Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

A few years ago, from 2005-2007, we spent our Fourth of July weekends in Annapolis, Maryland, at something called the JEI conference. Lots of speakers, books, good food, strolling around the lovely historic city, and fireworks. It was sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Institute, which existed to promote Edwards' ideas for a modern audience and "foster a God-entranced worldview.". And we loved it (because we're nerds like that).

Fast-forward almost ten years later and though the JEI Institute no longer exists, we are finding opportunities to share some of these same passions with our kids. One way is through a great series of biographies from Simonetta Carr. This particular biography came to us most timely, as we are actually studying American History this year and have been reading quite a few accounts of early colonists.

Carr's latest contribution to her Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, Jonathan Edwards, exceeds my expectations. Though I thought I knew much about Edwards' writings, I realized by reading this book how few details I really knew about his life. All of the books in this series are of excellent quality, hardback and sturdy and with exceptional content, but this one especially has some fascinating facts, photographs and illustrations. In this biography, Carr shares details of his life (1703-1758) from his time as an inquisitive youth to his death at a relatively young age due to illness, when he was then president of Princeton.

If all you know of Edwards is the classic sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," you will be most surprised and encouraged by reading about his whole life's work. His delight in Creation and wonder at the glory of God are evident throughout his story. Even as a child he was interested in science, and observed creatures like the infamous spider and marveled at their unique qualities. There's even an original sketch by Edwards included in the book. His time at Yale brought him into contact with contemporary philosophers and thinkers like Isaac Netwon and Voltaire. As he struggled and wrestled with these new ideas, he always checked them against the Truth he found in Scripture. And so he became captivated by the excellency and wisdom of his Creator. So much so, that Carr writes: "Often, Edwards felt so impressed by God's glory and beauty that he started to sing." What a fantastic picture of a man whose heart chased after God!

There is a good amount of information about his life's work as a preacher, of course, including the first Great Awakening. But Carr also examines his struggles as his beliefs conflicted with his congregation. There is an excellent chapter on his friendship with David Brainerd, missionary to the Native Americans, which later inspired him to move his own family to Stockbridge and become a missionary himself. His interactions with the Indians and his desire for their well-being, fair treatment, and the education of their children in a school alongside his own is much to be praised, and is quite unlike many of the other accounts we have been reading in our American History studies this year.

I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in learning more about Edward's life. Carr includes a helpful map, timeline, and an appendix with facts about the time period as well as a letter from Edwards to one of his children. As always, the illustrations are rich and well-done, perfectly suited to the text. Reading this has provided our family with an excellent model of what it means to live one's life out faithfully, to "discover God as He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures" and not try to "match the Bible to our own ideas." Many of the chapters offer frameworks for understanding the cultural context in which Edwards lived and offer up ideas for discussion, growth and further reading. This is a wonderful addition to any family library.

If you are interested in any of Jonathan Edwards' writings, I would recommend the Edwards Center at Yale University, which offers a large collection online.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for providing this review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review -- Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1–8

"The book of Psalms ... is the biggest book in the Bible, but for many in the church its contents are largely mysterious and out of sight," laments J. V. Fesko in the Introduction to his latest book, Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. To remedy this deficiency, Fesko aims to convince his readers of two important characteristics of the Psalter: 1) that it is focused on the person and work of Christ -- not just in certain "christological psalms" but in its entirety; and 2) that it is not a randomly-arranged collection of poetry but, rather, is a deliberately-organized work with an overarching story. By focusing on the first 8 Psalms, Fesko is able to demonstrate both these characteristics in the text as well as lay out an approach for studying the entire Psalter.

Fesko's book is explicitly "a devotional exploration of the first eight Psalms" and is intended for the edification of Christian readers. Each chapter focuses on a different Psalm, tracing its significance from its original context to its fulfillment in Christ to its continued application for Christians. Each chapter includes a list of questions for further reflection and study. And, since the Psalms were intended to be sung, the book includes metrical versions of each of the studied psalms, as well as resources for obtaining sheet music and audio versions of the tunes.

