A Few Good Books – 3

(Third and final in a series)

Regular readers of these posts will know that I have been offering a list of several of my favorite Christian books, a list which I’m ready to wrap up today. Just to review the requirements for inclusion: written in the last hundred years, non-fiction, only one book per author, only five books in total. The first two books discussed were Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, and What’s So Amazing About Grace?, by Phillip Yancey.

Number 3: God Came Near, Max Lucado

I went back and forth about this choice; in fact, when I originally began putting this list together, I had a different Max Lucado book in this slot. (Check out the “Honorable Mention” category, below.) Many Christians would list Max Lucado as their favorite Christian author, and I would be hard pressed to argue against that opinion. Six Hours One Friday and No Wonder They Call Him the Savior were the first two books of his that I read, and I remember how deeply moved I was by his writing.

The complete title of this book is God Came Near: Chronicles of the Christ, and that is a pretty good summary. 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.

Number 4: A Drink at Joel’s Place, Jess Moody

This little book is based on a radical notion – there are a lot of ways in which the church should be more like the neighborhood corner bar. (The TV show Cheers, with its promise of a place “where everybody knows your name,” is another example of this idea.) The title comes from the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. When Peter and the other apostles, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, were accused of being drunk, Peter pointed the audience to Joel 2:28 ff.

In this book, Jess Moody explores the idea that a church should deliver on its promises, that accepts everyone who walks in the door, and that offers excitement and fellowship. He emphasizes the need for the church to stay relevant to the culture around it, and he also goes on to argue for a quality that is sorely lacking from many churches (and especially lacking in many pulpits!) today – PASSION!

I have thoroughly enjoyed this little book every time I have read it, and as in so many other ways, I am deeply indebted to my friend, mentor, and former professor, Dr. Mark Berrier, for the recommendation.

Number 5: 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 facile, “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.

Michael Card is a brilliant Bible scholar and writer, who first came to public attention through His music. (If you’ve heard Amy Grant sing, “El Shaddai” or “Emmanuel,” then you’ve heard his music.) Besides his music, he has also written a number of really good books, including one I like called A Violent Grace. In A Sacred Sorrow, he argues that the church today has lost the ability to LAMENT, and I think he’s absolutely right. When you read the psalms, for example, you come face to face with the honesty of someone struggling with the pain of a bad situation. But you would have a hard time finding music in most churches today that cry out with that level of transparency.

Here, Card examines four people from the Bible – Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus – and considers what each of them can teach us about growing closer to God through our pain. Rather than avoiding hard or uncomfortable conversations, Card 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.”

Honorable Mentions

Want more? Here are five additional recommendations –

  • The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis (or Miracles, or The Problem of Pain)
  • The Bible Jesus Read, Phillip Yancey
  • The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado
  • Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan
  • An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, Rich Mullins

Good luck, and God bless.

A Few Good Books – 2

(Second in a series)

In a previous installment, I began listing some of my favorite Christian books, starting with Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. To review, here are the ground rules:

  • One book per author.
  • Non-fiction.
  • Written in the last hundred years.
  • Only five books on the list.

Let me again say that I realize that, by its very nature, a list like this is highly subjective. My list almost certainly will not be your list – AND THAT’S OKAY! My point is not to argue about whether I should have chosen C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, instead of Mere Christianity, or if my fourth or fifth choices should be ranked in a different order.

The point here is to encourage believers to read more, and to choose books to read that will challenge, inspire, sharpen their thinking. Too many of us either don’t read at all, or we only read stuff by writers who agree with us.

I recall a conversation I once heard about between a college student and one of his professors. The professor asked the student what he was reading, and the student replied by naming a famous novel (I’ve forgotten which one). The professor smiled tolerantly and said, “Yes, yes, that’s fine for the gravy, but what about the meat?” In other words, the professor was saying, that while there was nothing wrong with reading that particular novel, it was not going to challenge the student in the way that the professor was hoping.

So, my next recommendation is –

What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey

Copyright © 1997, by Philip Yancey – Zondervan Publishing House

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s 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, and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – the love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, 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. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Soren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up, the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

A Few Good Books

Read any good books lately?

One thing is for certain – there’s no shortage of books on the market, and more coming out every day. And for Christian believers who want to grow in their faith, or perhaps be challenged in their thinking, there are literally entire bookstores selling nothing but “Christian” books. But having so many available is in itself is a problem: how can you know what’s worth the money to buy it, or the time to read it?

