Monday, March 12, 2018

On Reading...and Re-Reading

“Reading also has two quite distinct pleasures for us -- that of discovering a new author, of enlarging our minds with new feeling and thoughts as we read, and that of rereading a well-known book, in which we find ourselves, as it were, at home but keep noticing new details that had escaped us in our hasty first reading, when we were hurrying on in our eagerness to find out what came next.” (Paul Tournier, The Adventure of Living, 1965, pages 155-156)

Friday, February 23, 2018

An Indispensable Four

After finishing Francis Schaeffer’s No Little People and Randy Alcorn’s Happiness, two books that I’ve been carefully reading for awhile now, I’m freshly grateful to God for the superb gifts He has given me over these last several decades in passionate, skilled, and Bible-centered writers.

Particularly Francis Schaeffer, Randy Alcorn, C.S. Lewis, and Joni Eeareckson Tada.

There are, of course, many others I'm profoundly appreciative of -- G.K. Chesterton being the foremost among the “honorable mentions” -- but it is these four who have had the strongest influence on me and I look forward to continuing to read and reread them for whatever time I have left in my spiritual adventure here.

So Lord, thank you again, for the inspiration, encouragement, and wise exhortation You have poured out upon me through these faithful servants. May the lessons they've shared with me continue to help move me forward. And for the two who are still alive, would you please bless them, their families, and their various ministries with all needed mercies.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Gems from Recent Reading

“It is then, as we face death itself, that all this world’s gifts are but deceit, if there be none of another order, of the order of life itself, a gift to which our human strength cannot attain by itself, despite all its efforts, joys, and triumphs. The great gift, the only one which can be unchanging in value, is the assurance of life beyond the grave, of peace beyond our remorse. It is the assurance of reconciliation with ourselves, with our fellows, and with God, beyond all the conflicts which have accompanied and tarnished the joys of our existence. The great gift, the unique and living one, is not a thing but a person. It is Jesus Christ himself. In him God has given himself, no longer just things which he creates or has created, but his own person, his own suffering, and his own solitude, given unto death itself…

Thus it is that God offers it freely. He is the One who has paid its price, in the death of his Son. The erasure of all our failings and all our remorse, of all our regrets and our rebellion, what a gift it is! The redemption of all our joys about to be swallowed up in death, and their fulfillment in the eternal joy it’s self –what a gift indeed!” (Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Gifts, pages 56-57, 1961)

“Woe betide those who no longer feel thrilled at anything, who have stopped looking for adventure!” (Paul Tournier, The Adventure of Living, page 13, 1965)

“Nothing is more poisonous than the sense of entitlement that permeates our culture and sometimes, sadly, our churches. We’re disappointed with family, friends, neighbors, the church, the airlines, the waiter -- nearly everyone. And in the process, it becomes clear that it’s God we’re really disappointed with -- after all if he’s sovereign, he’s the one subjecting us to all these irritations. How dare he not give us everything we want, when we want it?  

If only we could see our situation clearly. We deserve expulsion; he gives us a diploma. We deserve the electric chair; he gives us a parade. Anything less than overwhelming gratitude should be unthinkable. He owes us nothing. We owe him everything.

'Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?' (Romans 11:35, NIV) The answer is nobody.

Christians in dire situations, undergoing persecution, are often deeply grateful for God’s daily blessings. How dare we whine and pout when our latte isn’t hot enough? 

God, Open our eyes to the wonders of your grace! (Randy Alcorn, Happiness, page 369, 2015)

“Each person who heard Jesus’s invitation on the great day of the Feast was faced with the decision -- would he believe or not? And every person who hears the invitation of Jesus Christ in the second half of the 20th Century is faced with the same decision. Whether you hear it through the preached Word of God or through reading the Scripture,  this invitation gives you only two choices: to accept or reject him, to believe on Him or cry with the crowd, ‘Not Christ, but Barabbas. Crucify Him!’ There is no neutrality, no alternative, no third choice. They could not say, ‘He is a nice man.’ On the basis of Jesus’s claim, either the Jews had to believe on Him or they had to cry out against Him.” (Francis Schaeffer, No Little People, page 156, 1974)

“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, ’it never happened’ – that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death…And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -- if all records told the same tale -- then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’… 

This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” (George Orwell, 1984, pages 32 and 36, 1949)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading Resolutions: A Good Start to 2018

Reading. It is a pretty regular item in our annual Christmas Resolution deliberations. And though it is sometimes formed into a very general goal (as in “Read more quality stuff”), it usually becomes much more specific with certain authors, genres, or booklists becoming targets.