Overall, Fesko does an admirable job of demonstrating the aforementioned important characteristics of the Psalter from his chosen texts and from the Scripture as a whole. The notion that certain Psalms are Christ-focused is readily established by looking at how the New Testament authors connect the Psalms to Jesus, such as the citation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4. But Fesko's argument is not just that certain Psalm texts point to Christ, but that in fact, the entire Psalter does. He notes Jesus' own words in Luke 24, that "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms," indicating that the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate the coming of the Christ in their entirety, not just in isolated proof-texts or prophecies. In his exploration of Psalms 1-8, Fesko then identifies specific connections between the texts and the person and work of Christ, frequently demonstrating how the life of David serves as a type that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the righteous man of Psalm 1 is best understood to be the truly Righteous One, the true Anointed One of Psalm 2. However, just as Psalms 3-7 express the hardships and afflictions that God's chosen king David endured at the hands of the wicked, these Psalms also point forward to the undeserved suffering of David's greater son. Yet despite these tribulations, Psalm 8 offers words of praise and worship to God, specifically for the blessings given to man, best interpreted as the majesty bestowed on the Son of Man.

Another strength of Fesko's book is how he draws personal applications out of the Psalms and their focus on Christ. For example, Psalm 1 paints a vivid contrast between the prosperity of the righteous man and the ultimate destruction of the wicked. Yet the application is not simply that people will prosper so long as they act righteously (as if that were possible); rather, Jesus alone is the truly Righteous One, and those who seek refuge in him will be nurtured by him and bear fruit like a tree planted by the streams. Similarly, Fesko sees cries for deliverance from enemies, such as those in Psalm 3, as pointing to the deliverance found only in Christ, a deliverance not only from the wrath to come but also into eternal rest. I especially appreciated Fesko's appeal that the church not neglect the portions of the Psalms that address suffering and lament. The Psalms express the full range of human experience and emotion, and we deprive ourselves of rich resources if we limit our focus to Psalms of rejoicing and gladness. 

If I had any real quibbles with the book, they'd be with some of Fesko's presumptions that the Psalter's human authors clearly understood their writings to be christological. Admittedly, the sharply debated issue of Old Testament fulfillment in the New is too large to tackle in such a short book. But it strikes me that Fesko assumes more than is warranted. A couple of examples: first, in discussing Psalm 4, Fesko begins by examining the original context, particularly the applicable details from David's life, but then jumps from David's crying out to the "God of my righteousness" (4:1) all the way to asserting that "David knows that the Lord is his righteousness—the Lord has graciously forgiven him of his sins and imputed the righteousness, or obedience, of the coming Messiah to him." Secondly, concerning Psalm 8, Fesko states that "David does not merely have the creation of man in view here, however praiseworthy it is. Rather, he ultimately offers a hymn of praise for the true Son of Man, Jesus Christ." In both cases, Fesko makes theologically accurate statements, but given the progressive nature of Biblical revelation, I'm unsure whether an Old Testament author like David might have grasped the full meaning of his own writings. It seems just as likely that the inspired authors revealed far more than they understood at the time, with subsequent revelation bringing greater clarity (e.g., as Hebrews 2 does for Psalm 8). That said, the issue of David's understanding doesn't detract from the book in a major way, and as Fesko repeatedly demonstrates, the New Testament provides interpretive clarity to many of the passages he discusses.

Overall, I would recommend Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8 to anyone interested in learning more about the Psalms. J.V. Fesko has done a great service by demonstrating the connections between the Psalter and the person and work of Jesus Christ, doing so in a way that not only does justice to the text but also draws out applications for Christian living and discipleship. My hope is that readers of the book would be inspired to take advantage of the great treasures that God's people have been given in the Psalter.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why I Love Laura Ingalls Wilder

Describing a scene for her sister, who has gone blind from scarlet fever:
Laura let out her breath. "Oh, Mary! The snow white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and bright red shirt! The brown prarie all around--and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They'll go on in the sun around the world."

Mary thought a moment. Then she said, "Laura, you know he couldn't ride into the sun. He's just riding along on the ground like anybody."

But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true, too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.

By the Shores of Silver Lake, pg. 65

Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review -- 1 Samuel for You

1 Samuel For You by Tim Chester is the fifth installment in the God's Word for You series published by The Good Book Company. As noted in the Preface, the series is intended to provide expository Biblical studies for a broad audience in a manner that is "Bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable." Each volume is written with three different purposes/audiences in mind: "Read," as a guide to the contents of the Biblical book; "Feed," as a daily devotional, and "Lead," as a resource for preaching and teaching through the Biblical text. The series isn't intended to provide scholarly commentary, and the reader is not expected to have understanding of the Biblical languages or even a high level of Scriptural knowledge. 1 Samuel For You begins with a brief introduction to the book's themes and historical/canonical background, and each subsequent chapter focuses on a 1-2 chapter block of the Biblical text. In addition to examining the details of the specific text, Chester highlights points of connection with other sections of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) and applications for the Christian reader. Each chapter contains questions for further reflection, and the book contains a glossary and Appendices. 

