Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry

This epic tale of the West won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.  It is a sweeping drama of rugged western life, human ambition, injustice, poverty, struggle, redemption, love, joy, and relationships.  All of this heavy material is joyfully lightened by the outstanding wit McMurtry wields through the wry main character: Gus McCrae.
Two retired Texas Rangers decide to form the first cattle ranch in Montana.  The novel is the story of their journey northward and all the people this journey involves.  McMurtry beautifully sidesteps the plot to develop each main character's backstory in full-chapter flashbacks.  This rich character development weaves a thick fabric of intense human drama for the subsequent plot developments.

At first I thought the theme was the ultimate poison of ambition.  As in: ambition will destroy everyone around it.
Then, it had no theme.  I thought it was simply an outstanding story depicting the beauty, danger, and difficulty of the old American west and the humans who lived there.
Finally, today, with some help from wikipedia, I picked up on what I think is the true theme, cleverly disguised in a mangled latin phrase on an old wooden sign in the story: "We are changed by the lives around us."  For the many, many intriguing characters who inhabit this story, life has surprising ways of wrapping back around on itself.  Our actions influence those around us.  Our stories intertwine.  Both our good choices and our bad choices make a difference for those we love, and even for those we barely know.
That's a message worth a good story, and all the better if the story itself is exceptional.  At some point, I want to go back and watch the TV miniseries again, too.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Appeal - By John Grisham

Grisham tackles corporate greed and malfeasance once again.  This time, Grisham adds the extra complication of political corruption and misuse of the American democratic process.
Krane Chemical dumped horrendous amounts of chemical byproducts into its back 40, and the result was the transition of Carey County into "Cancer County."  A small local firm nearly went bankrupt fighting the big corporate boys, but justice was served with a $41,000,000 verdict.
However, a few back room meetings birthed a plan to "deal with" that troubling verdict by electing a "friendly" Mississippi Supreme Court judge.  The conservative judge is pure as snow, but he is frighteningly naive in his conservative Christian battle against liberalism and all its ills.  He has no idea that he is but a pawn in a larger scheme to save a big business from a well-deserved bankruptcy (which would surely follow from the other lawsuits and settlements).
Grisham scores a few moral victories with this book.
First, his obvious point is that corporate greed must be checked for the good of a vulnerable humanity, and this check often necessarily comes through huge punitive verdicts.  Without massive punishments for corporate wrong doing, there is almost no financial incentive for greedy corporations to correct (much less to prevent) wrongs.
Second, Grisham really gets deep into the moral complexities of justice.  Churches take both sides of this issue.  Some churches are blindly rallied to fight for the "moral" issues of anti-homosexuality and punishment of criminals (all the while dumbly acting as pawns in the larger political machine to elect the corporate boy).  On the other hand, a few churches fight injustice on the side of the poor.
So although the plot is a bit too predictable, this same plot forces us into the midst of ethical questioning.  Grisham makes us question why we stand where we do, why we support certain candidates, and what is really going on behind the scenes of our political landscape.  Any time a novel can do that - and tell a good story - I consider that a success.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Revolution: The Story of the Early Church 30-47 AD - by Gene Edwards

I'm still not sure what I think about this book.
It came recommended by some of the 3DM leaders.  It's a narrative account of the beginning of Christianity - up to the sending of Barnabas and Paul - which Gene Edwards reckons to be 17 years in time.
And that is one of my biggest questions with the book.  How does he get his figures?  He estimates huge time lapses in the book of Acts, much longer than any estimates I've read anywhere else.  Yet, he gives no supporting evidence - arrgg.
On the positive side, Edwards hammers home several points worth emphasizing.
Leadership and spiritual depth take time to develop.  In the modern western world, we tend to hurry our leaders along and expect instant results.  It seems that the ancient Hebrew-Christians were much more content to allow a significant incubation period.  This has the ring of authentic health and wholeness.
"Church-life" is critical to healthy Christianity, but please, please do not confuse this with 21st century churches.  The "church-life" of the early Church was a deep, raw, generous, honest, Spirit-filled community of believers who spoke the truth in love and shared freely with all who had need.  It is the absolute best of all the various forms of community we have experienced.  According to Edwards, without this authentic "church-life" almost nothing of value can happen in Christianity - especially not the formation of genuinely called and equipped leaders.
The leadership of the Spirit is far more important than the best leadership of humans.  The Church started and grew in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.  If humans planned it, the process would have been far more logical and far less successful.
Another, radically challenging bit was an insight right in the first chapter that Jesus was probably resurrected at the same time as the priest celebrated the "first fruits" ceremony in the Jerusalem temple.  If this is true, that is a profound insight, especially since Jesus is called "the first fruits from the dead" ( 1 Corinthians 15:20).