Last year, for instance, my reading-oriented resolutions included a new “read through the Bible” regimen with Claire, re-reading a lot of C.S. Lewis, re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and re-reading a Shakespeare play every month. Regarding that last goal, I only managed to get to 8 of them. But I was still pleased for even though I didn’t quite make it, I certainly read more than I would have if I never made the goal in the first place! Also, I scored very well with my other resolutions and so I’m pursuing my 2018 goals with an encouraging wave of momentum and, I’m delighted to say, January has proved a good start to the year.

Here’s a quick rundown.

* Claire and I started in again on January 1 with the same “read through the Bible” plan (and strategy) we used last year. That means reading 2-4 chapters a day while drinking tea, munching on our Paleo power bars, and listening to the narration of the same passage by Alexander Scourby.

* My first book read in 2018 was the 4th book in Jan Karon’s Mitford series, Out to Canaan. I have found these novels very pleasant, very comforting, but also enlightening and spiritually challenging.

* The month was a bit of a “play month” for me with one of my favorite dramas of all time (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town) and three I had never read: Joseph Addison’s Cato, Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train (which Claire and I listened to in an audio version one snowy night), and, from ancient Greece, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

* My major project in January was a re-reading of the 2 volumes of Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. This, by the way, is a masterful work of literature as well as history.

* Though I prefer reading a real book to a Kindle version, I am nevertheless greatly pleased by the technological breakthrough Kindle represents, especially because it allows me to read (often for free) very old books that I would never be able to afford if, that is, they could even be found. The books in this category that I read in January were two by an English mystery writer of the very early 20th Century, R. Austin Freeman. Those 2 were Dr. Thorndyke’s Cases and The Red Thumb Mark. I also enjoyed another early 20th Century mystery from Anne Katherine Green, The Forsaken Inn.

* I have long had Antonia Fraser’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in my library but I only got round to it this month. It was a provocative and elegantly written retelling of the great legends, but often with Fraser’s unique twist. I think I'm going to read more of Dame Fraser's books this year.

* Also through Kindle in January came another freebie, this one from one of my favorite writers, John Buchan. It was quite different than anything I had ever read of his but I found it quite interesting. It was A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys.

* I read Tom Clancy’s modern classic The Hunt for Red October shortly after it was published in the late 1980s and I have told myself many times over the years to read it again. I finally listened to myself and did so. And I’m glad I did. It is a superb thriller -- and with none of the psychotic, sex-crazed, serial killers that so dominate that genre nowadays.

* And finally, I should mention that January’s reading also included two excellent theological works, Randy Alcorn’s Happiness and Francis Schaeffer’s No Little People. However, I’m reading them both carefully and just a bit at any one sitting and so I’m not yet finished with either one.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Amazing Attraction of Happiness

Reason # 9 why you should read Randy Alcorn’s exhaustive (and exhilarating) Bible study entitled Happiness:

Christiana Tsai was born into a wealthy home in China. When attending a high school run by missionaries, she came to Christ. In her autobiography, she tells of how her Buddhist family reacted to her conversion with extreme anger. They tore her Bible to pieces and threw it in her face. But eventually her brother asked her about Christianity. The reason he gave was simple: "You seem much happier than you used to be."

It wasn’t messianic prophecies or dynamic preaching that opened him to the gospel -- it was his sister’s happiness.