In my review of the series' initial volume (Galatians For You), I noted that author Timothy Keller had set an extremely high bar for the series and that I even pitied authors of subsequent installments. But 1 Samuel For You is every bit as good, and Tim Chester does a magnificent job working within the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series. By far the book's biggest strength is Chester's command of the Biblical text itself. Although the series is intended for a broader audience, Chester does a tremendous job of analyzing the text: not only does he focus on technical details such as uses of chiastic structure or plays on words in the original Hebrew, but he also communicates their significance so as to remain accessible to the layperson. Furthermore, he connects the details in individual verses to the larger context of 1 Samuel. For example, in his opening chapter, Chester argues that the account of Hannah in in 1 Samuel 1-2 is not a mere example of faith in the midst of adversity (as some treat it); instead, this account, especially through Hannah's prayer, introduces the theme of reversals that runs throughout the book, whereby God "humbles and exalts" (2:7), lifting up the poor and needy while silencing the wicked (2:8-9). Throughout the narrative, Chester demonstrates recurrences of this theme, culminating in the tragic fall of the asked-for king Saul and the unexpected ascent of the shepherd boy David to the throne.    

Chester also excels in connecting 1 Samuel to the larger canon of Scripture. For example, he demonstrates how the early chapters of the book present a continuation of the cycle established in the book of Judges, whereby Israel's sin leads to God's judgment, and their repentance results in God sending a deliverer - in this case, Samuel. Furthermore, the repeated refrain in Judges that the people were in disarray because "in those days Israel had no king" at first seems headed towards a positive resolution with Saul, whose ascent to the throne is described with several allusions back to Judges. Yet Saul, despite his kingly station, proves every bit as fallible as previous judges of Israel. More importantly, Chester highlights how the failure of Saul sets the stage for the rise of David to the throne. 1 Samuel, as he notes, is not really about the transition of Israel from the reign of Saul to that of David; rather, it is about the shift from no monarchy to monarchy. Moses had anticipated that Israel would one day have a king (see Deuteronomy 17) -- the question is whether they would choose a king like those of the nations or one of God's choosing. 1 Samuel portrays two different options for how Moses' words could find fulfillment.

Chester not only demonstrates connections between 1 Samuel and the Old Testament, but more importantly, he also shows how David prefigures the coming of Jesus. Not that David is a mere cipher -- on the contrary, 1 Samuel presents him in exemplary terms. Despite his humble origins, he is chosen by God to be king (keeping with the theme of reversals throughout the book). He is repeatedly tested, particularly with the temptation to seize by force the throne that God had already promised to him. Yet David refuses to harm the Lord's anointed and spares Saul's life on more than one occasion. Instead of claiming what is rightfully his, David endures many years of betrayal and suffering before he comes to the throne. Chester masterfully connects these details of David's life with that of Jesus, who surrendered his divine rights and willingly lived "on the margins" and faced rejection and betrayal for the sake of a higher calling. These frequent connections between David's life and the typological fulfillment in Jesus Christ permeate Chester's book; furthermore, Chester draws practical applications for Christian readers of 1 Samuel by demonstrating how this pattern of enduring suffering on the way to glory still holds for followers of Jesus. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed 1 Samuel For You, and I think any Christian reader would be edified by it. Tim Chester does a wonderful job of connecting the book of 1 Samuel to the larger Biblical drama of redemption in a straightforward and engaging manner, doing a particularly good job of demonstrating how the book points to the ultimate fulfillment of God's purposes in Jesus Christ. My only real criticism is the same one I made about Keller's Galatians For You, concerning the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series: I'm still not sure the book succeeds as a one-stop shop for preaching and teaching through the book. I would certainly use it as a resource, but in conjunction with others. That said, Chester offers many keen insights on 1 Samuel concerning both the details of the text and applications for Christian readers, such that teachers and preachers would do well to consult it in their preparations. I guess my only other complaint is that it only covers 1 Samuel -- as Chester notes in the introduction, 1 and 2 Samuel were originally a single volume. I truly hope that Dr. Chester has a 2 Samuel For You in the works! 

