Archive for category Good books

The wardrobe that keeps on giving

Today in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, a memorial will be dedicated to C.S. Lewis.  50 years ago today, the beautiful imagination of C.S. Lewis died.

For many, he’s helped see how you can be intelligent and Christian.  His writings are a constant reference for me, not only in the content but simply C.S. Lewisfor the sheer pleasure in the reading.  It’s not just the persuasive logic of his arguments, the clear and common observations of faith, but how he then portrays that truth through image and metaphor in ways that linger long in your mind, that help your heart grab hold of.  He both shows and tells in a unique way that’s still to be matched.

To celebrate and remember the gift of this wise apologist and winsome author, raise a pint in memory of Jack.  And enjoy a few memorable quotes from the wardrobe of his imagination (really, where do you stop?):

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”  The Four Loves

“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal.”  The Weight of Glory

“If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?”  Letters to Malcolm

“No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.”  Till We Have Faces

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  Collected Letters

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” Letters to Malcolm

“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”  Mere Christianity

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”  On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

“There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.”  The Great Divorce

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  Mere Christianity

“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.” Surprised by Joy

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  God in the Dock

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”  The Weight of Glory

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”  Till We Have Faces

“The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”   The Great Divorce

“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” The Screwtape Letters

“The truth is, of course, that what one regards as interruptions are precisely one’s life.”  Collected Works of C. S. Lewis

“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”  The Last Battle

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Nice kudos

It’s the award season – Golden Globes and Grammys done; Academy Awards next up.  But have you heard of the Hearts and Minds Best Books Awards?best-of-2012

I know, doesn’t quite have the broad cultural reach of the Oscars or Grammys but if you want to know what is worth reading (largely in Christian publishing), you need to check out Byron Borger’s Hearts and Minds blog and the Best Books Awards.  Byron is a bookstore owner in Pennsylvania and all-round book lover.  He’s a judicious voice on Christian books worth paying attention and money for.

And I just found out that my book, Seeking God’s Face, was given the nod for Best Devotional Book (a tie with a devotional book for those on the journey through cancer).

No little statue for my mantel but nice kudos nonetheless.  You can check out Byron’s Best Books of 2012 list here.

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Don’t forget to remember

Ever since I briefly lost my memory during a late-night hockey game with friends in my high school years, I’ve been fascinated with the role and function of memory.  In the high school hockey incident, my helmet-less head hit the ice, the lights went out for a minute but my memory was on hiatus for the next 18 hours.  It was like some delete button had been hit – I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t recall basic personal information and my only memory of those 18 hours is reconstructed from what others have told me.

Of course, the most important memory question is “why can I never remember where I put the car keys?” but  others quickly follow: What is the biology of a memory?  Why do some have far keener memories than others?  Why do we forget?  Does memory change over time, becoming edited along the way (read The Invisible Gorilla for an interesting take on how revisionist our memories might actually be)?  What is it like to live without a memory (Read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat for a deeply human and sympathetic look by a doctor at patients with various neurological disorder, but regarding memory especially see “The Lost Mariner”)?  Who are we without a memory (try to imagine who you are without the accumulated past of what has happened to you)?  What is the power of remembering to forge our identity (are we our history)?

Earlier this summer I read a fun and fascinating book by Josh Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s about the stunning capacity of the human memory and begins with Foer covering the World Memory Championships (yes there is such a thing) for a magazine article.  He’s watching mentalists perform unfathomable feats of memory (last year’s memory champion memorized pi to 50,000 decimal places; other contestants memorize multiple decks of playing cards in minutes).  He’s astounded at these feats of remembering and yet is told again and again, “It’s all technique, anyone can do this.”  And so he asks one contestant, if anyone can do this, teach me.  And the rest of the book is the story of how Josh returns the following year to participate in the American Memory Championships.

