Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Found Faithful

Found Faithful was another book I selected after searching for books on the redemption of pain and suffering. Elizabeth Skoglund has gathered together stories for miniature biographies of eighteen famous Christian figures. Ten are treated with small vignettes and eight of the more prominent Christians are highlighted in whole chapters (people like Charles Spurgeon, Amy Carmichael, C.S. Lewis and Ruth Bell Graham).

If ever there was evidence that faith can flicker on despite trials and discouragement, the lives of these individuals provide some of the best. Again and again, despite great difficulties, these Christian giants chose to cling to God in spite of circumstances that could break anyone. I jotted down a few noteworthy quotes to chew on while writing my current novel.

Amy Carmichael wrote, "Trials are not 'chastisement.' No earthly father goes on chastising a loving child. That is a common thought about suffering, but I am quite sure that it is a wrong thought.... They are battle wounds. They are signs of high confidence - honors."

In the chapter on Spurgeon, the author quoted him as saying, "It is not the trouble, but the hiding of our Father's face, which cuts us to the quick.... It is only felt affliction which can become blest affliction. If we are carried in the arms of God over every stream, where would be the trial and where the experience which trouble is meant to teach us?"

C.S. Lewis himself doubted that he would recover from the pain of losing his wife, Joy. He wrote:

"Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he's had his leg off it is quite another.... If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he'll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has 'got over it.' But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and ... he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed.... At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again."

The author reminds the reader of Christ's following God's will, saying "It cost him blood." Thus, the cloud of witnesses revealed in Skoglund's book remind a Christian of a very important fact - we are evidence to on-lookers when we react to the trials that life places in our paths. They see our faith tested and watch carefully to see how we respond. It might cost us dearly, but if God is our "reference point" (as He was in the life of Ruth Bell Graham) then we can and will weather whatever storm comes our way. Ours is the opportunity to join this group of faithful saints.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Puzzle

I'm so thrilled that my younger boys are old enough now to get into doing puzzles with me. We have a tradition of doing a puzzle over the Thanksgiving weekend. This year, we selected a 550 piece puzzle that was fairly easy, so we were able to put it together in the space of a day. I love that this one has so much action and that it focuses on a music theme:

The puzzle was by Tooniverse and called "Rhapsody in Zoo." I enjoyed all the funny details like the baby in the orchestra, sucking a pacifier, a penguin playing a drum, and even a couple of monkeys (my favorite animal). The puzzle can be purchased at the Serious Puzzles website.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: Our Ultimate Refuge

As I passionately pursue the creation of another manuscript - this one a tale of good intent gone wrong, ending in redemption - I have purposely plunged myself into books about problems of suffering and how God works to redeem the broken pieces of our lives. Thus, I sought out Oswald Chambers' book on Job and the problem of suffering, called Our Ultimate Refuge. Although I was able to glean some vision and insight from its pages, I have to admit it was somewhat difficult to follow and understand what the author was attempting to communicate. It simply lacked accessibility for the reader and that's too bad.

This little book was at least a quick read, at only 138 pages. Oswald Chambers gave a series of talks in 1917 and these words were gleaned from notes taken during the lectures. He addressed a male audience and, of course, minds were clearly focused on suffering caused by a world at war. The focus is on that perplexing question: "Why do the righteous suffer?"

The publisher's forward outlines clearly what the book is attempting to express: "Chambers presents God as not only the ultimate refuge, but our only refuge. With characteristic insight, he discusses our myths of self-sufficiency and eternal optimism, revealing their inadequacy when faced with the destruction of all that human-kind values. Only with a sense of ultimate and utter loss do we come to admit that all we have is God."

Here's some of what I did take away from the treatise. Chambers writes: "The majority of us start out with the belief that God is good and kind, and that He prospers those who trust in Him. Job believed this, but he has a conscious resurgence against that belief now, and it is Job's goodness, not his badness, which makes him reconsider things. There are things in the experience of us all which call for a revision of our credal findings about God."

He argues toward the end of the book, that "Job never knew that Satan and Jehovah had made a battleground of his soul." When faced with undeserved suffering, we must remember that our souls are a constant battleground and we must say with Job that though He slay us, yet we will trust Him. In another section Chambers speaks of the "rehabilitation" of faith in God (from Job 42:1-2) What is needed is a restoration to the former state of trust and belief. He writes, "I have to believe that God is good in spite of all that contradicts it in my experience. It is not easy to say that God is love (1 John 4:8) when everything that happens actually gives the lie to it. Everyone's soul represents some kind of battlefield. The point for each one is whether we will hang on, as Job did, and say 'Though things look black, I will trust in God.'"