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing a review, though without any stipulations on its content.)        

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review -- Worshipping With Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism

“Our sense of urgency is profound as we survey the ecclesiastical landscape,” states Terry L. Johnson in the opening chapter of Worshipping With Calvin, as he recounts the rapid decline of American Evangelical Christians’ fidelity to historic Christian beliefs, morals and piety. Invoking the maxim lex orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi (“The law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of life”), Johnson asserts that public worship is too often overlooked as a major factor influencing whether or not Christians remain committed to their faith. Furthermore, he argues that many recent innovations to public worship have directly contributed to the overall decline of American Evangelicalism. Johnson’s appeal is for Christians, especially those among the neo-Calvinists of the “young, restless, reformed” movement to “recover the historic ministry and worship of Reformed Protestantism,” in hopes that it would prove just as beneficial to their Christian faith and practice as it has for generations of Christians who have gone before.

After the introductory chapter, Johnson lays out a two-pronged case advocating Reformed Worship and Ministry. The first line of argumentation is along exegetical and historical grounds. Drawing significantly from the work of Hughes Oliphant Old (to whom the book is dedicated), Johnson demonstrates the many ways in which the Reformers sought to base their liturgical reforms primarily on the Scriptures, and then secondarily on the practices of the early church. Instead of manmade traditions, they attempted to pattern the elements of Christian worship after the ways described Bible itself, such as lectio continua reading of the Scriptures, manifold types of prayers, singing of psalms and hymns, and the understanding of the sacraments as visible, covenantal signs. Next, Johnson makes the case for Reformed worship along theological grounds, demonstrating how the Reformers applied the 5 Sola mottoes of the Reformation – sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria – directly to their liturgical reforms. For example, the principle of sola scriptura gave rise to the Reformed regulative principle of worship, which limits worship practices to only those specified in the Bible. As Johnson argues, both the theological applications of the Reformers and their exegetical/historical research converge to make a persuasive case for the liturgical reforms enacted by the Protestant Reformers.

In the next section of the book, Johnson lays out the following five strengths of Reformed Worship (and compares them with corresponding weaknesses in other approaches to worship):
  • “It is God-centered” – the focus of Christian corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day is to worship God. Believers may be edified by the service, and non-believers may be evangelized, but these are by-products of worship and not the intended purpose.
  • “It is Bible-Filled” - Christian worship is to be saturated with the Bible. The Scriptures should be read publicly and taught. Furthermore, the content of prayers, singing and preaching should all draw heavily from the Scriptures. Lastly, Christian worship should make diligent use of the “visible Word,” the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, which sign and seal the proclamations of the Scriptures.
  • “It is Gospel-Structured” – Christian worship should focus on Christ, re-presenting to us the work of redemption he accomplished. Both in its content and arrangement, Christian worship should clearly portray the gospel and underscore our reliance on Christ not only for forgiveness of sins but for life itself.
  • “It is Church-Aware” – Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church. As a result, forms of worship that are innovations or are geared towards a limited niche should be passed over in favor of historic forms that have served the church well across many centuries, lands, and peoples.
  • “It is Spirit-Dependent” – Christian worship should rely on the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of God’s people. This does not require adopting the more extreme phenomena often associated with the Spirit, but rather entails a constant attitude of dependence on the Spirit to work through the means of grace He has ordained.
Worshipping With Calvin has much to commend to readers. Johnson was a student of Hughes Old, and Johnson’s presentation makes good use of Old’s large body of research on Christian worship, especially on the Reformers attempts to base their liturgical reforms not only on the practices of the patristic era, but ultimately on the Scriptures themselves. Each chapter is thoroughly documented, and Johnson provides a lengthy bibliography for additional study.

I found the two chapters on how “It [i.e., Reformed worship] Is Bible-filled” to be the most compelling in the book. Not only does Johnson demonstrate how the Reformers reinstated the practice of lectio continua reading of the Scripture, he shows how greatly they valued extended readings, due to their confidence in the Spirit’s working through the Word. I was also very much intrigued by how the Reformers incorporated the Scriptures into their public prayers, drawing on both content and patterns of prayer recorded in the Bible. As Johnson demonstrates, the Reformers placed a great deal of importance in composing prayers that would be rich in Scriptural content and (as a result) would edify the congregation. I also appreciated the emphasis that Johnson places on the “visible Word” – the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism – in the life of the congregation and its public worship. Throughout these two chapters, Johnson skillfully explains how the Reformers integrated Scripture into every aspect of their liturgical reforms.