"Good news of great joy" should produce happiness, and when it does, people notice. They’re drawn to happiness like iron filings to a magnet.” (Randy Alcorn, Happiness, page 197)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

From the Home Fireside

“All the songs of lament, the entire book of Lamentations, and many other Scripture passages reveal the importance of realism and sorrow in the Christian life. No treatment of joy and happiness should deny or minimize such texts. Indeed, a truly biblical worldview and an authentic doctrine of joy and happiness fully recognize and embrace the realities of suffering in this present age. Happiness in Scripture is all the deeper and richer because it doesn’t require denial or pretense, and can be experienced in the midst of severe difficulty.” (Randy Alcorn, Happiness, page 178)

“Modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic…We can remember Vincent van Gogh, who tried to fulfill his idealism by starting a community in southern France. He was desperately in search of something beautiful. Yet as we study his self-portraits, we see them disintegrate year after year, until at the end of his life, they are less than human. We must cry for our present world, because the idealists who have screamed so loudly against the falseness and hypocrisy of the plastic culture have ended up in an even worse position -- the inhumanity and destruction of everything they hoped to accomplish.” (Francis Schaeffer, No Little People, pages 55-56)

Friday, January 05, 2018

From the Panera Fireside

After doing a bit of work while sitting beside the fire during my morning coffee time at the Westroads Panera and before I headed home to have a breakfast of blueberry pancakes (Paleo, of course) with Claire, I read a couple of chapters in Randy Alcorn's Happiness and one of the essays in Francis Schaeffer's No Little People. Below are two of the quotations out of the many I could have posted. Great stuff.

“The best work is done by the happy, joyful workman. And so it is with Christ, He does not save souls as of necessity -- as though He would rather do something else if He might -- but His very heart is in it, He rejoices to do it, and therefore He does it thoroughly and He communicates His joy to us in the doing of it.”  (Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Randy Alcorn’s Happiness.)


“If someone asked us, ‘What is the Bible?’ we probably would not begin our answer by saying, ‘The Bible is a realistic book.’ Yet in the twentieth-century this might be the best place to start -- to stress the realism of the Bible in contrast to the romanticism which characterizes the twentieth-century concept of religion. To most modern people, truth is to be sought through some sort of leap from which we extract our own personal religious experiences.

Many feel that the Bible should portray a romantic view of life, but the Bible is actually the most realistic book in the world. It does not glibly say, ‘God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world!’ It faces the world’s dilemmas squarely. Yet, unlike modern realism which ends in despair, it has answers for the dilemmas. And, unlike modern romanticism, it’s answers are not optimism without a sufficient base, not hope hung in a vacuum.

So we should say at once to twentieth-century people: the Bible is a tough-fibered book.”

(Francis Schaeffer, “The Weakness of God’s Servants” in No Little People.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Being Held by the Hand of God

Commenting on Psalm 37: 24-25 in chapter 2 of No Little People, Francis Schaeffer writes, “The psalmist sees, as he reviews the past, that the Lord holds His own in His hand. This is not just a psychological projection, a blind leap in the dark, an upper-story experience which is not open to verification. It is the very opposite. We can look into the world and see God acting for His individual people through the might of His hand. This is a beautiful perspective which suddenly changes the world. Instead of living in the modern consensus, surrounded by the impersonal, I live in a personal environment and am more than a speck tossed to and from by impersonal chance.”

I've started reading No Little People in the Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer (5 volumes, of which I've only managed to find 3) and I'm finding it quite good -- enlightening, provocative, comforting, and challenging. But rather than read the whole book through, I'm doing it as Schaeffer himself suggests in the preface; that is, go through one chapter only at a sitting.  I'm finding it a valuable part of my first month of the year reading.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Resolutions for Readers

My Christmas resolutions always include directions and goals for the coming year’s reading. Those resolutions are sometimes quite general as in “read more quality stuff,” but they can also be pretty specific. In 2016, for instance, I purposed to re-read my favorite Alexandre Dumas novels but also to read the ones I’d never got round to. The mission was accomplished and I had great fun doing so.

In 2017, my resolutions included reading through the entire Bible as well as reading a Shakespeare play every month. The first goal of those two was met. Claire and I worked together on that project, greatly stimulated both by a Facebook group committed to the same activity and by Alexander Scourby’s monumental narration of the Bible.

But I fell a bit short of the mark in the Shakespeare resolution. Indeed, instead of 12, I only read 8 of the Bard’s plays. However, I’m fine with that for I appreciate this simple fact. Even when I don’t make it all the way to a certain goal, making the resolution (combined, of course, with subsequent effort and the occasional evaluation of my progress) gets me much further than if I had never set the goal in the first place.

