Reviews, Uncategorized, Writers/writing

Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Really?

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t expect to encounter a connection between Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and a character in the book Anna Karenina on Facebook this morning, but social networking is often an exercise in serendipity, isn’t it? One of Leonard Sweet‘s intriguing status updates on Facebook today was this statement  :

insects crawl; fish swim; birds fly; animals run; humans pray.

Several comments were posted in reply on Dr. Sweet’s timeline, but one that was particularly thoughtful was from Derek W. White : “Redemption is when preying humans become praying humans.” This was given a thumbs up by many readers.

There was one brief question in response to the post, also: “Comment pray vs. prey?” This triggered an avalanche of thoughts about the book Anna Karenina that friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been reading together for several months.

In this marvelous classic, Tolstoy   has something to say about  “pray vs. prey”, I believe.   Konstantin Dmitrievitch, also known as Levin, is one of the main characters in AK. His story and that of his wife,  Kitty, runs concurrently with the story of Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Levin is consumed with big questions: ” Is there a God? Why are we here, and how are we to live? If in fact we decide life is worth living, how do we live successfully? How should we treat our neighbors and those below us in society as we try to succeed in life? Upon what information should we depend for guidance in these things?” Through various situations we observe Levin grappling with his thoughts, and because of Tolstoy’s astonishing skill as a writer, we experience the good and bad times  of 19th century Russian life with Levin and  Kitty.

In the final pages of the book, we struggle with Levin as he tries to cope with the reality that during his wife’s long and difficult labor, he called out to God several times for mercy, a God in whom Levin had previously asserted that he did not have faith. From the time of the birth of his child, he constantly ruminates on his inconsistency and is deeply perplexed by it. He does not give in to despair over the troubling event, though. The responsibilities of being  a husband, father and a landowner demand his attention, and he answers the demands by being physically involved in the labor of farming. But farming  also brings forward great life-questions. From beginning to end in the book, the land, its  potential and profitability, and the people who work it and their cares, always present situations that display whether or not the land owners and workers deal righteously with each other. Now at the end of the book, it is harvest time once again, and  Levin works alongside the peasants whom he pays to care for his land. One of them is named Fyodor.   Fyodor and Levin address fair dealings between landowners and workers in the following conversation:

Fyodor came from a village at some distance from the one in which Levin had once allotted land to his cooperative association.  Now it had been let to a former house porter.

Levin talked to Fyodor about this land and asked whether Platon, a well-to-do peasant of good character belonging to the same village, would not take the land for the coming year.

“It’s a high rent; it wouldn’t pay Platon, Konstantin Dmitrievitch (Levin),” answered the peasant, picking the ears off his sweat-drenched shirt.

“But how does Kirillov make it pay?”

“Mituh!” (so the peasant called the house porter, in a tone of contempt), “you may be sure he’ll make it pay, Konstantin Dmitrievitch!  He’ll get his share, however he has to squeeze to get it!  He’s no mercy on a Christian.  But Uncle Fokanitch” (so he called the old peasant Platon), “do you suppose he’d flay the skin off a man?  Where there’s debt, he’ll let anyone off.  And he’ll not wring the last penny out.  He’s a man too.”

“But why will he let anyone off?”

“Oh, well, of course, folks are different.  One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man.  He lives for his soul.  He does not forget God.”

“How thinks of God?  How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted.

“Why, to be sure, in truth, in God’s way.  Folks are different. Take you now, you wouldn’t wrong a man….”

“Yes, yes, good-bye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and turning round he took his stick and walked quickly away towards home.  At the peasant’s words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God’s way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.

Here I think is an answer to the question “pray vs. prey?” on  Leonard Sweet’s Facebook status. Tolstoy goes on to say this through Levin:

Where could I have got it? (The answer to his perplexing questions)  By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him?  I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul.  But who discovered it?  Not reason.  Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires.  That is the deduction of reason.  But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

As in the conversation between Fyodor and Levin, Jesus shows us the way of life in the kingdom of God through this revealed truth: we are to love our neighbors, not prey on them. Additionally, we are to pray to God not just to bless our friends and family, but also “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” Luke 6:27. That is not rational, but it is “thinking in God’s way” as Fyodor says. It is righteous living, and it’s an example of how redemption turns preying humans into praying humans, as Derek W. White said; a phenomenon that numbers of others, including Leo Tolstoy, Leonard Sweet and many Facebook friends,  have found to be the best way of living with the difficulties of daily life.