The problem is outlined further when he writes: "Many of us have no faith in God at all, but only faith in what He has done for us, and when these things are not apparent we lose our faith.... The danger of experience is that our faith is made to rest in it, instead of seeing that our experience is simply a doorway to God Himself."

There will always be the problem of suffering. Why does a good God allow it in the world? Why do innocents pay the price of someone else's sin? Surely, we think, a loving, benevolent Creator would want to repay trust and belief with the prosperity we crave, and yet we are often plunged into "the dark night of the soul," and cannot see our way clear to Him or his provision. Chambers rightly directs the reader's focus back on God, the right place to hang our hopes and dreams.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Blessed by Another Writing Retreat

This week, I was privileged with the opportunity to get away for my third writing retreat. For the second year in a row, my husband has encouraged me to slip away for several days to an idyllic retreat center in Northern Indiana (my first one had been to a small cabin in Southern Indiana and it was so small and isolated that I had no Internet connection there - sometimes Internet comes in handy to research something that comes up in the writing).

What a blessing those days turned out to be!

The retreat center is basically a stunning house on Lake Bruce. Last year, I spent more time writing in a location where I could physically look out on the serene scene of the water (for photos of the suite and the desk where I wrote looking out on the water, see last year's retreat post):

This year, I holed up in the Francis Schaeffer Suite and wrote furiously without viewing the water. The first day, I managed to get in 4,610 words, even though I didn't arrive until late afternoon. The second day, I woke at 5:30 and was basically a whirling dervish of words for twelve hours, spilling out another 8,488 words. When I woke on the third day there, I hit a blockage, not knowing where to send the story from that point. So, I did what I always do when I'm stuck ... I took a walk, which included a brief visit to a small prayer chapel on the property:

I thought the words above the prayer chapel and inside were perfect for the piece on spiritual redemption that I am working on: The front of the chapel says "Be still and know that I am God," while the inside bears a verse from Psalm 62:8 - "Trust in him at all times, you people, pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge."

On the wall, I found this telling plaque with more words to spur on my writing about brokenness and redemption:

It reads: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners." - Isaiah 61:1

How appropriate, since my character is deeply broken and in need of a healing, restorative touch.

I was shocked when on the last day, a new character pushed her way into the scene ... someone I had not anticipated playing a part in the story. That day, I managed 3689 words, which brought me to over 21 thousand words for my retreat and pushed me into the winner's circle for the Nanowrimo effort by making my word count 50,539. Yippee!

To celebrate my productivity, I watched a movie in the spacious movie room in the basement on the last night. The screen covers almost the whole wall ... it was like having my own private theater.

My youngest, Sean, had quite a tough time in my absence and called me every afternoon/evening, begging me to come home early. I am a short way into Part Two of the novel and am guessing that I still have another 30 or 40 thousand words to write, but am thrilled to have made such good progress while I was gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review: Another Place at the Table

I wasn't really sure what kind of research I should do for the novel I am presently working on. My hope is that it becomes a moving story of redemption. Those are my favorite type of novels to read. When I searched for books under the key word redemption, this book, Another Place at the Table, came up on our library's website. The subtitle is accurate: A Story of Shattered Childhoods Redeemed by Love. This truly was a redemptive tale and the truth in this author's writing clearly helped me to hone my characters and plot progression.

Kathy Harrison writes with intense humility about her revolving door policy. As foster parents, she and her husband take in numerous children who need temporary love and acceptance and a safe place to call home. The stories of these fragile young lives were shocking and often heartbreaking. I appreciated the author's willingness to paint herself as an ordinary woman doing her best in very demanding circumstances. I would not have known how to deal with many of the situations she confronted.

The abuse these children endured is horrific. The reader cannot help but weep on their behalf. Yet, through it all, Kathy and her husband extended hands of love and acceptance. They met the challenges and obstacles with grace and understanding. They rooted for their kids whether they were in their home for a week or several years. Love certainly can redeem lives that have been marred by the evil in this world. While not every child ended up with a happy ending, the story provided hope and inspiration.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book Review: Some Writer!

E.B. White wrote three stellar children's books: Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Each of these books not only sucks a child into the story but also moves that child to feel deeply about the actions in the book. My boys are familiar with all three (although I think we only watched the movie version of Stuart Little). So, this book crossed my hands as an author interested in how another author honed his skills and as a reader interested in the ideas that led to three of my favorite children's books.

Melissa Sweet has done a marvelous job of bringing E.B. White to life in this book. She blends art and words to tell the story of his boyhood, young adult years, and professional life. My son, Sean, read through bits of this book with me and we were astounded at how many dogs E.B. White owned (we counted at least eight in the photos and text). I was most intrigued by the chance to review the many different opening chapters he wrote for Charlotte's Web.

