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.)

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.)

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!

Be Alive: Get to Know the Living Savior

I veered from my Bible reading plan because I wanted to be in one of the gospels over December, and because the plan had not taken me through John in the last few years.

Warren Wiersbe divided his commentary on John into two books, the first being Be Alive (John 1-12): Get to Know the Living Savior.

Each of the four gospels presents Jesus from a different aspect. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the Son of God.

John shares different titles for Jesus: the eternal, incarnate Word of God (“Much as our words reveal to others our hearts and minds, so Jesus Christ is God’s ‘Word’ to reveal His heart and mind to us”–p. 20); the light of the world; the eternal Son of God; the lamb of God; the Messiah, long promised and prophesied in the Old Testament; the king of Israel; the Son of Man; the good shepherd, the water and bread of life, the door.

When John shares some of the miracles Jesus did, he “seeks to share the inner meaning—the inner significance—of our Lord’s works, so that each miracle is a ‘sermon in action” (p. 38). “Our Lord’s miracles were testimonies (John 5: 36), giving evidence of His divine sonship; but they were also tests, exposing the hearts of the people (John 12: 37ff.). The same events that opened some eyes only made other eyes that much more blind (John 9: 39–41)” (p. 44).

One theme through John’s gospel is Jesus’ “hour.” Throughout, Jesus says His hour was not yet come. Then it was at hand, then it finally culminated in His death for us.

Another theme is that Jesus loves and came to die for the world, not just the Jews.

One of John’s major themes is that Jesus is the Savior of the world, not simply the Redeemer of Israel. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29). “For God so loved the world” (John 3: 16). The Samaritans rightly identified Him as “the Savior of the world” (John 4: 42). He gave His life for the world, and He gives life to the world (John 6: 33). He is the Light of the World (John 8: 12). The universal emphasis of John’s gospel is too obvious to miss. Jesus will bring the “other sheep” who are outside the Jewish fold (John 10: 16; and see 11: 51–52) (p. 190).

The crowds at first flocked to Jesus for His teaching and His provision. They hoped He would throw off Roman oppression and set up His kingdom. Some believed and became loving followers of Christ. Many began to fall away when He spoke of the cost of discipleship and when it became clear that He was not the type of Messiah they had envisioned.

The Pharisees were supposed to be experts in the law of God, but they missed the Savior portrayed in the law.

When a person starts to resist the light, something begins to change within him, and he comes to the place where he cannot believe. There is “judicial blindness” that God permits to come over the eyes of people who do not take the truth seriously. (The quotation of Isa. 6: 9–10 is found in a number of places in the New Testament. See Matt. 13: 14–15; Mark 4: 12; Luke 8: 10; Acts 28: 25–27; Rom. 11: 8.) It is a serious thing to treat God’s truth lightly, for a person could well miss his opportunity to be saved. “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55: 6)” (p. 194).

John’s gospel is a full and rich portrayal of Christ. There is so much in it, I am not surprised Wiersbe took two books to cover it. I look forward to the next one.

Joy: A Godly Woman’s Adornment

Once when a friend and I were heading toward the same door at church, she called our in her usual cheery voice, “Good morning, Barbara! How are you?”

I replied, “Doing okay. How about you?”

Just okay?” She sounded really dismayed that I wasn’t more than okay.

Well—to my thinking, okay was pretty good. Nothing hurt, nothing was wrong. I’m not an effusive person, so I wouldn’t generally respond in a really excited way unless something spectacular was happening.

For a while, I wondered if there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t more like my friend. In fact, the thought of always being so enthusiastic sounded exhausting to me. I finally attributed our responses to our very different personalities.

Still, I sometimes wondered if joy was always a bubbling brook, or if it was sometimes a steady undercurrent.

Those thoughts, and the fact that I had read and enjoyed some of Lydia Brownback’s other writings, encouraged me to get her book Joy: A Godly Woman’s Adornment.

This book is one in a series of “On the Go Devotionals.” Each entry is short, two to three pages in my Kindle app. There are forty-two devotions which concentrate on a different Bible verse about joy.

While we might go through times of sorrow and trial, gloominess and moodiness usually come from “looking at what we lack rather than all we have” (p. 9).

Even those of us going through a season of darkness can pursue joy, trusting that God designed us for it. Sooner or later, in Christ, we will find it. The trick for some of us is to change our self-oriented, worldly focus to Christ, and for others it is to take fresh hold of God’s promises that no matter how dark life seems, he is going to push you out into the light. . .

