Book Review: Write Better

In every writer’s conference, writer’s blog, or book about writing I have encountered, writers are told to continually improve their craft. Wherever we are on our writing journey, we need reminders, encouragement, and instruction. We can too easily grow complacent. Plus, changes in what’s acceptable can occur so quickly, we need to keep on top of current trends.

At the last writer’s conference I attended virtually, one industry professional said she read a book about writing or speaking every month. I thought I was doing good to read one a year!

Last year, several people recommended Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. Le Peau. Blogger and author Tim Challies said, “It is every bit the book many Christians need as they consider writing, and every bit the book many Christian writers need as they attempt to grow in their skill.” Literary agent Steve Laube called it the “book of the summer” of 2020.

Mr. Le Peau worked for InterVarsity Press for over forty years, spending much of that time as the associate publisher for editorial. He’s also written several books and Bible studies. So he knows what he’s talking about.

He also writes from and for a distinctly Christian point of view.

Le Peau divides his book into three parts: Craft, Art, and Spirituality.

Craft deals with the “nuts and bolts” of writing: creating good openings, endings, and titles, the craft and character of persuasion, narrative nonfiction, etc.

Art goes into creativity, tone, metaphor, restraint, and more.

Spirituality discusses calling, voice, authority, courage, and stewardship.

Several appendices cover platform, editors, coauthoring, self-publishing, and copyright.

I agree with the high praise that others have given this book. Le Peau not only writes well and has heaps of experience: he reads extensively and gives multitudes of examples of what he’s teaching. He writes professionally but without lapsing into academese.

I have many more places marked than I can share, but I wanted to note a few points that especially stood out to me.

After observing that “persuasion is part of almost every piece of nonfiction” (p. 37), Le Peau encourages writers to be honest persuaders.

If we want to be honest persuaders, we will be on the lookout for and stay away from hasty generalizations, false analogies, demonizing opponents, avoiding or sidelining the central issue (that is, using red herrings), and more. Honesty means respecting the truth as best we can know it, respecting contrary viewpoints, giving due credit, and using logic (p. 44).

He points out that “presenting the arguments for these other viewpoints in as strong a form as possible” (p. 55) is not only honest, but doing so actually strengthens our own arguments and the solutions we offer.

Even though this book primarily covers nonfiction, Le Peau encourages using stories. Stories pull us in and touch the heart. Stories “are bound to stick with us long after the information has been forgotten” (p. 60).

His chapter on creativity helped diffuse some of its mystery: “Essentially, creativity isn’t concocting something entirely unprecedented. Rather it is bringing together two things that have been around for a while but previously hadn’t been combined. Innovation almost always involves building on the past” (p. 117).

A few other quotes:

Grammar has one—and only one—purpose: to facilitate clear, effective, powerful, artful communication (p. 129).

Metaphors, similes, and analogies sharpen the sword of our writing. They allow us to cut quickly through the fat to the meat of our purpose (p. 146).

When we are too focused on readers getting our point, we can become didactic and perhaps preachy, engaging only one dimension—perhaps just the mind or just the will. Art engages the whole person—will, heart, soul, mind, and strength (p. 158).

Regardless of what we are writing, however, we must treat our readers with dignity. Don’t announce that you are going to tell a funny joke or story. Give readers the dignity of deciding for themselves if it is humorous. Besides, doing so makes it less funny because you have given away the element of surprise. Don’t say a story will be sad or happy or startling. That inoculates the reader against sadness or happiness or shock. Just tell the story (p. 159).

The goal of writers is not complete originality but to take the past and give it a shake, a fresh look that helps us see  reality differently and better (p. 185).

Criticism is not just something to be endured. It is something to help us grow and improve (p. 214),

Though all the book is valuable, perhaps the most valuable part of it is the last section on spirituality, having the right perspective whether in success or failure, remembering we’re stewards of God’s truth and the talents He gave us. “Remember, my identity is in Christ. I am not defined by what I write. I am not defined by the praise or criticism or sales of my book or the number of hits on my blog. My identity is in Christ, who loves me with an everlasting love, who made me, who put the urge to write in me, and who helped me get it out” (p. 225).

I wish I could read a book like this and keep all of its information readily accessible in my mind. Since I haven’t figured out how to do that, I should plan to reread this one every year. Highly recommended.

You can read more from Mr. Le Peau at his blog, Andy Unedited.

(Sharing with Carol’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Devotedly, The Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot

If you’ve read here long, you know Elisabeth Elliot is a heroine of mine, a mentor from afar.

If you’re not familiar with Elisabeth, her husband and four of his colleagues were killed by a tribe they were trying to reach in the Ecuadorian jungle in 1956. She told the men’s stories in Through Gates of Splendor. Then, a few years later, she and her young daughter and the sister of one of the men went to live with the tribe in the jungle. A few years later, Elisabeth brought her daughter back to the US and became an author and speaker.

Jim and Elisabeth’s love story is unusual because they both thought God was going to send them to the mission field single. Jim was Elisabeth’s brother’s roommate in college and spent one Christmas vacation at their home. Then they had several classes together and began to study together.

