Built into your bones

I recently finished reading Yeonmi Park’s autobiography In Order to Live. Park was born in North Korea and eventually escaped to China–where she found her mother and herself in the hands of a human trafficker. After some time they were able to make their way to South Korea. The book is an interesting read and an insightful firsthand account of life in the Hermit Kingdom, but that is not what I am going to address here. Something Park wrote, though, jumped out at me. As she was describing all of the things that she learned upon arriving in South Korea that were contradictory to what she had been taught from infancy about the incredible power of the Kim family, she wrote this:

It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your own father’s voice.

Park’s point was that even though the things she had been taught about North Korea in general and the Kim family in particular are, once you know the truth, absurd, it was difficult for her to come to terms with that at first because of what had been taught to her for so long. It had been taught by her father–and her mother–and it had been taught so long and so often that it was embedded in her. It was as she said, built into her bones and imprinted on her mind.

Now in the case of Park she was taught something that was not true and therefore the result was dangerous and debilitating. But the example still proves an excellent one for the power of teaching children from an early age. God knows this, of course, and that is exactly why He told the Israelites so many times that they were to teach their children about Him–who He is and what He has done. They were to teach them young and teach them often. It was not to be confined to the Sabbath or to special occasions, but to be an everyday part of their lives. The most familiar example comes in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which reads:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Hebrew word translated “diligently” in verse 7 above is shanan, which literally means to whet or to sharpen, like a stone, a knife or arrows. Strong’s Concordance says the word figuratively meant “to inculcate.” That is precisely what God had in mind when He gave this instruction to the Israelites and it is precisely what had happened to Yeonmi Park. Inculcate means, according to dictionary.com, “to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly.” Is synonyms are “instill, infix, ingrain.” God instructed His chosen people, and His people still today, to teach their children from an early age and with such frequency and insistence that they become inculcated with the truth.

Here is how some other translations render Deuteronomy 6:7:

  • You shall teach them diligently to your children [impressing God’s precepts on their minds and penetrating their hearts with His truths] (Amplified Bible).
  • and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time… (Contemporary English Version)
  • Repeat them to your children (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
  • You must teach them to your children (Living Bible)
  • Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children (The Message)
  • Impress them on your children (New International Version)
  • Repeat them again and again to your children (New Living Translation)

I think you get the point. Instilling a biblical worldview in children–an understanding of the world and all that is in it based firmly in the truth of God’s Word–does not happen by accident or by a one-time or even once-in-awhile instruction. It takes intentionality, repetition, consistency and perseverance. In his commentary, Joseph Benson says the verse means to teach God’s truths to children “so as that they may pierce deeply into their hearts.” Matthew Poole says the exact same thing. I like how the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges puts it though: “make incisive and impress them on thy children; rub them in.”

One of the reasons I like that in particular is that rubbing it in requires contact. It requires being up close and personal. Rubbing it in cannot be done from afar. It cannot be done only by words or by pointing the child to a book. No, rubbing it in means getting right there beside the child, rubbing shoulders, bearing burdens, opening hearts, sharing honestly, apologizing when necessary, correcting when needed.

This instruction from God to teach children consistently about Him is not limited to the Israelites nor to the Old Testament. It appears repeatedly throughout Scripture. There are multiple instances in Deuteronomy, but here are some other examples, though not an exhaustive list:

  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 71:17)
  • We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:4)
  • Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
  • Teach these things and make sure everyone learns them well. (1 Timothy 4:11, TLB)
  • But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

3 John 4 says, “I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth” (NLT). I agree with that sentiment. In keeping with the thought shared by Park, I cannot imagine any greater joy than knowing that when my children think about God’s truth it is my voice they are hearing. Oh Lord, grant me the discernment and yieledness to parent my children according to Your Word, teaching them Your way and your Truth.

Battling Porn

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Pornography is not topic that many people are comfortable talking about in an honest and forthright manner. Many people do not like to talk about it at all–at least not many people outside of a locker room or frat house gathering. For many years the church was not willing to take about it at all in any constructive manner, by which I mean saying anything beyond “it’s bad, don’t do it” (or something even more directly threatening and minimally helpful). That has changed some in recent years with Stephen Arterburn’s The Every Man Series of books, Clay Crosse’s honesty in his 2005 book I Surrender All: Rebuilding a Marriage Broken by Pornography and others. In my November 6, 2015 post Not-So-Good News I explained that the announcement that Playboy would no longer publish nude images in its magazine was good news but actually indicative of the ease with which nudity and all manner of sexual activity is now available to just about anyone just about anywhere thanks to the internet. That post also addressed some of the high costs of pornography.

In April 2016 TIME ran a cover story on the subject entitled “PORN,” with the “o” depicted as a red circle with an X in the middle of it. Belinda Luscombe’s article was subtitled “Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The article consumed five-and-a-half pages of the magazine (not including a two-page photo and headline introducing the story) and included a graph showing that there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult internet sites in February 2006, which equated to 34.7% of all U.S. internet users. Broadband internet had just reached 50% of Americans that year. in January 2016 there were 107 million monthly visitors to adult internet sites, accounting for 41.3% of all U.S. internet users. The graph also showed that in 2009 there were 22.3 billion video views on the adult video-sharing site Pornhub. In 2015 that number was 87.8 billion. In 2016 Pornhub launched a virtual reality channel.

I already told you what TIME‘s cover said for the April 11 issue. The cover page of the article, though, reads this way:

Porn and the threat to virility.” The subtitle says, “The first generation of men who grew up with unlimited online porn sound the alarm.” The lead to the story introduces Noah Church, “a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore. When he was 9, he found naked pictures on the Internet. he learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day, doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

The article then informs the reader that it did not take too long before those videos no longer aroused Church as much as they used to, “so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes involving one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman.” Church stated that he could find anything he could imagine as well as plenty that he could not imagine. Eventually the appeal and arousal from those diminished as well, and “he moved on ot the next level, more intense, often more violent.”

This is a truth that has been too often ignored over the years–that pornography is like a drug. Plenty of studies show that it has a similar effect on the brain as drug use and that, over time, the effect is diminished, requiring the user to find something stronger and more arousing in order to get the same result achieved previously. In other words, porn works just like gateway drugs which progress to stronger and more dangerous ones. Can use of porn eventually result in death, like a drug overdose? No. It could, I imagine, result in the user killing someone else as a result of acting out what was seen in the pornography or seeking to achieve a thrill by making what was fantasy a reality. I think there are a number of such stories that could be found with little effort.

The TIME article goes on to explain that when Church finally had the opportunity to “have actual sex” during his twelfth-grade year, his body would not respond. “There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how by body reacted,” he said. That was the segue into the article’s discussion of PIED–porn-induced erectile dysfunction. I had never before heard of this term or condition but, unlike some new medical diagnoses that seem to be fancy made-up terms that serve as excuses for something that is simply a matter of a lack of discipline or some other easily-corrected behavioral issue, this seems to be legitimate. I can easily imagine how regular, increasingly-graphic and extreme exposure to pornography can have a very real impact on the brain and, thus, on the rest of the body.

Luscombe describes the PIED progression like this:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.

While there are more publications–Christian and secular–openly addressing the dangers of pornography now, there is still confusion and conflicting information. The increasing availability of studies and professionals willing to address the dangers of porn are countered by plenty of studies and professionals willing to state the opposite. Just last November, for example, Dr. Sandra LaMorgese posted a blog on The Huffington Post that included the following:

Studies have shown no increase in rape or other sexual deviance due to porn viewing. There is also no apparent connection between excessive porn viewing and sex addiction. In fact, it might be good for you if used properly: a 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender. One interesting find was that the more hardcore the videos were, the more positive the person’s view on sex tended to be.

Now, LaMorgese’s byline includes the, shall we say interesting, description that she is “Author, Podcast Host, Sexpert, Metaphysician, Keynote Speaker, Holistic Practitioner, Ordained Reverend” so maybe her thoughts on The Huffington Post are not the best source. Fair enough. How about this from TheHealthSite.com in February 2014:

In the last decade or so, it’s become quite fashionable for people to throw around big words like dopamine addiction and blame everything from the rise of sex crime to erectile dysfunction on porn. However, research suggests that sex addiction is not similar to cocaine or alcohol addiction, in fact there’s no proof that it reflects any unique brain-related issue at all. A study which looked to prove sex addiction was an illness, actually found the opposite. A new study claims that there really is no such thing as porn addiction and those who say it actually ignore the positive benefits of porn. The study has found very little scientific data to suggest that porn actually even causes any negative side-effects. ‘There was no sign that use of pornography is connected to erectile dysfunction or that it causes any changes to the brains of users,’ explained David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions – a large behavioural health programme.

In a 2010 post on the Psychology Today web site entitled “Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental?” the findings of a 2008 paper written by Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth are summarized like this:

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

And, in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times Candida Royalle began with the statement “Watching pornography is not inherently harmful to men or women.” She went on to provide some potential benefits derived from the use of pornography before also saying of sex or porn addiction, “I don’t believe in it.” In the same online debate in which Royalle offered her opinion, Ana Bridges, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas played Tevye by writing, “Can pornography harm users? Yes, in some cases it can, but in the vast majority of cases it does not. Can pornography be beneficial? Absolutely, but many times it is not.” In the same debate, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headlined her opinion piece “Pornography Can Be Empowering to Women Onscreen.”

I mention all of this to make sure that we understand that, despite the increasing prevalence of voices opposing porn and exposing its negative effects, there still are–and always will be–those who say that’s all a bunch of baloney and porn is harmless and worst and beneficial at best. We can never hope that the world is going to reach the conclusion that something that sin is sin. In my previous blog post linked above I stated that “only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn.” That remains true. There may be movements within the world that oppose porn and offer solutions for porn addictions, and those can be beneficial. Luscombe’s article provides a number of examples, describing “online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn” all of which are being created by men who have traditionally been “from the same demographic as [porn’s] most enthusiastic customers.” Noah Church, with whom Luscombe led her article, now “devoted about 20 hours a week to trying to help others eliminate porn from their lives.” Such efforts are admirable. Porn is not going to go away, and if you are a firm believer in free speech you may have a hard time even arguing that it should, but there are still reasonable means for limiting its availability. Luscombe describes one such effort coming from Utah state senator Todd Weiler, who said, “We’ve changed how we’ve approached tobacco, not by banning it but by putting reasonable restrictions in place.” There are reasonable ways to limit the access of pornography from public places and to minimize the exposure of children and teenagers to pornography.

Even then, though, there will be real work for the church to do. There will still be a need for candor and uncomfortable conversations. There will still be a need to find ways to help those struggling with porn be willing to acknowledge that and work through it. There will need to be a change from the judgment and condemnation that has traditionally been associated with any discussion of this topic.

The articles in the August 2016 issue of Tabletalk magazine are devoted to the topic of addiction. They are not dealing specifically with porn addiction, but the principles and recommendations in the articles are relevant. The first article is by Ed Welch and is titled “Addictions and Idolatry.” His article begins like this:

“I want”–addictions start here. Then, though small steps, want becomes need. There is no recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.

That explains why porn is so prevalent and is not going away. The word says that sexual pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction and porn is one way to achieve that “desired object or state of mind.” Welch later writes that “We are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable.” Heath Lambert, in another article in the Tabletalk issue, writes, “God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better master who brings freedom from slavery.” In yet another article, Michael Morales writes, “God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification.” He goes on to explain, “The ‘putting off’ aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice,” while “the ‘putting on’ aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.” My post Besetting Sins from earlier this month talks about these issues as well, and includes discussion about how to overcome sin.

May we who profess the name of Christ become bold in our willingness to acknowledge and confront issues like pornography and do it in a loving but uncompromising manner. May God grant us the willingness and surrenderedness to defeat sins like porn addiction and replace such “compulsive searches for a desired object or state” with “training in godliness” and “the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.”

Good for the goose…

In his lead column in the April 30 issue of WORLD Magazine Joel Belz, the magazine’s founder, takes to task Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, for his decision to cancel plans to build a global operations center in Charlotte, NC. Schulman’s decision was made in response to the passage of a law in North Carolina that, according to the Washington Times, was “decried by activists as being among the most extreme anti-LGBT measures in the country.” The law was passed by the North Carolina legislature, and signed by the governor, in response to an ordinance passed by the Charlotte city government to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from being discriminated against by businesses. The state law, which of course supersedes the local law, prohibits local governments from putting in place such measures on their own. Accordingly, transgender individuals may not use restrooms according to the gender identity but must, instead, use restrooms according to their gender at birth.

This is an issue which has received plenty of attention elsewhere, including in this blog, so I am not going to go there. Instead, I want to talk about Belz’s charge that Shulman and PayPal are behaving like “neighborhood bullies” by “throwing their weight around.” Belz says the decision is a prime example of “argumentum ad baculum – or an appeal to force.” He goes on to say that “almost every time you sense that it’s happening, you should sound the alarm and note that somebody’s changed the subject and is trying to win the day using an argument where force, coercion–or, more typically, the threat of force–is its main justification.”