Reviews

A book review of “Dear Deb” by Margaret Terry

 The first lines that went straight to my heart in Margaret Terry’s book Dear Deb, a collection of 55 letters written to a friend dying of cancer, came two pages into the book. In the introduction, called The Inspiration, Terry relates that she was surprised to have been asked to pray for Deb, and “believe in my miracle.” Terry admits that she was a church friend to Deb, but they weren’t close. She knew that Deb was a capable and energetic woman, she loved Motown and hockey, but outside church she and Deb didn’t socialize. Terry goes on to say, “I’m not sure why this happens in churches. We hug the same people every Sunday for years, we watch their children grow, and we share their trials and joys, yet for some reason we limit our friendship to church.”  “True, so very, very true,” I marveled.  “And if Margaret Terry is able to nail down that situation in two sentences, what other treasures are in this book?”  Well, there are dozens of treasures in Dear Deb! I have several favorite stories in the book, but I love the story of Crowning Mary, probably because I can recall similar May celebrations from my own days at St John’s Catholic Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Crowning Mary is a beautiful story full of innocence and faith, and it includes a miracle that will make you smile for days.

The old-fashioned name for a book made up of letters is epistolary. This being the 21st century, Terry’s letters were originally composed as emails, and were sent daily to Deb, who had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. They were a form of encouragement which Deb asked her friends to send her as support while she endured cancer treatment and waited for her miracle. Over time, as Terry’s letters went beyond platitudes, she found that sharing her moments of failure and fear were, paradoxically,  a way of sending strength to Deb, and they also were an avenue for Terry to unburden her own secret past. Through that process of letter writing, Terry shares with us the great truth that God doesn’t abandon us when we and our world break apart, but He comes close, and cares for us through it all.

Here’s is my take away from Dear Deb – maybe the broken pieces of your life aren’t meant to be put back together the way you think. Maybe a jagged piece of your story is meant to heal the brokenness of someone else’s life. But that won’t happen if you don’t share your story and let the Master Potter use it as only He can. I believe that in Dear Deb, a book that touches both your heart and your funny bone, you will see this amazing process at work.

Review of Dear Deb in 140 characters or fewer: “You’ll need Kleenex, you’ll laugh out loud, you’ll be stunned, and you’ll be inspired. Read it!”

Reviews, Writers/writing

Because place matters

Cruise liner in Plymouth Sound with Mount Edgu...
Cruise liner in Plymouth Sound with Mount Edgumbe in foreground (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently returned from my first ocean cruise, which happened to fall very close to my 60th birthday. I didn’t plan for the two events to coincide, but it was fun that it turned out that way, and it certainly added a deeper dimension to my vacation.

On the cruise I read a book that is designed to add a deeper dimension to the daily journey; it is called A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life, by James Emery White. Dr White’s book takes us to nine locations around the world, but it is not a typical travelogue. This book shares Dr White’s personal journey to these varied sites, and it also includes a series of reflections on how these places have helped him to face some of the challenges of living a Christian life in the 21st century.

Of the nine locations written about, my favorite was St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt Sinai in Egypt. It is the oldest location described, and thus has the greatest sense of history about it, for me. After all, is this not the very area where Moses first heard God speak from the burning bush? (I laughed out loud at the description of a fire extinguisher located at the site) While sharing the history of this famous and holy place, Dr White also reminds us in this chapter that one of the greatest longings of believers is to hear from God, and he poses the question, “ How does this conversation play out in real life?”   I like  Dr White’s ‘pretense-free’ style of writing. Here’s an example of it at the close of Chapter 3, St Catherine’s Monastery. After offering examples,suggestions and disciplines for hearing from God, Dr White says this:

“Make sure you are open to whatever God says. That you are ready to receive his word to your life, whether you like it or not. Otherwise, why bother? It’s just a game. And God will speak to you. He will tell you things to start, things to stop. He’ll prompt you to sacrifice, and even do things that look foolish in the eyes of the world. He’ll push the frontiers of faith, and challenge the most rooted of sins.”

I enjoyed reading Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life.   It not only presented a variety of travel destinations that are worth considering, but it brought a new awareness to the fact that, as believers, we are on a spiritual journey every day of our life – one that deserves our whole-hearted attention.

Full disclosure: I asked for the opportunity to review this book, and was sent a copy of the book free of charge for that purpose. I was not compensated for my review. Although I received the book free of charge, I was under no obligation to write a favorable review. If I gave it a good review it’s because I think it’s a good book.