I’m not claiming to have any special insight about what makes a book “good” to read – it’s obviously very subjective. But I wanted to highlight a few volumes that have especially blessed me over the years. These are books that have challenged me, taught me, annoyed me, made me think, made me question, helped me grow closer to God, and in the end, blessed me.

First, the ground rules: First, this list is for non-fiction ONLY. Sorry to disappoint fans of Christian fiction, but that’s not my purpose here. Second, only ONE book allowed per author. Third, I’m only including books from the last hundred years – I’m aware of great Christian books from earlier times, but I’m excluding them. And finally, I’m limiting myself to only FIVE books. I’m not saying these are the best five, or that they are somehow better than a list of your top five, just that these are some books that have blessed me, and that I recommend for your consideration.

So, with that said, here’s the first in my list of favorite Christian books. Future installments will follow in blogs to come.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

(Copyright © 1952, renewed © 1980, C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)

Anyone who knows me well is not surprised at this point. And I freely admit it: I am a HUGE C.S. Lewis fan. (In fact, without Rule #2, this entire list might have been his stuff!) The story is well known of how Lewis went from being a reluctant churchgoer in his youth, and moved from agnosticism to theism, and finally to Christianity. Mere Christianity was originally a series of radio talks given on the BBC between 1942 and 1944, which Lewis later edited and compiled into its present form. “Mere” is used in 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. When you read the book, you have to remember that it started out as a radio script, and so you should read it as a good announcer would on the air, with appropriate pauses. And the subject matter is considerably deeper and “denser” than most of us are used to reading. There’s no denying it: this is heavy stuff!

But I urge you: please make the effort to read this book. It may take a while to get used to Lewis’ rhythm and style of writing, but I assure you – it’s worth it. In these days of bumper sticker theology and coffee mug wisdom, Lewis is a deep breath of very fresh air.

Here’s a favorite passage:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

 

 

Great American Railroad Stories

(Note – I am on my way to Guatemala this morning for a mission trip, and will be gone into next week. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Meanwhile, here’s a book review that I wrote for our local model railroad club’s newsletter.)

GreatAmericanRailroadStoriesTrains magazine recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Kalmbach Publishing has released a new book – Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine. The book is available both as a softcover and hardcover.

As the name suggests, it features 51 stories chosen from across the magazine’s three-quarters of a century, including stories by some of the most famous railfans in the country: Lucius Beebe, A.C. Kalmbach, J. David Ingles, David P. Morgan, Jim Boyd, and many others. The stories include selections from the magazine’s first year of publication (1940), up through 2009, but many of the stories are historical pieces that document earlier railroad history – from the wild ride of “Death Valley Scotty,” to a firsthand account of taking a transcontinental train ride just weeks after it opened in 1869, and others.

There are stories about working on the railroad, whether as a fireman or a telegraph operator, and stories about riding trains; some pay tribute to a favorite locomotive or railroad, while others tell about memorable people encountered on the rails. One of my favorites is “Confessions of a Train Watcher,” from 1957, by David P. Morgan, where the then-editor of Trains magazine explains his fascination with railroading.

The book is beautifully produced, with 256 glossy pages and an easy-to-read typeface. The cover has only a single, small photograph of a stream locomotive pulling a passenger train – appropriate, since the emphasis is on the best stories from 75 years, and not necessarily the best pictures. But there are plenty of great pictures; the editor notes that they used the original photos to accompany the article whenever possible, but he acknowledges that there are fewer pictures, to keep the focus on the writing.

If you like reading great railroad stories, or have an interest in how trains shaped American life, you’re going to want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is a railfan, he or she will DEFINITELY enjoy it. It’s probably not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover, but more like a magazine, where you skip around and read the stories that really interest you. The softcover has a list price of $24.99, and is available both at local book stores and online. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but if you have to pay for shipping, it probably comes out about the same.

Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine (Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisconson) is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

History All Around

I love history. I love good stories, and history is all about the stories. Those stories are all around us, if we will just take the time to listen.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t like history. Undoubted, they had a poor history teacher somewhere back along the way – someone who thought you could teach history by making kids memorize dates from a calendar. But just as there is more to music than notes on a page, so also there is much more to history than dates on a calendar.

abilene stories coverA dear friend recently gave me a copy of a wonderful book, Abilene Stories: From Then to Now. It’s a collection of fascinating recollections and remembrances by and about people from Abilene. Most of the stories are no more than two or three pages long, and the book contains dozens of them. It was compiled by Glenn Dromgoole, Jay Moore, and Joe W. Specht, three guys who know something about Abilene and how to tell a good story.

I’m still reading through the book, enjoying the stories, intrigued by what I’m discovering about this town. That street corner on Chestnut and South First, where they’re putting in new sidewalks? That was the corner where Abilene’s first chief of police used to fire his gun on New Year’s Eve, to tell the bars it was time to close. That stretch of concrete across the north end of the airport, disconnected from everything and looking like it was put there at random? It’s actually a remnant of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast, all-weather road in America. It came right through Abilene.

Camp Barkeley? It was named for a Texas soldier in WW I who died three days before the war ended, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the face of the enemy. And he is now recognized by the Army as the first Hispanic recipient of the nation’s highest honor for valor. The stories go on and on.

It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read a book to discover amazing stories – they are literally all around us. Even on the block where you live.

  • That sweet little old lady who hobbles around with a walker? She had polio as a little girl, spent a year and a half in an iron lung, and showed incredible determination in learning to walk again. She can tell you a thing or two about courage, for those who will listen.

  • The old man down the street who keeps to himself? He’s the last surviving member of his unit from WW II, that liberated a concentration camp. No one knows the nightmares he has endured for this country.

  • That quiet couple across the way? They spent 30 years overseas as missionaries before their retirement. Let them tell you about raising their kids in another culture, and what they learned together.

These are my neighbors. Your neighbors. When we take the time to get to know them, we discover they enrich our lives in ways we can’t even begin to expect. It’s history, not from a book, but from people who were there and who lived it. It’s a special wisdom that they will share for those who will turn off the TV long enough to listen.

It’s history all around us.

So Costly a Sacrifice

November 21, 1864: Lincoln (allegedly) writes a letter of condolence to a Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, whom he was told had lost five sons in the war.bixby_letter

This letter is one of the most powerful compositions I have ever read.  The language and the images move me to tears ever time I read it.  Of course, as it turns out, there are some corrections to the story:

  • Mrs. Bixby herself was a Southern sympathizer.
  • She had lost two sons in battle, not five. (As if having “only” two sons killed was no big deal.)
  • Some modern historians don’t think Lincoln actually wrote it, but rather, his secretary, John Hay.

101PoemsNone of which diminishes the majesty of this prose and the incredible command of the English language.  I fell in love with this letter a long time ago, when I literally found a copy in a little book, in a pile of trash in the closet of an old house we were cleaning out.  (Anybody else remember, “His Place”?)  The book was an anthology called “One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement.”  Not exactly an elegant title, but a great collection, none the less.

I was a Freshman at DCC, and just beginning to appreciate the power of language, and here was a brilliant example.  Movie fans will also note that this letter was used in “Saving Private Ryan.”

 

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. 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

Thank you, Mr. President.

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

addressIt was on this date 150 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history.

Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor:  John Kennedy’s Inaugural, and “Ask not;” Martin Luther King, Jr., and “I have a dream;” FDR and “Fear itself;” even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and “Malice towards none.”  And as important as those speeches – and many others – were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

gettysburgIn this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war.

And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

There was a time when school children had to memorize it.  In my case, it was in Mrs. Thigpen’s eighth grade class at Orangefield Junior High.  Some may still have to commit it to memory, at least long enough to pass the test.  Good for them.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery.  For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech.  The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left the Executive Mansion (as the White House was called in those days).

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it.  Not so.  It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s true that it was short.  But then, it was supposed to be.  Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union.  President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically.  But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation.  The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census.  It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

In the Bible, words have the power to create.  When God created the cosmos, He did it by speaking it into existence.  When John was writing his gospel under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when he wanted to find a way of describing Jesus’ inner nature, he chose the Greek term “Logos” – the “Word.”

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write; good speakers can do the same, helping see things “as they could be.”  And so in this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them.  He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all.

