Writing for the Soul

Writing for the Soul: Instruction and Advice from an Extraordinary Writing Life by Jerry B. Jenkins is part memoir as well as instruction, advice, and tips about writing. But even the biographical parts are written to share what he learned.

Jenkins started out working for a newspaper writing for the sports section while he was still in high school. His goal was to write for the Chicago Tribune until a message at camp about surrendering his all to the Lord led him to do just that. A job editing a Sunday School paper for Scripture Press under a tough editor caused him to hone his skills. An interview led to his first book, a biography. Many of his next books were biographies or “as told to” stories. Then he branched into fiction. Left Behind, the book for which he is probably most well known, was his 125th book.

In Writing for the Soul, Jenkins covers everything from his family policy, motives and tools for writing, discovering what to write and your audience, characters, plot, perspective, and much more. Some of the chapters end with a question and answer section. Interspersed through the chapters are smaller sections covering topics ranging from working with celebrities to the need for humility to internal dialogue of characters. In a paper book, these might have been sidebars: in the Kindle version I read, they were paragraphs withing the chapter but set off by dividing lines.

In-between chapters, Jenkins shares experiences with some of the people whose biographies he has written, from Meadowlark Lemon and other sports figures to musician B. J. Thomas to Billy Graham.

I especially appreciated the sections on making inspirational writing not sound “preachy.”

As you can imagine, I have myriads of quotations marked in this book. Just a few:

Know where your audience is coming from, imagine someone you know or know of who fits in that audience, and pretend you’re writing to that person alone (p. 5, Kindle version).

What’s your passion? Your strength? What field do you really know? Write about it. Fashion a short story, write a poem, interview a leader in the field, or work on a novel. Put yourself and your interests into it (p. 11).

Big doors turn on small hinges (p. 13).

The most attractive quality in a person is humility. Sometimes money and fame will come whether or not you expect or seek them. But if you become enamored with the trappings of success, they become your passion. You need to return to your first love . . . Don’t let success or pressure change you. If you become a success, stick with what got you there (p. 38).

Choice words in precise order bear power unmatched by amplified images and sound and technical magic (p. 54).

Don’t confuse inspiration with initiative. Initiative solves your procrastination problem and pulls you through writer’s block. Inspiration gives you something worth writing about (p. 57).

Variety still keeps the batteries fresh (p. 71).

The stuff that comes easy takes the most rewriting. And the stuff that comes hard reads the easiest (p. 194).

This book was first published in 2006, and my copy was updated in 2012. Just a couple of places seem a little out of date, like working with cassette tapes for interviews (unless people still do that. I’d assume most recording is done digitally now).

He also doesn’t have much esteem for self-published books, thinking the goal of self-publishing is to be picked up by a major publisher. But self-publishing has increased exponentially in the last few years and garners much more respect now than when the first self-published books came across as “homemade” and unprofessional. I wonder if his views have changed on that.

But the majority of his advice is timeless, and I gained much from it.

You can also find Jerry Jenkins’ advice at his web site and blog.

(This book would work for either the memoir or arts category of the Nonfiction Reader Challenge.)

The Pilgrim’s Regress

The Pilgrim’s Regress was the first fiction book written by C. S. Lewis after his conversion to Christianity. Lewis’ book is not a retelling of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: Lewis just borrows the allegorical format.

The book’s protagonist is John, a young man from a land called Puritania. The country is ruled over by a Landlord who is reportedly very good and kind but who will throw anyone who disobeys him into a black hole.

One day John catches a glimpse of a beautiful island through a window. The sight, sounds, and smells raise an ineffable longing to see the island again and even visit it.

John journeys towards the island, but instead finds different philosophers and detractors. He meets a “brown girl,” who assures him she’s what he really wanted. But she represents lust, and John eventually finds he’s dissatisfied with her. (This article makes a good case that Lewis was neither racist or misogynistic by designating lust as a brown girl).

John continues on and meets Mr. Enlightenment, the Spirit of the Age, Mother Kirk, Mr. Sensible, Mr. Neo-Angluar, Mr. Humanist, History, Reason, and others. Some say his island is an illusion. Others offers various suggestions for how to get there. Some argue for or against the against the existence of the Landlord. History tells John the landlord sent truths about himself in the form of various pictures. But many interpreted the pictures the wrong way.

Finally John understands the way to the island. Wikipedia says, “The Regress portion of the title now comes into play as John journeys back home and now sees everything in a new light and sees how the road he took is a knife’s edge between Heaven and Hell.”

In a preface to the third edition of the book, written ten years after it was originally published, Lewis apologized for the book. Although he hadn’t intended the book to be strictly autobiographical, he hadn’t realized that not everyone’s journey was quite like his.

On the intellectual side my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity. I still think this a very natural road, but I now know that it is a road very rarely trodden. In the early thirties I did not know this. If I had had any notion of my own isolation, I should either have kept silent about my journey or else endeavoured to describe it with more consideration for the reader’s difficulties.

He says that in the new edition (online here), he added headlines before the different sections. He apologizes for doing so, but the headlines would have been a great help if I had read rather than listened to the book.

I think I would have gotten more out of the book of I had read an annotated edition, which explained more about the different references and philosophies (one GoodReads reviewer recommended C. S. Lewis and Narnia for Dummies as an aide). But I got the gist of the story and understood most of the discussions between characters. To me, this book illustrates what Lewis said in Mere Christianity:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

Be Committed: Commentary on Ruth and Esther

The books of Ruth and Esther are the only ones in the Bible named for women. The two women lived in different times and came from very different backgrounds. So why did Warren Wiersbe group them together in his commentary, Be Committed (Ruth and Esther): Doing God’s Will Whatever the Cost? He says:

Why do we bring these two women together in this study? Because, in spite of their different backgrounds and experiences, both Ruth and Esther were committed to do the will of God. Ruth’s reply to Naomi (Ruth 1: 16–17) is one of the great confessions of faith found in Scripture, and Esther’s reply to Mordecai (Est. 4: 16) reveals a woman willing to lay down her life to save her people. Ruth and Esther both summon Christians today to be committed to Jesus Christ and to do His will at any cost (pp. 15-16).

And then Dr. Wiersbe says something he has repeated in many of his commentaries: “Faith is not believing in spite of evidence but obeying in spite of consequence” (p. 16).

Ruth lived during the time of the judges, before Israel had kings. She was from Moab, people who were enemies to Israel. But her in-laws had come to Moab from Israel during a time of famine. Ruth had married one of their sons, but over time her father-in-law, husband, and brother-in-law all died. Ruth had come to believe in Naomi and Israel’s God, and she traveled with her mother-in-law, a bitter and broken, Naomi back to Israel.

The only recourse the women had for food was for Ruth to glean in someone else’s fields. The law at that time told farmers not to harvest every single piece of produce they grew, but to leave some for the poor. Ruth “happened” upon the fields of kind Boaz (one of my favorite OT people), who told his workers to leave some extra on purpose for her.

Near relations had the right to redeem the land of their deceased relatives, but part of the deal was marrying the widow. The nearest relation to Ruth’s husband was not willing to do this. But Boaz was the next nearest relation, and he was willing. Thus Ruth and Naomi were taken care of, and Naomi’s joy returned with the birth of her grandson–who became the grandfather of King David.

There’s much that could be said about this wonderful book. One point Wiersbe makes is this:

It is encouraging to see the changes that have taken place in Naomi because of what Ruth did. God used Ruth to turn Naomi’s bitterness into gratitude, her unbelief into faith, and her despair into hope. One person trusting the Lord and obeying His will can change a situation from defeat to victory (p. 43).

Esther lived hundreds of years after Ruth. Israel went through several kings, most of whom did not follow God. After much warning and preaching, with little response, God sent His people into exile in Babylon, which was later conquered by Persia. After 70 years, many Israelites were permitted to go back to their land. But Esther and her cousin, Mordecai, were among many Jews still in Persia.

Mordecai raised Esther because her parents had died. The pagan king, Ahasuerus, dismissed his wife for reasons found in Esther 1. His advisors encouraged him to gather the virgins of the land and . . try them out, and then choose from among them a new bride. Esther was one of the young women, and she happened to be chosen as the new queen.

Neither Esther nor Mordecai were known to be Jews at first. Wiersbe talks about the possibility that this may have meant they were not living according to God’s laws, because even the dietary laws would have separated them from other people in the land. We don’t know if this means they weren’t being faithful or if there were other reasons their nationality was not known. There also would have been problems with Esther, as a Jew, marrying a Gentile, and of course with her sleeping with the king before they were married (though she may not have had a choice about that).

At any rate, one person knew Mordecai was a Jew: Haman. Haman was a high official and hated that Mordecai would not bow to him like everyone else did. He was so angry, he plotted to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews. When he proposed this to the king, oddly, the king agreed without much discussion.

One interesting thing about the book of Esther is that God’s name is not mentioned once. But His fingerprints are all over the book. The suspense and irony of how God delivered the Jews from destruction is one of the most exciting stories in the Bible.

The highlight of the book is when Esther goes before the king to petition his protection for her people. According to the law of the land, if she came uninvited to see him, and he refused her, she could have been killed. But after fasting and praying for three days and asking others to do the same, she determined to go. Her “if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16) has rung through the centuries as an example of doing what’s right and what’s best for others despite what happens to us.

Both of these books show God’s guiding hand in the lives of His people, individually and as a nation. One encouragement to me was that God did this despite and even through a pagan king and an enemy to His people.

Finally, there is a powerful personal message in the book of Esther; for Esther, like Ruth, is a beautiful example of a woman committed to God. Ruth’s “Whither thou goest, I will go” (Ruth 1: 16 KJV) is paralleled by Esther’s “And if I perish, I perish” (Est. 4: 16 KJV). Both women yielded themselves to the Lord and were used by God to accomplish great things. Ruth became a part of God’s wonderful plan for Israel to bring the Savior into the world, and Esther helped save the nation of Israel so that the Savior could be born (p. 79).