On the downside, Edwards tends to overstate his case (true to form for all radical reformers).  In the midst of his semi-fictional narrative of the early church, he makes radical statements about the 21st century church.  We have NO true apostles.  We have NO true "church-life" happening anywhere.  Etc, etc.
Edwards piques my interest.  I'm not sure I buy everything he's saying, but he's challenging my ideas of the timeframes and procedures of the early church.  I'd like to know his sources, and I need to spend more time thinking on his ideas.  But I'm interested, and I guess that counts as a success for him at this point.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Georgia O'Keeffe - Review

Wandering through the library, I stumbled into the oversized section.  When I discovered Georgia O'Keeffe's self-authored description of her own work, I jumped.  In addition to holding gorgeous prints of her own work, this massive (14x10) work offers beautiful insights into the process of art.
A few comments stand out in my memory.
  • After a decade of art training, O'Keeffe decided that she would have to completely breakaway from the art her teachers valued.  Their training had been valuable for the skills - fluency in the vocabulary and grammar of art (paints, brushes, strokes, chalks, etc).  However, to create the art she envisioned in her head, she would have to return to a blank slate and start anew because her teachers' art was encrusted within stale systems within which she didn't fit.
  • She decided to paint huge portraits of single flowers so that people would slow down and actually look at the details of the flowers.  She realized that if she painted the flowers in life-size, a dozen in one frame, then people would simply glance past them just as they normally do.  However, if she magnified a single bud, then people would see the magnificent beauty hidden in plain sight within the details.  My only complaint is that the book had precious few of the these gorgeously magnified flowers.
  • Sometimes, she would only paint one corner of a building, and she felt that by focusing our attention on that particular corner in great detail, she was able to give the viewer a truer sense of the building as a whole.  I see all kinds of parallels here in the world of narrative, in which I usually operate.
This would make a great coffee-table book, but even if one doesn't want to own a copy, it's well worth the trip to the local library.  Looking for a while through O'Keeffe's glasses will enhance your own lenses through which you see our world.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Calico Joe - John Grisham

Grisham takes a rare tour outside the legal genre to explore sin and forgiveness, brokenness and redemption within the lens of Major League Baseball.
Calico Joe is a blazing rookie for the Chicago Cubs.  He homers in his first three major league at bats and barely slows down for the next 60 games.
Most of America is ready to admit him to the Hall of Fame before he completes his rookie year.  His hometown, Calico Rock, Arkansas is over the moon in pride and joy for their favorite son.  (By the way, my grandparents lived 20 miles from Calico Rock, so I really enjoyed recognizing the local geography and culture.)
Then, Warren Tracy, a bitter and aging pitcher, mows down Calico Joe with a fastball to the temple.  Joe spends weeks in the hospital and never returns to baseball.
The second third of the book is the somewhat predictable, but no less gratifying story of a wounded sinner trying to make peace with his past.  Spurred on death and his mediating son, Tracy sits down with Joe for a reconciliation.
The plot is not profound.  The characters are not particularly deep.  The story is not suspenseful.   But it is enjoyable and even edifying.  Our actions have consequences.  But even our worst mistakes can experience a measure of healing and redemption.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Surprised by Joy - CS Lewis