In other words, Belz says that Shulman and PayPal are playing unfair, using their power to withhold a proposed new project that would inject millions of dollars into the North Carolina economy and provide an estimated 400 jobs. Belz uses rather strong language to cry foul. For example, he writes:

In the current high-profile debate over the rights and privileges society should extend to people in the so-called LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) segment of our population, it would be one thing to arrive at tolerable conclusions through traditional discussion and debate–in the appropriate legislative settings, and in the political processes through which those legislative settings are staffed. … It is something altogether different, though, to have to reckon with the clumsy demands of corporate entities that have no accountability in the various settings where they have become so intrusive and noisy. Who is PayPal–and who are their corporate colleagues? How do we know what these companies’ policies are? When they come thundering in to tell us which of our policies are OK with them and which ones aren’t, what redress do we have? If they have the right to shape our future so profoundly, do we have any reciprocal rights to shape their futures as well?

Belz goes on to say that he does not deny the freedom of such companies to intrude because “that’s the price tag of liberty sometimes.” Yet, he also concludes, “neither do we have to pretend they are being anything close to helpful citizens.”

This is where I have to question the premise of Mr. Belz. Why is it being a neighborhood bully when PayPal decides not to locate a major portion of its business in a state with laws it disagrees with, but it is fine for Christians (and others) to boycott businesses with policies or practices or products they disagree with? How can we argue PayPal is being unfair by not locating an office in North Carolina yet also argue that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to those whose lifestyles they believe are sinful? Why should it be an appropriate exercise of individual liberty or religious protection for a bakery owner to refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding or for a farm to refuse to host a lesbian wedding, but it’s “throwing their weight around” when PayPal says, “because we disagree with this law, we will not locate our business in your state”? After all, PayPal did not say they would close all locations they already have in North Carolina. They did not say they will no longer provide services to North Carolina clients or residents.

If the multitudinous posts I have seen on Facebook about the number of people who have pledged not to shop at Target because of their new policy on bathroom usage are to be believed then there are hundreds of thousands of people–perhaps even a million–who say they will no longer shop at Target. Now I am just as unhappy about the Target policy as anyone else I know. I think it is a foolish policy. To the point Mr. Belz made, I suspect that Target’s policies may change if their bottom line is adversely impacted by an effective boycott. But how is it not using force for one million people to say they will no longer shop at Target because of it’s policy, but it is force for PayPal to not open a new office in North Carolina and employ 400 people there? Mr. Belz and others who are bothered or offended by the PayPal decision could certainly choose to boycott PayPal as well if they would like.

No doubt many suggest that it is not the same thing. A few people–even a whole bunch of people–cannot carry the same weight or have the same impact as a powerful multinational corporation. I don’t know, though. The use of boycotts have been quite successful in the past when there were wrongs that, through sheer numbers, were eventually righted. The Montgomery bus boycott may be among the most famous examples, but there have been boycotts throughout history. The colonists boycotted British tea and other goods during the colonial era. The United States and other nations have boycotted the Olympics as a sign of protest at different times. I canceled a subscription to a magazine in the late 1990s because it included an advertisement that was explicitly targeted at a gay audience, or at generating support for the gay lifestyle, and it offended me. The power of the purse is an effective and influential one. It is contradictory and silly, however, to suggest that it is okay for individuals to boycott businesses but not for businesses to boycott (or choose not to locate in) states with laws they do not like. It is ridiculous to support boycotts of Target but get up in arms over boycotts of Chick-fil-A. That’s the trouble with free speech–to protect your right to free speech, you have to protect the right of those who disagree with you to have their say, too. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Will you be my friend?

I was recently teaching my U.S. History students about life in the United States during the early 20th century. One of the points I made was the very close same-sex friendships were common at that time. Not coincidentally, I also explained that homosexual behavior was illegal at the time, even though there were urban areas where it was fairly common. This got me to thinking that close same-sex friendships seem fairly uncommon in 21st century America. I do wonder whether or not the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has anything to do with that, because there is no denying that those who are not homosexual may fear the perception of homosexual tendencies if they have very close–shall we say intimate (in the non-sexual, non-physical meaning)–same-sex friends. If that is the primary reason for the lack of such friendships that is another sad result of the increasing embrace of homosexual behavior and identity.

Still, I think there is more to the problem than that. I think it is far to say that there is very little instruction, in schools, churches or families, about what it means to be a friend. Sure, we teach broad-stroke lessons about being honest, sharing toys, not lying and so on, but, other than a series of devotionals on friendship that a colleague shared a few months ago, I cannot remember the last time I heard a message or a serious lesson on what it means to be a friend. Search “friendship” on Amazon.com and you will get some 86,500 results. Nearly 54,000 of those, however, are children’s books or works of fiction. Still, that leaves more than 32,000 books on the subject that do not fall into those categories. So what do those thousands of books have to offer?

Well, when I narrow down the results to the “Relationships” category and then request that the results be sorted according to “most reviews” the top results are the well-known How to Win Friends and Influence People (which is not exactly about deep, meaningful friendships), Tuesdays With Morrie (a heartwarming account of a specific friendship and the impact it had on Mitch Albom but, again, not really a how-to book on friendship), Jane Austen’s Emma (which really should be in the fiction/literature category), Matched (a science fiction/fantasy novel also erroneously categorized), An Invisible Thread (which looks like it may be interesting, but along the same lines as Tuesdays), and Little Women (again, miscategorized). Among the top fifty results it appears to me that only two are possibly anywhere close to what I have in mind when I say a book about what it means to be a friend and to develop a deep, meaningful friendship. Both of those, by the way, are about relationships in general rather than the unique relationship of friendship in particular. The books I found in my search that seemed they were about friendships specifically were all targeted at friendship among women. I did finally find two books that are focused on male friendships, and while I have read neither the descriptions seem promising. They were Breaking the Male Code by Robert Garfield and Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendship by Geoffrey Greif. The only book I found in my search–which was not, I will grant, exhaustive–that seemed like it might be along the lines of what I was looking for without being gender specific was The Art of Being a Good Friend by Hugh Black. I may have to check that out.

Last November Janie B. Cheaney wrote, “Stranded in a landscape of ferocious individualism, with families and communities falling apart all around, it might be time for the church to develop a theology of friendship.” I think Cheaney is absolutely correct, and her terminology gave me another search term for my Amazon quest. Searching “theology of friendship,” however, did not yield much either. There were some results–320 to be exact–but most of them were about two friends exploring their differences, about the trials of “celibate gay Christians,” about friendship with Jesus and about specific friendships, such as with a disabled individual. There were a few books that looked they may come close to what I was hoping to find but it was obvious they were not all that popular. Martin Marty wrote a book in 1980 called, simply, Friendship. It is available from four different sellers for the staggeringly small sum of one penny and it is sitting around 2.8 million on the Amazon bestseller list. Gary Inrig’s 1988 book Quality Friendship, published in 1988, seemed like another possible match. There are six sellers offering it at one cent, but it is some 2.3 million places higher on the bestseller list than Marty’s book. I was curious if there were any recent books that might approximate what I was hoping to find and I discovered that Adam Holland’s Friendship Established was released just yesterday–in e-book only, it appears. Skimming the first five pages of results revealed nothing else.

