradition. Although drawn up by the 1646 Westminster Assembly, largely of the Church of England, it became and remains the ‘subordinate standard’ of doctrine in the Church of Scotland, and has been influential within Presbyterian churches worldwide. In 1643, the English Parliament called upon “learned, godly and judicious Divines,” to meet at Westminster Abbey in order to provide advice on issues of worship, doctrine, government and discipline of the Church of England. Their meetings, over a period of five years, produced the confession of faith, as well as a Larger Catechism and a Shorter Catechism. For more than three centuries, various churches around the world have adopted the confession and the catechisms as their standards of doctrine, subordinate to the Bible.

This is a study of theology and doctrine. If you are a believer, you should be able to defend your faith, knowing why you believe what you believe. Find the version of the Confession that is heavily footnoted with scripture references. I say this because anyone can make a list of beliefs, but not ground them thoroughly in Scripture. I want to see what the “divines” wrote, but I want to know what the Bible says about it. Please don’t try understanding who God is, what He has done, and what your response should be, without finding it in the Bible. As the last sentence of the description above says, this Confession is “subordinate to the Bible,” as should all your Bible studies should be.

Along that note, add a few more helpful sources to your library:

  • Luther’s Small Catechism
  • The Heidelburg Catechism
  • The Book of Concord

And these brief, beautiful books by Martin Luther:

  • On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
  • The Bondage of the Will
  • Concerning Liberty

And by Augustine: Confessions 

Finally, I want to hear from you about your booklists. What did you love reading in 2018?

And would you like my classic reading list? I’ll be happy to send it to you.

Oh! And if you’d like more recommendations regarding biblical worldview and Bible study, please ask!

Now get reading!

 

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Watch your language when you write

angrymobSeveral years ago I was invited to address a group of Christian leaders in Canada, about church writing groups and the need for Christians to write in a compelling manner in whatever marketplace writers may find themselves. My aim was to teach about worldview and about including God’s word in reaching a secular audience. (Before you read further, in my defense I will say that I had previously given this same talk to several different Christian audiences.)

I began to make a point about how your harsh words and insensitive writing will polarize an audience before even reaching your main point. Using a letter to the editor I had found, I began reading it aloud so they could hear a harsh, insensitive writer spouting venom about homosexuals. My second step was to dig into the letter together with my audience so that we could find a more appropriate way to make a point.

I’ll admit to the irony of what happened next.

Before I could finish reading the offensive letter out loud, a quarter of my audience had stood, turned their backs, and exited the room.

What could I have done differently? I warned them, up front, that this would be something we could–we should–all learn to do better. Perhaps I should have brought up my main points earlier on, so they could see that I myself intended no insult. Before planning my talk, I should have asked some questions of the conference organizers, in the hope of learning more about the attendees.

It has always been my policy to remember first what Paul instructed to his readers–and what I was going to teach my audience–to do:  “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (NASB Colossians 4:5-6). In this case, my message failed to reach many people in my audience because I didn’t understand how to “respond to each person.” 

Consider, though, that you can’t always anticipate how each audience member will react. Better to hold on to the truth than to water down your message.

Think about who your audience is: who reads your discourse or sits in your audience? Think about them and write so that they can understand.

This means you need to evaluate–or maybe anticipate–your audience before you write. Now, if you are a Rhetoric student, your audience is not so vast:

  • Your teacher
  • Your parents, who will proofread
  • Your classmates

Or maybe you have a larger audience:

  • Readers of your blog or other social media
  • Readers of your letter to an editor
  • Your youth group
  • Classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents at your school–perhaps in a graduation assembly or thesis defense

Perhaps you have a passionate response to something in the news, or you want to join a demonstration and make your voice heard. Who will be that audience?

Most importantly, you want to craft a speech or discourse in the best light so that your audience will be moved to take action. And alongside of that, you must keep in mind WHO your audience is, and be sure to write so that they understand what you’ve said.

In the situation above, what could I have done differently? Before I read aloud that offensive letter to the editor, I DID tell them what they were going to hear and that I wanted to work with them on less strident language. What can I conclude from their hasty departure? Either they didn’t hear my introduction, or they just couldn’t stomach what I was reading out loud. It’s hard to know now. Something about the subject caused them to shut down and walk off.