We must never think that the days of great opportunities are all past. Today, God gives to His people many exciting opportunities to “make up the hedge, and stand in the gap” (Ezek. 22: 30 KJV), if only we will commit ourselves to Him. Not only in your church, but also in your home, your neighborhood, your place of employment, your school, even your sickroom, God can use you to influence others and accomplish His purposes, if only you are fully committed to Him (p. 80).

Seasons of Sorrow

One November day in 2020, Tim and Aileen Challies learned the stunning news that their 20-year-old son, Nick, had suddenly died. He had not been ill. There were no known congenital health issues. He was playing a game with his sister and their friends at college when he suddenly collapsed. Efforts to revive him failed.

Though grief never goes completely away, it is probably at its most intense the first year. Like many of us who write, Tim processed what he was thinking and feeling by writing. Some of what he wrote was published on his blog. But much was not. He gathered his writings from the year into a book titled Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God. The book is laid out across seasons, beginning with fall, when Nick died, through winter, spring, summer, and then fall again on the first anniversary of Nick’s passing.

Nick was a young man training for gospel ministry. This is not the first time I have wondered why would God take someone with so much potential to heaven instead of allowing them to do His work here. We don’t know all the answers. But we do know our times are in His hands. Anyone’s death, but especially that of one so young, reminds us that we’re not guaranteed a certain number of years. By all accounts, Nick used his time here well. May God give us grace to do with same, with a heart fixed on eternity.

Even though the book deals with the recent loss of an adult child, much of it can be applied to any loss. I found help and comfort in dealing with the seventeen year loss of my mom, who died seemingly (to us) too early at 68.

One of the things I appreciated most about Tim’s testimony was his desire to honor God in the midst of his grief. There is nothing wrong with grief and tears. Jesus wept with his friends at the loss of Lazarus, even while knowing He was about to raise him from the dead. We don’t go off on a season of grieving and then come back to faith in and peace with God. Tim demonstrates that we can trust Him through and in the midst of grief.

Tim wrestles honestly with what he knows of the goodness of God in circumstances that don’t seem good.

One aftermath of loss is fearing more loss.

I, whose son collapsed and died, cannot fall asleep in the evening until I have received assurance that both my daughters are still alive and cannot be content in the morning until I am sure both have made it through the night. Nick’s death has made us face mortality and human fragility in a whole new way. My children may as well be made of glass. I’m just so afraid that if Providence directed I lose one, it may direct that I lose another. If it has determined I face this sorrow, why not many more?

How, then, can I let go of such anxiety? How can I continue to live my life? The only antidote I know is this: deliberately submitting myself to the will of God, for comfort is closely related to submission. As long as I fight the will of God, as long as I battle God’s right to rule his world in his way, peace remains distant and furtive. But when I surrender, when I bow the knee, then peace flows like a river and attends my way. For when I do so, I remind myself that the will of God is inseparable from the character of God. I remind myself that the will of God is always good because God is always good. Hence I pray a prayer of faith, not fatalism: “Your will be done. Not as I will, but as you will”  (p. 76).

Another section that particularly spoke to me was when Tim found his longings for heaven mixed up with seeing Nick again as much, and sometimes more, than seeing Jesus. He confessed this to a friend, ending with the thought that he must sound like a pagan. The friend replied, “No, you sound like a grieving father” (p. 122).

And I’m content to leave it there. It was God who called me to himself and God who put a great love for himself in my heart. It was God who gave me my son, God who gave me such love for him, and God who took him away from me. The Lord knows I love the Lord, and the Lord knows I love my boy. I’ll leave it to him to sort out the details (p. 122).

Ecclesiastes 7:2 tells us, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” God doesn’t condemn feasting and gladness: He incorporated such into Israel’s calendar year and tells us the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). But we do tend to learn deeper lessons through mourning. I appreciate Tim’s sharing what he experienced and learned with us.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Wrapping Up Two Christmas Reads

I just finished my last two Christmas novels and thought I’d review them together.

In Hope for Christmas: A Small Town Christmas Romance Novella by Malissa Chapin, Merry Noel (who insists her last name is pronounced Knoll, not No-el) is trying to close one last deal before Christmas Day. If she can’t get everything together for it, the client will call the deal off. But her office is in the midst of a Christmas party and she can’t get anyone to make copies or do the things needed to close the deal.

Even without the pressure of this last deal, though, Merry hated Christmas and wouldn’t be celebrating.

After a disastrous series of events, Merry ends up losing her job. She didn’t want to go home to Wisconsin, but she has nowhere else to turn.

Having gotten used to city life in Atlanta, Merry chafes at going back to the farm. And how crazy was it to come back when the whole town was in the throes of their annual community Christmas celebration.

But her mother’s new neighbor, time with her mother, a blizzard, and an unexpected visitor in need all help Merry face her issues.

When I first started reading this, I thought it was going to be a modern retelling of A Christmas Carol. A couple of Merry’s coworkers even call her Ms. Scrooge. But Merry’s motivations aren’t related to business or finance.

