A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately? One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books, Christian and otherwise, on the market. I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read; it’s obviously very subjective. I’m not saying that these are the best books ever written, only that they have especially blessed me over the years. My point is to encourage us to read more, and to choose books that will challenge, inspire, sharpen our thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis

Although now better known for his “Chronicles of Narnia” fiction series, C.S. Lewis was also the author of numerous non-fiction books on Christian beliefs and theology. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which he later edited and compiled into its present form. He uses “mere” the sense of “basic” – in other words, the book contains the principles and teachings which are held in common by ALL Christian groups, rather than more “advanced” doctrines about which different denominations would disagree.

Now, I will freely admit, this is NOT an easy book to read. Lewis was British, and his writing can sometimes come across as wordy and cumbersome, especially to Americans who are used to three second sound bites and 140-character tweets. But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. C.S. Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. When he was still a child, his father died from complications of polio, after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him. Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that. He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine (since retired) and has authored a number of outstanding books. Here, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. I especially enjoy chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

God Came Near, Max Lucado

Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and it would be hard to disagree. In God Came Near, Lucado explores the implications of the humanity of Christ. My favorite chapter is, “The Question for the Canyon’s Edge,” based on the encounter between Jesus and Martha, after the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus. When Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?,” what He is really asking each of us is, “Do you trust Me?”

A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card

The church in America today is often criticized for being out of touch with the harsh realities around it. We put up fake smiles and phony friendliness, offering shallow “bumper sticker” platitudes and coffee mug theology, while ignoring the complexities and pain of the world around us. And then we wonder why the world has written off the church for being clueless and irrelevant.

Author Michael Card argues that we have lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you often come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But in most churches today, you would have a hard time finding anything that reflects that level of transparency.

Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, the author invites us to be honest enough with God to trust Him with our pain. I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re feeling angry or questioning about God, and some well-meaning friend has told you that “you shouldn’t feel that way.”

When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

If you only like reading books that agree with what you already think, you probably should stay away from this one, because it will challenge you. The authors tackle the very difficult subject of how should we as believers help others and what does that look like. The chapter on those who want the King without the Kingdom – or those who want the Kingdom without the King – is excellent. As someone who has been deeply involved in flood relief as well as neighborhood outreach ministries, this book really rattled my cage and made me think about the difference, to use the author’s words, between relief, rehabilitation, and development.

The Altar of Freedom

Part of our recent trip to DC included visiting two memorials that commemorate significant events in our nation’s history. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004. It is located between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, near the end of the rectangular Reflecting Pool. The installation features two large, semicircular areas – one honoring the European Theater of the war, the other for the Pacific.

When you start talking about that war, it’s easy to get “bogged down” in the minutia of historical details, dates, places, and people, and to get lost in arguments about the political and economic causes about what started the war and how did it conclude. But the designers of this memorial have made sure that you don’t forget those who “more than self, their country loved, and mercy, more than life.”

It was during World War I that families of military personnel first began displaying Service Banners with blue stars for each member of the family that was on active duty in any of the branches of the armed forces. If that family member were killed in action, the blue star would be replaced with a gold one, and so the term “Gold Star Family” came to be.

The “Gold Star” wall at the World War II Memorial

At the World War II Memorial there is an enormous curving wall over a pool, and on that wall are placed thousands of gold stars. At one side is a small panel explaining what Gold Stars mean, and that each of the 4,048 stars on the wall represents 100 Americans. Do the math, and you can figure out that more than 400,000 Americans were killed or remained missing after that war. Let that number sink in a minute: so many sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Such a dear price paid for our freedom.

Later that afternoon, we had a chance to visit the Vietnam War Memorial, with the names of more than 58,000 service men and women who were KIA or MIA engraved on those somber black stone walls. It was a controversial design when it was dedicated in 1982, and to some, remains so today. But whatever your opinion about the wall, there is no denying the impact that seeing it creates.

I didn’t serve in Vietnam – it was winding down by the time I graduated – but one of my best friends from high school did, and I know many others who did as well. One Haskell boy who served was Charles B. “Chuck” Goodwin.

Chuck is remembered as a good boy from a hard-working family. After graduating from HHS, he joined the Navy and became an aviator, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He flew off the deck of a carrier to provide air support for the ground troops, and then one day, he didn’t come back. He was listed as “missing” for many years, but his body was eventually recovered, and he is buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Abilene.

When Kathy and I first moved here in 1980, I met his mom; she was a member of the Christian Church where I was preaching, and she lived over on South Avenue L, I think. In her living room was a shadowbox with Chuck’s picture and his medals, and next to it was a framed pencil tracing of his name, made from the memorial wall. With our guide’s help, I was able to look him up in the directory and find his name on the wall.

LCDR Charles Goodwin – Naval Aviator, Hero & Haskell native

At the Vietnam memorial that day, not far from the Lincoln Monument, I thought about a letter that President Lincoln had written to a grieving mother, Mrs. Bixby. He had been shown a file that five of her sons had been killed in Civil War battles – information that turned out not to be completely accurate; “only” three of her sons had died – but his letter still remains a powerful tribute. Let his words honor all those who never came home.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Here’s Looking at You, Kid




The Warner Brothers classic Casablanca is showing this weekend at the Paramount Theatre in Abilene.

Kathy and I are celebrating our anniversary this week – 43 years, to be exact. She suggested that we mark the occasion by visiting one of our favorite places, the Paramount Theatre in Abilene, to watch one of our favorite movies, Casablanca.

Originally built in 1930, the Paramount is a beautiful example of the nostalgic “atmospheric” movie theatre. If you have been there, you know it was built in an era when movie-going was meant to be a grand experience that transported you to another time and place. The theatre’s main auditorium space was designed to re-create a Spanish / Moorish courtyard at night, complete with projected clouds passing over a neon-lit night sky fitted with twinkling stars.

In 1987, the hall was saved from the wrecking ball through the donation of a generous benefactor, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and fully restored. It now boasts a state-of-the-art projection and sound system. Certainly, there are many wonderfully restored theaters around the area – Stamford’s Grand Theatre is a great place to watch a movie – but there’s just something special about the Paramount.

So when you combine that location with my favorite movie, agreeing to her suggestion was a no-brainer. Why do I enjoy that movie so much?

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had an intense but brief love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former lover escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim her?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), for Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and for brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

My favorite thing in this movie might just be the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

That is, until one transformational moment when he makes the decision to take a stand. Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval, and he nods his head. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing as one, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were displaced Europeans; several really had been imprisoned by the Nazis; others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, who would win the war was still very much in doubt, so the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is quite real. And later, when Lazlo tells Rick, “Welcome back to the fight; this time, I know our side will win,” it was an outcome that, in 1942, was still very much up for grabs.

So, Friday night, Kathy and I will get some popcorn and a Diet Coke and find our seats in that plush, gorgeous theatre. One more time we watch Rick and Ilsa; we will listen to Sam “play it again,” and we will root for the good guys in their fight against the Nazis.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Visiting DC

During our recent vacation, we went to Baltimore, to visit our daughter, Brittany; while we were there, we took a day and went down to Washington. My wife had toured DC several years ago, but although I had been through there, I had not been able to visit any of the historic locations in that city on the Potomac. We made reservations with one of those companies that offer guided bus tours, and off we went.

Brittany helped us plan how to navigate the commuter trains to get there and find the starting point for the tour. Any day that begins with riding a train is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and we had no problem finding our way through the maze of above-ground and subway trains, and sure enough, when we came back up into the sunlight, the tour buses were right in front of us.

A word about these buses: they were about the size of a short school bus, but made with a retractable, open roof, especially designed for tour purposes. We checked in, and were assigned to a particular bus, and didn’t have to wait long before Craig, our driver, and Alisha, our tour guide, came on board and welcomed us to their city.

Alisha was a young, vivacious, African American woman with the build of a long-distance runner. In the course of our tour, she mentioned that she had been working as a guide for over five years (which meant she was older than she looked to me!) – a Washington native and a fan of both learning and telling history. As Craig chauffeured our bus, Alisha gave us some background on the city, how it was laid out and when construction began.

We parked near the Washington Monument, but she began moving us in the opposite direction for our first stop. We came out from behind some trees, and what I saw, literally took my breath away.

Here I am, standing on the South Lawn of the White House

It was the White House. We were standing on the South Lawn, which it turned out, was as close as we could get. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to be there, and to see the Executive Mansion where every president since John Adams has lived. She pointed out some of the other historic buildings that were within our view, before shepherding us back across the street, to get a better look at the Washington Monument. Later on we would stop off at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and see the Capitol Building.

We headed over to the World War II memorial. This is one of the newer structures in DC, having opened in 2004. It features two large, semi-circular areas – one for the European Theater, and one for the Pacific. There is a special “Gold Star” wall, honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who died in that war. Later, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and on that famous black stone wall, I found the name of a young man from Haskell. I’ll have more to say about both of those walls in a future article.

From there, it was on to the Jefferson Memorial, where his statue stands next to some of his words from the Declaration of Independence. And that was just the first of several locations that we visited that day, that call to mind some of the words that are important to our country and to history. Words are important, because they carry ideas – ideas that are truly foundational to our republic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Words of power.

Our next stop was a further reminder of this, as we visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. There, engraved on the arches leading to and away from the stone statue that honors him, were 14 of his most famous quotations, including one of my favorites: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A quick lunch, an enjoyable boat ride on the Potomac River, and then it was on to the installation honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and again remembering his words – “Fear itself” and his “Fireside Chats” – words that led this nation out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II.

From there, we had another powerful demonstration of the power of language at the Lincoln Memorial, with his Second Inaugural Address engraved on one wall, and the Gettysburg Address on the other: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God Bless America.