Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review: The Furious Longing of God

Every once in a while, a theme gets hammered into my psyche by repeated, seemingly coincidental exposure. Sunday morning's sermon was centered on the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. Our congregation was reminded of God's intense, unwavering love for us and further, of His desire that we go on to express that same love to others, not just the ones who are easy to love (even the pagans do that), but the most unlovable ones. It was an inspiring time of worship.

Then, I came home and my boys packed up to leave for a brief trip to Holiday World. Following their departure I sat in our quiet house, enjoying the calm and attempting (unsuccessfully) to make my failing laptop work. In frustration, I gave up and decided to simply open up my Kindle library (on my laptop) and read one of the many books I keep meaning to get to. I opened up the most recent acquisition, this book by Brennan Manning, called The Furious Longing of God.

This brief book cemented even further an understanding of the depth of God's love for me, even when I don't feel that I deserve it, even when I am at my most despicable. He loves me, even me! What a marvelous revelation.

As Manning writes: "The revolutionary thinking that God loves me as I am and not as I should be requires radical rethinking and profound emotional readjustment." He asserts that it is easier for people to believe that God exists than it is for them to believe that God loves them. Yet, it is true that "He loves me whether in a state of grace or disgrace."

Later, in talking of the power we have to heal someone else with our affirming love, seeing in them what they cannot see in themselves, he writes, "Lodged in your heart is the power to walk into somebody's life and give him or her what the bright Paul Tillich called 'the courage to be'." What a great commission!

He goes on. After talking about the healing found in the story of Don Quixote and Dulcinea, Manning writes: "The question is not can we heal? The question, the only question, is will we let the healing power of the risen Jesus flow through us to reach and touch others, so that they may dream and fight and bear and run where the brave dare not go?"

What an opportunity lies before each and every one, to rise to the occasion and be the conveyor of a moment of healing in the life of another. I want to not only experience the unfathomable love of God but also extend that love to others in ways that produces great healing in their lives!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: Kidnapped by River Rats

How fitting to be reviewing this book on July 1st, 2015, as Salvationists from around the world gather in London, England, to celebrate the 150th year of The Salvation Army's existence. (Wishing I could be there too, as I watch all the photos and videos shared on Facebook from friends and family who are delegates attending the "Boundless" International Congress.) I became aware of Kidnapped by River Rats when Catherine reviewed it on her blog, A Spirited Mind, and was surprised to find it at my library. As a person affiliated with The Salvation Army since birth, I'm kind of amazed that I had never heard of it. The book, published in 1991 by Bethany House Publishers, gives a brief exposure to the early days of The Salvation Army in London, England, and the persecution early Salvationists endured.

Jack and Amy came to London with their mother to search for an uncle to provide for them. When their mother dies, Jack and Amy are left to fend for themselves and search for a man whose address they don't even know in a city full of danger. After they encounter The Salvation Army marching past on their way to an open air meeting (not actually termed in such a way in the book, but that is what we in the Army would call it), they must decide if William and Catherine Booth are going to harm them (they are told the Army is "after their souls") or help them.

The book provides a fairly basic introduction to the Army. I believe more details could have been used to flesh out the historical perspective. Still, it was a slightly interesting tale and does indeed provide a fairly good picture to kids of what it must have been like to live in the 1880s in London in poverty. It also touches on the evils of child sexual trafficking, so the reader should be aware of that before reading it aloud to children. It will open up some difficult, but important, discussions. I probably won't be reading it aloud to my boys simply because I don't think they'd find it to be engaging enough to hold their attention.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Another Blast at Music Camp

This was my fourth year on faculty at The Salvation Army's Indiana Music Camp. Once again, I led the junior choir and had a blast with the kids and other faculty members. Due to the upcoming Boundless Congress being held in London, England to celebrate the Army's 150th year, our music camp was shortened from eight days to six. Even though it was shorter, we had so much fun this year!