When our family was eating at Sarah's uncle's house, I saw this book on the shelf.  C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, and one of my goals is to read everything he has written.   Surprised by Joy is Lewis's story of his un-conversion as an adolescent leaving the Christian faith and his eventual re-coversion as an adult.
Lewis beautifully connects his deep inner longings for joy and wonder with his innate human longing for God and Spirit.  His awe for nature, narrative, and fantasy had the same roots as his longings for God and nourished by the same Spirit.  Eventually, Lewis is able to connect the dots between his inner longing and the God who fulfills that longing.
Although the story starts slowly, it becomes quite captivating about a third of the way into the book.  The theological complexity and depth steadily increases until toward the end, nearly every paragraph deserves highlighting.
Well worth reading, and rereading.
Thanks Uncle Steve.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guarding Good Marriage (Malachi 2:10-16)

Today, we’re continuing our series through the book of Malachi, and today our text is about marriage and divorce.  I want to start this conversation with two stories from my own family.  

My Grandpa Broward was an extremely gifted man, but not a good man.  
As a young man, he directed “Broward’s Little Symphony,” which had a regular slot on the radio.  If any of his musicians didn’t show up, he simply played their instrument for the night.  Clarinet, cello, trombone, whatever - he could play them all.
As an old man, he ran a repair business for appliances and musical instruments.  He could fix anything, but refrigerators and violins were his specialty.  
But Grandpa was also an alcoholic womanizer.  He had at least 9 children, that we know of, but we suspect more.  He was a pretty nice guy when he was sober, but he was a mean drunk.   
[From this point forward several of the facts have been corrected by my Aunt Judy, so they are a bit different from what I shared in the spoken sermon.]
A few of his darkest moments were when my grandma was in the hospital for surgeries, he brought home their cleaning woman for an affair right in front of the children.  
Although Grandma moved out and filed for divorce several times, she always reunited with Grandpa until my dad came home from basic training in the army.  My dad told my grandpa that if he ever hit my grandma again, he would kill him.  I think everyone in the family believed my dad would actually do it, so to protect my dad from killing his own father, my grandma finally went through with the divorce.   That was what you might call a “good” divorce.  It was unquestionably the right decision.
Years later, Grandma’s kids started becoming Christians, with the help of Chic Shaver, a local Nazarene pastor.  Then, they began working on Grandma.  They had almost convinced Grandma to give her life to Jesus, when Grandma asked, “If I become a Christian, can I join your church?”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What the Bible says about CANCER

1. God hates cancer.  
Jesus taught us to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Revelation tells us that in heaven, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (21:4).  God is on our side in the fight against cancer, and one day, God will win.

2. God suffers with us.  Isaiah 63:9, “In all their suffering he also suffered.”  Like a parent hurting with a child, God is right there with us, crying right along with us.  

3. God can use anything.  
I’m not saying that God causes cancer, but God can definitely use anything - even hurtful things - for good.  God can redeem pain for healing.  Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”  Sometimes the most important lessons are the most painful.  Sometimes the most important life changes emerge from the pit of suffering.  Even in the midst of great loss, we can always ask, “God, what do you want to teach me through this?”  

4. God is not threatened by our pain, doubts, or anger.  
As you grieve, read through the Psalms.  Learn from the lament psalms.  It’s OK to complain to God.  It is good to shout at God if you feel like shouting.  It is OK to question God’s goodness.  God can handle it, and if you don’t express it, it will eat you up inside.

5. God is bigger than our pain.
When we lose a loved one, that pain can block out the sun.  The pain of loss can be all consuming, a black hole sucking us down.  It’s OK to feel the pain.  It’s OK to feel like you can’t go on.  But in the midst of the pain and the storm and the feelings of drowning in despair, hold on to God.  God also lost a loved one - a son.  Jesus died an extremely painful death at an early age, so God knows that pain.  But God’s mighty power also raised Jesus from the dead and began the redemption of all suffering.  I don’t know why evil and suffering are in the world, but I know that good wins.  I know that God wins.  No matter how bad the pain, remember that God’s good love is greater still.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

3 Year Old Drum Prodigy at KNU International English Church

Check out this awesome little guy from my former church.  SBS, a Korean station, just did a short documentary on Kim Shin-Hyuk, the son of KNU International English Church's worship pastor (and her bass-playing husband).  Shin-Hyuk is 45 months old (so 3 and a half), but he already plays drums better than most high school drum students.
When he visited his grandfather in the USA at the age of 2, a trip to Toys-R-Us netted Shin-Hyuk a toy drum set.  He has played it almost constantly for the past two years.