Where to look next? Google, of course. There I found the work of a fellow WordPress blogger whose blog is entitled Resolution 28 (which comes from Jonathan Edwards). It included an excellent post entitled “Theology of Friendship.” The author of the blog, identified only as “bc,” wrote this:

Yet there is a gaping hole in the church’s theology of friendship. Some may not know what genuine Christian friendships are supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to feel like. Even more disconcerting is that many people know mentally what good, Christ-centered friendships are supposed to be like yet half-heartedly implement those concepts into their own lives. We often hear stories of Christians who hold grudges, gossip, and take advantage of each other–I’ve seen them and I’ve been a part of them–and often times those associated are the ones who attend church regularly!  It seems that too often our friendships are characterized by actions–the giving, the smiling, and the joking–and not enough by our heart for one another. It’s admittedly easy to act like friends on the surface level and it’s surprisingly difficult to be a genuine friend.

That shows tremendous insight, and is exactly along the lines of what I was feeling and hoping to find addressed elsewhere. It appears he wrote six posts in his series on the Theology of Friendship and I look forward to reading them.

I am no expert on friendship, that’s certain. I surely could have been a better friend on many occasions in my life. Another point “bc” made in his post excerpted above is that pride is the chief reason why there are not more deep, meaningful friendships among men in particular, and I am afraid he is right. After all, a deep and meaningful friendship–an intimate friendship–is one which requires transparency, vulnerability, honesty, patience, forgiveness and more. Indeed, intimate friendship requires many of the same things a successful marriage requires yet without the physical intimacy and without the formalized commitment. Therein, no doubt, is part of the problem–anyone can walk away from a “friend” at any time. There are no strings attached, no contracts to break. When the friend gets on your nerves, or when being his friend becomes unpopular, inconvenient or difficult, why bother? That probably sounds cynical but I would challenge you to reflect on your own life, the friendships you have had, and then tell me you cannot count yourself among the guilty.

While I am no expert on friendship, I am fortunate to claim a number of true friends. Not a lot, mind you, and I do not think it is all that reasonable to imagine that anyone can–should?–have an abundance of intimate friends. But these are friends whom I could tell anything, I think, without fearing that they would abandon me. In fact, I feel confident that, if necessary, they would challenge or confront me, telling me I need to get my act together. I can also say that at least once in my life I was decent enough to be that friend to someone else, and never once did I regret doing so. Sure, there were some awkward times when I was not sure what to say and when I was not sure how he would respond when I did say something, but our friendship endured. Endures.

It was same-sex friendships that got me thinking about this subject, but I am not convinced that intimate friends must be of the same sex. Sure, there are some potential dangers in having an intimate friend of the opposite sex, but the same can be true of same-sex friends. In fact, among my intimate friends I have both men and women. The nature of opposite-sex intimate friendships could no doubt be explored at length, and perhaps I will tackle that someday, too. But not today.

For now, I encourage you to think about whether or not you have any intimate friends and if not, why not. I encourage you, if you are a parent, to teach your children what it means to truly be a friend. If you are a pastor, I encourage you to consider preaching on friendship. If you are not a pastor, I encourage you to ask your pastor to preach on friendship. Oh, and no matter who you are, if you ever do find a really good book on friendship, please share the title with me.

Here’s to friends.

My Year in Books-2015

My annual review of my year in books is the post I receive the most comments on face-to-face. Readers tell me they enjoy and look forward to it every year. It is a favorite of mine, too—I enjoy looking back over the list of books I read during the past year and recalling what I learned, liked and disliked. In 2015 I did, once again, surpass fifty books for the year, ending with fifty-four (and a quarter—more on that quarter later). So, without further ado, here is the overview. As always, the books are grouped primarily by genre rather than by the order in which I read them, not all fifty-four books are included, and none are reviewed extensively for sake of space.

I will start with what many would call classic fiction. Despite referencing it in my teaching for many years, I had never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I have now rectified that. It is worth reading and worthy of its classic status. It does provide an interesting look at the life of immigrant workers and the meatpacking industry. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run provides a glimpse into the life of someone who seems unable to get past the fact that his success in high school basketball is not going to carry him through life. The search for the thrill and fulfillment he experienced there, though, leads him to make some poor choices, and if nothing else the book serves as a lesson in the folly of thinking that real happiness can be found in self-gratification. I had read it before, but a debacle over the merits of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath being read by students in a Christian high school English class led me to read the book again. My own opinion remains that the book has merit and provides an abundance of teachable moments, but I do understand and respect the opinion of those who do not agree. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which I had not read before, proved a reasonable alternative for 20th-century American literature. The book reminded me in many ways of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and it can certainly produce excellent discussion on the subject of marriage.

The quest for ideal American lit for Christian school students led me to read or re-read each of the following, as well: John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I found all worthwhile reading and conducive to meaningful discussion.

Each year I set my sights on one of the greatest classics I have yet to read, and in 2015 that was Don Quixote. Suffice it to say that I did not enjoy it, do not recommend it and struggle to grasp why it is considered one of the all-time greats. I found most of it absurdly silly and ridiculously long. The same objective could have been accomplished in a book one-third the length (or less). It did not help matters that the translation I was reading did not adhere to normal rules of English grammar, resulting in extreme run-on sentences and other challenges. It took me five months to finally finish the book, and even then I had to force myself to read 100 page increments in between other books I read during that time.

In the genre of contemporary fiction, my 2015 reading included Elaine Neil Orr’s A Different Sun, about a well-bred southern woman who marries a former Texas lawman-turned-missionary and joins him in missionary work in Africa. This book, too, could produce interesting discussions about marriage and love, as well as dealing with temptation and the many challenges of evangelizing an unknown land. Jolina Petersheim’s The Outcast was my first foray into Amish fiction and it was presented in the review I read as a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter. While there are some similarities, I think that is an overly generous comparison. Still, the book did present opportunity to grapple with hypocrisy, the cost of sin, the meaning of forgiveness and the impact of bitterness among other topics. Someone gave me Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and encouraged me to read it, so I did. The story is interesting in parts but invites the reader to follow a dangerous path of looking for omens to direct one’s life and “listening to one’s heart.” I would not recommend it for those immature in their faith, as it could prove problematic. Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, though, gives insight into life in Victorian-era Chile and in Gold Rush California. It also provides a look at the lengths to which someone who believes they are in love will go to find their soulmate.