I very much enjoyed Merry’s journey and this story, which were both heart-warming and faith-filled.

Malissa is the author of a book I read and loved last year, The Road Home (linked to my review). She also wrote Murder Goes Solo: A Piper Haydn Piano Mystery, which I have not read yet. Cozy mysteries are not my favorite fare, but I do read them sometimes, so I probably will check this out at some point.

I had not heard of Beth Moran before. But I had finished my audiobook a few days before Christmas and wouldn’t get another Audible credit until the end of the month. So I looked around Audible’s “free with a subscription” selection, and Beth’s Christmas Every Day caught my eye. I’m wary of modern secular fiction because usually it has bad language or bedroom scenes. But I figured this was low risk–if I came across something objectionable, I could just delete it from my library.

Jenny is another Christmas-hater, but for different reasons. Since her parents’ divorce, she usually spent holidays alone. But in light of her impending engagement, she has every hope that she’ll spend Christmas in a lovely place with a real family this year.

But then her boss/secret boyfriend announces an engagement not with Jenny, but with her beautiful, popular twin sister.

Jenny leaves for an old cottage in Sherwood Forest that she inherited from her grandmother, who passed away six years earlier. She expected the place to need a little clean-up. But she hadn’t known her grandmother had become a hoarder or that the house would need so much.

She gets off on the wrong foot with her curmudgeonly neighbor, Mack. But slowly, she begins to form friendships with other people in the village and gets a job.

Then she’s invited to an unusual book club. A couple of the participants are so cantankerous that they can’t agree on what books to read. So the group decides to shift focus and work on a personal challenge for the coming year, reporting on their progress at the monthly meetings instead of books. A private investigator wants to learn to bake. A dying older woman has a list of daring feats she wants to accomplish. A single mom wants to find a good man with whom she can have a real relationship. A super-fan wants to find the location of a reclusive author said to live in their area and invite her to the book club.

As Jenny deals with the house, her new job of minding a lively family of five children, her neighbor, and her new friends, she finally learns what belonging and family are all about.

This story is funny in places and heart-warming in others. Jenny’s series of comedic disasters got a little old at one point—but I guess I got used to them, or maybe they just toned down a bit. They kept happening but didn’t seem so outlandish as at first.

Even though this is written from a secular standpoint, there was a really good section on forgiveness.

There was a smattering of bad words, but otherwise the story was very clean.

Helen Keely did a superb job narrating the audiobook. I had to slow down the narration just a tad, as the British accent spoken very quickly was hard to understand in places.

I liked this books so well that I am willing to try more from this author. And I hope Helen Keely narrates them all.

Be Transformed

Warren Wiersbe divided his commentary on the gospel of John into two books. The first was Be Alive (John 1-12): Get to Know the Living Savior. The second is Be Transformed (John 13-21): Christ’s Triumph Means Your Transformation. The first twelve chapters of John “focus on our Lord’s public ministry, especially the signs (miracles) that Jesus performed and the messages that grew from them” (Location 150, Kindle version). Chapters 13-21 share more of the private ministry of Jesus with His closest disciples, “preparing them for their future service when the Holy Spirit would come and empower them” (Location 150). Chapter 13 opens with the Passover meal the night before Jesus was betrayed where He washes the disciples’ feet and institutes what we call the Lord’s supper (communion). The rest of John details Jesus private discourse with the disciples that night, His betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

John shares his purpose statement in John 20:31: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” “The basic theme of John’s gospel is that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the very Son of God, and all who believe in Him receive eternal life (20: 30–31). John’s subject is the deity of Christ. John’s object is to lead people into the life—eternal life, abundant life—that only Christ can give. John is both a theologian and an evangelist” (Location 150).

John attests to Jesus deity not only through His many signs, or miracles, but through other witnesses, through Jesus’ “I am” statements, through His fulfillment of the Old Testament festivals and prophecies about Himself.

John said throughout the first part of his book that Jesus’ “hour” had not yet come. Then in John 12:23, at this transition between public and private ministry and the week leading up to the cross, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus says a little later, in verse 27, ““Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.”

As I mentioned in Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled, Wiersbe points out that Jesus comforted and reassured the disciples that though He was about to leave the earth, they had the Father’s love and care, the peace Jesus gave them, the comfort and ministry of the Holy Spirit within them, access in prayer, and a home in heaven to look forward to.

He then teaches them to abide in Him, as a branch abides in the vine (John 15). “The key word is abide; it is used eleven times in John 15: 1–11 (‘continue’ in John 15: 9 and ‘remain’ in John 15: 11). What does it mean to ‘abide’? It means to keep in fellowship with Christ so that His life can work in and through us to produce fruit. This certainly involves the Word of God and the confession of sin so that nothing hinders our communion with Him (John 15: 3). It also involves obeying Him because we love Him (John 15: 9–10)” (Location 777). “This abiding relationship is natural to the branch and the vine, but it must be cultivated in the Christian life. It is not automatic. Abiding in Christ demands worship, meditation on God’s Word, prayer, sacrifice, and service—but what a joyful experience it is!” (Locaion786).