Our moodiness dishonors God and robs us of the happiness that lies right at our fingertips. If we want to change—to live with perpetual joy—we must pursue it, and in Christ we are guaranteed to find it. (p. 10).

In the very first entry, Lydia declares, “Self-surrender leads to joy” (p. 15). That doesn’t sound very joyful, does it? We think we’d be pretty happy if everything went our way.

We cannot imagine how we will survive without that certain relationship or plan. It feels like death. That’s because it is death. It’s the losing of our lives that Jesus was talking about [in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”].

When we are facing the death of self, the costliness of discipleship, we are likely to pull back unless we remember the promise we have been given about how it will all turn out. The man in Jesus’ parable wound up owning the field. And Jesus said that those who lose their lives—all the earthly things they lean on for happiness and security—will find what they have been looking for all along. God will see to that (pp. 15-16).

I have many more quotes marked than I can share, but here are some that especially stood out to me:

Each trial is a gift. It’s a chance to know God’s strength and supernatural joy and to show that following him is worth everything (p. 24).

It is impossible to keep an eye out for God’s blessings while harboring a complaining spirit (p. 28).

We will never know lasting joy in the Lord if we seek to understand him by what goes on in the world or by our circumstances. The only way to joy is to interpret our circumstances by God’s Word rather than to judge God by our circumstances (p. 40).

Joy is the outworking of worship (p. 43).

We don’t need ten tips to a better spiritual life. What we need is to put God out front in our thoughts, priorities, time, and activities. If we allow his Word to govern us, we will see that he delights to show us “the path of life” and the path for our life (p. 45).

The joy promised in Scripture is different from the joy of personal expectation, our hope of some good thing we want God to do in our lives. While it is natural to hope for a good outcome in our difficulties and to trust God for it, we set ourselves up for a spiritual crisis if we expect that things will work out as we think they should (p. 60).

Joyful feelings are also not a yardstick to be used to determine how well we are doing spiritually. Feelings of closeness to the Lord are a wonderful blessing, but they are not an indicator of God’s acceptance of us. Christ is the only indicator. If we blur the distinction, we are going to worry about our spiritual standing whenever the good feelings aren’t present (p. 60).

God wills that we live in constant expectation of his appearing. We are to look for him in his Word, in his providences in our daily lives, in our sorrows, in our needs, and in our failures. He comes to us in Christ in all these things, but we miss him because we aren’t looking for him (p. 71).

The Holy Spirit doesn’t give us more love or more faithfulness or more joy. He gives us Christ, and as he does, joy and all the rest are produced within us as the fruit of that union (p. 73).

The joy of trials is rarely found in the circumstances of our difficulties. Rather, it is found when we stop fighting against what God is doing and seek his purposes and priorities, which always without exception are designed for our welfare. Whatever the difficulty—even one brought about by our sin—we can leave the outcome in God’s hands (p. 76).

How can we help what we feel? We just can’t muster up joyful feelings; that’s true. But we can rejoice, which sooner or later leads to joyful feelings. Rejoicing is not a feeling. It is joy in action. It is the humble willingness to offer God praise and thanks in all things, regardless of how we feel at the moment (p. 98).

We can experience joy in the Lord despite our circumstances. After reading this book, my thoughts ran to Psalm 43:3-5, a passage Lydia didn’t use:

Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
T
hen I will go to the altar of God,

    to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

That passage in turn reminded me of this song, based on this passage. The words and story behind the song are here.

Women and Stress

I’m embarrassed to say I have had Women and Stress: A Practical Approach to Managing Tension by Jean Lush and Pam Vredevelt on my bookshelf for years. Just recently the title caught my eye, and I decided it was about time I got to it.

Jean Rush was a family therapist who was a frequent guest on James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio program. Pam was a counselor.

They start off the book discussing the different things that make us tense (they seem to use stress and tension interchangeably). Then they discuss the typical responses to tension, especially the “fight or flight” responses and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

They use the imagery of a storage pot of tensions, with each person having a different size pot. But eventually, each pot can overflow, causing a mess. But they also talk about energy which seeks a discharge, which reminded me of static electricity.

Then, as the title says, they share some very practical ways to keep the pot from overflowing or the electricity from discharging. They use multitudes of helpful examples from their own lives and practices.

A couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

What are your needs? How do you need God to intervene for you? Talk with Him about your sources of tension. Ask Him for wisdom and guidance. Ask Him for answers. God is not partial. He will do for you what He has done for me and Susan, June, Mrs. Hastings, and countless others. His ears will hear your cry, and He will act on your behalf, but it all must start with you. Carve out some time to be alone with Him. Tune your ears to listen to His Spirit. Open your heart to receive from Him. Then get ready. Watch. Wait. In time, you’ll sense Him filling the holes in your soul (p. 91).

I believe many of life’s greatest blessings come wrapped in struggle paper. Unwrapping those blessings takes time. It’s a process consisting of several phases (p. 256).

I appreciated the authors’ down-to-earth approach. Their chapters weren’t weighted down with clinical language or vague theories. I loved that they centered their advice around God and His ways and Word.

I think the authors and I would agree on core Biblical issues, but I think we come from different faith traditions. On the very first page, Jean mentions something that I would disagree with. I went back and forth about whether to get into the issue here, and decided against it. It would take a while to explain adequately and might be misunderstood. But, like any book, we read with discernment and compare what we read with Scripture.

This book was published in 1992. It doesn’t mention some ways to relieve tension that you might find in a modern book, but I liked its “old school” approach. Even though it’s older, and I might not agree with every little point, I found much helpful information here.

Always, Only Good: A Journey of Faith Through Mental Illness

Ron and Shelly Hamilton’s oldest son, Jonathan, began experiencing strange symptoms after taking a medicine prescribed by a dermatologist for acne. Shelly called the doctor’s office to ask about the medication, but the nurse said the medication was not responsible for Jonathan’s symptoms. When Shelly took Jonathan back in to see the dermatologist and explained how Jonathan was acting, the doctor told her to take Jonathan off the medication immediately. He said it would take a couple of weeks for the medicine to get out of Jonathan’s system, and then he would return to normal.

But Jonathan did not return to normal. He began a downward spiral of mental illness which was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. After fifteen years with his illness, Jonathan took his own life on Mother’s Day.

Shelly wrote Always, Only Good: A Journey of Faith Through Mental Illness for several reasons. She wanted to share her son’s story, give an idea what life is like for someone suffering from mental illness, and encourage those with mental illness and their caregivers that they are not alone and there is hope. She also wanted to help remove the stigma of mental illness, especially among Christians, so sufferers would feel more freedom to get help.

Sadly, many well-meaning people feel that mental illness is a only spiritual problem.One friend’s college professor called psychiatrists “quacks” and belittled taking drugs for mental problems.

Shelly differentiates between “the brain, which is an organ, and the mind, consisting of spirit, will, and emotions” (p. 207). Like any other organ, the brain can have physical problems which then affect the mind and body. A person with a mental illness can’t just “reason his way back” to right thinking.

Unfortunately, it can take a doctors a lot of tries to find the right medications or combination of medications which help each individual. And sometimes it takes weeks of trying medications to see if they work. Then, many have unpleasant side effects. When they are thinking right, most patients agree that being able to function is worth the side effects. But then many go through a cycle of becoming stable, thinking they don’t need their medicines any more, stopping them, feeling great for a couple of weeks until the medicine gets out of their system, and then crashing.

The title Always, Only Good comes from two sources.One was Shelly’s struggle at the beginning of Jonathan’s illness with how a good God could allow someone who loved Him and wanted to serve Him to have such an illness. Through struggle, counsel, and Bible study, she reaffirmed her belief that God is always, only good.

The other inspiration for the title was a song written to the last music Jonathan composed. Shelly gave the music and some verses and thoughts to Chris Anderson (pastor and author of “His Robes for Mine,” “My Jesus Fair,” and other hymns at Church Works Media). Chris put together this beautiful song as a testimony of Jonathan’s life. Here it is sung by Shelly, her youngest son, Jason, her daughter Tara and son-in-law Ben Farrell, and her daughter Megan and son-in-law Adam Morgan.

Shelly shares about her book here:

My family and I have listened to the Hamilton’s Majesty Music and Patch the Pirate recordings for decades. I knew some of the family’s story, particularly Ron’s testimony of trusting God through losing his eye to cancer. I didn’t know Jonathan’s troubles until his suicide. I am grateful Shelly was willing to be transparent in order to help and give hope to others. This book is a good resource for those suffering from mental illness and their families and those who want to be a help to them. It’s also a testimony of faith, of God’s grace and help through the hardest circumstances.

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

Jesus Led Me All the Way

I’ve mentioned before that Margaret Stringer is one of my favorite people. She was a missionary in Indonesia for forty years among former headhunters and cannibals. Though she had a variety of ministries among the people, one of her main jobs was reducing their language to writing, translating the New Testament into their language, and then teaching the people how to read.