Although most of my opening paragraphs have stuck (all but one book, I think), it is very freeing to know that a master such as E.B. White worked through several different options before landing on the best words. He is quite adamant about the use of words. Every word should count. He also emphasized the importance of writing that expresses your love for life. Sound writing advice. As his obituary recognized, "White had abundantly that most precious and least learnable of writerly gifts - the gift of inspiring affection in the reader."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review: The Hundred Dresses

When I happened upon the audio book The Hundred Dresses, my heart immediately soared because I remembered loving this book as a young girl. Still, it has been years and years since I was first exposed to it and my memory of the story was vague. I'm so glad I spent an hour relishing the story again.

Wanda Petronski is a poor Polish girl who wears the same old faded dress to school each day. When a classmate comes in a stunning new dress, Wanda timidly squeaks out that she has one hundred dresses all lined up in her closet at home. This becomes fuel for rampant teasing. In the end, the girls discover the true secret to Wanda's hundred dresses and learn a lesson in kindness from her friendly response.

One day, I hope to have a granddaughter and I will happily read her this lovely tale. I will read it to her from my beloved collection of Collier's Junior Classics (which contains Louis Slobodkin's original illustrations for this 1945 Newbery winner - much better than the cover photo for the Recorded Books version). Hopefully, her heart will revel in the story as much as mine did all those years ago.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: The Girl From the Train

Finally! Finally, after several weeks of less-than-stellar book selections, I found a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Someone from my on-line book club suggested The Girl From the Train as a comparable title for readers who enjoyed The Book Thief. Not to be confused with the currently popular, The Girl on the Train, this book tells a story from World War II that centers on one young Jewish girl who escapes the dreaded death camps thanks to the intervention of one brave man.

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt jumps from a train and waits quietly to be reunited with her mother and grandmother, once they reach the next up-hill stretch and an opportunity to jump also. Meanwhile, twenty-one-year-old Jakob Kowalski plants a bomb on the track, intended to take out a train full of German soldiers. When Gretl's unscheduled train, bound for Auschwitz, crosses the bomb, her beloved mother and grandmother do not survive. Jakob feels a sense of obligation to this sole survivor and takes her in to live with his family for a time. But the dangers of discovery force his hand and, risking exposure, he presents her as a German war orphan to an organization hoping to rehome such children with adoptive Protestant families in South Africa. Neither Gretl nor Jakob can reveal the truth of her nationality, her Catholic upbringing, or her ties to communist Poland. They do not know if they will ever meet again, but theirs is a strong connection formed in the midst of trial and tragedy.

I think one of the reasons the book resonated so strongly is because it is a vivid story of redemption. The brokenness of this world is redeemed through the courage and intrepid faith of ordinary individuals. Despite the loss and sorrow revealed in the story, it leaves the reader with a sense of hope and gratitude for the resilience of the human spirit. I'm so glad someone brought this heart-warming book to my attention.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: Best State Ever

I should know to do more research into my audio book selections, but sometimes I just have a few moments to run into the library and find something (this was the case with this selection and I regret it). There were a few things about Best State Ever that pulled me in. I needed a short book because I intend to resume walking on the track where I can spend my walking time thinking long and hard about my writing tasks for Nanowrimo. This book was only four discs long. Having never really read anything by Dave Barry, I knew he was supposed to be a humorist. Plus, the book is a defense of the state of Florida, where my parents live. Interesting, no? No. Not really interesting or very funny. Too crude in spots. I shall simply say, I endured for the sake of brevity.

While Carl Hiassen may identify Barry as "the funniest damn writer in the whole country," I only chuckled occasionally. Dave Barry highlights the absurdity of Florida, including a Bigfoot-like character known as the "skunk ape," alligator wrestling, elderly villages where line-dancing reigns supreme, and long treks through Key West's drunken party scene. I think the only part I perked up at was his explanation of his visit to Lock and Load in Miami, a place where men can fire machine guns (living in a house full of males, I can bet this would be a highlight for them, should we ever visit Miami ... nowhere near my parent's humble Florida home). It did kill the time and keep my mind off the miles, but it wasn't nearly as enjoyable or humorous as I was anticipating. Alas, my book choices of late have been a wash.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Goodbye October, Hello November

This feels like the calm before the storm. The boys are out trick-or-treating with their dad and I'm sitting here ruminating over what I should write about for my upcoming Nanowrimo effort. This will be my eighth year of writing a book during the month of November. Seven times I've accomplished not only the 50,000 words-in-a-month challenge, but also the completion of each manuscript. My prayer is that I be successful again, but we shall see.

Here are the boys in all their crazy glory:

The amazing thing is that they didn't request gruesome costumes this year. A peeled banana and a homeless man! Can't get much tamer than that!

Let the festivities begin: