books, Christianity, Reviews, Writers/writing

Paul-A Biography by N.T. Wright

Paul: A Biography

by N.T. Wright

The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes; Dry and dusty? Nope.

In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)

In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:

“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:

   ‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT[1] (61 Kindle)

Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”

“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)

Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.

 In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.

By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright in Paul: A Biography.


[1] The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)

books, Happy Thoughts, Libraries, Reading, Stories, Writers/writing

The Allure of Library Book Kits

Have you heard about book club book kits? They are available from many libraries. Below are a couple of pics of a book kit from my local library. (The unreadable white sheet of copy paper on the table in front of the book kit bag is the Readers’ Discussion Guide. It has suggestions for ways to run a book club and ideas to help get the discussion rolling.)

BCBK’s contain 10-12 books – one large letter edition and one audio book, where possible – and a Readers’Discussion Guide in each kit. They are the only library “book” that has a return date that is six weeks from the date of check-out rather than three weeks. This extended period of time allows users to dispense the books, read, meet, discuss and return the kit, and pick up the next book kit so that the book club can meet monthly.

For those who want to join a book club but find buying a book every month financially prohibitive, or for people who simply prefer to use the library, BCBK’s are a super option. Laura, a librarian at my local library, said that the popularity of BCBK’s is becoming greater every year.

Maybe it’s time to start a book club using book kits? Check it out! 📚

Family Life, friendship, Good times, Happy Thoughts, Kids

Eavesdropping…

I eavesdropped on this conversation between two little girls who were in the lobby of the local movie theatre today:

Little Girl #1: “Tolkien is the guy who wrote Lord of the Rings.”

Little Girl #2: “I’m NEVER going to see that movie. It has spiders in it and I’m PETRIFIED of spiders.”

Little Girl #1: (With great assurance) “You don’t have to be afraid. When we go to my Grandma’s house we see the same spider every year. He comes out from underneath her porch.”

LG#2: (Incredulously) “The same spider comes out from underneath her porch?!”

LG#1: (Calmly) “Yes. Every year. He’s really nice.”

LG#2: (Disbelieving) “Every year?”

LG#1: (Confidently) “Yes. We call him Fluffy. He’s really nice.”

LG#2: (Astonished) “You named the spider?!!”

LG#1: (Compassionately) “Yep — Fluffy. He might not be there this year. Someone might have sprayed the porch with spider spray. But he was really nice.”

Does it sound to you like Little Girl#1 just read Charlotte’s Web and is working on a sequel called Fluffy the Friendly Spider?

Stay tuned for next week’s episode of the continuing saga of Fluffy’s Porch starring Fluffy the Friendly Spider. (From the look on her face, I don’t think Little Girl#2 was convinced that spiders are really nice.)

Am I smarter now?, Christianity, Happy Thoughts

Promises…

It was Sunday morning before church when I saw it. It was resting in midair, between the rose bushes and our neighbors weathered garden shed. I thought it was an aberration of some kind – a mirage or a hologram or, God forbid, an hallucination. Perhaps it was a distortion of a lawn ornament — I was looking through the wire mesh screen of the sun porch, after all. But no, it was indeed a rainbow, a segment about 2 feet in length and 18 inches wide, floating in the spray of the neighbor’s lawn sprinkler.

It was breathtaking! I walked out of the sun porch, down the wooden steps, and across the dry grass toward the rainbow. It didn’t move or disappear as I feared it might. I took a short video of it, hardly daring to believe it would actually show up on my phone, but it did. I stared at the rainbow as it hovered. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I marveled and thought,  “Look how close God’s promises are to us. They are invisible most of the time but they are as real as this rainbow and as beautiful.”

Eventually, Ron, our neighbor, turned off the sprinkler and the rainbow disappeared. Still, I have the jewel-like image stored on a video clip, which you can see at the bottom of this page, and it is in my memory and in my heart, too.

A  dear friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been encouraging each other to look at life with a view to recognizing God’s “holy possibilities,” but the visit of the rainbow brought an additional way to look at our journey here: with the assurance of God’s holy actualities. God’s promises, which are as ancient as the sign of the rainbow, are not simply elegant theological statements, but they are also beautiful, dependable, and mysterious holy actualities.

And that’s a happy thought.

https://youtu.be/EChwmZfQszM

Christianity, Church life, Reviews

Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind by Mark Brouwer

Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life

(Mission House Publishing, 2018)

by Mark Brouwer

Good answers always start with good questions. Here, from author Mark Brouwer, are some good questions that were the basis of his book Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

“When people are drawn to do important work to help others, what is it that:

  • causes them to quit?
  • diminishes their effectiveness?
  • prevents them from even starting in the first place?”

Drawing on years of personal experience in spiritual leadership, coaching and recovery group leadership, and insights from mentors in his field, Brouwer has responded to those questions with solid, valuable answers.