I don’t recall how I came to read Laird Hunt’s Neverhome and I am not sure I liked it. The book tells the story of a woman who fought in the Civil War, disguised as a man, leaving her husband at home. It does not make it clear right away that that is what is happening—the reader is left to figure that out. Women, of course, did fight in the war, and the book provides an interesting look into the challenges they faced in doing so. However, the book never makes clear why the main character’s husband stayed at home and makes him out as a sissy, quite frankly. Perhaps the blatant abandonment of proper male and female roles is why I ultimately disliked the book.

I was sorely disappointed with Harper Lee’s Go, Set a Watchman. I did not find it particularly well-written and it left me disliking Atticus Finch–I would have been content to keep liking him.

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, on the other hand, was quite enjoyable. It is the first of Doerr’s books I have read, but his interweaving of the lives of a blind French girl and a German boy during the period Germany occupied France in WWII was captivating. Particularly agreeable is the love shown between father and daughter.

I always have a number of entries in the mystery and crime fiction genre and 2015 was no exception. Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet was an engaging tale that I enjoyed, but it fell victim to too many convenient unlikelihoods that made the ending somewhat unsatisfying. Alafair Burke’s Long Gone was a fun and pleasing read, as was Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country.

Then, too, there are always a number of books by authors I read annually—as most of them can be counted on to provide at least one book a year. David Baldacci’s The Escape is a typical Baldacci page-turner that would be enjoyed by any of his fans. Jeffrey Archer’s Mightier Than the Sword was the latest installment in his Clifton Chronicles and was generally as enjoyable as the others. The next book in the series is out next month, I believe. James Patterson can be counted on for quick reads, and NYPD Red 2 and NYPD Red 3 both fit that bill (and both were co-written with Marshall Karp). John Grisham’s Theodore Boone: The Fugitive was an expectedly consistent addition that series of juvenile fiction.

Among Baldacci, Grisham and Patterson, all three had new books out late in the year, and the three of them are grouped in Amazon’s “frequently bought together” feature. In these three offerings, the authors apparently felt compelled to inject current affairs into their novels. Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer is probably the book I like least of all of Grisham’s efforts, and I have read them all. The book seems like a combination of short stories slapped together in an effort to hit on all of the hot-button issues of the day while cranking out a legal thriller—cage fighting, human trafficking, homosexuality (the main character’s wife left him for a woman and works in a law firm full of raging lesbians), police brutality and more. Even worse, the book contains some of the most implausible plot twists Grisham has used since his conclusion to The Firm.

Baldacci’s The Guilty continues his Will Robie/Jessica Reel series and is centered around Robie going home for the first time since high school to (1) find out why his father has been arrested for murder, and (2) deal with some inner demons that cropped up after a successful assassination mission at the start of the book unintentionally included killing the target’s young daughter. Homosexuality is not a main theme of the book, though it does come up, and Baldacci creates a character—a physician in Robie’s hometown—who gives away Bibles among other efforts at righting the wrongs of his father. When he helps Robie crack a coded message based on Leviticus he gives a Bible to Robie. He explains that Leviticus contains one of the passages that has created such a fuss when it comes to homosexuality and says something to the effect of, “I don’t believe everything in this book. It has some great stuff, but it’s time we realize we’re in the 21st-century and ignore biblical injunctions against homosexual activity.” That the one character in the book who seems to possibly care about biblical truth takes this approach to the Word is disappointing. The book also includes reference—though not explicit—to child molestation and incest.

Patterson’s Cross Justice was apparently written by Patterson alone, a rarity for Patterson books these days. Frankly, Patterson would be well served to allow a little more time to pass between the events Alex Cross deals with in his life full of one crisis after another. This book, too, takes some incredibly unlikely plot twists and includes some truly absurd actions that ultimately go unpunished. Still, the book is interesting overall and, like all Patterson offerings, a quick read. This book includes a split personality male whose alter-persona is a female. It was refreshing to see that Patterson presents this cross dressing persona as a result of nurture, not nature and of mental instability. I feared from the beginning that it would go the other, more politically-correct route.

In the biography category, Terry Teachout’s Duke is a comprehensive and well-written biography of Duke Ellington, perhaps the greatest American jazz composer. Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions, a biography of British poet and abolitionist Hannah More, was well-written and interesting. Prior to reading this book, More to me was nothing more than a name that had appeared in biographies of William Wilberforce. David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is the latest in McCullough’s long line of well-crafted biographies. I have spent a considerable amount of time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first flights so have always had an interest in the brothers, but this book only heightened that interest. It also prompted me to plan my summer vacation travel to include a visit to Dayton, OH where the Wright brothers grew up, had their bicycle shop and eventually perfected manned flight.

Rifqa Bary’s autobiography Hiding in the Light is a captivating account that will both challenge and aggravate you. It will challenge you to reconsider your own faith and how strong it really is while aggravating you to see what Bary went through with Social Services after running away from home for fear of her life.

As I do every year, I read a number of history books last year. Gregory Coco’s Wasted Valor is an attempt at understanding how the Confederate dead at Gettysburg were treated. This is a unique and necessary part of Civil War history, but the book gets tedious at times and would likely not be of interest to anyone who is not a devoted Civil War buff. Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom is a mostly-fascinating (though at times tedious) history of the Underground Railroad. Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men is the most thorough account of the constitutional convention I have ever read and is well worth reading for anyone interested in that transformational summer.

Thomas Bogar’s Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is an absorbing look at the actors and theatre employees who were present when Lincoln was shot and how that event impacted their lives. That brings me, as well, to the “and a quarter” I referenced at the start. Robert Summers’ The Assassin’s Doctor includes a 160-page biography of Dr. Samuel Mudd, which I read. Mudd is the physician who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth assassinated Lincoln. Though it is unlikely Mudd knew about the assassination ahead of time, he was sentenced to life in prison for his role in aiding Booth’s escape. Andrew Johnson pardoned him, however, just before he left office, meaning Mudd served not quite four years. The book, however, also includes some 500 pages of primary source material, including letters to and from Mudd, trial documents and much more. It would be a treasure trove for anyone interested in Mudd. I am interested in Mudd, both because of my interest in Civil War history and because I grew up just a few miles from Mudd’s house. When I entered school on my first day of kindergarten it was at Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary School (which also tells you more than a little about the sentiments and sympathies of those in southern Maryland!). So while I read the 160-page biography, I have not read all of the documents Summers included.

