Driving Toward Morning’s 2022 in Books

Dear fellow travelers,

As 2022 ends, many are posting reflections on the year, including book lists.  Figured I’d jump in, even though I am a slow reader, prone to distraction, and have a job that requires multiple hours per day of reading.  So, when I see others listing 70+ books read in 2022, I tell myself that 22 books is enough, since the year was 2022.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

So, what 22 books did I read this year?

A range of history books:
Clouds of Witnesses by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey
The Offshore Islanders: A History of the English People by Paul Johnson

The first two of these made appearances in the blog, referenced in the Bibliography.  Clouds of Witnesses, which could be included in other categories, is an excellent collection of stories about Christians in Asia and Africa, giving a great perspective away from my local, American one.  More history posts will be coming from that book.  The Residence is a collection of stories from workers in the White House, from cooks and valets, and many other roles.  It ranged multiple decades of presidents and their families, with interesting takes on these very real people.

The Devil in the White City is my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, and likely will be covered as the blog’s first book review soon.  Erik Larson writes history that reads like a novel and picks amazing stories as topics.

With a family trip to England and Wales on the 2022 calendar, both history and fiction books on this list revolved around the U.K.

A range of fiction books:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarré
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams
So Long and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams

It’s only now that I realize all of these books involve England.  “Tinker” is one of my dad’s favorite books and I’d put off reading it for a long time but am glad I finally got to it.  It’s a fascinating and complicated story about a mole in the British spy network, and I picked up great quotes like “All power corrupts, but some must govern,” and “Learn the facts…then try on the stories like clothes.”  “Hound” is one I read as a teenager and picked back up for something quick and light to read, and the other 3 were new to me.  This blog began with a Douglas Adams reference, and there will likely be more to come!

Only one non-fiction book:
King’s X: The Oral History by Greg Prato

This ended up featured in two blog posts and tells the story of one of my favorite bands that never quite “made it big,” but gets a ton of respect from other musicians.  Part of the problem was that they couldn’t be pigeon-holed as either a “Christian” band, or not.

Plus some Christian commentary and devotionals:
In addition to regular Bible and study Bible reading, in 2022 I read:

4 books by Warren Wiersbe: Be Alive (John 1-12), Be Transformed (John 13-21), Be Wise (1 Corinthians), and Be Encouraged (2 Corinthians).
4 books by C.S. Lewis: That Hideous Strength, The Weight of Glory, The Abolition of Man, and The Great Divorce.
Encouragement: The Key to Caring by Larry Crabb and Dan Allender
Everyday Prayer with the Reformers by Donald McKim
Tapestry: The Book of Revelation by Glenn Parkinson

A fan of C.S. Lewis from childhood, in 2022 I aimed to read several of his books I hadn’t before, which include the last 3 above.  I love finding familiar Lewis quotes in their original context, which brings out even more meaning.  A few of these ended up in the blog.  In 2023, maybe I’ll get to Surprised by Joy, The Four Loves and all of God in the Dock.

I picked up Wiersbe’s entire “Be” series in 2021 as part of a digital subscription and am working through it over time.  A long time.  I like his overall approach and the books are a great source of thoughtful stories and quotes.

Encouragement and Everyday Prayer both ended up in the blog.  The first I had read many years ago and rediscovered ideas in it that I had forgotten the source of.  Everyday Prayer was a gift and is a short devotional covering segments of prayers from the Protestant Reformation, with related stories and Bible verses.

Lastly, I just finished Tapestry earlier today.  Glenn Parkinson is the retired former pastor of my church, and the book provides a very helpful overview of the book of Revelation, making a great case that John “did not intend to give us a puzzle no one can solve,” but intended to reveal (as in a revelation) a tapestry of images designed to encourage Christian faithfulness and perseverance in the time between Jesus’ first and second comings.

Will I read 23 books in 2023?  Who knows…in the meantime, have you read any of these 22? What books did you enjoy in 2022?