To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

garry_wills_lincoln_at_gettysburgOut of all the books written about the Gettysburg Address, I think the best is Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg.  Prof. Wills is, in my opinion, a really great historian, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, including John Wayne’s America.  But he received a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg, and I think the committee got it right.  If you enjoy American or Civil War history, or want to better understand how to use language effectively, I highly recommend it.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations.  Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — 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.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

No Need Among You

I was blessed last week to be able to attend the “No Need Among You” Conference in Waco.  This is an annual conference that brings together churches, para-church ministries, non-profits, NGOs, and other groups whose focus is serving and working among lower income and inner-city populations.  The conference is sponsored by the Texas Christian Community Development Network.

The conference title is taken from two scriptures.  One is Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which says,

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

The other is Acts 4:33-35 –

33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

(Quotations from the NIV, emphasis added.)

How am I to think about the poor?  What kind of responsibilities do I as a Christian have towards them?  Even asking those questions causes some people to become defensive.  Others will immediately begin offering excuses for why they can’t, haven’t or shouldn’t offer help.  There will be stories about welfare scam artists, professional freeloaders, and abusers of the system.  Some will even cite scriptures such as, “You will always have the poor with you” (John 12:8), and “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Do those stories exist?  They do.  Are they true?  In some cases.  Are those scriptures correct?  They are.

None of which relieves me of my responsibility before God to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien and the stranger among us.

First of all, in regards to those Bible verses, even a beginning Bible student can tell you that one should always let the context of a particular verse guide your interpretation of that verse.  In John 12, Jesus is NOT giving us an excuse for failure to address problems of economic disparity; rather, He is teaching us that we should set appropriate priorities for how we invest our resources.  He was acknowledging the reality of a situation, not expressing His approval of that situation.

And in 2 Thessalonians, Paul was correcting a lazy bunch of so-called Christians who had talked themselves into thinking that because Jesus’ return was imminent, they didn’t have to work to provide for themselves or their families, and could instead live off the generosity of other believers who were footing the bill for lunch.  This laziness, masquerading as spirituality, is what he was addressing.

Nearly everyone agrees that there are those who abuse the system, and take advantage of other people’s desire to help.  Does that mean that we should encourage fraud and ignore waste?  Of course not.  Our systems should be as streamlined and fraud-free as we can make them.  But that does NOT take away from my responsibility to live a generous, open-handed life, and to love and care for those God puts in front of me.

If they abuse my help and kindness, that’s between them and God. My job- my calling- is to help.  And to love as Jesus loved, without judgmentalism or limit.

Go read Amos.  Learn how God feels about the poor, and those who abuse them.  Perhaps the prophet’s sharpest comments are directly at the religious people who sat by and let others take advantage of the poor without doing anything to stop it, sometimes because they are so busy their religious ceremonies.

Merchants who have one set of scales for buying, and another set of scales for selling.  Exploiting those who can least afford it by charging outrageous prices.  Failing to pay fair wages, and finding reasons to withhold even what is owed.  Some of the very things that business owners today – sometimes even “pillars” of the local church – are still doing.

They call it sharp business practice.  God calls it something else.

Fine, you say.  I don’t own a business, I’m not cheating anybody, I want to help but don’t want to enable someone’s drug habit or other destructive lifestyle.  What can I do?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are five suggestions:

1.  Get informed on what poverty really is, and the face of poverty in America today.  Turn off the TV, spend a little less time on Facebook, and read these books if you really want to see things from another perspective.

Every Church MemberWhat Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, by Bill Ehlig and Dr. Ruby Payne.  Ruby Payne is well-known for her groundbreaking research and helpful organization of economic classes and how people in one class use “hidden rules” to survive.  This particular edition is geared towards helping church members understand this complex issue and have a Nickled and Dimedpractical framework for channeling their desire to help.

Nickled and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich.  From our middle class perspective, we tell people, get a job, get off welfare, support yourself.  Start out with “unskilled” jobs and work your way up.  But here’s the secret: there was a time in America when a minimum-wage job was indeed a ticket up to the middle class, but generally speaking, it is no longer that way.  In this book, Ms. Ehrenreich tells the story of going around the country for a year, working as a waitress, a nursing home aide, a Walmart employee, and trying to make a living at it.  Remember the old joke about, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts”?  That applies to this book.