Nathaniel Philbrick and Erik Larson write history books that read more like novels—and that is meant as a high compliment. Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea is a fascinating account of the whaling ship Essex. In addition to a thorough accounting of the tragic final voyage of that ship and the impact it had on the men who survived, the book forces readers to consider what man is capable of doing when staring almost certain death in the face. I have not yet seen Ron Howard’s film adaptation of this book but look forward to doing so. Larson’s Dead Wake was a compelling account of the sinking of the Lusitania, interweaving perspectives from the U.S., Great Britain and Germany. Fascinating characters abound, and the look into the secret British intelligence office alone makes the book worth reading. In the Garden of Beasts is an older one of Larson’s books (2011) but equally intriguing. I recommend it for anyone interested in WWII history, and especially to anyone who has ever wondered how no one could have seen what Hitler was doing in Germany.

In the category of leadership, Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership was a worthwhile read but offered little that was truly new insight. Good reminders, though. Theodore Kowalski’s The School Superintendent is really a textbook, but it is one of the best and most practical books I have ever read on the subject (despite being written for public school administrators), while Gene Frost’s short book Learning From the Best, Volume 2 takes secular business insight and applies it to the Christian school.

In the area of Christian living, my 2015 reading included Max Lucado’s Before Amen (a helpful book on effective prayer written in typical Lucado fashion), Nancy Ortberg’s Looking for God (an interesting read I did not agree with entirely and well summed-up in its sub-title, Slightly Unorthodox, Highly Unconventional, and Entirely Unexpected Thoughts about Faith), John Ortberg’s All the Places to Go…How Will You Know? (a book consistent with Ortberg’s style of addressing meaty spiritual matters in an easy-to-read and sometimes lighthearted manner), Edward Welch’s Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love (a practical guide for effectively coming alongside those who are hurting for one reason or another), John MacArthur’s The Truth War (an exposition of Jude and highly relevant for this day), Kevin Leman’s The Way of the Wise (a book in typical Leman fashion about applying practical biblical life lessons), and Jamie Snyder’s Thou Shall (a short book focusing on all the things the Bible tells us we should be doing, challenging the reader not to focus on all of the things the Bible says we should not be doing).

In March I finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a book I have been meaning to read for years but kept putting off. Some of it I liked and some of it I did not. I found that Miller addresses topics few other Christian writers are willing to address. Sometimes that is refreshing and necessary. Other times it is because they should not be addressed. I also found Miller unnecessarily crude at times. Even if that is his effort at “being real,” I found it off-putting. After discussing the book with a friend, said friend then loaned me two of Miller’s other books, Through Painted Deserts and Searching for God Knows What. The previously stated opinion of Miller’s writing was only reinforced in these two volumes, though the latter of these two books did include an excellent chapter on Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet in particular) that would be beneficial for anyone wanting to bring biblical integration into a study of that most famous of all Shakespeare plays.

I read only one political book in 2015, but if your political leanings are at all like mine, Rick Santorum’s Blue Collar Conservatives will leave you wishing Santorum had a place on the main stage for the GOP debates rather than being stuck in the undercard round.

I think that just about sums up my 2015 in books. Thanks for sticking with this post to the end. Please feel free to share your own recommendations for books I should read, or your thoughts on any of those referenced here, and stay tuned next year for another review of my year in books.

Friendship

Last month Tabletalk magazine included a devotional entitled “True Friendship.” It was based on Proverbs 17:17, which reminds us that a friend loves at all times. The writer of the devotional, though, went deeper than that verse in examining what friendship really is. He started off reminding us of the tremendous irony of the day in which we live–the fact that “we live in a world that is both more connected and more disconnected than ever before. Smartphones, social media, e-mail and other technologies make it simple to stay in contact with friends and loved ones even when they live thousands of miles away. And yet, there is a dearth of true intimacy.” This is certainly true, and I have explored this phenomenon in this space before. Social media and other communications technology can be a two-edged sword, providing wonderful benefits but also tremendous problems. Some of those problems come from the comparisons that inevitably result from the almost constant viewing of Facebook status updates and tweets among our contacts. Some of the problems come from the fact that we can communicate with almost anyone instantly yet we seem to have deep, meaningful conversations less and less frequently.

Another of the problems is identified by the Tabletalk writer this way: “With the click of a mouse we can be listed as the friend of someone whom we have never met–and probably never will meet–in person.” I am sure I am not alone in restricting my social media “friends” to people I really do know, but there is a large contingent of folks who like to see how high they can get that friend number. (I also know I am not alone in having received numerous “friend requests” from people I have never heard of, perhaps only because we have one “mutual friend”). Are all of my Facebook friends intimate friends? Of course not. But at least I really do know them all. The writer also mentions the challenge these days of having a “close friend of the same gender without raising suspicions of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be tragic if the single-digit percentile of the American population that claims to be homosexual could have really warped our view of human interaction to the point that two men or two women cannot be close friends without being suspected of being sexually involved? Of course, the inverse has long been true, as well–there were suspicions of “something more” when a male and female were close friends. Indeed, I have heard some people suggest that a male and a female cannot be close friends without it leading to something more, whether that “more” be sexual behavior, inappropriate non-sexual intimacy or just confusion and hurt feelings.

The devotional writer states that Scripture “offers a key corrective” to the problems of human friendship by “offering us a high view of human friendship. [Proverbs 17:17] lauds the benefit of true friendship, a relationship in which we receive love from another at our best and at our worst.” I would suggest that precisely because of this, true friendships are quite finite in number. Some people have hundreds of acquaintances and scores of friends, yet when they hit a real crisis they do not know who to call because they have no true, real, lasting friends, friends who will stick with them through the hard times, come along side during adversity, believe the best and stay true through the worst. If you do have friends like that–and I hope you do–I suspect you could count them on one hand, or certainly on two. “Our friendships are harmed and often destroyed when our friends reveal their flaws,” the devotional writer states. “Sadly, this means that our friendships are often quite tenuous, prompting us to look for a friendship that is secure because it is not based on what the other person finds lovely in us. The only one who can provide this friendship is Jesus Christ.”

I would posit that the only one who can provide this friendship perfectly is Jesus Christ, but it is possible to have human friends that do not run away when we reveal flaws, when we fall flat on our faces (literally or figuratively), when we do mess up or behave like a jerk. Certainly we have all had friendships that ended suddenly when circumstances changed, whether they be grades in school, new friends coming on the scene, interests shifting, opinions conflicting or whatever. These were seldom deep, meaningful friendships in the first place. If, however, you have been blessed to have longtime friends who have remained your friends even through challenges, disagreements and screw ups then you are truly blessed, and you have experienced Proverbs 17:17 in a very personal way.