They were different in personality. Jim was outgoing and spoke freely and easily (a little too freely sometimes). “The same bold, aggressive temperament that served him well as a daring disciple of Christ could sometimes come across as harsh and abrupt, even meddling, especially when dealing with a woman” (p. 258). Elisabeth was intellectual and reserved. But they thought alike on many subjects and began to find themselves drawn to each other.

Elisabeth seemed willing to take this development as from the Lord much sooner than Jim was. He had taken to heart Matthew 19:12 about some making themselves “eunuchs” for the kingdom of God (remaining single, unattached) and 1 Corinthians 7 about people being better able to serve God without distraction if they are single. He had given other guys in college a hard time about dating. He knew God was calling him to a pioneering field which would include rough living conditions. He didn’t feel he could ask a wife into that situation.

On top of everything else, he wrestled in his journal with the thought that if he loved a woman, it would mean that Jesus wasn’t enough for him. Somehow he missed that God Himself said “It is not good for man to be alone” when He created woman.

But for him, the thought of being romantically involved was a complete paradigm shift. It wasn’t something he could change his mind about in a short time. Plus, as they both graduated from college, each was not sure where God would have them. They worked at different jobs and helped in different ministries until they both felt led to go to Ecuador.

Elisabeth had told their love story in Passion and Purity and used it as a springboard to talk with young people about dating issues. She gave her letters and journals to her daughter, Valerie, to go through “when she had time.”

As a mother of eight, Valerie only recently had time. After reading the letters and journals and rereading her mother’s books, she felt she needed to share her parents’ love story. There was too much to copy entirely, so Lifeway helped her decide what to share. The result is Devotedly, The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.

Valerie tells the story, interspersing the narrative with excerpts from her parents’ letters and journals. At times she adds a word of explanation, a little further insight, her thoughts on different points, or how her parents influenced her own story.

We’re so used to hearing the mature Elisabeth, who did most of her writing and speaking after decades of walking with the Lord. It’s interesting to read her young adult thoughts.

They spent a great deal of their relationship apart, so they got to know each other through letters. They went through the same difficulties as everyone else, with one person taking something the wrong way, the other having to explain, etc. They had no problem taking each other to task when they disagreed, but they did it as kindly as they could.

But mostly they encouraged each other to draw close to God and be and do all He wanted them to.

When they struggled with whether they should even be corresponding, they concluded that “what they shared together, even knowing the possibility they would spend their lifetimes apart, was more than worth it” (p. 42).

Valerie says they handled their love “with extraordinary sacredness” and “modeled—not perfectly, but persistently—the way God intends us to handle love, steward it, and keep it continually under His guidance” (pp. xiv-xv).

It’s interesting (and fun) to note the change in Jim’s writing from wrestling to acceptance that his love for Elisabeth was from God. He found that these two loves enriched each other rather than detracting from each other.

A few other thoughts that stood out to me:

Valerie noted that In the earliest pages of her mother’s journals, the words “though punctuated, of course, with the typical cares and crises of any young woman’s life—would never shift from this due-north orientation. God was first; God was supreme; God was all” (p. 1).

I thought this principle was a good one: comparing Christian life to a railroad, Jim wrote about decisions, “A block signal—a crisis—is lighted only where there is a special need. I may not always be in sight of a ‘go’ light, but sticking to the tracks will take me where the next one is” (p. 109).

Though we consider both Elliots stalwart examples of faith today, they each had their discouragements. Valerie wrote, “When you hear my mother at twenty-two saying she feels ‘useless’ and ‘fearful’ and ‘ashamed,’ recall what she went on to become in life by God’s grace and power. Think what our Father is capable of doing, encouraging you to press into Him, as she did, for His glory” (p. 66). As Elisabeth “grew older in Christ,” she realized she enjoyed “having the floor” and saw her tendency to want to “have the last word” and “straighten people out.” “She could be cut to the quick at times by her own insensitivity towards others who were speaking to her, and she wanted to become more gracious to those who didn’t have their words or facts straight” (p. 104).

Elisabeth had a nice singing voice and was often asked to sing in meetings. She wrote:

Oh, sometimes I wonder if I should not abstain from singing altogether until I know that Christ is my motive. Truly I do desire that my voice, as well as my life and will, be wholly given to His praise. But the flesh is ever with me—it manifests itself in the most singular forms sometimes. I discover that self-effacement, springing wholly from selfish motives, taints my very highest aspirations to act of God’s glory. So I am driven once again out of myself, for I am all unprofitable. . . I am but a branch, and without Thee can do nothing (pp. 138-139)

In Becoming Elisabeth Elliot, Ellen Vaughn mentions almost in passing an article someone had written proposing that perhaps Jim’s strong friendships with other men, his aversion to marriage, and his long wrestling over his relationship with Elisabeth meant that perhaps he was really homosexual at heart. One can’t read much of his writing without rendering such a possibility ridiculous. He wrote often of struggling against lustful thoughts, even more so the closer they got to their wedding. After one such entry, Valerie noted, “Let’s not pretend that my father was above the temptation. Yet, in response to it, he did what all godly men (and women) must do when accosted by strong, unholy thoughts. He called them out, considered it war, and made impassioned pleas that God would be his strength to endure” (p. 164). Even before, his teenage relationship with girls “warned me that my affections go out very easily and are jealously tenacious. Recognizing this fact, that I would lose my heart at every turn if I didn’t discipline myself carefully, I withdrew from dating and even close associations with girls whom I knew attracted me, or to whom I was somehow attractive” (p. 53).