One of the new elements was a time of music and dancing on the patio each evening (after the evening program and before Call to the Cross time), hosted by Captain Alex Norton (shown below in the funky Mohawk hat). He set up a light display which corresponded to the music and played songs (both Christian and secular) the kids recognized (I can't say I recognized all of them, but the kids were singing along faithfully). They did the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha Cha Slide. He DJ-ed from the balcony of the dining hall, overlooking the patio, and threw down candy and glow sticks to the kids some of the nights.

Our special guest was Captain Peter Mount. He did a fabulous job of presenting a solid theme and reinforcing the lesson of our theme verse, Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.") He played intense games of Simon Says with the kids. Plus, he snagged their attention fully with his illustration of the goldfish in the blender (to teach about choices we make - he promised the staff ahead of time that no harm would come to the goldfish - the cord wasn't plugged in).

He also led the faculty in a few faculty band pieces and a number for the faculty choir (difficult music, but he was so gracious when we made mistakes - some of us only pick up our horns a few times a year, whereas the division he is from has solid banding year-round). We played a fun version of "Happy" and another piece paired with guitar called "Here Comes the Sun."

The evening programs were fun. One night we played a game of Heroes and Villains (a glorified version of hide and seek) where we faculty members had to hide as citizens and be captured by the villains (campers) and rescued by the heroes (played by camp staff young adults). I hid behind the archery targets and was captured twice (once by a group of boys who exclaimed, "We found the old lady citizen." - hmph!).

Another night, they held a lip-sync battle. Each of the cabins prepared a number. The winning cabin dressed half of their boys as girls and sang Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to the other half of the boys from their cabin. It was absolutely hilarious! We were rolling on the floor laughing.

For Thursday night's program, my own corps officer and I put together a Musical Minute-to-Win-It program. I made a giant set of foam board music dominoes, a terminology matching game, and a bean bag toss rhythm matching game. We had other stations like boom-whacker music playing, sculpting rests out of play-dough, Name That Tune, and a musical version of the telephone game. I think the kids enjoyed it. I know the rotations went quickly and before I knew it, it was time to clean up and head to the patio.

Because of the shortened week, we eliminated several things. The only faculty-led electives were drama, praise team, and the camp newsletter. There just wasn't time to present an elective performance program. We only heard the solo contest winners during their whole camp level of competition (instead of hearing the winners perform again during the final concert). But, I felt like the streamlining of things made the camp less stressful and more fun.

The faculty continued the annual tradition of our trip to Steak-n-Shake after the Thursday evening activities. We laughed so hard I almost couldn't breathe. I hope the other customers weren't offended by the boisterous, good time we were having. It is always one of my favorite parts of the camp week.

My junior choir did a fine job in their final performance at the Saturday concert. They sang one fast and catchy song, "Seventy-Times-Seven," and one slower, worshipful piece, "Heavenly Father, I Appreciate You." I think we all had fun learning the music and absorbing the daily lessons.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: Bizarre World

It has been a while since I've tickled my funny bone by reading some Bill Bryson, so I decided to see what Bryson books were available at our library. I stumbled upon a hilarious little volume of truly bizarre vignettes called Bizarre World. It was quite entertaining, providing a few chuckles I could share with my kids (like the moronic criminal who robbed a bank, requesting the money be placed in his checking account, or the individual who attempted to commit suicide four different ways and ended up dying of exposure, or the person hit by lightning three different times while living and whose headstone was struck by lightning in death) and a few I couldn't share aloud because they were a bit risque. While not typical Bryson fare, it still turned out to be a funny little read.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat - Highly Recommend

