12 August 2017

A trio of poems from MISA

A Murder of Crows

As night descended
the birds intended
     to raise some havoc.
A murder of crows
their angry shouts grow
     a rageful black flock.

Dark from head to toe
all who see them know
     not to mess with them.
They control the streets
all who see, retreat
     lest they stand condemned.

Grouped voices murmur
crows planning murder
     opposing the peace.
They rule the night
when they take flight
     dark anarchy seized. 

Relative Silence

I sit in silence
listening for God
     but silence is a relative term.

The refrigerator hums
     birds chirp
          once in a while. 

My stomach asks,
     "When's breakfast?" 

I think I hear people moving,
     but perhaps not...

Watercolor Morn

Watercolor morn
I step out my door
     and gaze to the West.

Cool gray sky,
     wet on wet
stands in stark contrast
     to the ragged treeline
          nearly black.

Our minds are trained to fill in missing pieces
          blue skies
               green trees
but the Artist's palate 
     contains more color.

As the sun ascends in the East
     and the earth genuflects in reverence,
new brush strokes are added 
     to nature's scene.

Green blue and Indian yellow
     edges mystically softened.

Soon contrasting shapes and colors and edges
     amorophous scene becomes beauty
     bearing the signature of the Creator. 

05 August 2017

Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Reader

A good friend of mine, a self-described "book philanderer," has asked me several times if I would be willing to put together a list to help people become better readers, or perhaps just readers. As I began to think about sharing my thoughts and ideas, I realized it would be a good idea to do some research on reading trends. In 2014, the Atlantic published an article "The Decline of the American Book Lover" by Jordan Weismann that presented some fascinating information.

  • Over three decades, the number of Americans who did not read any books in the previous year nearly tripled from 8% to 23%. Nearly one in four people read zero books. 
  • However, over one in four Americans (28%) read at least 11 books over the year, which is an admirable number. This was still a decline from 1978, when 42% hit that number. 
  • Although the mean number of books read per year was 12, the median number was just 5. Mean and median are two ways of expressing average and in this case, median is likely a better representation of "average" because the distribution is skewed. A fuller discussion of statistics is beyond the scope of this blog post, however.
Certainly one of the reasons for this downward trend would be the penetrance of the Internet. People increasingly do their "reading" on the web, though at face value, we are taking in fewer books. Recently, prolific author Philip Yancey wrote an article, Reading Wars, lamenting the decline in "deep reading" in his own life. He shares how he used to read three books per week, but in the age of the Internet, he finds himself becoming distracted after a paragraph or two, confirming what Nicholas Carr described in his excellent book The Shallows.

Yet reading has many benefits; here are a few. It provides mental stimulation, which may be important for brain health. It serves as a stress reducer, which is also good for one's cognitive and emotional well being. Recent research suggests that reading may help you develop empathy and the ability to better understand another's perspective. It improves your vocabulary.

Personally, reading has been one of my deepest pleasures. There are few things I enjoy more than reading a good book. I love to put books in other people's hands too, even when I suspect they are internally rolling their eyes thinking, "Not another book. I haven't read the first five you gave me." If you want to become a better reader, you might want to consider Yancey's suggestions in the article above. He is certainly more well read than I am. Nevertheless, here are some things that I find beneficial when it comes to reading habits.