Jesus tells them more of the work the Holy Spirit will do in their lives (John 16) and then offers up His wonderful “high priestly prayer” to the Father for us (John 17).

Then John tells of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, His encounter with Pilate, His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, appearances to Mary and the disciples..

A few other quotes from Wiersbe’s commentary:

To “keep” His commandments means to value them, treasure them, guard them, and do them. “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23: 12) (Location 559).

Our English word comfort comes from two Latin words meaning “with strength.” We usually think of “comfort” as soothing someone, consoling him or her, and to some extent this is true. But true comfort strengthens us to face life bravely and keep on going. It does not rob us of responsibility or make it easy for us to give up. Some translations call the Holy Spirit “the Encourager,” and this is a good choice of words. Parakl ∑ tos is translated “Advocate” in 1 John 2: 1. An “advocate” is one who represents you at court and stands at your side to plead your case (Location 587).

Shalom—peace—is a precious word to the Jewish people. It means much more than just the absence of war or distress. Shalom means wholeness, completeness, health, security, even prosperity in the best sense. When you are enjoying God’s peace, there is joy and contentment. But God’s peace is not like the “peace” that the world offers (Location 662).

We do not study the Word of God in order to “argue religion” with people, or to show off our grasp of spiritual things. We study the Word to see Jesus Christ, to know God better, and to glorify Him in our lives (Location 1133).

“Be of good cheer!” is one of our Lord’s repeated statements of encouragement. Literally it means, “Cheer up!” There is the “good cheer” of His pardon (Matt. 9: 1–8), His power (Matt. 9: 18–22), and His presence (Matt. 14: 22–27). Here in John 16: 33, He announces the “good cheer” of His victory over the world. We are overcomers because He has first overcome for us (Location 1318).

Human history began in a garden (Gen. 2: 8ff.), and the first sin of man was committed in that garden. The first Adam disobeyed God and was cast out of the garden, but the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15: 45) was obedient as He went into the garden of Gethsemane. In a garden, the first Adam brought sin and death to mankind, but Jesus, by His obedience, brought righteousness and life to all who will trust Him. He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2: 8). History will one day end in another garden, the heavenly city that John describes in Revelation 21 and 22. In that garden, there will be no more death and no more curse. The river of the water of life will flow ceaselessly, and the tree of life will produce bountiful fruit. Eden was the garden of disobedience and sin; Gethsemane was the garden of obedience and submission; and heaven shall be the eternal garden of delight and satisfaction, to the glory of God (Location 1629).

It is a sad thing when well-meaning but ignorant Christians take up the sword to “defend” the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter hurt Malchus [the high priest’s servant whose ear Peter cut off), something no believer should do. Peter hurt the testimony of Christ and gave the false impression that His disciples hate their enemies and try to destroy them. (Note our Lord’s reply to Pilate in John 18:36.) (Location 1713).

The cup He prepares will never contain anything that will harm us. We may suffer pain and heartbreak, but He will eventually transform that suffering into glory (Location 1737).

God does not reveal new truth to us if we fail to act on the truth we already know (Location 2005).

I enjoyed spending time in December thinking of Jesus birth in the context of the rest of His life and ministry and teaching in John. Dr. Wiersbe, as always, was a helpful companion.

Reading Plans for 2023

For most of my life, I’ve just read whatever was next in the stack or something I was in the mood for. Reading challenges have helped broaden my horizons and be more intentional in my reading. Plus it’s fun to share reading lists with the other participants. And some challenge hosts offer drawings for prizes!

I dropped one challenge I participated in last year. All of these are categories I already read anyway. Plus they leave me some room to still delve into something new and unexpected through the year.

I have not heard or seen anything from Karen at Books and Chocolate about whether she is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge again this year–so that probably means she isn’t. That’s too bad, as this was one of my favorites. But I’m sure she has other priorities in her life right now.

I will still read classics, though. I’ve made it a mission to since I wasn’t exposed to many growing up. I’ve been trying to read through Dickens novels that I haven’t read yet. All I have left are Martin Chuzzlewit, Barnaby Rudge, Dombey and Son, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so I’ll read at least one of those. I also got the audiobooks for Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis and Martyr of the Catacombs. I finished Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series last year, so I’d like to explore some of his other works.

Bev at My Reader’s Block hosts the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, which encourages us to get to those books we already own but have not read yet. That’s something I need to do every year, and I have enjoyed participating with Bev the last few years. She has the goals set out as a series of mountains, and we’re supposed to declare which one we’re aiming for. I think I’ll stay with Mt. Vancouver (36 books), even though I’ve reached the next level a couple of years. The sign-up and more information for this challenge are here.

Shelly Rae at Book’d Out hosts the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. This can be done one of two ways. Shelly has twelve books in different categories that we can aim for. Or we can be a “Nonfiction Grazer” and make our own goal. Although I might hit a few of her categories, I’ll go the grazer route. I normally read several nonfiction books (over 30 last year). This year, I’d like to hit these categories:

  • At least one biography, autobiography, or memoir.
  • One writing book
  • One book of humor
  • One Bible study book
  • One Christian living book
  • One book of letters or journals
  • One book by C. S. Lewis that I have not read yet
  • One book on organization or productivity
  • One book pertaining to a holiday (probably Christmas)
  • One book related to midlife or aging

Finally, The Intrepid Reader. hosts the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. A good many of my fictional reads fit this category. I’m going to aim for the Medieval level at 15 books.