The church we attended in SC supported Margaret. When she “retired,” she lived close enough to the church that she was available to come speak to the ladies’ group several times. She could have us laughing til we were in tears telling us about incidents that would have been quite scary when they happened to her.

Jesus Led Me All the Way is her second book about her time in Indonesia, the first being From Cannibalism to Christianity.

Margaret tells how from a very early age, she was sure God had called her to be a missionary. She had a hard time getting the first visa she needed, and it seemed like everyone brought up to her how Paul wanted to go to Macedonia in Acts, but God wouldn’t let him. Margaret wanted God’s will, whether that was Indonesia or somewhere else. But the delays and obstacles just made her more sure that Indonesia was where God wanted her. Later on the field, she was grateful for the hard time she had getting there because of the assurance it gave her that she was in God’s will.

She tells of her arrival on the field, early missionary life, learning the customs and language, getting adjusted to jungle food (like grub worms). She talks about how important it is to understand the world view of the people you’re trying to witness to.

It took a lot of patience to teach people who had not been taught before or hire helpers to learn the language when they had not had paying jobs before. If they wanted to go fishing instead of come to “work,” they did.

One chapter is on “People I Can’t Forget,” most of whom became part of the church there. It took much time and patience and prayer and overcoming many mistakes, but what a joy to see God open people’s eyes to His truth at last.

Margaret includes here one of my favorites of her stories. Once she was in an area where no house or huts were available, so she stayed in a small metal building with open windows (screens but no glass). Once when a terrible storm hit, rain blew in, destroying about 90% of her handwritten translation work. As she tried to salvage what she could and mop up the rest, she felt discouraged. She “fussed” with the Lord about dropping her down in the jungle and leaving her all alone. When she went to bed, something fell off the wall and hit her on the head. She felt like that was the last straw. She turned on her flashlight to see what had fallen. It was a plaque that said, “He cares for you.” She started laughing and said, “OK, Lord, I get it. Thank you.” She comments, “For some people, God speaks in a still small voice. Others of us, however, He conks on the head” (p. 125).

Margaret tells of difficulties in the translation work. She had to consider not just getting the words into Citak, but making them understood in their culture. For instance, they did not have a word for sister or brother—their words were older sister, younger sister, older brother, younger brother. That took some thought when dealing with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. All of their verbs incorporated time of day, so that had to be considered when translating narratives. The suffix “na” at the end of a sentence indicated the information was heard from someone else rather than witnessed directly. In Luke 11:11, when Jesus asks whether a father would give a serpent to his child when asked for a fish, they said, “Of course.” “The Citak people love to eat snake, and a good-sized python has much more meat on it than the average fish, so who wouldn’t want a snake instead of a fish?” (p. 205). they had to find a different word for a poisonous snake that conveyed the idea of the passage, that “no good father would give his son a poisonous snake when he asked for a fish.”

The Citak people had a big celebration day with invited guests, including dignitaries, when they handed out the completed New Testaments. One of Margaret’s greatest joys was seeing the Citak people’s joy at having the Word of God for themselves and their ability to read and understand it. But one of her greatest sorrows was when people from other villages with different dialects wanted the Bible in their language, too. She knew that it would take more time than she had left on the field to translate the NT for all the people there that needed it.

Margaret writes that the people “went from naked cannibals, without the Bible or ability to read, to 23 churches, and having the New Testament in their language. The journey was sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, sometimes discouraging, sometimes dangerous, but always rewarding” (p. xvii). I’m thankful she shared glimpses of that journey with us.

A Book About Death and Dying That Is Not Morbid

Why would anyone read a book on dying if death is not imminent for oneself or loved ones?

Well, in my case, I saw a few quotes that I liked from O Love That Will not Let Me Go: Facing Death with Courageous Confidence, complied by Nancy Guthrie, in Aging with Grace. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Nancy’s other compilations (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus about Christmas and Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross about Good Friday and Easter). I had not known about this one, but when I did, I wanted to get it, too.

And then, I’ve always dreaded death, even as a Christian. I knew heaven was something to look forward to, with the presence of Jesus and the absence of sin, sickness, sorrow, and crying. I assumed that God would give me grace to die when the time came, and I just tried not to think about it much. So I thought this book might provide some help in that regard.