The book explores the old practice of memorization using what’s called the memory palace.  It’s remarkable how our memories are spatially constructed, as if memory needs a map to structure and retrieve the data we store in this.  Foer leads you through the process of using the memory palace and it’s uncanny how it works – in about 30 minutes on plane trip out East I memorized, and can still easily today recall, a bizarre and random list on p. 92-93.  Overall, its an interesting read with some good reflections on memory, on a lost skill and what it may cost us in a world of external memories.

Have you ever taken stock of all the biblical injunctions to remember, the premium God places on a healthy memory?  Remembering seems to be one of faith’s top survival skills.  Because we are created in the flow of time, because God submits himself to this created reality and acts within history, faith rests on memory to continually nourish it.  There’s a tendency to become spiritual chronological snobs, insisting on immediate experiences to feed faith when scripture, again and again, calls us to remember, to recognize that we’re part of a story long underway and the only way any of us will understand the story and our place in it, the only way you’ll make sense of today and tomorrow, is by remembering.

Frederick Buechner, a wonderful writer and thoughtful minister, writes about our our experience of God’s saving work in scripture, in the world, in our own lives.  He notes:

To remember the past is to see that we are here by grace, that we have survived as a gift …  and because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done he will continue to do, what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition. ”  (A Room Called Remember).

So don’t forget to remember.

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Uncle Andrew and me

Bedtime reading with our kids is one of my favourite things to do.  I love the quiet bodies and whisper breathing of our children as they listen, but also I love getting to read great books (like the great labour relations drama of Click, clack, moo, the wonderfully egalitarian Everyone poops, or anything from the brilliant Kate DiCamillo).  The other night Owen and I were finishing up C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and we came across a passage that rung so true, it felt like a shot to my own heart.

In the story, you’ll remember, Digory and his Uncle Andrew stumble into Narnia where they witness its first days, watching Narnia’s creation as the lion, Aslan, sings it into being.  Lewis is quite amazing here as he describes the glory of this act of creation but for Uncle Andrew it’s all quite a dreadful experience.  Later in the book, Aslan has this to say about Uncle Andrew:

“This world is bursting with life for these few days because the song with which I called it into life still hangs in the air and rumbles in the ground.  It will not be so for long.  But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice.  If I spoke to him, he would only hear only growlings and roarings.  Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”

It reminded me of this crazy passage in the gospel of John that Lewis echoes.  In John 12,  a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus and says: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  But those around Jesus didn’t hear a voice.  The text says “the crowd that was there and heard it said it thundered …”

What if all our defenses are so dismayingly clever that we, more often than not, miss God’s address to us?  What if God is indeed calling out, speaking – all around and all the time – but our well-fortified defenses interpret it as thunder or some other natural phenomenon, explaining those whispers from beyond time as indigestion?  What if this world is filled with the voice of God but our we have neither the sense or the smarts or the courage to hear it?  What if, in this very moment, the Creator God is addressing you in innumerable ways, wishing more than anything that you would not avert your ears one more time but be still, be present and listen?

In her brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (I can’t wait to read, or at least discuss, this with my kids one day), author Annie Dillard is on a hunt to remain awake to a world “bursting with life,” to the lingering song of the Creator.  She writes:

“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, violence, beauty … beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

As one so intricately webbed into the shared life of creation, it seems a high crime to neglect the minimum standard of living, the practice of doing the least – simply being there, a witness to the song of God in creation.

Oh, for ears dug open and eyes unscaled for this old sinner.

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Farewell Harry Potter

The curtains sway shut.  Exit stage left.  We’re going to miss you, Mr. Potter.

With the final Harry Potter film out, I’m resurrecting an editorial I wrote exactly 6 years ago for the Calgary Herald (then marking the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), which still echoes some of why I love the Potter series.  I haven’t yet seen part 2 of The Deathly Hallows but will soon enter the theatre with a mix of anticipation and melancholy.

Potter’s Magic: it widens our reality (Calgary Herald, July 20, 2005)

How do you explain all the hubbub over Harry?  Security guards keeping watch over caches of books, Supreme Court injunctions against leaked secrets, Potter parties marking the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, kids staying up past their bedtime to get their hands on a soon-to-be-sold-out copy, and sane adults aiding and abetting all of this.  What sort of spell has been cast to cause such Muggle madness?