And that does it for this year, I think!

Do you participate in reading challenges? Which ones.

Heaven and Nature Sing

Heaven and Nature Sing: 25 Advent Reflections to Bring Joy to the World by Hannah Anderson was just released last fall. I’m so glad I heard of it in time to use for Advent.

“Heaven and nature sing” is a phrase from “Joy to the World,” written by Isaac Watts. Watts’ hymn looks forward to Jesus’ second coming more than His first, but it’s regularly used as a Christmas carol. Hannah took inspiration from this phrase and wrote 25 Advent devotions based on various aspects of nature connected with the birth of Christ. The Bible tells us creation groans from the effects of sin, waiting for redemption. We also groan or yearn for things to be set right. Hannah writes, “I want to offer you hope—not by ignoring the brokenness but by looking it squarely in the face, knowing your Redeemer has and will come” (p. 1).

One thing that struck me about these meditations was how much sheer thought must have been behind them, to weave so many threads together.

For instance, in the chapter “Family Tree,” Hannah writes of her husband’s discovering some old family genealogies which were written not in flow charts like we’re used to, but in concentric circles. Then she tells of a family visit to see the redwood trees in CA. One cross-section of a stump showed rings developed over the millennia the tree had been alive, and Hannah contemplates all the history the tree lived through. Then she brings up the records of Jesus’ human genealogy. His people were often faithless and disobedient, resulting in judgment by enemy armies taking over Israel and exiling its people. Isaiah compares this to God lopping boughs off a tree (Isaiah 10:33). But He promises “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1-2, 10).

“The story of Christmas is this: the tree is not dead” (p. 20). And eventually, others were grafted into the family (Romans 11:17-24), “strangers and foreigners and all those who thought they’d never know family again, those who never dared to hope that life would run through them” (p. 20).

You and I are links in the chain of generations, called to steward the fragile hope we’ve received. The seventy or eighty years given to us on this earth pale in light of those who have come before us and those who follow after. . .

So whether his work happens over the course of a thousand years or one day, whether it is given to us to play a prominent role in it or simply to stand as a faithful witness to the promise, we will wait on him. And we will wait in hope.

The tree is not dead. The quiet, steady work that came before us will continue on after us. The quiet, steady work we do today—even if it’s as simple as celebrating the Promised Son during this season—will echo through the years (pp. 20-21).

And thus Hannah writes about winter, stars, serpents, holly, evergreens, swaddling bands, shepherds, stars, and more.

One of my favorite quotes is in the chapter “Among the Beasts.”

Yes, the manger signals something about this baby, but it is not simply his poverty. By being placed in the manger, he is revealed as both the rightful son of Adam charged with caring for his creation and also the eternal Son of God who created them and who provides for them. So instead of filling the manger with hay or corn, he fills it with himself (p. 80).

I spent many mornings after my reading in this book in tears or joy, touched and awed by the contemplation of the “old, familiar” Christmas story.

Each devotion is about five pages long and written in an easily readable style. The illustrations on the cover and between chapters were drawn by Hannah’s husband, Nathan.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m sure I’ll use it again in future Advent seasons. But since these truths are timeless, you could read it any time of year.

I have some of Hannah’s other books in my Kindle app, and I am eager to read them. The only trouble is deciding which one to start with!

Top Twelve Books Read in 2022

This post is one of my favorites to write every year. Looking back through all the books I read during the year is like revisiting old friends. I try to keep my end-of-year favorites between 10-15. Some rise to the top immediately. Others I have to think about and weigh.

Not all of these books were written this year; in fact, most of them weren’t. But most were first-time reads for me this year.

Another Gospel: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity by Alisa Childers, nonfiction. I knew fairly soon that this would be one of my top books. Alisa Childers’ faith was shaken by her pastor, of all people, as he undermined the validity of the Bible, the nature of Christ’s atonement, and so many fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Alisa realized that she didn’t know why she believed what she believed. And to her credit, instead of just following along, she began to read and study for herself. This book is her testimony as well as her answer to the issues the progressive movement brings up.

Heaven and Nature Sing: 25 Advent Reflections to Bring Joy to the World by Hannah Anderson, nonfiction. As the title indicates, Hannah focuses on various aspects of the Christmas narrative, especially in connection with nature. She brings such a depth of thought and brings out things I had not considered before.

Joy: A Godly Woman’s Adornment by Lydia Brownback, nonfiction, is made up of 42 fairly short devotions on the topic of joy. Being joyful is not a matter of having a bubble personality. It runs much deeper. I enjoyed the truths Lydia bought out.