As with Nancy’s other compilations, this book is made up of excerpts from the writings or sermons of Christians as far back as the Puritans and as modern as Joni Eareckson Tada, John Piper, and Randy Alcorn.

The book is divided into four parts:

  • A Reality That Will Not Be Denied
  • An Aim That Keeps Me Pressing On
  • A Hope That Saves Me From Despair
  • A Future That Will Not Disappoint

Ecclesiastes reminds 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. . . . The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (7:2, 4).

J. I Packer writes:

In every century until our own, Christians saw this life as preparation for eternity. Medievals, Puritans, and later evangelicals thought and wrote much about the art of dying well, and they urged that all of life should be seen as preparation for leaving it behind. This was not otiose morbidity, but realistic wisdom, since death really is the one certain fact of life. Acting the ostrich with regard to it is folly in the highest degree (pp. 15-16).

John Owen says in “Hope Is a Glorious Grace” that we’re like travelers. Some are so busy about other things, they don’t give much thought to the place they are going. Others learn as much as they can about their destination so that they are better prepared and know what they are looking forward to through the discomforts of the journey.

Thomas Boston says, “The less you think on death, the thoughts of it will be the more frightful– make it familiar to you by frequent meditations upon it, and you may thereby quiet your fears. Look at the white and bright side of the cloud– take faith’s view of the city that has foundations; so shall you see hope in your death. Be duly affected with the body of sin and death, the frequent interruptions of your communion with God, and with the glory which dwells on the other side of death– this will contribute much to remove slavish fear” (p. 115).

Several themes came up in many of the selections: Jesus has taken away the sting of death by His own death for us and His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:53-56). Death is “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), but it is a defeated enemy. This world is our temporary home: we’re just strangers and pilgrims here (1 Peter 2:11). God is preparing us for “a better country, that is, a heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16). God will accompany us through the pangs of death and usher us into His presence. Keeping this end in mind should affect how we live here.

One of the best chapters is “Comfort against Fears in the Dying Hour” by Thomas Boston. It’s excerpted from a longer sermon here. The part in this book starts near the end where he talks about different “cases” and gives help for them—fear of leaving loved ones and friends behind, of the sad state of one’s spiritual condition, of dying too soon, of pain or losing one’s senses at the end

I have multitudes of quotes marked, much more that I can share here. But I’ll try to leave you with some I found most helpful.

Death’s sting has been removed, but its bite remains. It does not have the last word for believers, but it remains the believer’s antagonist until the resurrection of the body. The good news is never that one has died, but that death has ultimately been conquered by the Lord of Life (Michael Horton, pp. 23-24).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). You become like what you choose to behold. Behold Christ, you become Christlike. Gaze upon superficiality and immorality, and it’s equally predictable what you’ll become. Who you become will be the cumulative result of the daily choices you make (Randy Alcorn, pp. 55-56).

Our witness for Jesus is frequently manifested in our absolute weakest moments rather than when we are at full strength (John Eaves, p. 71).

We forget that throughout biblical history, trials, hardship, and death are equally a part of our witness to an unbelieving world as are healing and deliverance and divine blessing (John Eaves, p. 73).

In sickness the soul begins to dress herself for immortality. . . The soul, by the help of sickness, knocks off the fetters of pride and vainer complacencies (Jeremy Taylor, p. 79).

Richard Baxter says God uses sickness “to wean us from the world, and make us willing to be gone” (p. 97).

What more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable (Martin Luther, p. 108).

You say that you cannot abide the thought of death. Then you greatly need it. Your shrinking from it proves that you are not in a right state of mind, or else you would take it into due consideration without reluctance (C. H. Spurgeon, p. 148).

O Lord, when the hour comes for me to go to bed, I know that thou wilt take me there, and speak lovingly into my ear; therefore I cannot fear, but will even look forward to that hour of thy manifested love. You had not thought of that, had you? You have been afraid of death: but you cannot be so any longer if your Lord will bring you there in his arms of love. Dismiss all fear, and calmly proceed on your way, though the shades thicken around you; for the Lord is thy light and thy salvation (C. H. Spurgeon, p. 152).

I appreciated that a couple of writers put words to something I had not been able to express: dread of the “strangeness to the other world” (Owen, p. 100). It’s always a little nerve-racking to go to a new place, but it seems silly to feel that way about heaven. But I’m glad I am not the first person who has. Thomas Boston reminds, “Your best friend is Lord of that other world” (p. 113).

This book was a great blessing to me many mornings as I read it. I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future. I heartily recommend it.

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