This is bound to happen sometimes. If we’re speaking the truth in love, at times it won’t matter that you have the best intentions. Truth offends. Often, though, we need to:

  1. Observe who we are trying to reach,
  2. Review what we’re going to say, and
  3. Commit our words and our presentation to the Lord, asking him for wisdom.

In his instructions to the faithful in Colossae, Paul writes a beautiful passage on how to speak with others both inside and outside of the church:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV Colossians 3:12-17, emphasis added)
Be that salt and light to your audience, whoever they are. Speak the truth in love. Have compassion for the lost. Put on love.

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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Rhetoric, Uncategorized, Writing

The Style of Good Rhetoric

Aristotle classified five “canons” of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Our own course of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is also divided in the same manner.

Style arrives midway through our course with good reason. Invention–the method of discovering what to write about and how to prove our point, and Arrangement–deciding how to argue and in what order it will happen, provide us with a strong foundation. We might call it the “bones” of an argument.

Once we have 1) arrived at our arguments and 2) arranged them effectively, then we must 3) skillfully and artfully weave our words together in a pleasing, clear, compelling manner. Consider this the clothing that covers the flesh and bones of your argument.

Skillful writing:

  • Uses proper grammar.
  • Chooses the right word for the right meaning. Vague writing will inevitably confuse the audience.
  • Finds compelling ways to paint a word picture in the mind of the audience. One homeschool writing curriculum calls it “dressing up” your writing.
  • Is not redundant: it does not repeat itself retelling in a repetitious manner. (Got it?)

Aristotle uses a bit of sarcasm when discussing what seems to be common sense: if you want to persuade, do not be ambiguous “unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something” (Rhetoric Book 3). Your audience might be momentarily charmed by clever words, but they can detect specious reasoning and a thin façade of argumentation.

Think about your favorite writers. Why do you love to read what they write? They probably weave together a great story that keeps you engaged, make characters come to life, hold you in suspense, make you love the protagonist and hate his enemy. I agree with all of that, and I’ll add another quality, because I love words: the best authors paint an engaging word picture that might make me pause and admire how that was done.

I just finished reading another book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Seriously, go pick up the first book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  and tell me what you think. Bradley goes into the mind of a genius 11-year-old girl, Flavia (rhymes with “gravy-a”, and she insists that you pronounce it correctly), in post-World War 2 Britain. She is funny, terribly clever, dreams of concocting poisons in the chemistry lab on her estate, and solves crimes.

Here are some brilliant uses of the language that continue to endear Flavia to me:

  • “I could see at a glance that sunlight was not welcome here.” Bradley could have said simply, “This was a gloomy room.” No, he wanted to use this room to create a setting for his reader.
  • “I raised an eyebrow at Dogger, who had told me that the word [‘momentarily’] meant ‘briefly’ rather than ‘soon,’ and was best avoided if one didn’t want to be mistaken for an American. But Dogger was wearing his unreadable poker face, and I was left to feel superior all by myself.” Flavia is smart and knows it. And she’s a bit disdainful about Americans. But notice how Bradley’s words don’t insult Americans outright; they are a soft nudge, tongue-in-cheek. Besides, Bradley himself is Canadian, so he doesn’t get it right every time either.
  • “When I woke up, the shadows of late afternoon had subtly rearranged my room.” Could Bradley have just said “When I awoke, I noticed that the sun was going down”? Sure, but his choice is much more evocative.
  • “The conversation was becoming like one of those absurd French dramas in which the characters stand about swapping nonsense dialogue while the audience pretend they know what’s going on.” I am certain Bradley meant Waiting for Godot. The icy, vague shadow of a nightmare rises up, along with memories of a sadistic professor who tried to convince us that it was a brilliant work of art. Bradley transported me back to a decade of frustrated reading (that was probably actually only a week long, but I can never get that time back), trying to discern any deep meaning in that play. It’s not worth your time, folks.

The third Canon of Rhetoric, Style, puts the icing on the cake, the jewels on the crown, the gold filigree on the tapestry… You see what I mean. And the more you pay attention to excellent writing, the more ways you will arrive at beautiful, compelling Style to prove your point and convince your audience.

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Filed under Education, Grammar, Literature, Rhetoric, Uncategorized