The latest J.K. Rowling book chronicling the exploits of the wizard in training has touched off another hopped-up-on-Harry cultural frenzy.  Sure much of it is marketing savvy but I wonder if there’s something more to all this Potter mania?  Hasn’t Harry tapped into something missing in our culture, something profoundly spiritual?

And I don’t mean all the magic or sorcery of the book, which mostly is pretty mechanical stuff.  Mainly I’m thinking about the magic of story.  Basically, the Harry Potter series is a cracking good tale.  And story itself has a power that we’ve easily dismissed in our factoid world.  We live in a boiled-down, reduced world, where only what is material or measurable is considered true or real.  And so we end up living with a shriveled and shrunken sense of reality.

But a good imaginative story widens our sense of reality.  Invoke the words “Once upon a time …” and a spell is cast, a world is created, and our sense of reality expands.  A good story often helps reveal what we sense is real and true, but do not yet see.

Mostly, stories help us deal with life.  They’re a little like toys, which encourage children to explore the world without its dangers.  My son plays with his fire truck and doesn’t suffer burns or smoke inhalation.  In a similar way, stories help us enter and explore another world, experiencing its pain and joy, and so equip us to deal with the reality in which we find ourselves.

The Harry Potter series constructs a clear conflict of good versus evil where right overcomes wrong.  And in our post 9/11 world of war on terror and suicide bombers, who can’t understand the appeal of this Hogwarts fantasy world where Harry fights the powers of darkness, where right overcomes wrong?

Yet the magic of J.K. Rowling’s series points beyond the story to something more.  The Potter series is fantasy literature, a universe filled with wonder, mystery and the supernatural.  And it’s the little children lining up at the bookstores and leading us to admit, no matter how hard we might try to suppress it, that this world we inhabit is not enough.

There is a deep human longing – some call it a God-shaped hole in every human heart – for more than what this life offers.  The Harry Potter series touches at the secret within each of us, that somehow we’ve lost ourselves and yet know there’s more, a bigger world and a larger story we were meant to be a part of.

If you’ve ever felt despair when you read the news, if your heart has ever lurched at the sight of a starving child, then you know this world is not enough.  You’ve had a taste for what it is to long for more than this world’s got to offer.  Those desires, like the child’s fantasy world of Harry Potter, are signs pointing out that we were made for something more.

We can easily lose our reverence for story; mostly we dismiss it as child’s play or mere myth.  But perhaps it is the key to entering the story we were meant to live and meeting the Storyteller of our lives.

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Two books and a film – by friends

Two friends have published good books that I wanted to do a quick review, and then a film promo from another friend.  Both of the books train us in the way of mission, how we can get out of our safe church circles and enter the wonderful, wild world God has placed us, loving it for the sake of Jesus.

The Day Metallica Came to Church (TDMCTC) is written by John Van Sloten, all round good guy, sharp pastoral theologian and someone who loves Jesus.  I had a front row seat watching this book come to life, being part of original Lilly endowed research group and one of the contributors to a few sermon series our Western Canadian group of pastors worked on (which are part of the book – e.g. Lord of the Rings, World Cup). But John has taken this further and deeper than any one of the original group and it’s his tenacity and vision that is driving the good work this is.

The seminal truth that TDMCTC shines a spotlight on is common grace and general revelation – that God’s revelation is not bound by Scripture but is witnessed throughout creation, even in and through the works of non-Christians.  Nothing revolutionary here; these teachings are a well established part of a rich Christian theology.  But what John does well is track out the implications of these Christian teachings within the framework of popular culture, often in ways that makes not a few Christians squeemish. In a nice review here, blogger Paul Vander Klay aptly notes that John is “calling our bluff on this doctrine many of us subscribe to.”  Do we really believe that God can be found everywhere in this world he created?  Do we really think this world belongs to God?  It’s a lovely idea to dwell on and a life-changing teaching to let mess with your mind and your posture in this world.

