Places to go, books to read

So, back at the turn of the year, I thought I would do a bunch of blogs on stuff I liked in 2017. Now that we’re more than halfway through the 2nd month of 2018, I am woefully behind. But because this stuff doesn’t have an expiration date, here’s some more stuff I enjoyed in 2017.

Places I visited last year:

  1. New River, West Virginia. Rafting the New River was one of the best things we did as a family in 2017. My next goal is to tackle the more difficult Gauley River before I’m too old to hold a paddle.
  2. Eagle Falls, Kentucky. Located just down-river from the way-more-popular Cumberland Falls, Eagle Falls has a similarly deep waterfall, without all the visitors and the guardrails. If I get back to Cumberland Falls State Park, my first priority won’t be Cumberland, but Eagle — with a goal of going during the summer so I can swim up to Eagle Falls.
  3. Cabins with friends & family. There’s something about spending time at a cabin by the water that helps put everyday life on a needful pause, even if for just 24 hours.
  4. Fred Howard Park, Florida. This fall, I enjoyed time with my wife at this public park on the Gulf Coast. I even did a bit of snorkeling — one of my all-time favorite activities.
  5. Fritz’s Frozen Custard, Missouri. On any trip to the St. Louis area, you need to go to either Fritz’s or Ted Drewes. My family has something of a running debate over which of these 2 has the best custard, but I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of them. If you want history and nostalgia, go to Ted Drewes. If you want good custard and don’t want to look like a tourist, go to Fritz’s. Or, cover your bases and go to both.
  6. World War 1 Museum, Missouri. This museum in Kansas City helps make WW1 real, with all of war’s death, destruction, and evil. Visiting this museum — and then watching Ken Burns’s series on World War 2 — reminds me how even the winners of war face terrible losses.

Also, in 2017, I read some books that I would recommend. If you’re a reader, pick these up. If you’re a thoughtful reader, buy these. If you don’t read, find someone to read these to you:

  1. Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer. Perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on faith, doubt, and the honest search for truth. Taylor writes as a believer in an age when faith is increasingly marginalized and mocked. Taylor honestly wrestles with reasons to disbelieve, and doesn’t offer 4 simple steps to know that everything you know is absolutely certain. Instead, he does something better: he takes a look at the options, and suggests a way forward that deals with the reality that any choice a person makes is ultimately a step of faith.
  2. Randolph Richards & Brandon O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Great insight into how we can read the Bible through a different mindset, one more in tune with its origins in the Mid/Eastern world. Just one example: Richards served as a missionary in Indonesia, where he learned that Sunday worship started at “midday” (siang). Being a westerner, Richards tried to tie that to a time on his wristwatch, but his Indonesian friends didn’t think of it that way. He finally came to learn that ‘siang’ was connected to temperature, not time. Once the morning turns hot, it becomes ‘siang’. But, he wonders: “How do you start church at ‘hot’?” In short, relationships trump schedules – the opposite of how we do it in the west.
  3. Alan Jacobs, How to Think. A much-needed rebuke of the current tendency to listen only to people we agree with — and to ostracize those we don’t. Jacobs gives a simple, yet challenging, call to listen and think better.
  4. N.T. Wright, The New Testament & the People of God. A thorough examination of the background of the NT, and how we should read it. Has reshaped my understanding of the story of God. Wright is an indispensable thinker and writer that every thinking Christian ought to know. (If this book is too long for you, he has plenty of other shorter, more accessible works, like: Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian.)
  5. Shushaku Endo, Silence. Powerful fictional account of how far faith can take us, and how deeply challenging it can be to know what faithfulness looks like. The movie version that recently came out is equally good.
  6. Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised. An easy-to-read, but hard-to-forget book on grief, loss, and moving on. I would recommend this book to anyone who has faced loss of any kind — written by a man who has been there.
  7. Brene Brown, Rising Strong. A friend recommended this to me, and while not everything in it stuck with me, this definitely did: her insight that, by-and-large, people are doing the best they can, and so we’ve got to offer grace. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we accept everything they do. We’ve also got to establish healthy boundaries. It seems to me this is where we should meet everyone we encounter: at the intersection of grace and boundaries.
  8. Walter Wangerin, Paul. An account of the Apostle Paul and the early church that just rings true. Wangerin writes fiction that is deeply rooted in truth.
  9. Andy Crouch, Strong & Weak. Leadership is rooted in authority and vulnerability, Crouch writes. A true leader has to have both. I’m convinced he’s right.
  10. Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective. Rooted in John 15, this short book is rich with insight into how God calls us into intimacy, fruitfulness, and joy. A wonderful read, along with just about everything Nouwen wrote. Hardly anything he wrote was over 100 pages, but it’s amazing the spiritual insight and wisdom this man packed into the pages he wrote — as well as the life he lived.
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On the Need for Pals & Parchments