I'm not much of a sports enthusiast. I don't follow teams. I don't even really watch the Olympics (although I do remember watching avidly one summer in my teens when the gymnastics teams were especially good-looking and other friends were following their advances, as well). Thus, I really thought I wouldn't be interested in this book, about an Olympic rowing team, at all. Several reliable book critics had recommended it, yet I remained skeptical of my interest level. The thing is, I remember being enthralled by the storytelling of this particular author, Daniel James Brown, when I read his book, Under a Flaming Sky, about a tragic fire in a small Minnesota town. He is a master at setting a scene and bringing historical characters and times to life for the reader. He has done it again, brilliantly, in this book, one of my favorite reads so far this year.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, tells a fascinating tale of the humble, ordinary men who melded together to form a team with the guts, stamina, and drive to overcome obstacles and win an Olympic gold medal. A majority of the book focuses on one individual, Joe Rantz. What a troubled upbringing Rantz endured, losing his mother early in life, gaining a disapproving step-mother, being abandoned by his family, and taking it upon himself to advance to and pay for college at the University of Washington. But it also weaves in the stories of George Yoeman Pocock, builder of the vessels these rowers relied on for the win, and of the coaches who pushed the boys to victory.

I was riveted to the audio version of this book and ended up extending my listening time well past my treadmill time for each CD. With 12 CDs total, it was a lengthy, but captivating story. I was compelled to jot down a few of the quotes because they contained such nuggets of truth:

"It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment. But that very water is what supports you. And that very enemy is your friend. So is life. The very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them." - George Yoeman Pocock

"Where's the spiritual value of rowing? The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole." - George Yoeman Pocock

There was an especially poignant passage on the 7th disc which I couldn't help but take a moment to copy down. Pocock is showing Joe Rantz the various types of wood used in making the shell of the boat. He "talked about the unique properties of each and how it took all of them contributing their individual qualities to make a shell that would come to life in the water." Later, Pocock goes on to speak of the rings in the wood which reveal all the hardships and benefits the tree has experienced. "'The wood', Pocock murmured, 'taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place, something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here. Sure, I can make a boat,' he said, and then added quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, 'but only God can make a tree.'"

The author quotes Pocock further: "'The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accomodate', he said, 'was sometimes a source of strength in men, as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.'" The level of Pocock's commitment was clear. "He said, for him, the craft of building a boat was like a religion. It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it, you had to give yourself up to it spiritually. You had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. 'Rowing,' he said, 'is like that and a lot of life is like that, too, the parts that really matter anyway.'"

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this book. I felt like I was standing alongside these young men as they made their way to a sanitized Germany for the 1936 Olympic games. I groaned when they were assigned the very worst possible lane, when their key rower was so sick they thought he might not manage the intense rowing, and when the German crowds cheers drowned out the instructions of the coxswain in the American boat. It was a glorious story, with a victorious ending and so much life-application. Even if you have no interest in athletics or rowing, you will glean something powerful from the experience of reading this book. History comes to life in full-color at the pen of Daniel James Brown.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Terupt Falls Again

My stack of books checked out from the library is quite huge at the moment (almost 20), but I'm relegated to reading whichever book is due next. I really didn't think I was in the mood for a kid's book (since I'm in the process of reading two other ones to the boys) and thought about simply returning this one and checking it out again later. Like Rob Buyea's first book, Because of Mr. Terupt, this book, Mr. Terupt Falls Again, was a sweet, touching story narrated by seven different kids who are in Mr. Terupt's sixth grade class. It is full of contemporary issues kids face, while offering up hope and encouragement to readers.

Buyea does an excellent job of juggling the seven narrators and making each individual shine with their own personal side of the story. Peter is attempting to fail sixth grade so his parents won't be able to send him to the private boarding school they have selected for the following year. Lexie is drawn to a rough crowd of older kids in an attempt to be more grown-up. Danielle, whose faith sustains her, is fearful for a family secret they refuse to share. Jeffrey is wondering when his family will ever be whole again after the loss of his brother. Jessica uses her love of screenwriting to embellish her side of the tale. Anna is in search of information about her absent father and Luke is determined to be a detective and ferret out the truth about Mr. Terupt's strange behavior (dizziness and stuttering spells).

I think this would make an excellent read-aloud book for fifth and sixth grade students, with some qualifications. Teachers would have to realize that the book delves into subjects like bra-stuffing, periods, kissing, and drug use, which might be uncomfortable to present to the class as a whole. Still, it covers such a wide range of emotions that every reader will be able to draw connections to the tale (indeed Mr. Terupt encourages his own students to make connections with the books they read during the school year - I loved this inclusion of familiar titles and stories). I even cried in a few places.

I was especially grateful to the author for including the faith of one of the characters. He does so with grace, neither pounding a gavel or wandering into generalities. Danielle simply addresses each situation with a reliance upon the Lord to help her figure things out and learn lessons from her experiences.

I can't wait for more from this author. He displays a key ability to get inside the heads of kids and also to portray classroom situations with genuine understanding and creativity. I would love to have had Mr. Terupt as a teacher when I was growing up. I have enjoyed sneaking a peek into his classroom and getting to know his students and their classroom activities through these two books. Plus, it looks like there is a third book coming out in July called Saving Mr. Terupt.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: The Five People You Meet In Heaven

My book club selected Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven for our June book club meeting. For me, it was a re-read and one I was perfectly happy to indulge in. At one point, I had even listed this book as a must-read when I was interviewed by a fellow blogger many years ago. I appreciate Albom's ability to weave stories of inspiration and meaning. For me, his stories give me something to reflect upon and take away from about life in general.

My book club's reaction was not entirely there. Most of them didn't like the book. They found it to be too syrupy saccharine, too full of Hallmarkesque sentimentality. Several mentioned that this wasn't consistent with their own views of heaven and didn't like how heaven was presented in such a person-centric way. They felt it was full of murky spirituality. While it was a quick and easy read, and a nice change from the deeper, more difficult reads we had been indulging in for the club, it was, for them, too shallow. For me, I enjoyed the book and took encouragement from it. I guess I simply overlooked the syrupy sentimentality and considered the presentation of heaven to be a hypothetical one for the purpose of life-reflection. The story evolves slowly to reveal a composite whole perspective on life and death. The reader is sucked in immediately and walks the road of discovery with the main character, pulling in all the wisdom the main character gleans.

Mitch Albom's opening paragraph is a fine example of the perfect hook for a story:

"This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time."

Eddie is a maintenance man at an amusement park (glad I read this after our visit to Cedar Point instead of before). When he dies attempting to save a girl from a dislodged cart crashing to the ground from above, he enters a form of heaven where there are five individuals waiting to meet with him and reveal some important truth about his life and life in general. Each individual he encounters is a bit of a surprise and full of wisdom for Eddie to digest.

I felt the book lifted me out of myself and into a higher plane. I felt it had a message I needed to hear in this very moment. Like Eddie, lately I've been feeling that my life (all 50 years of it) simply hasn't counted for enough. I fully embraced Eddie's sentiments when he said, "I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I was lost. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there." But, with Eddie, I took a moment to reconsider and think about the lessons the five people in heaven shared. Every life is significant and touches others.  We all have a story and that story's meaning is universal to all men. This book couldn't have come into my hands at a better moment in time. It was an encouragement to my heart and soul.

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about how reading can make you happier. It told of two women who have what for me would be the dream-job, a role as bibliotherapist, selecting books to feed a particular need within individual clients. If I were a bibliotherapist, I would suggest this book to people who are struggling with finding purpose and meaning in their life. It would be a good choice for someone who is questioning whether their own inconsequential story matters in the grand scheme of things. It would also be healing to someone who is several years out from the loss of a loved one (as mentioned in our book club discussion, it might be too painful a reassurance if the loss is fresh), reminding them that lost love is simply love in a different form. The loved one is no longer with you, but you carry them and continue to love despite the absence of the object of adoration.

While this book won't be for everyone and some readers might find it too sentimental, it's answers to life too pat, I believe the author's purpose in writing the book was fulfilled. He managed to convey several thoughts about life and death within the story of one man's life story. Moreover, he reminded readers that "each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."