The book was not without a few weaknesses. For example, Johnson argues that worship should be “simple” and done with “dependence upon the Holy Spirit, rather than rituals and ceremonies.” While I certainly agree that the excesses of the medieval church should have been abandoned, I’m not sure an outright rejection of ritual and ceremony is wise. As James K.A. Smith has argued, habits and practices can play a major role in Christian formation, and it seems to me that a more profitable approach would be to identify which rituals and ceremonies might be beneficial to nurturing Christian faith, rather than trying to completing eradicate them (as if that were actually possible!). Of greater concern is Johnson’s almost complete dismissal of contemporary worship styles. These styles are consistently presented negatively, and “metrical psalms and biblical/classical hymns” (curiously, there’s no mention of “spiritual songs”) are lauded as the standard for Christian worship music. It is only in Chapter 8 that Johnson states that Christian worship should “conserve the best from the past and add the best from the present,” implying the possibility of acceptable new music. I am very much in agreement with his argument that Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church, and should be wary of abandoning historic forms altogether. But I also believe that the Spirit is still at work today, and it is unwise to close the door to edifying contributions to the life of the Church. After all, each of the metrical psalms and biblical hymns that Johnson advocates was once a new song, and many of them were put into use by the Church shortly after their composition. I’m hoping that Johnson’s forthcoming volume on implementing Reformed worship (Serving With Calvin) will provide some practical guidance on how he envisions “add[ing] the best from the present.”

Overall, Worshipping With Calvin is well-researched and well-argued. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic of Christian worship. Even those outside the Reformed tradition will be challenged and exhorted to examine how they worship, and hopefully encouraged to return to the Bible for guidance on how to worship God as He would desire.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for writing a review, with no obligation to provide a favorable opinion.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Music Review: The Mantis and the Moon

About six months ago, I received a copy of an EP called The Mantis and the Moon in my mailbox.

In my relatively short life, I've heard a number of indie artists. Some friends, some friends of friends. Some completely unknown to me. (Full disclosure: I've met Chris Slaten, the man behind Son of Laughter, because we've known his wife since our early concert-going days.) But I've never listened to a batch of songs that so completely and pleasantly surprised me as this one.

From the Simonesque opening to the final lovely fade, I was completely captivated by both the music and the images his words evoke. As his opening stanza of "Cricket in a Jar" so poignantly expresses:

Catch the moment. The moment has passed!
This is a law of loveliness: we love what never lasts.
Try and hold it; it slips right through.
Before you know the garden's grown. There's nothing left to do. 

I am unable to recreate the euphoria of the first time I heard those words sung. Sheer joy. Parenthood is the intended target, but anything ethereal is covered here.

Bolstered by Ben Shive's excellent production, the music is made all the richer by the added instrumentation. The subtle percussion and catchy hooks help congeal Slaten's songs into your brain long after you stop listening.

The EP ended up in my car CD player and it hasn't left. It's still the first thing I turn to when I tire of NPR. Or the Classical Conversations Cycle 2 songs. (Which is often.) An added bonus: my kids love it.

Slaten is above all a talented wordsmith, and the lyrics only get richer with repeated listens. His mad-scientist combinations of allusions and metaphors floored me.

Drawing inspiration from (among other sources) an African folktale, a nature documentary, and the Grimm's version of Cinderella, these songs are all deeply rooted in Story. The Story. Whether he is waxing poetic about a musician in the middle of rush hour or the mating habits of a feathered friend, these small details turn into ardent Truths.

These songs struck me hard, and I still haven't recovered from the shock. "What trophies, degrees, or hyperboles do you line upon your shelf?" It took me this many months to write this simple review because I was afraid I wouldn't do it justice. Well, I still haven't, but here you are.

If there is any drawback, it may be the placement of the final song, which after the more upbeat offerings early on the EP left me wanting more, and it took me weeks to finally listen to all of "Partington Cove" without wanting to skip back to the beginning to hear "Grace is Gold" again. Still, once I let the lyrics sink in, I was rewarded with a beautiful rendering that perfectly captured that time when Gaines and I were only just beginning to date, often roadtripping to concerts:

Sitting side by side
on the long car rides,
we opened our souls by the seams
and married our dreams.