What keeps you going? What gets you through the rough days, the times of uncertainty, the questions that do not have easy answers?

Well, the answer for that is probably a bit different for each of us. This morning, I was reminded of two ways that help me face the challenges — and I was reminded of it as I read some scripture that rarely gets more than a passing glance.

In my last two posts, I discussed a “canon within the canon.” I firmly believe in that concept, while at the same time not wanting to overlook any scripture. This morning, I got that message, again, as I read the end of 2 Timothy. This letter, from Paul to his “son” Timothy, reaches a soaring conclusion with Paul’s words in 4:6-8, which include these words: I have fought the fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith. Those are tombstone words; you know, words you’d want on your tombstone. They are the kind of words that sum up a life. (And just as there is a canon, and a canon-within-the-canon — so there is life as a whole, and then there is the life we live that can be summed up with just a few words.)

The past couple of mornings, I have pondered these words from Paul — soaking them in, praying them — that I would continue to fight the good fight; that I will finish the course; that, when all is said and done, I’ll be found to have kept the faith.

And then I moved on, to the final words of 2 Timothy — verses 9-22 of chapter 4. They are kind of like an epilogue; an afterword. On the surface, they seem like words we can quickly scan to finish up the letter. And, in a way, we can. For they are full of greetings and final requests. Nothing exciting; nothing about them that feels canon-within-the-canon-y.

But, believing that all scripture is God-breathed, then there is no doubt they have the power to speak, perhaps in surprising ways. And as I read these verses, I hear Paul’s pathos, his human side, his pain. In verse 16, Paul has to stand up and defend himself, and he looks around, and there’s no one there. He’s alone. Some friends, like Demas, have deserted him. Others, like Titus, have been sent on to other ministries. But Paul’s need for encouragement comes through loud and clear.

And so, in this “afterword” to his letter, Paul begins by urging Timothy to quickly come to be with him (verse 9); he then repeats this sense of urgency with his last request of Timothy, telling him in verse 21 to hurry and get to Paul before winter. With winter, sea travel became treacherous, and so if Timothy doesn’t get moving, Paul will face a winter without him. As he writes these final thoughts, Paul makes it clear: this letter isn’t just about the encouragement that Timothy needs from Paul — it’s also about the encouragement that Paul needs from Timothy.

And there’s one more thing Paul tells Timothy: When you come, bring the books — and especially the parchments. An easy-to-miss line, but one that I think also describes something Paul needs. He longs for the encouraging words of Timothy, but he also needs the encouragement of words. One, for Paul, is life in person; the other is life on parchment. But both are necessary to help Paul fight the good fight; finish the race; keep the faith.

Perhaps this speaks to me because, like Paul, I am learning how much I need the encouragement of others — in person, and on paper. In a season of transition (for Paul, end of life; for me, end of a ministry), there is a need friends to sit with me, both in the flesh and in print. In other words, I am yet again reminded: I need pals, and I need parchment. I can’t fight the good fight, or finish the race, or keep the faith, without them.

So, that’s the word (at least to me), in an afterword.

(And I didn’t even get to commenting on Paul’s request in verse 11 that Mark come — for he is useful in ministering to me. This is the same Mark who went home early from a mission trip; see Acts 15:38. That’s yet another story, found in one of the “side paths” of scripture. But don’t take my word for it. Journey through scripture yourself — walking through its main paths, and its alley ways, too. There’s important stuff everywhere.)