  1. Read. Okay, you may be thinking "well, duh...", but you have to start somewhere. If you don't pick up a book with the intention to read, you never will. You may be someone who says, "I sure wish I were a reader," but then you never open a book. Research demonstrates that there is a difference between online reading and reading books and I would encourage you to develop the habit of reading books at least some of the time.
  2. Spend time with books. This suggestion may seem a little weird to you, and perhaps it is objectively strange. I haven't decided. My basement has been converted to a library which contains a few thousand books. Often, at the end of a day, I will spend time with my books, not necessarily reading, but looking at them. At times, I spend enough time doing this that I suspect my family is worried where I have gone. Sometimes, when I am looking at them, a title will trigger my interest and I will pick it up and read it. Most people don't have a library in their basements, but they do have them in their communities. You can go in and wander the stacks...for free. Or go to the bookstore--used or new, or the thrift store. They all have books and sometimes unusual people. 
  3. Read what interests you. My daughter prefers fiction; I prefer nonfiction, especially theology. Most of the time, I read what I enjoy. When I finish a book, I often will saunter through my library and grab a few titles that pique my interest. I will read the first few pages of each until I decide upon one of them and then reshelve the rest for later. I also reread books, sometimes many times. 
  4. Don't be afraid to abandon a book. Too often, we get embarrassed when we fail to complete things. Who are you trying to please? If you don't want to read the book, don't read the book, even if you've already finished 100 pages. 
  5. On the flip side, don't be afraid to revisit a book that you have previously abandoned. It took me three times before I finally connected with NT Wright's How God Became King. The first two, I would read a chapter or two, but just couldn't continue. Eventually, I gave a third attempt and really enjoyed it. I have several partly finished books on my shelves in the basement. Someday I will finish them. Or maybe I won't. And that's okay. 
  6. Read in free moments. Every one of us is given 24 hours in a day. We presumably sleep at night. Many of us have jobs, significant others, children, and other responsibilities. However, even with all of those things, there are certainly times when you are not tied up. Carry a book with you and read when you walk to and from your office. Read when you're waiting for a friend. Read while cooking dinner. Before smart phones, people read in the bathroom. You still can and it would be much less expensive to drop a book in the toilet than an i-Phone. 
  7. Read in longer blocks. I don't watch a whole lot of TV anymore. Interestingly, it doesn't really hold my attention long, though I can read for hours. If the majority of your free moments are spent in front of the television, on the Internet, playing games, or exercising, you will have less time for reading. I am not suggesting these activities are bad; indeed, they can be beneficial (e.g., exercise). The point is that each of us must decide what is most important to do with our time. If you want to become a reader, it may just be that you will spend less time watching sports. 
  8. Ask other people what they are reading. My interest often increases when friends tell me what they are reading and learning. In your reading, you may also discover that the authors mention books that influenced them. I have found the recommendations from those "friends" quite beneficial as well. Ask for suggestions from friends.
  9. Take notes. When I read, I read with pen. Even if I have no intention of underlining, I nearly always have a Pilot G2 Ultra Fine in hand. For me, it is a part of my reading process. There is significant benefit to underlining what strikes you, writing questions and thoughts in the margins, and marking up your books. For me personally, a pen is preferable to a highlighter. In fact, I buy a lot of used books and if I find one with a significant amount of highlighted text, I am unlikely to buy it, though that may be a personal preference. Similarly, it can be beneficial to write down meaningful quotes for future reference or to share them with others. Associated with this, sites like Goodreads allow you to track progress, take notes, and find out what others are up to.  
  10. Practice. I have often had people say, "I wish I read as much as you." Don't make me (or anyone else for that matter) your standard for accomplishment. It can be beneficial to set a goal (e.g., twelve books a year, five books a year), but I wonder if it may be discouraging when comparing your reading habits to another. But here's the thing: as you begin to develop that habit of reading, you will develop rhythms and efficiency you didn't have when you began. In the same way most people don't just wake up one day and say "I'm going to run a marathon this afternoon," reading habits also require training and practice. If it is something you want to grow in, and you commit yourself to it, you will become a better reader. 
Personally, I would like to see the declining trends above reversed, but I also understand that not everyone enjoys reading, is able to read, or has a desire to become a reader. That is totally fine, do what you love. But if you want to become a better reader, perhaps these tips may be of use. 


When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a vilate of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.--Luke 9:51-56

I was struck by this passage this morning. Jesus and his disciples are not received in a Samaritan village and James and John, the "Sons of Thunder," offered to call fire down. They wanted to seem some action.  Imagine this scene.

Weary from a long day on a hot, dusty road, Jesus and his disciples entered the village as the sky was growing dusky. A band of rag-tag men, unfamiliar to the townsfolk, aroused suspicion. Jesus asked his disciples to inquire if there might be a place for them to rest for the night. At each door, they faced hard stares and firm nos. Some of the disciples were disappointed, some anxious, and some angry. All of the were tired. James and John were once again riding the waves of their feelings. With fire in their eyes, they asked their teacher, "Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Do you want us to call down fire like that?" 

Jesus turned and caught both of their eyes. Looking back and forth between them with a mix of conviction and compassion, he rebuked them. "Guys, you are going to face disappointments and even downright attack if you follow me, but mine is not the way of retaliation, but the way of love. If you want to be my disciples, you must move beyond your desire for retribution and power and instead begin to practice compassion and peace." 

Something shifted in John that day. He had always been sure that the Messiah would be a man of might, come to set things right by his power, but it was dawning on him that perhaps his understanding of power was all mixed up. What if ultimate power resided not in destruction but in love? As he continued to learn to live the Jesus way, he embraced love as the way to live. 