Jim also wrestled with feeling inferior to Elisabeth and feeling “I can never be all she ought to have in a husband” (p. 192).

So we see that neither of them was perfect. That’s an encouragement to me, because I’m not, either. I wrestle with some of the same things they did. Sanctification is a lifelong process. But God’s grace is available every step of the way.

We miss a lot by not writing letters today. These letters are not only deeply spiritual, but they’re often poetic and literary as well. I’d love to include some of the more lyrical entries, but this is too long already.

Some years ago a philosophy started going around Christendom that God did not have a specific will for people regarding life work, location, spouse, etc.; He left it up to individuals to do what they wanted. That never set well with me, for too many reasons to go into here. But I saw anew one reason through these letters and journals: the sanctifying affect that waiting for and trying to discern the will of God could have. Near the end of the book, Valerie records her father’s words: “I have sought slowly the will of God, and the slowness has brought strength into the conviction of it, and joy in the realization of it” (p. 233).

Jim wrote, “The Lord has a certain slow dignity about His movings which constantly shames my fretting unbelief” (p. 163).

It touched my heart that they chose for their wedding verse Isaiah 25:9: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him.”

Valerie shares that “If I could express my one hope for compiling this book, my prayer is that these entries of theirs would call us to search faithfully for God in His Word. And upon discovering His unchanging, faithful, merciful, and loving character, I pray we would be more fully moved in obedience to Him that we too might leave a lasting legacy of faith as my parents did” (p. 45).

The Elliots’ writing does encourage me in my walk with God and continues to spur me on to seek Him in His Word and find and do His will.

(By the way, last year, Revive Our Hearts did a series of interviews with Valerie about her parents’ story and writing the book here. I enjoyed listening to them then, and they have the transcripts up now.)

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, Hearth and Soul, Senior Salon,
InstaEncouragements,Carol’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Fear and Faith

I was telling a friend recently that I wished we could pray and study the Bible on certain issues like anxiety or anger or being more loving and then have them settled for all time. But some of these issues seem to require a regular (sometimes daily) dose of truth. Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves by Trillia J. Newbell is another dose of truth for me.

I was not familiar with Trillia until someone I knew on Twitter kept retweeting her posts. I always liked what she had to say, so I started following her myself. I don’t remember if I discovered this book or had it recommended, but when I saw Trillia’s name, I got it. But then, it’s been sitting on my shelf for a while. I enjoyed her God’s Very Good Idea, a book for children about God’s design for different races and types of people. And then I finally picked up Fear and Faith, going through a chapter on recent Saturday mornings.

Trillia confesses she is one who “struggles with fears regularly and is fighting for faith . . . who firmly believe God is in control and yet still struggles with fear” (pp. 13-14). Exactly! I know God is in control, powerful, wise, loving, and kind. Yet fears and anxieties still come unbidden. Trillia reminds us that we’re not perfect yet, but we’re in a state of continual growth.

Trillia mentions control in almost every chapter. And it’s true, we’re less anxious in situations where we have control and we know what’s coming (or think we do).

The very thing we are holding onto (control) is, ironically, the thing we most need to let go of. As you and I come to understand that our God isn’t ruling as a tyrant but is lovingly guiding and instructing as a Father, we can loosen the tight grip on our lives that produces the bad fruit of fear. This isn’t “Let go and let God.” It’s “Let go, run hard toward your Savior, and learn to trust God” (pp. 16-17).

Trillia spends a chapter each on different kinds of fear: fear of man, fear of the future, fear of tragedy, of not measuring up, of other women, etc. She spends one chapter on “Why We Can Trust God” and another on “The Fear of the Lord”—the right kind of fear we’re supposed to have. One later chapter discusses “When Your Fears Come True”—when God allows the thing we feared or worse.

During our storms, you and I have the same God with us that the disciples had with them; we can trust that He is in the boat. He may or may not calm the storm immediately—we may have to endure great suffering—but He will not leave us (p. 141).

Trillia grounds everything she says on God’s Word. She shares from her experience and that of other women. Her writing is easily readable and relatable.

This is a good resource if you, like me, need regular doses of truth to combat anxiety and fear.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent, Senior Salon)

Book Review: Don’t Overthink It

Many life decisions require a time of waiting and serious thought. But some of us get stuck giving too much thought to things that don’t really matter. I can’t tell you how many times I have hovered between punching in 45 or 50 seconds on the microwave before finally entering 47.

Anne wrote Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life to help fellow overthinkers combat “analysis paralysis” and “decision fatigue.”

Overthinking also carries a significant opportunity cost. Mental energy is not a limitless resource. We only have so much to spend each day, and how we choose to spend it matters (p. 15).