Now, I do know a little of the Slatens' history and how it mirrors our own, but knowing these things only made the songs more glorious. A mild-mannered English teacher by day, Chris' superpower with words is revealed and made evident in his music.

Catch him (without a cape) at a concert near you -- he'll be touring over the next few months and especially into the summer. We were blessed to be able to hear him live as part of Hutchmoot 2013, and I can say his music translates equally well through an acoustic solo act on stage. Blown away, I was!

I am grateful to have gotten a copy for review, and I request you purchase one (or twenty-three) wherever hidden gems like this are sold. Try The Rabbit Room store first, if you please. And enjoy!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Seven Stanzas at Easter

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” from Telephone Poles and Other Poems
by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Heaven IS for Real

At my 10-year high school reunion, as we all sat on the stage in my hometown school auditorium that Friday morning, a few of our classmates read a report from each alum, papers that list what we've done since high school and what we're doing now. Since there were only about 70 members in our graduating class, they actually read them out loud, right there, for everyone in the audience, along with the current crop of high school seniors, to hear.

One of my best friends from high school, sitting right behind me on the stage, had listed as his hobbies things like hiking, photography, and, finally, "cynicism." I about fell out of my chair. I think the reader didn't quite get the joke, because she just moved on to the next report. I thought it was hilarious, mostly because I tend to have those cynical tendencies as well.

Mostly, I'm cynical about goods labeled as "Christian," books and movies and products marketed as spiritual. Especially popular ones. Bestsellers. Books on Oprah. Especially books about the afterlife. Because, really, we just don't know all that much.

After my Mom died, someone gave my Dad a copy of a little book called Heaven is for Real. You've probably heard of it. I secretly rolled my eyes. But he told me it meant a lot to him, so sometime last year when I was visiting my hometown, I borrowed it. Well, it has sat on my bedside table and been shuffled around and moved covered up and uncovered and never really put on a shelf. I've ignored it for ages, sure it was just some marketing ploy or one of those sensational stories you hear about on the Today Show all the time, a near-death experience of white lights and people as angels. Well, there is probably a little of those first things in this, as in all publishers who want their books to sell. But, as I've come to discover, there is also Truth.

Last Sunday afternoon, as I was attempting to clean off some of the skyscraper-like stacks of books that were threatening to topple over onto us as we slept, I found the small yellow paperback with the picture of that goofy, smiling preschooler on it. And I read it. From front to back, in about an hour and a half.
And I cried.

People, I don't care if you read this book. I really don't. Maybe you're cynical like me. Maybe, though, you've already read it and you liked it. Good. Then you might understand what I'm about to say, or perhaps this will offer fresh insights. For everyone else, maybe you'll end this post with some books to add to your rainy day pile.

Three things that struck me as true about this little boy's story:

1. Naming unborn babies.

For the longest time it was just understood that my Mom would outlive my Dad. They planned for that, in a way. Everything was in her name, they were planning to move closer to her best friends from childhood, she was (we thought) in better health. When she passed away so suddenly in October of 2012, while my Dad was just 2 weeks out recovering from hip surgery, I sat with the questions for many months. Reading this book finally gave me peace about the "Why?" and now, I do not have to ask. I do not know the mind of God and cannot understand or fathom His ways, or why my Mom is no longer with us here, but I know He is Good.

The little boy in the book, Colton, recounted that in his "vision" or "dream" or whatever you want to call his experience, he got to meet his older sister, whom his parents had lost to miscarriage before he was even born, and he had never been told about it. (He was still a preschooler at the time of his accident.) She had no name, yet. And he told of another mother who had been reunited with her unborn child and been able to choose her name.

The story he told broke me. I can just imagine my Mother arriving suddenly, being embraced by all these children running up to her and hugging her tight. Perhaps, just perhaps, my Mom passed away first because she needed to be the one to go name all of my baby siblings, my brothers and sisters who are already with God the Father and Jesus in Heaven, waiting for the day when all things will be made new. (If you don't know, my parents lost eight babies to miscarriage or stillbirth before they finally had me. The last was my older sister, pictured above. My mother is buried next to her.)

Finally, finally, she is able to greet them and see them and give them Names.