When we pay attention, the stories in the Bible show us that people change because of Jesus. If we listen to him, we can change too, from angry, retributive victims, to loving, peaceful servants.

02 August 2017

Book Review: His Last Words

I told someone recently that I am grateful for the whole Bible, but I could spend a long time eating only at the table of John 13 to 17, what is sometimes referred to as the upper room discourse. In these five chapters, we are granted an intimate glimpse of Jesus and his disciples just prior to his crucifixion. I find myself asking of this section, "what did Jesus believe it was important enough to tell his disciples? Who was Jesus in those final hours?" Thankfully, the story moves slowly enough that we can envision some of those details.

In light of my fascination with these five chapters, I was glad to see a book that focused upon them. Kim Erickson's His Last Words: What Jesus Taught and Prayed in His Final Hours (Moody, 2017). Erickson prepared the book as a seven-week study rather than typical prose. This approach allows the reader to enter the story with Jesus and the disciples. She invites her readers to consider the story that is being told and to continually ask, "what does this tell me about God?" After we think about what the story says, she provides brief narratives granting insight into the story and into her own life, enriching the experience.

I am grateful for this book. Any author who helps her readers to gain a greater appreciation and an accurate understanding of the upper room is a gift in my book.

I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts presented here are my own. 

26 July 2017

Anniversary Poem # 3

Seven thousand, three hundred five
days since we said "yes" for life
we stood before God
and all who looked on
committing to be man and wife.

Anniversary Poem # 2

Summer morning's joy:
warm embrace and radiant
she is heaven's queen. 

Anniversary Poem #1

Twenty years ago, I married my bride. Not one day have I questioned that choice. In celebration, I have written a few poems to her that I will share throughout the day. Here is the first.

Nineteen years and one,
     we've only just begun.
Eighteen years and two,
     since we said "I do."
Seventeen years and three,
     since you married me.
Sixteen years and four,
     You I still I adore.
Fifteen years and five,
     our love remains alive.
Fourteen years and six,
     our bond is firmly fixed.
Thirteen years and seven,
     God's love has been our leaven.
Twelve years and eight,
     since that magical date.
Eleven years and nine,
     since you said "you're mine."
Ten years and ten,
     I'd do it all over again.
Nine years and eleven,
     life with you is heaven.
Eight years and twelve,
     with you I gladly dwell.
Seven years and thirteen,
     your'e my regal queen.
Six years and fourteen,
     on one another we lean.
Five years and fifteen,
     we've lived in this godly scene.
Four years and sixteen,
     with us nothing comes between.
Three years and seventeen,
     it's astounding where we've been.
Two years and eighteen,
     we've kept our marriage bed serene.
One year and nineteen,
     such bliss unforeseen.
Zero years and twenty,
     we've had love aplenty.

21 July 2017

Growing in Christlikeness--a book list.

A few days ago, I texted my friend Mark--a fellow bibliophile--and I said to him, "Today's mental gymnastics have to do with coming up with a list of books [outside of the Bible] that would help one grow in Christlikeness. If you had 12 books, say one per month, what would you include? Thinking about it, I would want enough breadth to cover a variety of topics, but enough depth to promote growth."

Mark was the first to construct his list, which he sent with the clarification that these are in no particular order:

1) Inside Out--Larry Crabb
2) Ragamuffin Gospel--Brennan Manning
3) Abba's Child--Brennan Manning
4) Sacred Romance--Brent Curtis and John Eldridge
5) Transforming Grace--Jerry Bridges
6) The Last Addiction--Sharon Hersh
7) Brokenness--Nancy Leigh DeMoss
8) So, You Want to be Like Christ?--Chuck Swindoll
9) Descending into Greatness--Bill Hybels
10) The Life You Always Wanted--John Ortberg
11) Knowing God--JI Packer
12) Disciplines of a Godly Man--Kent Hughes

He must have also had some conversation at home, because his insightful wife Peggy added three more:
1) Soul Talk--Larry Crabb
2) Crucial Conversations--Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
3) Emotionally Healthy Spirituality--Pete Scazzero

I've read half of these books and they are an excellent list. In fact, Ortberg's book is one of my favorites.

After realizing Mark decided to actually put a list together, I realized that I probably needed to as well. I looked through my Goodreads profile where I have logged over 600 books since late 2011.