I could identify with Anne Bogel’s opening illustration. She had to make a road trip, but a severe storm was predicted to come across her route. Her two main options were to leave at the appointed time and hope she was okay driving through the storm, or leave several hours earlier and miss some family activities as well as the storm. Instead of coming to a decision, she kept refreshing the weather page on her computer.

One of the biggest takeaways from the book that helped me was the realization that sometimes there is no one right perfect answer. Anne realized that in her travel decision mentioned above: she wasn’t going to be entirely happy with either option. That took some of the pressure off, and she used other factors to arrive at a decision.

I went through this a few years ago when I needed a new bedspread. I found two that I liked—unusual for me, because my favorite colors haven’t been trendy in home decorating for a number of years. I loved the fabric pattern in both. One was a little busy: a faux quilt with fabric squares in no particular order. The other was a little too plain: mostly white with a design made out of a floral fabric strip. I spent weeks (maybe months?) dropping in the two different stores to look at my choices and coming away empty-handed. I finally bought the patchwork one, put it on my bed—and immediately wished I had bought the other one. Then I realized I would have had the same reaction with whichever one I bought because neither was 100% perfect. (I did come to enjoy the bedspread I bought. But I think realizing that neither choice was perfect freed me to like the one I got instead of pining away for the other. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good,” p. 43)

Some of the other strategies Anne discusses are starting small, approaching change with the belief that it’s possible, examining the causes of analysis paralysis, letting go of perfectionism, letting values inform decisions, creating routines to eliminate everyday decisions, not beating yourself up over mistakes, but learning from them and moving on, building in margins for the unexpected, adopting a “try and see” approach rather than a pass/fail one, and so much more.

The last resonated with me. Anne described a yearly trip her family took in which they squeezed all the driving into one day to get it over with and have more time at their destination. For years they discussed the pros and cons of breaking the trip into two days. Finally one year they decided to just try it and see how it worked out. It was an experiment: it wouldn’t ruin their vacation. If they didn’t like it, they could go back to their one-day drive next time. That takes the pressure off.

Another tip that stood out to me: “complete the cycle,” or, basically, finish what you start. Putting things where they belong, filing the paperwork while you have it in your hand, etc. “When we promptly complete our cycles, we get to bypass all kinds of avoidable last-minute emergencies” (p. 69).

Here are a few of the many quotes I highlighted:

When seeking a solution, highly intelligent people may see whole landscapes of possibilities that others don’t see—which may inadvertently lead them to make simple decisions needlessly complex. These positive traits have an unintended consequence: they make us prone to analysis paralysis because they prod us to search for additional options, whether or not we need them. Those extra options don’t lead to better decisions; they just overwhelm us. And when we’re overwhelmed, we can’t decide anything (p. 38).

When we put off doing something we don’t want to do, we keep the unpleasant thing right in front of us for much longer than we need to. As long as we’re contemplating the issue, we’re dwelling on the negative. If we’re dreading something, we can serve ourselves well by dealing with it sooner rather than later. If we’re overthinking something we can actually do something about, the best thing we can do is speed up to move on. Take action as quickly as possible (p. 88).

It’s a mistake to give all your thoughts equal weight. Some thoughts don’t deserve to be taken seriously, so don’t dignify them with a response (p. 105).

The book is divided into three parts with questions at the end of each chapter. Linda led a discussion of each part which really enhanced our reading. (Part 1 is here, 2 is here, 3 is here.) Thank you, Linda!

I appreciated that Anne’s tips were both practical and flexible. I think this book is a good resource for anyone prone to overthink.

(I’m counting this book for the Self-Help category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.)

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Nonfiction Reader Challenge Wrap-Up

Shelly Rae at Book’d Out hosts the Nonfiction Reading Challenge . The idea is to read nonfiction books in the categories she has chosen and choose a level to aim for.

I do read several nonfiction books a year as it is. But I only aimed for the Nonfiction Nibbler (6 books), since I wasn’t interested in all the categories for the next level.

As it turned out, I read 10 books that fit the categories, and several more besides.Here are my choices for this year’s categories, with links back to my reviews:

  1. Memoir:Panosian: A Story of God’s Gracious Providence by Chris Anderson
  2. Disaster Event: Green Leaf in Drought by Isobel Kuhn
  3. Social Science: Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam
  4. Related to an Occupation:  True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal—and How Nearly Dying Saved my Life, by Kevin Sorbo
  5. History:The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan
  6. Feminism:The Wonder Years: 40 Women over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength, a collection of essays compiled by Leslie Leyland Fields (This is more about femininity that feminism, but I think it fits.)
  7. Psychology: Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises by Dr. Michelle Bengston
  8. Medical Issue:7 Steps to Get Off Sugar and Carbohydrates by Susan Neal
  9. Nature:
  10. True Crime:
  11. Science: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  12. Published in 2020: The Answer Is…by Alex Trebek

Because I like to have these all listed in one place, other nonfiction I’ve read this year is:

  1. Be Amazed (Minor Prophets): Restoring an Attitude of Wonder and Worship by Warren W. Wiersbe
  2. Be Authentic (Genesis 25-50): Exhibiting Real Faith in the Real World by Warren Wiersbe
  3. Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word by Warren Wiersbe
  4. Be Concerned (Minor Prophets): Making a Difference in Your Lifetime by Warren Wiersbe
  5. Be Free (Galatians): Exchange Legalism for True Spirituality by Warren Wiersbe
  6. Be Obedient (Genesis 12-25): Learning the Secret of Living by Faith by Warren Wiersbe
  7. Be Resolute( Daniel): Determining to Go God’s Direction by Warren Wiersbe
  8. Be Reverent (Ezekiel): Bowing Before Our Awesome God by Warren Wiersbe
  9. Be Rich (Ephesians): Gaining the Things That Money Can’t Buy by Warren Wiersbe
  10. Be Victorious (Revelation): In Christ You Are an Overcomer by Warren Wiersbe
  11. Bedside Blessings by Charles Swindoll (not reviewed yet)
  12. Christian Study Guide for 7 Steps to Get Off Sugar and Carbohydrates.by Susan Neal
  13. A Christmas Longing by Joni Eareckson Tada
  14. Daily Light on the Daily Path compiled by Samuel Bagster
  15. God’s Very Good Idea by Trillia Newbell (children’s book about diversity)
  16. Good Tidings of Great Joy: A Collection of Christmas Sermons by Charles Spurgeon
  17. In His Image: 10 Ways God Calls Us to Reflect His Character by Jen Wilkin
  18. Joy to the World: Daily Readings for Advent by Charles Spurgeon
  19. Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season by Alexandra Kuykendall
  20. None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing) by Jen Wilkin
  21. The Women of Easter: Encounter the Savior with Mary of Bethany, Mary of Nazareth, and Mary Magdalene by Liz Curtis Higgs

I had hoped to finish Write Better by Andrew T. Le Peau and The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion by Annette Whipple, but didn’t. Hopefully I will early this year.

Though I gravitate to fiction, I enjoy and benefit from nonfiction. If you’re interested in next year’s challenge, information for it is here.

Book Review: Loving My Actual Christmas

Though we love Christmas time, its busyness stresses us out. Calendars are full anyway, and then we add gatherings, programs, extra shopping and food preparation, wrapping, decorating, and various traditions.

Alexandra Kuykendall tried an “experiment in relishing the season,” as her subtitle says. Instead of an idealistic or nostalgic or “perfect” Christmas, she wanted to create a realistic Christmas that didn’t leave her exhausted and frustrated when it was over. She lets us in on the experiment in her book, Loving My Actual Christmas. Though she includes ideas and tips, “it’s more for your spirit to absorb the message of the holiday among the lights and gifts.”

She chose the four weeks and themes of advent to guide her. She wanted not just to “do better” organizationally, but to implement, foster, and be guided by hope, love, joy and peace.

Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping, and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don’t want to resent this actual Christmas, I want to love it.

For each week of Advent, she wrote down her approach, the Scriptures she read, a daily recording of what happened that week, a summary of what she learned, a list of what practices she’ll continue, and questions for reflection.

One of the first things she did was consult with her family about their desires. Expectation can make the holiday sweet and exciting but also set oneself up for a letdown. So they discussed the different programs, traditions, etc., to see what was most important to everyone and what, if anything, could be left out for sanity’s sake.

Here are some of the quotes I highlighted:

Circumstances may not be what we want, but we can step over the “whens” and “if onlys” to notice God’s gifts right in our midst.

“And heaven and nature sing.” Because he rules the world, all of his creation rejoices. That’s it. It doesn’t say heaven and nature sing when the Christmas card is beautiful and perfectly photoshopped, but because he rules the world. That’s it then. Joy does really come back to Jesus.

My people don’t need the perfect Christmas, but a present mother, daughter, wife, friend.

Christmas isn’t a race that ends on the 25th with recovery after, but a true season of relishing.

Jesus didn’t come to earth in order that we might overspend every December and have terrible arguments about the holiday bills. He came that we might have life. Let’s figure out what we can afford and live within those parameters.

You don’t want to end the party season depleted by executing the details, but energized by the relationships that are strengthened by a shared time together.

There are no awards shows for Christmas party throwing. No prizes for “Best Able to Pull It Off Alone.” Ask guests to bring food or help with decorations, invitations, setting up, or cleaning up.

There was one place that made me wince a bit. In discussing the circumstances of the first Christmas and Mary’s quiet pondering mentioned in Luke 2:19, the author writes, “Here Mary has just given birth to God . . .” I know what she meant. Jesus was (is) God in flesh. He didn’t originate in this birth: He existed eternally. And He is part of the Godhead, along with the Father and Spirit. The author would agree with all this, so she’s not saying God had His beginning here. She’s just pointing out the wonder of a young woman giving birth to the Messiah in such a setting. But the way it was phrased was a little uncomfortable to me.

Most of us have to do some mental adjusting about the holidays by the time we’ve had many Christmases as adults. We have to continually reminds ourselves what the season is actually supposed to be about and adjust our perspective. I found the author’s thoughts and tips very practical and helpful.