Also, for any of my US peeps, this video gives a little peek of our church and worship space in Korea. Seeing my old church family warms my heart, and makes me a little homesick - because, yes, Korea is now part of my home.

And yes, he does play every Sunday after the worship service.  And yes, he does cry almost every Sunday when his mom finally drags him away from the drums.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Summons - Book Review

Carrying three million dollars in your trunk can be stressful.
Summoned to his father's deathbed, Ray Atlee discovers a dark little secret for his father - a retired judge.  Stuffed away in cardboard stationary boxes are piles and piles of hundred dollar bills.
How did it get there?  Where did it come from?  Who does it belong to?  Who are these people who want it back?
Complicating everything is that Ray's brother and co-inheritor is a life-long drug addict.  Giving him a small fortune would be like handing him a grenade with no pin.
Grisham manages to string us along in suspense as the action picks up.  Meanwhile he is teaching us lessons about greed, the addictive power of money, the essential impotence of money to make us happy, and yet the power of money when used as a tool for healing.  In the midst of immense family brokenness, Grisham even manages to work in some surprising hope and hints of reconciliation.
Also, Grisham takes us back to Clanton, Mississippi, where several of his novels are based, and reintroduces us to one of his more colorful supporting characters, Harry Rex Vonner, a good friend, who is also an alcoholic womanizer.  Ah, Grisham, thanks for the complexity.
And thanks Emma for another good Father's Day gift.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rainmaker - Review

Our church garage sale had two John Grisham books I hadn't read, so I tipped Sarah off.  Emma gave them to me for Fathers Day.  Score.
Rainmaker picks up on several common Grisham themes - injustice, underdogs, corporate wrongdoing, and ultimately dissatisfaction with money.  
The premise is simple.  Donny Ray had medical insurance, but when he needed a bone marrow transplant, his insurers unfairly denied his claim.  However, his parents were so poor and uneducated that they simply fought the insurance company with letters and phone calls, until it was too late.  When Donny Ray lay on his deathbed, they stumbled into contact with a young law student who took their case.  Against all odds, and with some very fortunate help from others, Rudy Baylor took down one of America's largest insurance companies and exposed their widespread fraud.
What I love about Grisham is that he tells a story with a point, or in this case multiple points.  1) Beware of corporate greed and abuse.  Not every big business is a good business.  2) Beware of greed - from within.  Riches may not be worth the sacrifices required to get them (or to keep them).  
Thanks for another good one, Mr. Grisham.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nazarenes and Inerrancy (David Brush)

My friend David Brush was asked to reflect on the Church of the Nazarene's recent decision to maintain a middle-ground stance on Biblical inspiration as  a guest post on a big evangelical blog (Patheos, hosted by Scott McKnight).

Within the evangelical protestant movement there is a pull to increase the contrast within our articles of faith (statements of belief) so that there is little room left for nuance along the edges. In most protestant and evangelical denominations there is a clearly defined article regarding scripture, and specifically the inerrancy of scripture. The fervor over these kinds of clearly bounded definitions is continuing to rise as conservative and fundamentalist ideals react to the loss of influence in the western cultural arena. The struggle and contention within the protestant mind, and regarding the inerrancy of scripture specifically, is in how we qualify the word inerrant.
In 2009 a group put forward a resolution at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene that would alter their article of faith by changing the statement on inerrancy from, “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation,” to, “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.” The assembly referred the motion for change to the scripture study committee in order to provide a response and recommendation at the 2013 assembly of the denomination. The committee released the report and recommendation ahead of the June 2013 assembly. In the report the committee recommended that the article of faith on Holy Scripture remain unchanged, and in it they also responded specifically to why it should remain so.