When Helping HurtsWhen Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  This is another book that will challenge you and what you think you know.  Beginning from a Biblical perspective of understanding how the Fall has corrupted our world, the authors show way our usual “band aid” approach of trying to give poor people things brings unintended consequences, and actually can end up doing more harm than good.  You’ll never look at a food pantry, clothes closet or Thanksgiving basket the same way again.

2.  Cultivate relationships with people who are different.  It’s easy to stay within our little cliques, to read only those who agree with us, to gravitate towards others of our own background and status.  But that is not community.  God compels us to go out into the highways and byways, to reach out to the lonely, the marginalized, the forgotten among us.  Go next door and meet your neighbor, even if they are different from you.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

3.  Tip the maid.  You may think your hotel room is overpriced, but I guarantee you, the lady cleaning your room is not getting rich off the deal.  She is helping to subsidize your trip.  Give her a tip when you leave, and more than just a buck or two.  And for Christ’s sake (and I mean that with all reverence), do NOT leave her a gospel tract.  A $10 or $20 bill will do fine.

4.  Support local businesses, farmer’s markets and buy Fair Trade Certified goods.  Yes, I know FTC coffee is more expensive, and cantaloupes are cheaper at Walmart.  But when we shop with a conscience and with some awareness, we are having an impact that goes far beyond just the dollars that we spend.

5.  Get involved at church.  Help transform your church’s outreach from relief to one of empowerment and development.  (Read “When Helping Hurts” to understand the difference.)  Start a financial ministry so that people don’t have to borrow money from a payday lender.  Turn your food pantry into a food co-op.  When you sit on the budget committee, advocate for giving the janitor a living wage, and hire him 40 hours a week so he can have health insurance.  Yes, I KNOW  that might mean not paving the parking lot this year.

Which option do you suppose God is more interested in?

Think You Know Jack?

cs-lewisC.S. Lewis once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” If you enjoy reading as I do, you will probably agree with him, although you might prefer a cup of coffee, or maybe even something stronger, to sip on while you’re doing your reading and thinking.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death – November 22, 1963. Of course, that particular day was also the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. (It’s also the day that another British intellectual and author, Aldous Huxley, died, but this isn’t a review of Brave New World, so we will move on.) Anyway, there are a number of remembrances and celebrations of Lewis and his work being planned, so I thought I would jump the gun just a bit with a few thoughts on this author and thinker who has influenced me and so many others.

Clive Staples Lewis was born November 29, 1898, in Belfast, Ireland. As a small boy, he took the nickname “Jack” after a family pet, and so he was “Jack” to his friends for the rest of his life. His mother died while he was still young, and her death was a factor in him renouncing his Christian faith. He later wrote that he considered himself an atheist, although he also said that he was angry at God for NOT existing.

NarniaHe served with British troops in World War I, and was wounded in a friendly fire accident that killed two friends. Eventually, he returned to the faith, in part with the help of his friend and fellow author, J.R.R. Tolkien.  (Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall at a meeting of the “Inklings,” as their little society was known?)

Lewis held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and was the author of a great many books, both fiction and non-fiction. Many people first come to know of Lewis through his fiction, including the seven-volume “Chronicles of Narnia,” and then later tackle his non-fiction, although for me, it was the other way around. The first book of his that I ever read was The Problem of Pain, required reading for Bob Brockus’ “Apologetics” class back at Dallas Christian College. And thank you, Brother Bob, for introducing me to him, and for many others things, too.

CSLewis AllLewis’ best known non-fiction is probably Mere Christianity; by “mere,” he means basic Christianity, first principles of faith that all Christians generally accept and teach. The book started out as a series of radio talks during the 1940s, and was later adapted into its current form. I won’t kid you – it’s not an easy read, but it will absolutely make you think, and give you something worthwhile to consider.  I am completely convinced that if more Christians read it, we would have a lot less goofy theology.

In my opinion, people who have only read Lewis’ fiction, without diving into his non-fiction, are only getting the gravy – it’s good gravy, of course, but you should also get the meat and potatoes of Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, The Weight of Glory, and so on.