My recent hiatus from blogging was due to a family vacation. During that time I was able to visit two longtime friends, one whom I have known for probably twenty-two years now, I guess, and another whom I have known for seventeen. I do not see either of these individuals often. In fact, one I had not seen in three years and the other I had not seen in perhaps ten. One I stay in fairly regular contact with through e-mails, the other I seldom communicate with. Still, based on our longtime friendships and past experience in both instances, I believe I could confide in both of those friends and turn to each of them for help in a real crisis in my life–even if it was a crisis of my own making. I think I know both of them well enough to know that they would be honest with me if I messed up but they would also help me get out of the mess rather than walking away. Interestingly, going back to one of the points discussed above, one of these friends is male and the other is female. Both friendships have had bumps, including some caused by own stupidity at times. (It really is incredible how much harm our tongues can do, isn’t it?) Repentance and forgiveness are wonderful things though, and stupidity does not have to be a friendship-ender in true, meaningful friendships. I have hundreds of Facebook friends and untold acquaintances and contacts through personal and professional life, but I have a handful of real, deep, true friends. I am blessed and encouraged by them. Some are male, some are female. When we get out of the way of ourselves and put our own preferences and opinions aside long enough to realize that the world does not revolve around us, to recognize that the love Jesus has for us is based on absolutely nothing we could ever do to merit, deserve or sustain it, it is possible to have such friendships. It is not easy; like I said, you will probably not have many of them. Do not, though, let the fact that it is not easy deter you. Do not let possible questions of “something more” interfere with the development and maintenance of real friendships with others of the same or the opposite sex. Do not let Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and texting be your only connection with your “friends.” Do not run the other way when you find your friends are not perfect. After all, you are not, either. Neither am I.

A Blog Post A Day…

With my last post I reached a milestone. You could now read one of my posts each day and have it take you a full year to get through them all. That is something I am not sure I ever imagined would happen when I started blogging a few years ago, but I suppose it is rather neat. When I started I did it because I thought it would be a nice opportunity to share my thoughts on a few things. I had no specific expectation as to how many people would read it, or even that anyone would read it. I was not very good a self-promotion then, nor am I now. Very rarely do I volunteer the information that I have a blog. Yet, it gets found and people do read it. In the world of blogs, mine is pretty insignificant. Some blogs have millions of followers and tens of millions of visits all time. My blog is followed by just under 100 people–many of whom I do not even know–and has received about 16,500 visits in all, with a single-day high of 204 visits. Interestingly enough, the most viewed post all all so far has been Checking My Gig Line, actually a pretty short post. Yet it has more than 150 more views than the runner up. Most surprising to me is that my blog has been viewed by people in 84 different countries. True, 74 of those countries have fewer than ten views each, but it’s still kinda neat. Perhaps most significant is that the number of viewers and visits continues to increase each year. I suppose that means that people think that at least every once in a while I have something meaningful to say!

Ultimately, this is not about the views, viewers, followers, etc. To be perfectly honest with you, most of my blogging is just me thinking out loud, processing through my fingers on the keyboard something that I read, saw or have been thinking about. Rarely do I look at the stats. In fact, until looking at them to make this post I cannot remember when I looked at them last. And the reality is, in the world in which we live, there will continue to be plenty of things for me to blog about for the foreseeable future. There have been probably five or six things today, in fact, and I have not even had much time to look around or see what’s in the news. So, for now anyway, I’ll keep on writing. It’s good therapy for me if nothing else. And, when you feel so inclined, I thank you for reading. If, from time to time, I give you something to think about, challenge your thinking a bit or expose you to something for the first time, that will be a plus. I do not get many comments, and that’s okay. I suspect that those bloggers who get comments by the dozens either stop reading them or get worn out by them anyway. Still, if you have a comment or a thought to share sometime, please do. I may just lead to another post!

Bruce Jenner Is Not A Hero

This is articulate and thoughtfully written. I could not have said it better myself.

Illuminating Truth

I generally try to steer clear of controversial issues on here. Most are so deeply embedded in presuppositions that writing about them generally just generates more anger and frustration than meaningful discussion. However, I never want to shy away from speaking something that needs to be said even if I know it is not something people want to hear. So, I want to talk about Bruce Jenner.

Today, Bruce Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, dressed as a woman and introducing himself to the world as “Caitlyn Jenner.” You see, he has decided that he is a woman and that by saying it and probably some very extensive surgery, he can make it so. In today’s world, we think gender is something we get to choose, like our career path or our clothes. So, people across the nation have lauded him as a hero. Certainly, this is the…

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Words

Humbled though I am by the number of people who read my thoughts in this space, I do wonder, fairly often, if there is really any point. Nothing I may say here is going to change the world. While the number of readers may seem impressive to me at times, in the grand scheme of things they do not even reach the level of “a drop in the bucket.” Maybe, just maybe, a drop in the ocean. So does it really matter? Is there any point? I am still not sure, but I keep doing it. And if you’ll pardon my candor, I do it more for me than I do for you. Frankly, I find it therapeutic and good mental exercise. I like the way blogging makes me think through things more carefully and develop cogent arguments and support for my positions. I like that it makes me seriously consider “the other side.” Having said that, I should also mention that these posts are mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff. I do not outline what I will say, I do not read over it and I do not edit it. In occasion I will look back over something and catch a typo or a word I left out, and sometimes my wife will make me aware of the same, and in those instances I will make the correction. In nearly 350 posts here, though, I bet that has happened maybe ten times. So here is my disclaimer: these are not edited, are not polished, and should not be considered exemplars of great writing!

Now why did I say all of that? I said it because a column by Mindy Belz at the end of 2014 reminded me of the importance of words. Mrs. Belz, who writes a regular column and is also an editor of WORLD, no doubt sees all manner of words, from the good to the bad, the splendid to the sloppy, the crucial to the worthless. By her own admission, she receives more than ten thousand e-mails on any given day. Just the act of deleting all of the worthless ones would be a significant time killer! Combining that with the fact that she literally makers her living with words, Belz has a unique perspective on the importance and power of the written language. In her column, she wrote, “[T]he throng of a media-saturated world and the blare of nonstop information can seem more oppressive, more full of noisy gong and clanging cymbal than ever.” How true that is, and no wonder it caused me to reflect on whether there is really any point to all of these words I have posted here over the past few years.

“Scripture has plenty to say,” Belz wrote, “about how we communicate, and models a variety of forms. Recounting history and waxing poetic–even romantic–all have their place, along with harsh admonition and R-rated graphic details of real life in a fallen world. Sarcasm and humor? Those too. But the forms are formed and the point is: Have a point. Speak with purpose. In this day that might mean pausing to think what I hope to accomplish in 140 characters, rather than simply increasing my Twitter followers.”