What are We Willing to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor?

From earliest times, debate has raged over whether God’s word can be taken literally.  Since the serpent asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?[1] people have debated if the world was created in 6 days.  If Moses really parted the Red Sea.  If Jonah really spent 3 days inside a great fish.  And so on.  Talk about whether the Bible means what it says often focuses on the miraculous events within.

But what about verses like Ephesians 4:29?  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  When Paul wrote that, did he literally mean “no corrupting talk,” or just to aim for less crude language than the average person?  Did Paul mean each word needs to “fit the occasion,” or to repeat whatever catchphrase seems to work in most situations?  Did Paul mean everything we say should “give grace” to others, or is it ok if sometimes we want to look good or appear gracious?  Do we need to always build up those who hear us?  Did Paul “actually say” what he wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

Failure to meet our ideals
does not mean that
we should change them.

We might reply that this is an impossible standard, but Jesus in Luke 18:19 said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  In that one statement, Jesus testifies that no one is good (everyone misses the mark), and also that He is God in the flesh, come to save us from failing to meet the standard.

So yes, Ephesians 4:29 should be taken literally, but we should also take literally that only Jesus can meet the standard, and that He did meet the standard.  Failure to meet our ideals does not mean they are the wrong ideals and that we should change them.  Holiness is holiness.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that “it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”[2]

In film editing, “the cutting room floor” refers to pieces of physical film that (in pre-digital times) were cut out of the movie and left lying on the floor.  When writing this blog, one of the hardest things to do is to cut out parts or phrases I care deeply about, but sometimes it’s necessary, because my words aren’t always Ephesians 4:29 words.  Finding these failures can be fruitful if I learn from them and move closer to the ideal.  In real-time, daily conversation it’s even harder, but to take Ephesians 4:29 literally, we all have to figuratively ask:

What are we willing to leave on the cutting room floor today?

[1] Genesis 3:1
[2] Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy (1908).  P. 163.

We’re All in Different Ruts Together

Dear fellow travelers,

Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions “for it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge….and another to tread the road that leads to it.”  Often along that road we get stuck in a rut, but what is a rut?

According to Dictionary.com, “rut” is a noun meaning: “a furrow or track in the ground, especially one made by the passage of a vehicle or vehicles” or “a fixed or established mode of procedure or course of life, usually dull or unpromising: to fall into a rut.”

The second meaning comes from the first, earlier meaning.  On dirt roads, vehicles create a rut along a repeated path, and the vehicles that come after find it easier to follow the path of least resistance.  Therefore, without someone intervening and repairing the road, the rut gets deeper and its harder for any vehicle to avoid the rut.  The second meaning is a metaphor of people doing the same thing.  It’s easier to do what others have done before, or to continue what you’ve already done before, especially if repeated for a long period of time.

However, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25)

Life often feels like this. Photo by Aubrey Odom-Mabey on Unsplash

The Diversity of Ruts
Over time, I have found many ruts to get stuck in.  In my earliest memories I was already in a rut of passive Christianity, going through rituals that didn’t mean much to me.  As a young adult, I was in a different rut as a visibly vibrant church member, doing things like leading Bible studies and worship services.  Later, I was in a rut of private faith, studying the Bible and praying nearly every day but rarely talking to anyone else about it.  At other times I’ve been ruts of tribalism, comfortable practicing religion as acceptable to “my tribe,” whether a political tribe, a denominational one, or many others.

There were times in my life where I looked like a Christian but wasn’t, and also times where I was a Christian but didn’t look like one.  There were times where some people approved, and there were times when other people approved.

Much of what I’ve done has been potentially “good,” at least in appearance, but in all cases there was always something not quite right with it.  J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “There was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’”  We’re stuck somewhere we’re not meant to stay.  Each of our experiences is different, and the wrong paths I’ve been on are not always the same wrong paths you’ve been on, and what was wrong for me might be right for you.  But for many of us, ruts are comfortable.