So, what about 2018? Well, I am again getting very specific this time around. For instance, I have compiled a list of books that I have read before but which I know would be of immense profit to read again. I’m calling it the “Return to the Heights” Booklist. It contains some pretty daunting challenges (Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Shelby Foote’s 3-volume history of the Civil War) but also a lot of exciting and pleasurable stuff like Seabiscuit: An American Legend, The Hunt for Red October, Prisoner of Zenda, and Tarka the Otter).

Also, for most people, reading success is profoundly helped when they can find extra motivation, accountability, and assistance. It's certainly true for Claire and I. Examples? A) Our participation in the Notting Hill Napoleons has tremendously boosted our reading of classic novels (for the last 26 years!). B) The Book It! program of Vital Signs Ministries has spurred the reading of important non-fiction titles for all those involved. C) Last year’s reading though the Bible was marvelously aided by Claire, the Facebook group, and those wonderful Scourby CDs. D) In the last few years, we have twice created reading groups through our church to tackle the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series. All of these things have impressed us with how much more faithful people are to the task -- and how much more they enjoy the ripple effects of reading the literature -- when there is accountability and shared insight, a sense of purpose and achievement, encouragement and conviviality.

And so, Claire and I are going to continue developing programs and parties to get people into reading!

What does mean for 2018? Well, of course, the Notting Hill Napoleons will continue. And Vital Signs Ministries will be reviving the Book It! program and looking at ways we can extend it to those outside our physical area — Skype participation, live chat connections, etc. We are also considering the creation of a closed Facebook group to aid in stimulation, accountability, direction, and the sheer fun that can come through reading things in common. And finally, we are launching the Wild Knight Literary Society, another book club focusing on classic novels but one which will only meet every quarter. (For information on that club, please note this post.)

If you are interested in joining a closed Facebook group designed to promote reading, and/or if you would like announcements of the titles coming up in the Book It! discussion series, and/or if you think the Wild Knight group might be something you’d like to pursue, please let us know.

An Invitation to the Wild Knight Literary Society

In January our esteemed literary society, the Notting Hill Napoleons, will begin its 27th year. Imagine it. 26 years of reading and discussing classic novels together — books that have enriched us, challenged us, and brought us all immense pleasure. And, of course, the discussions of those books have also been important as they have sharpened our skills in literary criticism and communication, expanded our fellowship, and contributed to our ongoing spiritual maturity. It has been a great experience and we are looking forward to the next 26 years! With all that said, however, Claire and I are looking for a few other bookish friends who might be interested in launching a brand new book club.

Our time with the Napoleons has proved to us how valuable and enjoyable a book club can be. Also, the book discussions we have sponsored over the years through Vital Signs Ministries (the ongoing Book It! program) have proven quite valuable as have our local church discussions of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. But we are desirous of making 2018 a springboard for yet more people to find the motivation, discipline, spiritual growth, and joy of being in a book club.

The Wild Knight Literary Society (the name comes from both a poem and a short play of G.K. Chesterton’s) would be different from the Notting Hill Napoleons in two significant ways. It would also involve quality fiction but rather than meet every month, this club would only meet quarterly. This would allow the opportunity for persons with fuller schedules, more careful readers, etc. to participate. And it would allow everyone the time to read more ambitious (that is to say, longer) works. This is especially good for Claire and I because, truth be told, the Napoleons are not voting in the number of classics we once did. And we really miss the fun and achievement of tackling a substantial, well worthwhile book.)

The second major difference is that we are inviting even distant friends to join in this Wild Knight experiment. That’s right; even if you can’t make it to our home for the quarterly discussion party, you can still benefit from the motivation and accountability offered. (Not to mention being able to impress the folks at work by dropping the fact that you are in a special, international literary club!) Plus, with the creation of a special Facebook page for the WKLS and using technology like Skype and chat and so on, even club members living far apart can make contributions to the common discussion.

We’re planning on our first discussion sometime in March. And the first classic novel on our list is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. So, what do you think? If you are interested in becoming a part of the Wild Knight Literary Society, even if you’re only thinking about joining us for one or two books a year, please let us know soon. And start reading!