(Sharing with Grace and Truth, InstaEncouragement,
Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Be Authentic

Be Authentic (Genesis 25-50): Exhibiting Real Faith in the Real World closes Warren Wiersbe’s trilogy of commentaries on the book of Genesis.

These chapters in Genesis focus primarily on Jacob and his sons, especially Joseph.

Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were very different personalities. They struggled with each other even in the womb (Genesis 25:22-23), and their parents’ favoritism only fueled the fire.

God had chosen the younger Jacob to be in the line of the family He would use to bless the world rather than Esau, the older. But Jacob and his mother, Rebekah, used that information to manipulate circumstances rather than trusting God to accomplish what He had proclaimed. That brought Jacob’s conflict with Esau to a head, resulting in Jacob fleeing to his mother’s relatives.

There he fell in love and got a taste of his own scheming medicine. The next twenty years were hard, but they helped develop his character. “Little by little, Jacob was learning to submit to God’s loving hand of discipline and was growing in faith and character.”

He had twelve sons, but favored Joseph. Jacob seemed not to have learned about the dangers of parental favoritism from his own situation. “The man who had grown up in a divided an competitive home (25:28) would himself create a divided and competitive family.” Joseph’s brothers, in jealousy and hatred, sold him into slavery, took his special coat that his father had made for him, spread animal’s blood over it, then let Jacob conclude that Joseph was dead.

Though a slave, Joseph seemed to have a talent for administration. But even his master saw that “The LORD was with him, and the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3). Joseph rose to prominence until he became second only to his master. But then he was lied about and sent to prison. He rose to prominence there as well, and aided two of Pharaoh’s servants. But the one who was restored to his portion forgot Joseph—until Pharaoh had a dream that troubled him, and the servant remembered Joseph had helped him with his dream. So Joseph was called for, interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, gave him sound advice, and once again rose to prominence as the second in the land.

And then one day his brothers showed up in Egypt. But they didn’t recognize him. These chapters are some of the most dramatic in the Bible, keeping me in anticipation even though I have read them before and knew how the story would turn out.

Wiesrbe’s title for this commentary comes from his conclusion that, “In short, they were authentic, real, believable, down-to-earth people. Flawed? Of course! Occasionally bad examples? Certainly! Blessed of God? Abundantly.” These people are an encouragement that God works with and accomplishes His will through flawed individuals.

There were many helpful and instructive things to observe in these chapters. I was blessed to see the changes in some people—Jacob over time, and his son, Judah, especially. But a few things in Joseph’s story particularly stood out to me this time. Because Joseph so often comes out on top even when he’s thrown into dire circumstances, I think we sometimes downplay his suffering. But when he named his sons in reference to his afflictions, it really spoke to my heart:

Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:51-52).

Wiersbe pointed out that Joseph could have become bitter, but instead he maintained his faith in God and kept a tender heart, showing compassion towards others. “Joseph’s sensitive heart was a miracle of God’s grace. For years dead Egyptian idols and the futile worship given to them had surrounded Joseph, yet he had maintained his faith in God and a heart tender toward his own people. He could have hardened his heart by nursing grudges, but he preferred to forgive and leave the past with God (41: 50–52).”

Then, as often as I have pored over the Scriptures about suffering and reconciled myself to the fact that it’s a tool God uses in wisdom and love, I find myself still asking “Why?” sometimes. I wondered why Joseph had to go through all he did when he was one of the “good guys.” But Wiesrbe pointed out that if Joseph had remained at home as the favored son, he might have grown up into a very different kind of person.

A few more quotes from the book:

Being a victorious Christian doesn’t mean escaping the difficulties of life and enjoying only carefree days. Rather, it means walking with God by faith, knowing that He is with us and trusting Him to help us for our good and His glory no matter what difficulties He permits to come our way. The maturing Christian doesn’t pray, “How can I get out of this?” but “What can I get out of this?”

In the life of a trusting Christian, there are no accidents, only appointments.

When God wants to move us, He occasionally makes us uncomfortable and “stirs up the nest” (Deut. 32:11 NIV).

A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a good ending. That’s one of the repeated lessons taught in Scripture, and it’s tragically confirmed in the lives of people like Lot, Gideon, Samson, King Saul, King Solomon, Demas, and a host of others. Let’s add Isaac to that list.

If we obey the Lord only for what we get out of it, and not because He is worthy of our love and obedience, then our hearts and motives are wrong.

With all their weaknesses and faults, the sons of Jacob will carry on the work of God on earth and fulfill the covenant promises God made to Abraham.

Years later, Jacob would lament, “All these things are against me” (v. 36), when actually all these things were working for him (Rom. 8:28).

God’s delays are not God’s denials.

Too many Christian believers today think that God can use only His own people in places of authority, but He can work His will even through unbelieving leaders like Pharaoh, Cyrus (Ezra 1: 1ff.; Isa. 44: 28), Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 25: 9; 27: 6), and Augustus Caesar (Luke 2: 1ff.). 

The only people God can forgive are those who know they’re sinners, who admit it and confess that they can’t do anything to merit or earn God’s forgiveness. Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the tax collector in the tree (Luke 19: 1–10), or the thief on the cross (23: 39–43), all sinners have to admit their guilt, abandon their proud efforts to earn salvation, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord.