It reminds me of a quote from another favorite author, Madeline L'Engle, from Walking on Water:
“Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”  

2. I love that Colton described what we "do" in Heaven as "homework." Yes! There is still much learning to do, and lots of work to be done, and we get to learn from the ultimate Teacher, Jesus Himself. The image of sitting on clouds playing harps has always rang false to me. More accurate, or at least a better picture, I think, is at the end of CS Lewis's book The Last Battle, where all the children and their parents and all the citizens of Narnia go on to explore Aslan's Country, learning and running and leaping higher and farther than ever before. Shortly after my mom died, a good friend texted me a portion of that famous quote from the end of the book:
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
 We will have an infinite Father and his universe for our adventures! Further up and further in!

3. There is a Dragon. He is real. And he will be defeated! This is basically the whole story of the Bible -- there is a Bridegroom who has saved his Bride from Death, and who has gone out to fight the Dragon and He will return victorious. If you've ever read Genesis, or Revelation, you should know this, but it's just another part that stuck out to me as True. The battle, with angels wielding swords and Jesus, the Conquering King...yes.

 However, this Heaven that Colton describes in the book? I want you to understand something. It is NOT our final hope. If he was given a vision of what we call heaven, it is only the waiting room, the place described in the Bible as "Abraham's bosom" where the children of God are gathered to be with the Lord until Christ comes in his final victory. It is not the place where we get our new bodies. That comes later. When Jesus returns.

This is another assurance I've been learning about over the past four to five years, and that is, there is Life AFTER Life After Death. "Heaven," or what we normally think of as Heaven, which is the place "where people go when the die," is not the final end. The Bible tells us of a New Heaven and  New Earth, when Jesus returns in his final glory, and Heaven comes down with Him. When God will wipe away every tear from our eye and overcome the final enemy, Death. Imagine, Death will be no more! When God burns away everything temporary and remakes the universe. New Creation. New bodies. Eternity with the Father, Spirit and Son!

If you find this intriguing, and are at all interested in reading about how our perceptions of Heaven might be built more on misconstrued ideas from popular culture rather that Scripture, I would recommend these two books (note: contains affiliate links. Must feed book habit.):
There are many more books on this topic, of course, but those two have had the most profound impact on my own thinking. Also, they are written in accessible language, and the former so joyfully and the latter so optimistically that you can't help but go back and search the Scriptures for more.

Of course, to finally get this post out I had to read a bestselling paperback that is far from any kind of theological treatise, but God uses all things for His glory, even, and especially, the testimony of children.

Friday, April 04, 2014

There Will Be Butterflies

A friend of a friend is losing her unborn baby girl today. Another friend is watching cancer eat away at her little boy, though he is putting up a strong fight. I have relatives and friends struggling with loss and pain and grief. Those who are hurting and wondering how to face such a tragedy. The answer? With more Life.

After my Mom died, almost immediately, I began noticing the butterflies. It was October, so is that even the right season? Maybe. No matter, there they were. Little yellow ones. Gorgeous blue and black ones. Monarchs. Mostly the small ones, yellow or white, and I noticed them especially at the grave site. Butterflies have traditionally been a Christian symbol of the resurrection, and so I was comforted. Death is not the end. Where, O Death, is your Victory? Where is your sting?

And then I found this wonderful quote in ND Wilson's book Death by Living

Every soul waits in the wings. Every life taken in age, tired and ready, taken in youth, in shock and sorrow, taken in pain or taken in peace, every needle now hidden in shadow waits in eager silence. I see my cousin. My nephew. Many faces, forgotten by those who followed behind, known always by the Author who needs no stone reminders. He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a Character and heaped every shadow on Himself.

To His eyes, you never leave the stage. You do not cease to exist. It is a chapter ending, an act, not the play itself. Look to Him. Walk toward Him. The cocoon is a death, but not a final death. The coffin can be a tragedy, but not for long. There will be butterflies.
My parents were planning to retire to a home in Auburn. This past winter, my Dad finally sold the house, and so I went there to remove the last of the items before the closing. I found some especially precious objects to keep: a collection of three brass butterflies that were my mother's, and an exquisite lamp, handed down to my mother by an older relative, covered in rainbow-colored, hand-painted, gilded butterflies.They are displayed in our den, near the family sofa, a daily reminder to me of the Things to Come.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: John Knox (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

Simonetta Carr has created a wonderful series of biographies that highlight faithful personages from church history, and this is the second of her books we have been able to review. This latest volume is based on the life of John Knox.

I have to admit I knew very little about the Scottish reformer before reading this book; I had only a general idea of his positions and his importance within the greater Reformation and was greatly impressed and surprised by all that I learned.