Early on, Brouwer presents this caveat: “Be prepared to read more about problems than solutions. This book is organized around seven roadblocks that prevent or interfere with our engagement with meaningful service. As you read, you’ll likely notice that I spend a lot more time describing each problem, and much less time suggesting remedies…. As Charles Kettering put it: ‘A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.'”

Brouwer does an excellent job of defining the roadblocks to meaningful service in these seven sections: Losing Touch With What You Really Care About; Getting Overwhelmed by the Needs You Encounter; Struggling With Not Having Enough Time; Living With Confusion; Stress Burn Out; Conflicts and Difficult People; and Discouragement. But he also includes plenty of helpful, immediately applicable suggestions for dismantling some barriers, even if you are not in leadership. In Section 6, Brouwer writes about the feelings of discouragement that can arise in a community from frequent conflicts with difficult people. His comments about how to approach conflict and what it means for a community to achieve harmony rather than unity are important, constructive words that can be used in many situations.

If you are navigating a rough patch in your calling as a leader right now, pick up a copy of Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind: Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life by Mark Brouwer. You will find this book contains thoughtful advice for individuals, delivered with sensitivity and a sense of humor. It also presents help for teams of people in the private or public sector by examining how systems and organizations work – and don’t work. In addition, Leaving Your Mark offers guidance from one who lives the busy day-to-day patterns of life in the church and who maintains the assured viewpoint that, “True community is not efficient – time is the price we pay for authentic community.”

Mark Brouwer has asked good questions, and through research and collaboration, he has produced a book that has good answers. These answers are beneficial on a personal, team and community level. If you have been harboring questions about your calling, you may find your good questions answered here, in Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind.

Amazing, Kids, Stories

How to Read an Eye Chart

December, 2010

I haven’t hung out with three-year old kids for a long time, and I miss it. I didn’t realize this until today. I work at a medical clinic, and every now and then a child who has come in with an adult needs to be cared for while their grown-up has an exam, or x-rays or blood drawn. Today I happened to be available to watch over a three-year-old girl whose real name I never learned. The name she wanted to be called was “Tangled”.

“Tangled?” I asked – twice. She simply nodded. Now if I had been chummy with more three-year-old kids, I would have known that Tangled is the name of a Disney movie, a re-make of the Rapunzel story. But, alas, I have been buddy-ing with people my own age, so I was completely in the dark. Thankfully one of my co-workers enlightened me.

This happy, lively, three-year old had long, straight, brown hair with bangs, fair skin, and blue eyes. The top of her head did not quite reach my hip, so as we walked along the clinic hallway hand in hand, I saw only the top of her head. I began to chat away on subjects that I thought might interest my young companion.  Tangled, on the other hand, wasn’t much into conversation. She was scoping the place out,  and soon her gaze landed on the clinic’s colorful sticker collection. She said nothing but looked intently up at the wide array of stickers on the display rack.

“Would you like to pick out a sticker or two?” I said. I saw the top of her head bob up and down. “Which ones would you like?” I asked, waving my hand in front of the stickers like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune. “Farm animals, monkeys, cars?” She shook her head no. “Have you got any ‘Tangled’?” she asked. I searched high and low for the sticker of her choice but came up empty. I offered her everything we had, but she said “No, thank you.” I had forgotten that a three-year old could be so definite about her choices. She had her eyes on the prize and stayed with her decision although the monkey stickers almost won her over.

Her mom hadn’t emerged from the exam room yet, so we went for another stroll around the hallways when I spotted a Kindergarten Eye Exam Chart on the treatment room door. We walked up to the chartKindergaten Eye Chart and looked at it. One by one, I pointed to the symbols on the chart, and asked her to name them.  She got them all – the heart, the star, the cup – and she even correctly identified the ship and the moon. “Very bright three-year old,” I thought to myself. Then I pointed to the flag symbol, not really expecting her to know what it was. “What is this, Tangled? Can you tell me something about this shape?” I asked. She looked at it for a moment and then she glanced up at me and said, “It means my Daddy is gone to fight in the war.” Stunned speechless, I stared down at my little friend.

Her mom came out of the room then, and Tangled ran off to join her. I waved goodbye, and stood in front of the eye chart for a few minutes. What a profound answer that little one had given about the flag symbol on the eye chart. Clear, definite, precise – she couldn’t call the symbol by its specific name,  but she knew what it meant to her: Daddy, his absence, his important work. I think she passed her eye exam with flying colors, don’t you?

Family Life, Good times, Stories, Travel Stories

Road Trip Roundup

Went on a lovely drive yesterday. It was a beautiful day — sunny, high clouds, perfect for a road trip to Tallahassee, FL.

One of the things on our “to do” list was to visit Bradley’s Country Store. Just a bit outside of Tallahassee proper, we arrived there by means of a country lane, County Road 27. Portions of this narrow but scenic roadway are crowned with a canopy of tree branches that reach over to each other from both sides of the road and sometimes meet in the middle overhead. The canopy drive is a beautiful thing to behold and delight to experience.