According to Hebrews 11:13–16, the patriarchs confessed that they were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” A vagabond has no home; a fugitive is running from home; a stranger is away from home; but a pilgrim is heading home. They had their eyes on the future, the glorious city that God was preparing for them, and they passed that heavenly vision along to their descendants.

One of the major differences between a church and a cult is that cults turn out cookie-cutter followers on an assembly line, while churches model a variety of individual saints on a potter’s wheel.

Martin Luther said it best: This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness; not health but healing; not being but becoming; not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified. (Edwald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says, vol. 1 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 234–35).

The book of Genesis provides for a rich study. I enjoyed Dr. Wiersbe’s aid on this trek through the book.

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Book Review: True Strength

I don’t read many celebrity biographies or memoirs. But we had seen Kevin Sorbo in a couple of things, then noticed he starred in Christian-based movies the last several years (he portrayed the atheist professor in God’s Not Dead). And he seems to have become more outspoken about his Christian faith on Twitter and Facebook. I became interested in his story. So when I saw his book, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal—and How Nearly Dying Saved my Life, come out on a Kindle sale, I got it.

He grew up in Mound, Minnesota, with small-town values and a strong work ethic. He got some modeling jobs to help pay bills in college, then starting acting in commercials. Soon he got the starring role in three Hercules movies, which then transitioned to a TV series, becoming one of the top shows in its day.

Just as things were going well, Kevin noticed a lump on his shoulder. It turned out to be not cancer, but an aneurysm. A chiropractic maneuver released hundreds of blood clots in his arm and a few in his brain, triggering three mini-strokes. At first, the doctors’ main concern was saving his arm. But Kevin experienced a host of symptoms, from vision loss to lack of balance to buzzing and vibrating in his brain to headaches. The only treatment seemed to be physical therapy and time. Doctors called his health crisis “one in seventy-five million.”

Both because Kevin was a private person, plus he and the producers didn’t want his Hercules persona to be tarnished, the full extent of his condition was not made public. He filmed the rest of the series with minimum camera time, creative use of a body double, and plots that worked around his situation.

Kevin talks about faith in the book, but there’s no real conversion point or switchover. It’s more like he reached back for the faith he had been brought up with and started praying and relying on God to see him through. He rejected the “hellfire and eternal flames of misery on us sinners” that his childhood pastor preached. That in the Bible, but his pastor seems to have used it as a club to beat over people’s heads rather than an invitation. Kevin did believe in a “loving, forgiving God” and acknowledged that:

Before my illness I was fully preoccupied with the material side of life. Moving at the speed of light, I ignored the spiritual side, the unseen. God created this world, but I was determined to live in it to the fullest, to get the most out of it. I figured He would want that

Through his illness, he realized:

My illness made me special—in a way that I never wanted nor expected, yes, but if I was to be special, then I was going to do something with that gift. I wasn’t a half-god or any part god. I was a mere mortal, with human limitations and problems, but I was determined not to behave like a victim anymore.

His dear wife deserves an MVP award: they were engaged when Kevin’s illness struck, and she was his main support all through it.

There are some crude spots in the book, some sexual encounters (though not explicit), and a bit of bad language (though some of it is disguised comic strip-style with keyboard characters).

Even though our situations were very different, my experience with transverse myelitis helped me identify with-some of the neurological issues and the long recovery.

It was also interesting reading about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film industry.

I appreciate Kevin’s sharing his story and wish him and his family all the best.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a thirty-year-old black wife and mother was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Unbeknownst to her, the doctor took some of her healthy and cancerous cells for research purposes. This was routinely done before informed consent was common practice.

Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment (pp. 29-30).

Researchers were trying to grow cells in culture from their samples, but the samples all died. However, Henrietta’s cancerous cells continued to divide over and over under the right conditions. Eventually the cells were used to test Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine on a large scale. They were involved in cancer and AIDS research, experiments in space, cloning, genetic mapping, and much more. The cell line became known as HeLa, using the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names.

Henrietta died at age 31 after a horrific battle with cancer. Her family knew nothing about her cells being used in research nor about whole factories being built to house and reproduce her cells. Twenty years later, the HeLa cells were so strong that they easily contaminated other cell cultures. The family began getting calls from researchers who wanted samples of their blood in order to determine the genetic markers of HeLa. Naturally, Henrietta’s family members were confused, not understanding how some part of their mother was alive. When they learned there was a whole industry that sprang up around their mother’s cells, they wondered why they  weren’t getting any of the benefits. Many of them could not even afford health insurance.

Rebecca Skloot first heard Henrietta’s name in a college class, but not much more was said about her. Rebecca wondered about the woman behind the HeLa cells. Ten years of research resulted in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

There are several threads to the book. Part of it in Henrietta’s story: what’s known of her background, personality, family. Another thread is the development of the cell line, the scientists involved, the industry that sprang up. Yet another involves the ethics and arguments swirling about research, consent, and compensation. Another tells the story of Henrietta’s children and what became of them. And the final thread is the author’s journey to research the cells and to talk to the family who were, understandably, skittish about reporters by that time. Eventually, Rebecca became very close to Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

One of the most touching scenes in the book was when a scientist invited Henrietta’s two youngest children to a lab to see their mother’s cells. Deborah looked in wonder through the microscope and on the screen where the scientists enlarged the cells. She got to hold  vial of her mother’s cells and witness one of the cells on screen dividing.