O Love That Will not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence, complied by Nancy Guthrie, nonfiction. Most people are uncomfortable thinking about death. Even if we know we’re going to heaven because we’ve believed on Jesus as Savior, we can be a little afraid of death and dying. It’s not for nothing that the Bible calls death the last enemy. Nancy has assembled writings from an assortment of Christian writers over time to help.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Lady Carnarvon, nonfiction. The author is the current countess of Highclere Castle, which was used as the ancestral home of the characters in Downton Abbey series on PBS. But you don’t have to be a fan of the show to enjoy the book. Lady Almina oversaw the castle through World War II, when she turned it into a hospital for wounded soldiers. She accompanied her husband on many travels to Egypt for his health, and where he and friend Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb. The first part of the book was largely informational and a little hard to get into, but before long it became fascinating.

The Italian Ballerina by Kristy Cambron, Christian fiction, is my favorite fiction book this year. It was released just this summer. It’s based on the true account of an Italian hospital which made up a contagious disease they called Syndrome K to keep the Nazis away from one ward. They then used that ward to hide Jewish refugees until they could find somewhere for them to go.Two US military men, a newly-orphaned child, and a ballerina and her partner end up in the hospital as well and try to help. The story is uncovered by two descendants of some of the characters in modern times who follow clues to find out what happened. Excellent.

Bringing Maggie Home by Kim Vogel Sawyer, Christian fiction, is another split-time novel involving modern characters trying to find the history of their ancestors. In this case, Hazel DeFord’s younger sister disappeared when they were children, when Hazel was supposed to be watching her. Hazel didn’t tell her daughter, but this loss made her overly controlling, perfectionistic, and anxious–which drove her daughter away. Her granddaughter is a cold-case detective who unwittingly discovers old pictures of Maggie, Hazel’s sister, and uses time healing from an accident to investigate the 70-year-old case, hoping to bring closure to her grandmother and healing to her and her mother.

The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White, Christian fiction, is a novel about an adopted heiress who finds out who her true father is. But will the rest of her father’s family accept her, and will her relationship with her friend, Justin, who she secretly loves, survive? And will she realize the man trying to woo her is a predator? This sounds like a fluff read, but there is no fluff in Roseanna’s books. She brings such depth into her characters and plot.

Midnight, Christmas Eve by Andy Clapp, Christian fiction, is a sweet story about two teenagers who decide that in five years time, if they are not married, they’ll come back to “their” bench in their home town at midnight on Christmas Eve and get engaged. He comes; she does not. He continues to come for the next several Christmas Eves.

Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan is a novel about a college girl is London whose younger brother is dying. Her brother is obsessed with the world of Narnia and wants to know whether it’s a real place, and if not, where it came from. When he learns the author, C. S. Lewis, teaches at his sister’s college, he begs her to meet Lewis and ask these questions. There are three levels to this story: Megs and George and their family, Lewis’ biography, and Megs’ learning the value of stories. I didn’t agree with every point of theology from the author, but the overall story was very good.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow is secular fiction from the world of Pride and Prejudice, from the viewpoint of Mary, the quiet sister in the background in Austen’s book. It suffered from a bit of over-explanation in a couple of places, but overall it was excellently done. And the audiobook was very good.

The Winnie the Pooh books by A. A. Milne. I reviewed the two books of stories and two of poetry all together. The Pooh videos were a big part of my kids’ growing up. There was a weekly cartoon of Pooh on then with new stories. But somehow we never read the books together. I wish we had. It was sweet and nostalgic to read them as an adult.

So that’s my top twelve this year. What was your favorite among the books you read this year? Have you read any of the ones I listed?

Books Read in 2022

It’s been another great reading year, with a variety of new and old, fiction and nonfiction, mostly good, a handful not so much. By my count, I’ve read 79 books this year—a smidgen fewer than the last couple of years.

I’ll post my favorites tomorrow. The titles link back to my reviews. (MTBR) at the end of some titles refers to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, where we read books we already owned before the year began. I noted them here instead of making a separate list.

Nonfiction:

  1. 100 Best Bible Verses to Overcome Worry and Anxiety, a devotional book by various authors (MTBR)
  2. Aging With Grace: Flourishing in an Anti-Aging Culture by Sharon Betters and Susan Hunt
  3. Always, Only Good: A Journey of Faith Through Mental Illness by Shelly Garlock Hamilton
  4. Another Gospel: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity by Alisa Childers
  5. Be Alive (John 1-12): Get to Know the Living Savior by Warren Wiersbe (MTBR)
  6. Be Compassionate (Luke 1-13): Let the World Know Jesus Cares by Warren Wiersbe (MTBR)
  7. Be Courageous (Luke 14-24): Let the World Know Jesus Cares by Warren Wiersbe (MTBR
  8. Be Determined (Nehemiah): Standing Firm in the Face of Opposition by Warren W. Wiersbe (MTBR)
  9. Be Distinct (2 Kings and 2 Chronicles): Standing Firmly Against the World’s Tides by Warren Wiesrbe (MTBR)
  10. Be Encouraged (2 Corinthians): God Can Turn Your Trials Into Triumphs by Warren W. Wiersbe (MTBR)
  11. Be Free (Galatians): Exchange Legalism for True Spirituality by Warren Wiersbe (MTBR)
  12. Be Responsible (1 Kings): Being Good Stewards of God’s Gifts by Warren Wiersbe (MTBR)
  13. Be Restored (2 Samuel & 1 Chronicles): Trusting God to See Us Through by Warren W. Wiersbe (MTBR)
  14. Be Successful (1 Samuel): Attaining Wealth That Money Can’t Buy by Warren W. Wiersbe (MTBR)
  15. Be Wise (1 Corinthians): Discern the Difference Between Man’s Knowledge and God’s Wisdom by Warren W. Wiersbe (MTBR)
  16. Daily Light on the Daily Path compiled by Samuel Bagster
  17. “Don’t Call Me Spry”: Creative Possibilities for Later Life by Win Couchman
  18. The Enchanted Places: A Childhood Memoir by Christopher Milne
  19. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (MTBR)
  20. The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis (MTBR)
  21. Heaven and Nature Sing: 25 Advent Reflections to Bring Joy to the World by Hannah Anderson
  22. IBS for Dummies by Carolyn Dean and L. Christine Wheeler (MTBR)
  23. I Must Decrease: Biblical Inspiration and Encouragement for Dieters by Janice Thompson (MTBR)
  24. Jesus Led Me All the Way by Margaret Stringer (MTBR)
  25. Joy: A Godly Woman’s Adornment by Lydia Brownback (MTBR)
  26. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by Lady Carnarvon.(MTBR, audiobook)
  27. The Middle Matters: Why That (Extra)Ordinary Life Looks Really Good on You by Lisa-Jo Baker (MTBR)
  28. O Love That Will not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence, complied by Nancy Guthrie
  29. The Path Through the Trees by Christopher Milne )Audiobook)
  30. Ten Time Management Choices that Can Change Your Life by Sandra Felton and Marsha Sims (MTBR)
  31. Treasures of Encouragement: Women Helping Women by Sharon W. Betters
  32. Where I End: A Story of Tragedy, Truth, and Rebellious Hope by Katherine Elizabeth Clark (MTBR)
  33. Women and Stress: A Practical Approach to Managing Tension by Jean Lush and Pam Vredevelt (MTBR)
  34. The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz (MTBR)

Classics:

  1. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Audiobook)
  2. The Confessions of St. Augustine (Audiobook)
  3. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  4. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope (MTBR, Audiobook)
  5. Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott (Audiobook)
  6. The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne (Audiobook)
  7. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (Audiobook)
  8. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (Audiobook)
  9. Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne
  10. The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (Audiobook)
  11. The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Audiobook)
  12. To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite (Audiobook)
  13. Victorian Short Stories of Successful Marriages by Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and others.
  14. When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne
  15. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne

Christian Fiction:

  1. Bringing Maggie Home by Kim Vogel Sawyer (Audiobook)
  2. A Daily Rate by Grace Livingston Hill (Audiobook)
  3. Enchanted Isle by Melanie Dobson
  4. The Fifth Avenue Story Society by Rachel Hauck (Audiobook)
  5. Half Finished by Lauraine Snelling (MTBR)
  6. The Hatmaker’s Heart by Carla Stewart (MTBR)
  7. The Italian Ballerina by Kristy Cambron (Audiobook)
  8. Just 18 Summers by Michelle Cox and Rene Gutteridge (MTBR)
  9. A Lady Unrivaled by Roseanna M. White (Audiobook)
  10. Midnight, Christmas Eve by Andy Clapp (MTBR)
  11. The Lost Heiress by Roseanna M. White (MTBR)
  12. The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron (MTBR, Audiobook)
  13. The Reluctant Duchess by Roseanna M. White (Audiobook)
  14. The Road Home by Malissa Chapin
  15. The Search by Grace Livingston Hill (Audiobook)
  16. Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men by Cara Putman (MTBR)
  17. Shadows in the Mind’s Eye by Janyre Tromp
  18. Snowed In for Christmas by Cami Checketts (Audiobook)
  19. Something Good by Vanessa Miller
  20. The Stranger by Melanie Dobson (MTBR)
  21. Three Fifty-Seven: Timing Is Everything by Hank Stewart and Kendra Norman-Bellamy (Audiobook)
  22. To Treasure an Heiress by Roseanna White (Audiobook)
  23. Worthy of Legend by Roseanna M. White

Other Fiction:

  1. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth (MTBR, Audiobook)
  2. The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (MTBR, Audiobook)
  3. The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper (MTBR)
  4. The London House by Katherine Reay (audiobook)
  5. Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (MTBR)
  6. Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan (Audiobook)
  7. The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow (MTBR, Audiobook)

And that just about wraps it up for 2022! I’m close to finishing a couple more, but I’ll save them to review at the beginning of next year so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Reading is one of my highlights, so I was very thankful to be able to make time for it.

How was your reading year? The number of books is not as important as whether the books are enjoyable and edifying. In that sense, I’ve had a great year indeed.