Another personal favorite of mine from his fiction work is The Screwtape Letters. This imaginative book relates the story of a young apprentice demon who has been assigned his first human to corrupt. The tale is told through a series of letters from his “uncle,” an experienced demon, on the most effective ways to tempt and lead astray. I think it’s a brilliant bit of writing that reveals Lewis’ keen insights into human character and weaknesses, but it does take a bit of getting used to – for example, whenever the older demon talks about God, he refers to Him as “The Enemy.” But still, good stuff.

year_with_cs_lewis_coverIf you haven’t read much of Lewis and are looking for a good place to start, I would recommend A Year With C.S. Lewis. It’s a collection of 366 brief readings of his material, gleaned from nearly all of his best works, and arranged by a daily schedule (including one for February 29 during leap years). Spend a few minutes every morning for a year with Jack, and you will be amazed at how much better clarity of thought you will have.

So then, here are a dozen favorite Lewis quotes, arranged in ascending order leading up to my personal favorite. Please note that this list includes the results of a very unscientific poll that I conducted, asking some friends to share their favorites. Thanks to those who helped me put this list together – you know you are. Some of the suggestions are theirs, but the order is my own.  And to my fellow lovers of Lewis, if I’ve left off your favorite quotation, you are of course welcome to submit it as a comment.

The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. The Screwtape Letters

“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” The Horse and His Boy

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. The Great Divorce

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible… People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs. Mere Christianity

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. The Weight of Glory

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither. Mere Christianity

…Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Mere Christianity

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. The Problem of Pain

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. Mere Christianity

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The Weight of Glory

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. Mere Christianity

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?
Well, neither had I, at least not until I coverwas lurking in the basement of the Abilene Public Library recently, browsing through their railroad section, and I came across a book entitled, This Train is Bound for Glory. The book tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In most towns, saloons, gambling dens and “dance halls” (brothels) outnumbered all other establishments put together. Many towns did not have a church of any denomination, and schools were a far-off dream. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a chance to make a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. Some came from “back east,” looking to start over. Some came from overseas, from Ireland and Italy, from Bohemia and Norway and Poland.  All of them knew that having a church in their community was essential.

ChapelCar1922And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.   They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

interior2Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea.  Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style Estey pump organ.  The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down beds that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/living space, a water closet/toilet, and a tiny office/study area.

rev._e.j._mcguinness._chapel_car._st._paul._a_church_on_wheels._come_in_and_see_it._1923_march_20The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance.  Some of the railroads helped the chapel cars because the rail owners were believers, and wanted to see the gospel advance.  Others supported them because they wanted to reduce alcoholism and violence among the rail workers, and saw the church as a great “civilizing influence.”  Whatever.

The usual pattern was for the railroad to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding.  Sometimes it was parked in or near the railroad’s shops and offices, for the convenience of the people working there to attend services.  Often, it would be parked in proximity to the town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women that could be found there.

Railroad_workers_inside_the_railroad_chapel_car_Glad_TidingsThe missionaries who served on board these rolling churches had to have a special calling.  The men had to be willing to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work.  They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there.  They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone.  And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

History_chapelcarTheir wives had to have a calling of their own.  It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town in the morning, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car.  They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter.  And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment.

Most of the couples who served were young and newly married, and had not yet started having children.  Sometimes older couples whose children were already grown served.  There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

book2-1In her book Gospel Tracks Through Texas, author Wilma Rugh Taylor tells the story of Chapel Car #4, named “Good Will,” which served many years all across Texas.  It was owned by the American Baptist Publication Society, based in Philadelphia.  But there was a problem.  Most Texas Baptists were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and were very suspicious of the “northerners” building these cars.  In spite of initial misgivings, though, most of the towns where the chapel cars served eventually welcomed them with open arms, and were won over by the dedication and hard work of those who served on board.

The author, Mrs. Taylor, has shown some dedication herself.  She and her husband, the late Norman Taylor, also wrote the previously mentioned This Train is Bound for Glory, based on literally years of painstaking research and traveling across the country to document the nearly-forgotten story of the chapel cars.  Tragically, he died from a fall in 2007, when he was working to help restore one of the cars.  If you would like more information about the chapel cars, Mrs. Taylor has a website, chapelcars.com, that has all the details and floor plans.

My wife says it would have been my dream job, just a hundred years too late.  And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.  On the other hand, I like the concept of using whatever tools are available to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten.  Mrs. Taylor tells several stories of the missionaries intentionally working among the newly-arrived immigrants who didn’t speak the language, as well as the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society.

At the front of the partition of the chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” carefully written across it in gold leaf.  It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board.  They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.