Knox's narrative is naturally exciting, from his early adventures as a prisoner at sea to his later confrontations with Scottish and British royals. Carr has created an easily readable account set in a detailed historical context, which included many of the names and places we have been learning about in our medieval to modern history studies. It is apparent that for this book, as with others in this series, careful research goes into writing such a thorough account, yet the author manages to keep it from being too tedious and even makes it enjoyable.

Knox's first days as a reluctant preacher through his rise as a prominent (and disparaged) reformer to his interactions with John Calvin in Geneva and his collaboration with other Scottish Protestants in crafting the Scots Confession make for a captivating read. Our oldest son is now seven, and this was the first time I have been able to read a book like this with him in one sitting. In fact, he was so fascinated he begged me to finish it rather than ending at one of the chapter breaks, as we had done in the past when reading about Anselm or Calvin.

I also appreciated the more personal aspects Carr included: Knox's doubts about becoming a preacher, his devotion to his wife even though they were often separated for months or years, how he led daily family devotions in his home for his family and guests, and how he remained committed to the preaching of God's Word to the end of his life, even in his weakened, dying state. Stories such as this encourage believers today to continue in the work of the Lord despite persecution and hardship.

This beautifully bound hardback series has always included excellent artistic representations and this edition is no exception. The picture-book quality is enhanced by colorful maps, portraits of prominent persons, photographs of key locations, and hand-drawn illustrations of important moments. I also appreciated that Carr includes quotations from many letters, publications, and friends of Knox in order to provide personality and context for the story. At the end of the book, the publisher has reprinted the first four articles from the Scots Confession that Knox helped write. I was, however, disappointed that there were no excerpts from any of Knox's "fiery sermons" for which he was so famous. Perhaps there are no written accounts!

Overall, I found this an excellent biography for all ages, but especially for younger elementary children who are just beginning to read longer chapter books, because it still feels like a "picture book," yet offers a slightly challenging read and provides a wealth of information. Her acknowledgements even include some possibilities for further reading, which I might delve into in the future.

We are grateful to Reformation Heritage Books for sending us a copy to review. The opinions expressed in this review are solely my own.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ten Year Blogiversary Boot Camp

Exactly one day plus one decade ago we started one of these newfangled things called an online weblog. We were reading quite a few famous and not-so-famous blogs at the time, so we decided to join in the fun. The whole thing slowed down significantly once we had kids and sadly has been going in fits and starts ever since. If nothing else, you can expect a year-end list of books we've read over the past twelve months. Exciting, I know. But I just can't kill it yet...

Exactly a year ago, on this date in January  2013, I got myself out of bed at 5:30 am on a morning so cold I could see my breath but couldn't feel my fingers, and I gathered my new mat and dumbbells and a bottle of water and drove to a parking lot across from a large church. There was a lighted pavilion and two trainers barking orders for a warm-up. "THAT was just the warm-up?!" That morning, I attempted to run a mile for the first time in 20 years. I failed.

I had won a month of free boot camp sessions and was determined to make a change in my lifestyle. By the end of January, I was hooked. I began working out three times a week, and the combination of varied workouts, personal training, and a collection of people who missed me when I slept in has kept me going steady all year. Sometime this fall, I beat my personal best and ran a mile in under 9 minutes (don't ask me to do it this week, though!). I'm in much better shape now, less tired, stronger, faster, tougher -- all those things I never thought I'd be if you'd asked me in December of 2012 about my new year's resolutions. I still get up willingly at 5:30am while it is still dark, dress in as many layers as I can and brave freezing temperatures for someone to force me to do "just one more minute" of burpees or squats or whatever exercise is currently kicking my behind.

Well, this year, in 2014, I want to exercise my writing muscles right here on this blog. Like boot camp, you will never know what to expect. Also like boot camp, I plan to post something at least three times a week (M, W, F) with an occasional extra day thrown in for kicks. I have quite a few things waiting in the wings -- half a dozen book and album reviews, some "catch up on our family posts" and thoughts on whatever latest hot topic is traveling around the internet these days. It is quite funny to look at our archives and see how far we've come. Some things never change, though, so always expect a list of what we're currently reading on the right sidebar (I usually have at least three books going at once).

Welcome to Team Redd's writing boot camp. This was just the warm-up!

(Update July 2015: Hahahahaha! I laugh at myself. I have no discipline. I haven't even written a "books I read" post and it's already July a year and a half later!)