As I said, this is mostly therapeutic for me, not any intention to increase followers. Still, I choose to get my therapy on a public stage rather than in a private journal, so I would be deluding myself and you if I pretended that I do not hope anyone reads what I write. I am thankful for those that do, and I hope, at least the majority of the time, you can see that I do have a point. If I do not, let me know. If I make a point that you do not think needs to be made, feel free to let me know that, too. Some of you have done that on occasion, and I appreciate it.

Belz ended her column with this: “Brevity isn’t boss, but it shows thoughtfulness. And whether you Facebook, Tweet, Gchat, or hit Slack, words fitly spoken and thoughts that connect are more to treasure than ever.” I do not even know what Gchat is or what “hit slack” means, so I am obviously not as “with it” as I could be. The words I share, though, need to be fitly spoken and need to connect to a purpose. I need to have a point. So, too, the time I use to share them needs to be used wisely, and I need to reflect on whether or not blogging is always the best use of my time.

And it took me nearly 800 words to say all of that…

My Year in Books – 2014

Between all of the activities of the Christmas season and the busy-ness of starting the second semester, I have not posted anything in nearly a month! What better way to kick off a new year of blogging than by giving my annual overview of the books I read last year. As always, this will be a quick run-down, not an exhaustive review of any books. I was, once again, able to meet my goal of reading at least fifty books a year, finishing with fifty-seven.

The first book I finished in 2014 was Sarah Palin’s Glad Tidings and Great Joy. I was not entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it a pleasant read. Palin included a number of family stories, traditions and photos throughout the book (as well as a few recipes), intertwined amongst examples of the attack on Christianity in general and Christmas in particular around America. More than likely, anyone who likes Sarah Palin will like this book, and anyone who does not like Sarah Palin will not.

For the most part, I am going to break down the other books I read by genre rather than by date. R W Glenn’s Crucifying Morality was a short look at what the Beatitudes are really all about–and what they are not all about. Max Lucado’s 3:16 The Numbers of Hope and David Jeremiah’s God Loves You are both excellent looks at God’s love–and how incredible that love truly is. Lucado’s book is, of course, written in his usual style. Rebecca Friedlander’s The Potter and His Clay is a fascinating look into the biblical comparisons of God to a potter and us to the clay. Friedlander is a gifted potter and artist, and if you have the opportunity to see her live Potter’s Wheel presentation you should definitely avail yourself of the chance. Strange Fire, by John MacArthur, is a thorough examination of the charismatic movement and the many misinterpretations and outright abuses of Scripture that have characterized the movement through the years. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is Nabeel Qureshi’s autobiographical account of how a devout follower of Islam came to accept Christ. For anyone interested in knowing more about what Islam teaches and the challenges associated with leading a Muslim to Christ would do well to read this book. Anthony Carter’s Blood Work is an examination of why the blood of Christ is so incredibly important and what it accomplished. Carter interweaves stanzas of classic hymns throughout. Christena Cleveland is social psychologist and college professor who wrote a thought-provoking look at the way Christians tend to segregate themselves within the body of Christ–for all kinds of reasons. Disunity in Christ is an excellent read, but do not read it if you have sensitive toes!

Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to Sunbelt is a study of how the evangelical movement in California was transplanted from the deep south. The book includes many names that will be familiar to believers, as well as details and contexts that likely are not so familiar. It also reveals that an incredible number of today’s hot-button issues are not new problems for the evangelical community. Douglas Bond’s The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts is a short, easy-to-read and fascinating look at the life of this prolific hymn writer. Lauren Drain’s Banished is an autobiographical account of her experiences as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. The book often left me wondering “how can anyone believe that?” It is a truly sad commentary of what some people believe the Bible teaches.

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch is a monster of a book at 775 pages. And while there were a few times I found myself thinking she could have left out a few details without hurting the story any, I found the book a delightful read overall. As with many great works of fiction there are a few “twists of fate” that seem entirely too convenient and unlikely, but these are forgivable. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a difficult book to like yet worth reading. It is thought provoking, and in turns caused me to be angry, irritated and even sick, amidst other emotions. It is a book I would recommend, but selectively. It is certainly not for everyone. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is a tale any booklover will enjoy and a classic telling of doomed love. Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale is an easy like for any bibliophile, and was an intriguing look into both the transforming power of romantic love and the incredible power of bitter rivalry. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is a well-crafted story about the healing power of true love of the non-romantic variety. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, provided some of the most well-written sentences I have read in a long time. The entire book is letters written between the tale’s characters–a unique approach that worked surprisingly well.

As I usually do, I also attempted to add a few “classics” to my have-read list. Jane Eyre was recommended by a colleague and I found myself liking it much more than I anticipated I would. There was one incredibly unlikely and unbelievable twist in the book that soured me a bit, but it was well worth reading. It could generate some very interesting discussions about marriage in a discussion group setting. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye would probably be my “Banned Book” for the year. I can see why parents would object to it being in a high school reading list, but it would surely prompt fascinating conversations about racial relations, both between races and within them. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is worthy of being a classic, and the story is all the more fascinating because of when it was written. Cry, the Beloved Country is a book I have read before, and it is still a book I will recommend to anyone who asks. While it contains some of the same unlikely twists that irked me in Jane Eyre, they are not nearly so irksome in Alan Paton’s classic work set in South Africa. The novel presents perseverance and forgiveness in a way seldom seen. I finally got around to reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, too. James McBride’s The Color of Water is another very interesting look into race relations, as well as an endearing glimpse into the love of son for mother. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a creative and captivating retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, and I would recommend it. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was pure drudgery, and I would not recommend it.

In the contemporary fiction category I read Camron Wright’s The Rent Collector; A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash; The Absence of Mercy by John Burley; Be Careful What You Wish For–the latest installment of Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles; David Baldacci’s The Target; James Patterson’s Private: LA, Invisible and Burn; Marcia Clark’s Guilt By Association; and John Grisham’s Gray Mountain.

In history, I read Lawrence Denton’s A Southern Star for Maryland, an interesting look at what was going on Maryland during the Civil War; Edward Behr’s Prohibition, an overview of that part of U.S. history; Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a riveting account of the Chicago World’s Fair and a murderer preying on women in the city at the same time that reads like a novel; The Black Count by Tom Reiss, an incredible true-life account of Alex Dumas; John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Scientists; and Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, an engaging look at four women who assumed roles in the Civil War far more often reserved for men.

George W. Bush’s 41 was an enjoyable read. It was not the book I had anticipated, but he politely warned me in the preface that it would not be. Captive in Iran, Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh’s account of their time in Iran’s Evin Prison, is an incredible story.

There are a few I did not mention here, but I’m sure you’re ready to go do something else anyway. Check back next year to see where this year takes me!