When people, like vehicles following a rut in the road, follow others, it doesn’t “feel” risky.  But when in a rut, new ground is never uncovered, and new paths are never found.  There is no fruit of the Spirit from staying in a rut, doing something because someone else did it or because it feels “normal.”  God’s people grow in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[1] as they find and follow His path for them, not by accident, by routine, or by doing nothing.

What may be less obvious is that the right path I should be on is not the same path you should be on.  As I’ve written, “Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.”  We all try to follow the same Shepherd, but we’re all in different places and He has different paths for all of us.  A person can be a passionate, sincere believer with characteristics from any or all of what were my ruts, while I may by grace have avoided the ruts of others.

Compelling, Clear, and Charitable
Why am I writing this?  I picked up a few new followers this week, thanks to a post of mine being shared by Mitch Teemley (please visit his amazing blog!) and wanted to publicly thank him and to welcome any new readers!

Here, inspired by Ephesians 4:15, I try to write posts that are “Compelling, Clear, and Charitable” as explained in this earlier post.  I try to write posts that “stir up my readers to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24).

It’s easy to use doctrine to criticize.  Luke 13:26 and elsewhere criticize public faith if done incorrectly, while Matthew 6:4, 6:6, 6:18 and elsewhere describe sincere religion as private, done in secret.  Politically, God’s people were exiled from the Promised Land because they used God’s institutions for their own purposes, but in exile were told to honor God in ways that benefit the nations they lived among.

Likewise, the people in the many ruts I’ve been in are often in conflict with each other.  For example, “visible” Christians can get frustrated with “private” Christians, and in fact make it more difficult for them to get out of it.  Strangely, I find myself often in conflict with past and current versions of myself.

If I write about a situation that feels like one you’re currently in, you might get offended because to you it’s not a rut.  It might be your true path.  Or you might be offended because the rut is comfortable and too deep to see out of.  It’s sometimes easier to see someone else’s rut than your own, especially if you’re in the same ditch together.  The ditch may be comfortable to both of the people in it.

Because of this diversity of ruts, being charitable is harder than being clear or compelling, but it is infinitely more important.  On the other hand, on a blog where I don’t know many of my readers, charity at a personal level can be impossible.

Now, Not Yet
We must try.  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands God’s people to “make disciples of all nations.”  We all experience failure on this mission, but the only way to guarantee failure is to not try at all.  If I an Compelling and Clear here, I might have succeeded, but at something other than discipleship, for myself and for you.  If we have not love, we are nothing.  In addition, Proverbs 27:17 describes discipleship as “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”  This verse is sometimes quoted with a smile as if it’s always rainbows and sunshine, but the verse is describing the violence of one piece of metal scraping bits off another piece of metal.  In the metaphor of this post, it might be describing the work needed to dig out of a deep rut.  Here, I make a humble attempt to make a better disciple of myself, but also to (hopefully charitably) share what I’ve learned in a way that helps others find their own path that is not a rut.

Even blogging may become a rut for me – it might have already – but it helps me move out of past ruts.  The path of comfort and of least resistance is appealing.  The temptation to create a new path defined by resistance to my past ruts is also appealing.  I may steer clear of Scylla and crash headlong into Charybdis.[2]  For now, I take comfort that God has used my past ruts to teach me what I didn’t know at the time and wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and that Paul encourages us all to use whatever diverse gifts we have: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” – Romans 12:6-8

When we arrive finally in the eternity we have been craving, Jesus will completely and finally pull all His people out of their ruts, and each will blaze their own perfect trail as an untainted bearer of His image.  Future me (and future you) will all be vibrant members of God’s family, constantly worshiping God in private prayer and public work, while perfectly manifesting the political Kingdom of God in a new heaven and new earth.  While the road between here and there is full of ruts, God is faithful and will get us there.  He promises that every rut we currently are stuck in is temporary, and also that in eternity the path of righteousness we should be on will be as easy and comfortable as our current ruts promise to be but fail to deliver on.  The good we did imperfectly in this world will be done perfectly there.

