Archive for August, 2018

41EjOxKJC8LBecause my wife and I work as cross-cultural missional servants in Colombia, I was immediately responsive when a dear reading friend recommended this novel, set as it is in our adoptive South American country. It felt a little bit like the reading version of a blind date.

Yet, truth be told, ‘missionary fiction’ is not a genre that guarantees to quicken the pulse. Often it is wooden, moralistic, and—at times—condescending.

Against such modest expectations, I’m pleasantly surprised by this worthy read. I found Flying Blind to be something of a page-turner. (more…)


Read Full Post »

John Dunlop brings to this most excruciating mile of the road informed science, the 41Ur4z3Us6Lgentlest spirit, and a deep conviction that God’s care does not flee the human person who finds himself or herself afflicted with dementia. Nor does mercy abandon those who care for the dementia sufferer. I imagine this last group accounts for most readers of this very fine and wisely titled guidebook for one of life’s darker passages.

The author has skin in this game, if such words can be used without offense in this context. His medical specialization brings him into the care of just such patients and of those who love them. And his family history makes it likely that Dunlop himself will one day sense the fog beginning to thicken.

The result is an exceedingly caring book.

I bought this not because my family had been touched, strictly speaking, by dementia. Rather, my late father’s decline in two nursing homes gradually tightened the horizons of his life and altered the man he had been in ways that are proximate enough to dementia to have made this book a prudent choice.

I ended up buying additional copies and giving them away. You may, too.

Read Full Post »

51cRtWtxFpL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The most astonishing thing about this very good Vietnam novel is that a man who has been a Marine Corps officer, a United States senator (Virginia), and Secretary of the Navy could write it. Seldom in my reading has someone who has both heard the snap of bullets and served in the political apparatus that decides and executes war written a version of events that is so searingly realistic about everything it touches.

Webb’s characters find, in the course of his narrative, full form. They live and die in the An Hoa Basin as a senseless war—one that with deepest irony some of Webb’s grunts come to discover is their only home—whirls around them and devours those whom fate or choice have thrown into into its teeth. 

No whiff of martial romance finds its way into Webb’s pages. Yet one comes to respect the terms on which each of his Marines negotiates his fiercely counted days in country. Vietnam in 1969 offered up to the likes of Webb’s Marines several ways to die, some facedown in the mud, some while returning upright to a country that had no idea. 

Through his fictionalized characters, Webb recounts most of them. That some lived is its own kind of miracle.

Required reading for the planners and deciders of war? That would be the day.

Read Full Post »

Jim O’Donnell’s ‘spiritual memoir’ turns its unique corner in 1984, the year he met41tcQ5VTpeL._SY346_ Arthur.

Jim did not much like himself in 1984 and, by all accounts, with good reason. He liked other people even less.

Arthur was gentle and kind and honest. Very, very honest. He also seemed to know God, whatever that was supposed to mean to a high-flying investment banker like Jim O’Donnell, not a very nice man, but a better man that anyone else he knew.

Everything changed then, because Arthur asked and Jim said, ‘Well, OK, then. I guess.’ Or something like that.

The rest is history. Or future. It depends on your point of view.

This book is a page-turner for anyone not too cynical to wonder how guys like Old Jim become guys like, well, Jim now.

Sometimes there is an Arthur. Arthurs are as surprised as anybody that stuff like this happens.

Read on.

Read Full Post »

Perhaps the rabbis were correct to affirm that some of the ‘deeper writings’ are not suitable for untrained eyes. Or perhaps the cynical proverb that affirms that ‘school is wasted on the young’ is, after all, on to something.

Or perhaps only mothers and fathers should read such a thing as this:

Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: “Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (Isaiah 29:22–24 ESV)

Jacob’s prodigals had not only run amok on their own terms. They had been dragged to distant lands by the powers of their day to suffer the quick extermination of our news cycle or the slow extermination of assimilation to the alien’s ways.

Jacob, figuratively, bows in the shame of a father’s silent-teared bereavement.

Everything is gone.

Then, suddenly—the word is absent from this passage but a favorite of such Isaianic turns elsewhere—here they are! 

Two ironies haunt this brief passage of over-the-top restoration. First, Jacob’s response goes unrecorded. All we know is that the prodigals are back both in body and in soul. They sanctify Jacob’s God. They are not the proverbial ex-smokers with their steel-faced prohibitions, not the loud and self-assured recent converts with a plan for your life. On the contrary, these lost children—now found— stand before their Returner in awestruck silence.

Jacob did not teach them such things, for they were far away, gone, children’s voices from torturing memories never to be heard again.

Indeed, this draws the reader into the text’s second irony.

For when (Jacob) sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.

They are, YHWH affirms, ‘the work of my hands’, now to be found ‘in his (Jacob’s) midst’.

This has not been Jacob’s work, this resurrecting of dead children, this returning of prodigals, this mourning turned to dance.

We do not read here of Jacob’s response to this majestic impossibility.

But a father, this morning, can imagine it.

Read Full Post »

We rarely receive the moment of our lives on our terms.