We arrived at Bradley’s early in the afternoon on a Thursday. As you can see from the picture above, the store is small and the parking lot in front of the store is small, also. Even though we visited on a slow business day, there were plenty of cars and customers coming and going at Bradley’s during our short visit.

Established in 1927, Bradley’s is known for stone ground corn grits and homemade sausage, which is what attracted us to their place of business. On entering the wood A-frame structure, we caught the delicious fragrance of sausage being cooked — a fragrance that draws you to the back of the old wood building, back behind the jar filled and product-laden shelves to the meat market where customers line up for a sausage link on a bun. Irresistible! It was obvious by the earnest faces of those in line that purchasing this item was the reason for their visit to the Bradley’s. There was plenty of foot traffic moving from the front to the back of the store, and we filed right in with the throngs of lunch-seeking pilgrims. That sausage dog was quite a treat!

The store’s board walls are lined with old painted-metal trade signs and advertising images. One large section of wall is covered from floor to ceiling with plaques, most of which are printed with black lettering on distressed wood panels. These are obviously new but fit the old-timey atmosphere of Bradley’s Country Store. A small square plaque on the wall said, “CALL YOUR MOMMA.” That item almost came home with me.

You can see in the picture that Bradley’s has a nice front porch with wooden rockers available for use. Inside, this inviting old building has well used, uneven floorboards,(watch your step), numerous shelves of home canned pickles, peppers, salsa, and sauces, and plenty of other nostalgia-inducing (and I didn’t even grow up in the South!) goodies. There are several Southern cuisine cookbooks to browse, homemade lavender soaps to admire, and of course, Bradley’s homemade sausage and stone ground grits. The staff was cordial, helpful, and knowledgeable.

We happily purchased some of Bradley’s Country Store’s most famous foodstuffs that day (you can order online as well) which we plan to share with family and friends soon. Cheese grits, anyone?

http://www.bradleyscountrystore.com/index.php?route=common/home

Reviews, Writers/writing

“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri — a book review

A young woman with long black hair is sitting in a leather-backed wooden chair in an old library. She has on a light weight sweater that is a medium brown color. She is seated at a  large library table made of wooden planks. She has two large books in front of her, one open the other closed. The young woman has her arms on the library table top. She is resting her chin on her left hand, the right hand is lying flat on the table, her right arm is bent at the elbow and her right forearm is parallel with the bottom edge of the large open book. She has a large, amber-colored jeweled ring on the fourth finger of her right hand. The young woman is gazing thoughtfully off to her right. She is not smiling. She looks very at ease and relaxed. She has bronze skin and dark brown eyes and eyebrows. She is very pretty.
It must be love…

In Other Words is the fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. This 2016 publication (Vintage, 2016 – English translation) was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. That’s right. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with Italian, learned to speak and write in Italian, then wrote In Other Words – which is about the life-altering experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, she chose to use a translator.

In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts. Perhaps one could call it a work of non-fiction that features the author as one major character and language as another. In Other Words is a fascinating book for anyone who loves languages and appreciates learning about how one’s language affects the process of writing.

Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. On entering the story, the reader becomes happily enticed and wholeheartedly enmeshed in her prose. And there is plenty of insight as well. In an early chapterLahiri writes this as she begins to describe her journey into the Italian language:

“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”

Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically and in semi-actuality, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest to possess Italian, she recounts a story of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. In the process, her family practically meets itself coming and going when they lock themselves out of their apartment:

“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two Hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”

The traumatic moment passes, and the family begins their transition to living in the Eternal City. Janus has granted them entry.

One negative of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her inner struggle with choosing Italian over English or Bengali — her parents language — as the language with which she identifies. I grew tired of Lahiri’s self-analysis about three-quarters of the way through but continued reading because this is not a long book. The book is designed so that the left-hand page contains the Italian by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s work, so though the total number of pages is in the book is 230, the English language portion is 115 pages.

The decision to read the book in its entirety paid off — to my way of thinking, anyway — because of Lahiri’s comments of the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof in the last section of the book. Kristof arrived in Switzerland as a refugee at the age of twenty-one and began learning French when she was twenty-six so that she could write to a receptive French audience. Despite the fact that Kristof’s motivation to learn French was far different from Lahiri’s inducement to be proficient in Italian, Kristof and Lahiri share some of the same struggles and insights about what it means to truly learn, speak and write in a language that is not one’s native tongue.

If you are intrigued by languages, curious about how language brings people together and can drive them apart; if you have wondered about the inscrutable process of learning a new language, how it works and what effect that it might have on your life if you were to choose a new language to inhabit; if you want to acquire some guidance for your writing life, this intriguing book by Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, is meant for you.

I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book because in the English translation there are numerous Italian words, and it would add a lot to hear them read aloud by someone who can speak Italian. Requesting an audio book version of In Other Words from your local public library is a good (read that as “free”) way to experience the audio production of Lahiri’s book.