What John does so well, before anything else, is to see the God-goodness in people, cultural works, etc.  We’re so quick to name what’s wrong or distorted in the world but through the lens of common grace John is on the hunt for God’s glory wherever it shines throughout the world.  More than anything, its a beautiful book that restores a sense of wonder to our Christian and theological imagination.  TDMCTC reminds me of the story in Exodus 3 where Moses comes across the burning bush.  At first blush, all he sees is desert brush on fire – no big deal.  But Moses pays attention;  he needed to simply watch the fire for a few minutes to then figure out that the bush was, indeed, not being consumed.  TDMCTC teaches us to patiently, lovingly pay attention to everything in our world because any ordinary thing can flame out with the holiness of God

Some say that John isn’t critical enough, too embracing of culture.  There is a time and place for a prophetic critique of what’s bent and broken in our world, but that’s not what John seeks to do.  As Christians we already do this all too well; what we often lack is a gracious capacity to spot the presence of God already at work in wonderfully common ways.  Read TDMCTC to help you learn how to better see God’s good hand at work in the most unexpected places.

The second book has one of the best titles: Don’t invite them to Church by Karen Wilk – pastor, great missional leader and fine teacher (she loves Jesus too, just in case the title led you to another conclusion).  Karen’s book is such a helpful resource for anyone looking for practical ways to begin to live out their faith in their neighbourhood.  And she’s an authority to speak to this – Karen has been faithfully living out what she speaks of in the book.

It’s more a hands on manual for living out your faith in Jesus than an in-depth ecclesiology; but you will be challenged in your understanding of church. And so it’s a book that you shouldn’t read quickly, and probably not alone – read it with a group of friends or a circle of Christians that live in your community.  Karen will help you rethink your ideas of church and you’ll need time to let go of assumptions and ideas of how church should be, giving yourself the space and time to begin to conceive of how church might be.  In our age, we’re fairly locked into what is termed the “attractional” model of church: we’re oriented around inviting people to a place or an event (“come and see.”)  Karen wants to move the church towards a missional mode of existence where we “go and be the church,” living out the Kingdom in our neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Don’t invite them to Church is divided up into eight weekly chapters that includes stories from people living out a “go and be” church, daily devotions for these eight weeks, and really helpful practices and postures, street ready ways to incarnate the life of Jesus in our daily living right away.  You can’t read and work through her book without getting involved – if you do manage to read through the book and your life hasn’t changed, you’ve not really read the book.  Pick it up and put it into practice – you’ll be quickly following the way of Jesus right into the world he loves.

And then there’s a movie, Reparando – you can view a trailer for the film here.  My friend and Calgary photographer Stephanie Jager-Corbel was involved in the creation of the film (she is a fabulous photographer; check her work out here).  The documentary film follows Shorty, a pastor and former gang member, and Tita, who started a school in Guatemala’s most notorious slum, as they join forces to invoke positive change and repair the country and its people.

It’s being screened in Calgary at a one night engagement on April 14 at 7:00 p.m. at the Uptown Theater (612 8 Avenue SW, Calgary, AB).  If you’re anywhere near Calgary on the fourteenth, get yourself to the Uptown.

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Redeeming spirituality?

Anyone else getting more and more uncomfortable with the word “spirituality”?  It’s not that I don’t like the word but the way its used is so frothy. It’s become a nothing word, a cagey term you can make to mean almost anything you want.  And it tends to encourage the sacred/secular divide, somehow supporting the notion that to be in touch with God, to be “spiritual,” you need to find yourself a retreat centre or ashram and generally avoid the everyday stuff of life.  If that’s what spirituality is about, it’s got nothing to do with this life or the gospel.

Someone who’s taught me so much about spirituality (in the best sense of the word), about living the Jesus way is Eugene Peterson.  A few years ago he was interviewed in Christianity Today, called “Spirituality for all the wrong reasons.” A great interview and read.

Better yet, immerse yourself in any of Eugene’s books (you can check out a sampling here).  They’re never quick reads but always rich and meaty, to be savoured and digested slowly.

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