Almost always, the line in the sand is drawn a beach or two away from where we would have preferred. The defining issue is seldom of our choosing.

After these things King Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, and advanced him and set his throne above all the officials who were with him. And all the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage. Then the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you transgress the king’s command?”And when they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. And when Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow down or pay homage to him, Haman was filled with fury. (Esther 3:1–5 ESV)

The biblical Book of Esther is full of fools. Yet none of them outdoes the legendary Haman the Agagite, who figures in the book’s troublesome narrative as a kind of Fool of All Fools. He is an idiot prince, this Haman, a man whose self-absorbed banality is surpassed only by the arrogance that fuels his rise.

Mordecai does not have much, as these things go, to say for himself. Pretensions of grandeur are absent from his story. His dual concern reduces to his niece and his people. Apart from that, things may roll on as they will. He is not large enough to care very much about such things.

Yet Haman the Great—as the man sees himself—presents Mordecai with a battle which the latter would rather not have joined. All Mordecai need do in order to save his skin is join the puerile throngs in bowing down to this empty suit each time his chariots rush by.

Mordecai will not.

He is not very strategic, this Jewish uncle, this wrench in the spokes of empire, this churlish rebel.

Mordecai did not choose the moment. Yet the whole Book of Esther and the unnamed God who will preserve his people are nothing in this moment if not for one small man’s principled rebellion. ‘I will not bow down before this imperial idiot’, Mordecai might have mouthed to himself, yet probably not to others. ‘There are limits.’

It is nearly always so.

We don’t get to crow about the elevated principles which undergird our moment of virtued glory.

Instead, we get a Haman. A fool. An idiot, presented in full regalia as a royal fait accompli.

It would be perfectly excusable to look way. To go along with the crowds. To bow down.

Mordecai will not.

Somewhere in the watching heavens, the unnamed God’s habit of saving his people from peril is activated, aroused. Somewhere here below, sleeping Jews in provincial towns, unaware that their doom will otherwise fall upon them, dream of other things, not of a perturbed uncle keeping lonely vigil among the gates of empire because his niece is in there, somewhere.

Almost nobody knows. Yet this is it.



Read Full Post »

Before all things, we protect our children.

The park just outside my window is frequented by parents and small children, these defenseless little tykes who would not know a leaf from a wasp. Nor do we expect them to know. So, we cradle them in our arms against all threat unseen. We swoop them low to greet the neighbor’s little doggy, though we would not have them crawl beside the four-legger, for who knows what strange ferocity might kick in suddenly in a world like ours.

We expose them gradually to our little park, one that is in the main benign but might harbor here or there a sting, a bite, a lecher too kind.

Yet the book of Isaiah knows a day when such things will be unthinkable, so will wisdom and understanding and justice and fidelity have taken root in this world’s blighted soil, erstwhile a poison but now a garden.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. (Isaiah 11:8 ESV)

This is not a tale of parental neglect. Rather, a ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’, a fruitful ‘branch from his roots’ shall have come first among us, the passage announces at its outset. This one (for the arboreal metaphor soon departs and he is simply ‘he’) will stand as a figure so drenched in YHWH’s wisdom, understanding, and knowledge that everything will be new and all will be peace.

This book called Isaiah, seldom given to baseless utopia, speaks of such a day with profuse confidence once the spell of ugly injustice has been broken. The passage before us becomes one of the Isaiah scroll’s earliest contributions to ‘Jewish messianism’, which can here be abbreviated as the expectation of an agent of YHWH who shall set things gorgeously to rights. The chapter presents this figure in the judging and reproving and straight-setting language of YHWH’s own work in the book’s Vision of Visions back in chapter two. What YHWH will accomplish among the suddenly submissive peoples there, this scion of Jesse’s chopped-down stump will enact here, becoming the kind of judge who is not swayed by appearances but rather sees through them to the real heart of the matter and decides accordingly.

Here, as in that Vision of Visions, the result is what we somewhat misleadingly call paradisiacal.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6–7 ESV)

Soon enough, the text will de-metaphorize itself long enough to signal that the promise is not chiefly about animals. Rather, wolf, lamb, and the rest of them are nations who have quite quickly become the becalmed peoples of whom YHWH can (again) say that ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.’

But that declaration and the explanation that is given for it still await our glimpse of the nursing child and the weaned child who are left to crawl and giggle about the hidings of cobra and adder, not negligently but with understanding of what has become transformed.

The poetry invites its reader to ask with the astonishment that has not been dulled by too much disappointment, has not reduced to cynical disillusion, ‘How could this be?’

Only then does the text give up its reason. It seems that this Figure, this Jesse’s son, this one who perceives, decides, and straightens as YHWH himself does, has not hoarded his understanding. Indeed, he has been globally—cosmically, we are to imagine—generous with it.

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9 ESV)

Everywhere, people shall know YHWH.

No wonder, then, that ‘snakes’ don’t bite and ‘wolves’ snooze amid spring lambs, that infants drool un-dangered, that the whole world is new.



Read Full Post »

Older Posts »