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.” – Revelation 21:21

There are no ruts in that road.

Welcome to my new and old fellow travelers.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Galatians 5:22-23
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_Scylla_and_Charybdis

My 3 Rules of Writing

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Dear fellow travelers,

After a long stretch of daily posts, the blog went silent for a day.  The reason wasn’t that there was nothing to write about.  Ironically, the reason was that sometimes the topics I most want to write about are the hardest ones to do.  Around the time I launched the blog, I decided each post should meet 3 criteria as a way to keep myself disciplined not just to regular writing, but to the type of content I wanted to post.  It’s my blog, after all.

My objective is that every post should be Compelling, Clear, and Charitable, meaning:

Is it about something that matters eternally, and is written in a way that connects emotionally and is worth reading? (Compelling)
Is it logical and makes sense, or is it likely to be misunderstood? (Clear)
Is it written in love, to build up whoever reads it? (Charitable)

In a way, these criteria are just a modified version of Ephesians 4:15-16, which says:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

The compelling and clear parts are the “speaking the truth,” and the charitable part is the “in love” part.  However, the three criteria are not equal.  If I am compelling and clear, I might come across as clever, smart or a good writer, but without charity, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).  Without love, I’ve done it wrong, and therefore being compelling and clear should be tools used in service of being charitable.

Love is more important than keeping a daily schedule.  Fortunately, a blog doesn’t have to fill a scheduled hour of airtime in a 24/7 news cycle, where passion and (often faulty) logic dominate.  Yes, I’m not perfect and it happens here too, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Like the old saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  In some cases, charity means silence until I have something else to write, or a better way to write it.

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” – Ephesians 4:26-27

Giving Gideon the Benefit of the Doubt

Directions please. Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

When we want to hear our Master’s voice, we all have to overcome competing influences, like the lyrics of “Breathing” by Lifehouse say, “I’m trying to identify the voices in my head; God, which one’s you?”  We all need a filter to pick the right voices, or influences, that we base our lives on, and filter out anything that competes for our Master’s attention. The Bible recommends it, as 1 John 4:1 says “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  Proverbs tells us to make our ear attentive toward wisdom and to incline our heart to understanding, and to treat wisdom and understanding as more valuable than silver and treasures.[1]  But how do we do it?

Gideon from the book of Judges might also have related to Lifehouse’s lyrics.  Gideon needed to filter out the voices, and probably the best-known part of his story is his use of a fleece to do that.  During Gideon’s life, as recorded in the book of Judges, Israel was being oppressed by the Midianites, Amalekites, and others, who would wait until harvest then rob all the produce and livestock.  The angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, saying he would use Gideon to “save Israel from the hand of Midian[2], but Gideon doubted that it was God speaking, and said “show me a sign that it is you who speak with me.”[3]  Gideon may or may not have doubted that God was able to save Israel, but he certainly doubted whether this was really God talking.  Therefore, Gideon needed to “test the spirits,” but how?

Gideon asked God for a sign, which God provided, giving Gideon confidence to break down an altar to Baal and destroy an Asherah.[4] But Gideon asked God for more proof that it was truly Him speaking, and that He was calling Gideon to save Israel.  This extra step was the sign of the fleece, which is worth quoting in full, from Judges 6:36-40.

Then Gideon said to God, ‘If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.’  And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.  Then Gideon said to God, ‘Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.’  And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.”