In the history of cell culture development and cancer research, it was astonishing to read how some researchers would get caught up in the science and forget the human factor. One injected Henrietta’s cancerous cells into other patients without telling them to see if they “caught” cancer that way and to test how healthy and cancer patients fought off the cells differently. Guidelines had been set up after the Nazi experimentation during WWII, but the guidelines weren’t law then.

One patient caught on that something unusual was going on when his doctor kept calling him back for blood work even after the patient had moved away. He learned that his blood produced a unique protein, and the doctor was experimenting and hoping to patent a cell line. Unlike Henrietta, this man had the means to sue the doctor. The case went through several courts and appeals, but the patient finally lost. It was deemed that once your tissue leaves your body, it’s not yours any more. In an afterword, Rebecca said that there are storehouses for tissues and organs removed from patients. Most, I think, would not object to their cells and removed organs being used in study. But when money is being made off their parts, they naturally feel entitled to a portion of the proceeds. Rebecca’s afterword details the latest (at the time the book went to press in 2009) complicated considerations of the different sides of cell research, ownership, and profitability.

Objectionable elements: unfortunately, there are 4 instances of the “f” word and one graphic scene when Deborah, was being pursued by a cousin.

I had first heard of this book several years ago, but figured it would be too “science-y,” too much like a documentary. Then it came up on an audiobook sale, nicely read by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m glad Henrietta’s story was finally brought to light, and the medical and ethical discussions were detailed clearly.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: None Like Him

The subtitle of None Like Him by Jen Wilkin is 10 Ways God is Different From Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing).

God has some attributes that we’re supposed to emulate: kindness, love, compassion, etc. He possesses those characteristics in perfection. We never will this side of heaven, but we should be growing in them as we read God’s Word.

Some of God’s attributes, however, are unique to Him: omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (everywhere at the same time), immutability (unchangeableness), eternality, etc. Jen devotes one chapter each to these and five more characteristics of God. A subject like this could easily be filled with ivory-tower theologicalese, but Jen doesn’t let it. Her treatment of God’s attributes is both understandable and practical while still invoking awe.

At first it might seem more practical to study the attributes of God that we’re supposed to grow in (and Jen’s next book, In His Image, does just that). But there’s good reason to ponder these unattainable attributes. Studying these characteristics helps us get to know our God better, contributes to our worship of Him, and reminds us of our limitations.

Wait—do we want to be reminded of our limitations? Well, we need to be. Sometimes our overreaching is due to pride. And it’s immensely restful to leave to God the things only He can do.

Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out (p. 25).

For instance, it never occurred to me before reading this book that our constant efforts to be in more than one place (with one person, on the phone with another, with one eye on the news) might be grasping for omnipresence. Subject ourselves to information overload might be reaching towards omniscience. We don’t want to stagnate: we want to keep learning and growing. But we do have limits.

No, we cannot be in more than one place at one time. When we reach for omnipresence ourselves, we guarantee that we will be fully present nowhere, spread thin, people of divided attentions, affections, efforts, and loyalties. Better to trust that these bodies which tether us to one location are good limits given by a good God. Better to marvel that, wherever we are tethered, his spirit surrounds us and fills us. Aware that he is witness to all we think, speak, and do, we learn to live circumspectly. Aware that he views his children through the lens of grace, we learn to choose frank confession over futile concealment. Aware that we cannot outrun his presence, we cease running, and abide. We learn to savor his nearness. No more virtual Twister. When we trust him as fully present everywhere, we are finally free to be fully present wherever he has placed us (pp. 104-105).

Here are just a few of the quotes I marked:

The thought that there might be a way to cast off at least some of these perpetual needs for perpetual needlessness is an enticing one, indeed. Take, for example, our current cultural obsession with caffeinated drinks as evidence of our desire to be sleep-optional creatures (p. 58).

Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependency, not autonomy (p. 63).

Like Samson, when we view a particular strength as the product of our obedience to God, we will use that strength to serve ourselves rather than to serve God and others. All strength, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, can be used either to serve or to self-elevate (p. 127).

The truth of God’s limitless power would be absolutely terrifying were it not paired with the truth of his limitless goodness (p. 135).

Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance. It’s that we lack awe (p. 154).

We too often approach the Bible in a self-serving way: we want to be comforted, affirmed, or assured in some way. The Bible does minister to us, but we need to approach it to learn about God.

God is incomprehensible. This does not mean he is unknowable, but that he is unable to be fully known. It is the joyful duty, the delightful task of his children to spend their lives, both this one and the next, discovering who he is. According to Jesus, knowing God is the fundamental aim of life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We take pleasure in working to grow in our knowledge of him (p. 33).

Meditating on His attributes leads us to worship and increases our faith. The more we know Him, the more we love Him, the more we trust Him.

My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD (Psalm 104:34).

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