Christianity, Reviews, Uncategorized

A Surprise Lenten Book

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic
Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

We are now well into Lent, a time when Christians reflect on the life of Christ, especially His final days on earth, when He suffered and died on the cross for sinners. Lent is also a time for followers of Jesus to do some introspection, and humbly ask the Holy Spirit to help us sift through our attitudes and actions, and ‘put to death’ the areas of our life that muddy-up the beauty of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I have a couple of favorites books which I read during this season, and I was not expecting to use an additional book to help me learn humility this Lent, but one came my way as a gift. It is called Viral, Dr. Leonard Sweet’s latest release, published by WaterBrook Press.

I have to admit that Leonard Sweet is one of my favorite authors. He is shamelessly in love with Jesus Christ and His church, and is constantly seeking ways to bring the two closer together. He is also an academician with a sense of humor; a semiotics expert who carries Windex with him, and a guy who, especially in this digitally driven century, is surely one of the “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel -read ‘the church’- should do.” (l Chronicles 12:32).

Being aware of these things about Dr Sweet made me pay attention to the sub-title of Viral, which is “How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival.” The word ‘revivalis not one that is very familiar to the church of the 21st century. A Guttenberger ( according to Dr. Sweet, “those who arrived from the twentieth century bringing with them influences and assumptions launched long before in the fifteenth century… They are the product of the movable-type technology perfected by Johannes Guttenberg in the 1400’s.”) is going to notice that word ‘revival’ and recall the history of its meaning more readily than a Googler will. (A Googler is from the “digitized, globalized group that spends much of its life getting to know one another in a virtual world.”) So why is the word ‘revival ‘on the cover of this book? And why am I using Viral as part of my Lenten devotions?

I am using Viral for devotions because I caught a glimpse of my resistant, stiff-necked self in Dr Sweet’s book. Thereafter it didn’t take long for my lessons in humility to start, and a time of reflection to begin. As I read about the differences between Guttenbergers and Googlers in Viral, Dr Sweet pointed out how the Guttenberg culture, the culture to which Dr Sweet himself belongs, lost its way in the proclamation of the gospel. Becoming proficient in the skill of using the printed word, Guttenbergers became entranced with the words themselves, the systems developed, the numbers of churches built and the dollars raised as a result. In doing all these things we became distracted and forgot about our relationship with the One who loves us so; our love affair with Jesus wasn’t #1 on our list anymore. The greater our success, the more we Guttenbergers did. We recorded our events and accomplishments so we could teach other Guttenbergers how to do the things which we had done. Much good was accomplished in the name of Christ, but we forgot about the personal side of our relationship with Him. The more we used our skills at developing programs and putting by-laws in place, the further away we wandered from the Lover of our Soul, and the less we were able to establish relationships with those who were in need of Him. Our journey away from Jesus took a while, but eventually we managed to get totally absorbed in our forms, proclamations and propositions. Then out of nowhere came the Google generation, the “relationships are us” tribe, who believe that being connected to others is the only way to travel through life. Think this is a coincidence? Or is this God’s way of saying it’s time for a sweeping change? I believe this is an important question that Dr Sweet poses in Viral, and one that caused me to reflect … a lot.

Ouch. It hurts to see these faults of Guttenbergers – my faults. And what happens now? It’s pretty obvious that the digital world is expanding daily, and the Google generation with it. What should my response be? Resist? Complain? Run for the hills? Lent is a time of repentance, so repenting is probably the best place to start.  Perhaps then we can turn away from our faults and toward some very good news, which is, Dr Sweet says, that the Googlers have been designed and equipped by God to see life in an amazingly new way. And, God has put before them the wonderful possibility of being involved in a great revival by using the viral speed and power of social networking to spread the word about the greatest relationship out there, the relationship with Jesus Christ. They can, if they chose,  share the astonishing story of the One who is so concerned about us that He gave up His life for our sakes. Once Googlers know the authentic love of Jesus, they will not be shy about inviting all in their group to ‘friend’ Him, and learn more about Him, says Dr Sweet. The possibilities of this type of Christ-sharing are endless, just as the variety of apps for our digital devices is endless, and the potential results are mind-boggling.

I am very thankful to the person who sent me this book, and I now think I understand why the word ‘revival’ is on the cover. I have finished reading Viral, but am keeping it close by throughout the rest of Lent. It is a reminder that change is hard, but that the Creator God is always changing things up – doing new things. Where would any of us be if God had not done the phenomenal new thing of raising Christ from the dead?  That was the most amazing revival ever, don’t you think?