A quick survey of study Bibles on this passage brings these comments on Gideon’s “test” of God:

  • “Even though the Spirit has come upon him, Gideon still struggles to trust the Lord.”
  • “The gathering of the tribes should have been sufficient evidence of God’s presence with Gideon, but he wanted a sign that God would do what He had promised.”
  • “Gideon’s desire for a second fleece sign evidenced his less than complete trust in God…He wanted to make certain that the first fleece sign was not merely a coincidence or the result of the natural absorption properties of a fleece.”
  • “Unlike Gideon, we have God’s complete, revealed Word. If you want to have more of God’s guidance, don’t ask for signs; study the Bible”

It’s easy, even encouraged, to criticize Gideon for testing God but if we put ourselves in his place can we do any better, even with the whole Bible?  Sometimes the Bible is clear, as in “you shall not murder,” but what about questions like, “what should I write next?”  Or “how can I encourage a friend?”

Consider that if Gideon had not put out the fleece maybe his story would’ve stopped right there, with him wallowing in doubt.  After all, Israel was being persecuted by a powerful enemy – why take any risks?  However, not knowing with 100% certainty what God’s will is does not mean that doing nothing is the right answer.  If we have a decision to make where the Bible doesn’t seem to provide explicit direction, do we just follow Yogi Berra’s sarcastic advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”?

I can relate to Gideon because I needed a filter, a reason to take the time to “test the spirits,” because I rarely know for sure what God wants.  Much of the time, I “go with the flow,” and think if I avoid the wrong “flow” I’ll be ok.  I write often not because I’m disciplined, but because I’m not.  Writing is a tangible way to build the spirit-testing filter into my routine, even if it sometimes looks no wiser than Gideon’s fleece.  So, why publish publicly to anyone with an internet browser?  Because I take it more seriously, working on filtering out voices that aren’t useful to me, and wouldn’t be useful to anyone else.  A published blog takes more effort than not writing at all, which is the point, and it helps me move forward.

The Benefit of the Doubt
As I’ve written about Jeremiah and others, the Bible records openly the doubts of God’s people, because we all have a lot in common.  Finding and trusting God’s voice is hard.  If we criticize Gideon for demanding tests from God, are we really just criticizing ourselves and making it even harder?  Our filters are also imperfect – does that mean we do nothing and get nowhere?  Do we give up the call to “test the spirits,” leaving ourselves to “go with the flow” until we find a perfect method?  Like Gideon, we are also prone to take the safe route, when offered what looks like a riskier alternative.  To do something involves risk of not only doing the wrong thing, but also of being criticized for our methods.  Doing nothing is sometimes the right answer, but it is also a choice, and we can’t always be clear why we choose it.

David sometimes encourages us to “wait for the Lord,” and he also wrote “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”[5] when he was feigning madness before Abimelech, a questionable decision.  We learn about God by experiencing Him, by taking action or by waiting, taking a chance either way, but over time learning that obedience is always the best decision, and also that He catches us when we fall.  We can’t be perfect in this world, but He wants us to try and He will help us grow.

Centuries ago, Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 11:4: “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.”  He may well have written to me: “He who observes the trolls will not blog, and he who fears the comment section will not write.”  Or to Gideon: “He who observes the Midianites will not save Israel.”  We all begin our trip to eternity wherever God finds us, where we are not only sinners, but also have a lot to learn about focusing on God’s voice.  What might we all be observing that’s keeping us from sowing the seed of the gospel God has given us?  Sometimes it’s doubt in our filters, in our ability to know for sure.

When we’re afraid of being compared to Gideon and his fleece, know that he is listed in Hebrews 11:32 as a faithful hero, and was received in heaven as a good and faithful servant by the grace earned on the cross by Jesus.  So, let’s take it easier on Gideon and give him the benefit of the doubt.  We are all in this together, including the heroes of the Bible.  It’s God’s faithfulness that matters and He will overcome all of our doubts.

In the meantime, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” – 1 Corinthians 10:13a

This post is second in a series that started with this post on His Master’s Voice, and continues here.

[1] Proverbs 2:1-4
[2] Judges 6:14
[3] Judges 6:17
[4] Judges 6:28
[5] Psalm 34:8