Here was my list, also in no particular order.

1) Confessions--St Augustine
2) Renovation of the Heart--Dallas Willard
3) Conformed to His Image--Ken Boa
4) Soul Keeping--John Ortberg
5) A Different Kind of Happiness--Larry Crabb
6) Life Together--Dietrich Bonhoeffer
7) A Long Obedience in the Same Direction--Eugene Peterson
8) True Spirituality--Francis Schaeffer
9) A Loving Life--Paul Miller
10) Practice Resurrection--Eugene Peterson
11) Abba's Child--Brennan Manning
12) The Letters of John Newton

I was a bit surprised about how little we overlapped; indeed, only one book.

Readers, I am curious what you would include? What did Mark, Peggy, and I miss?

18 July 2017

Book Review: Spiritual Maturity

I first encountered J. Oswald Sanders when a good friend of mine recommended the book Enjoying Intimacy with God. It seemed to have a rather profound effect upon him. I read it as well, and was able to see where the effect came from. When I encountered the three book series from Moody by Sanders--including Spiritual Maturity, Spiritual Discipleship, and Spiritual Leadership--I was eager to jump in. 

The first one that I ordered was Spiritual Maturity: Practices of Spiritual Growth for Every Believer, which was first published in 1962. The book is divided into 21 chapters, with seven each devoted to maturity in The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Each of the chapters is deeply biblical and also makes use of spiritual wisdom from individuals throughout the history of the church. As an aspiring poet, I particularly enjoyed his inclusion of both his own rhymes as well as those of others, such as George Hebert. 

Although they were all excellent, two chapters in particular stood out as exceptional. Chapter 6, entitled "the moral antipathy of God" dealt quite effectively with the pervasive issue of pride. Also chapter 11, "Christ's ideal of character" examined the blessed life through the eyes of the beatitudes. Chapter 11 contained one of the sentences that may be amongst the most glorious sentences outside of the Bible I've read: "Many Christians bring unnecessary opprobrium upon themselves and the cause of Christ by their aggressive tactlessness" (Page 138). 

One final thought. Though I typically prefer hardbacks, the construction of this little volume is exceptional. There are two color pages throughout, bright clean paper, and a sturdy cover. 

I suspect this book I will revisit, and certainly chapters 6 and 11. I also think that for most believers, it would be a worthwhile resource as well. 

I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to give a positive review. The opinions presented here on my own.

15 July 2017

Books & Crannies

In my favorite fictional book series, the Wingfeather Saga, there is a character who is very much my kindred spirit--Oskar N. Reteep. Oskar is a bumbling, balding, overweight lover of books. Indeed, his slogan is "appreciator of the strange, neat, and / or yummy." He is the owner of Books and Crannies, a bookstore in Glipwood Township, a store which contains many strange and usual things.

In updating my library with new shelves and a new layout (I think we are now at 24 shelves in a 20 x 24 room), my children and I have been excitedly pondering how we could add some storybook charisma. Together, we have brainstormed many ideas about what to include, but we are drawn most Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Aerwiar. We faced the question how to incorporate bits from each of these tales and yesterday, I settled on Books and Crannies.

Because Reteep is a bookstore owner and an "appreciator of the strange, neat, and/or tasty," Books & Crannies seems to be the perfect setting for collecting the unusual. Also, because Reteep is willing to look far and wide in search of the interesting, it would not be surprising that he might have obtained things from other lands. Also, we know from ND Wilson's contribution to the Wingfeather Tales, Andrew Peterson is not opposed to story crossover. However, if you are new to Wingfeather, start with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

And so my library is on the way. Books are re-shelved, though I need to make sure they are in proper order. There are many things I yet want to do, but for now, its a start. Some additions will be small, but nonetheless fun. Others will involve a Herculean search--I continue to look for a hardcover edition of Pembrick's Creaturepedia.

Here are a few updated pictures.

Of course, I made a sign for Books and Crannies--it is just missing a Zouzab. 

We still have a sitting area. 

I also have a sitting area.
The shelf on the right of the chair is commentaries
and Bible dictionaries.

The fiction section, which once seemed so full, has room to grow.

I tried to get most of the non-fiction in one shot. 

This is just for decoration--books from Middle Earth, Narnia, Aerwiar, and Hogwarts

Notice the "publisher marks" 

I love The Annieriad. 

Those familiar with these stories will recognize the titles. 

Sitting on the carpet

Laying on the floor

More shelves on the sitting side.