finding the motherlode

– mining for a vein of truth in the stuff that matters –

Category: book discussion

session eight: the one-eyed monster, and why I don’t let him in

“I’m not too high-minded for television, I really just don’t like it.”

-Barbara Kingsolver

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ENOUGH ALREADY HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the evil schemes fueling the television industry. There is no shortage of studies and stats to show that our culture has been rapidly careening on a downward trajectory. Tune in to prime time and you’ll need look no further. A gore and carnage fest at the ready. A regular free-for-all.

And although I’d rather ponder the exotic coloration of a macaw in Seeing Scarlet or pontificate on why I both agree and disagree with Kingsolver’s final essay, God’s Wife’s Measuring Spoons (you’ll just have to read it yourself), I’m compelled to end our Small Wonder discussion on the theme of television as found in The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In. 

Why? 

Because, along with Kingsolver, I really don’t like television either. Instead, I’m passionate about the preservation of the mind. Besides, nobody in their right mind actually likes monsters, except of course if it’s green, at least 20 feet tall, and lives safely behind the screen or runs through the pages of a story book and who gets gobbled up in the end. That kind of monster is fun, and bears no lasting threat.

But the kind of monster Kingsolver names in The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In is amorphous, a changeling, a trickster. TV — it keeps reinventing itself. And as much as it’s referred to as a box, a thing, a tube, and a telly, it’s also equally known as the devil’s mouthpiece, an idiot, a sewer, and a vast wasteland. The thing gets around. It’s grown up with us and we’ve grown up around it.  Now that we’ve been lulled to sleep by its charms, not only do we believe it necessary but we find it comforting to have a screen in front of us at all times — to tell us what to do, think, eat, drink, and how to live, feel, and what to wear. Or not. 

As Kingsolver states:

“The advantages of raising kids without commercial TV seem obvious, and yet I know plenty of parents who express dismay as their children demand sugar-frosted sugar for breakfast, then expensive brand-name clothing, then the right to dress up as hookers not for Halloween but for school. Hello? Anyone who feels powerless against the screaming voice of materialistic youth culture should remember that power comes out of those two little holes in the wall. The plug is detachable. Human young are not born with the knowledge that wearing somebody’s name in huge letters on a T-shirt is a thrilling privilege for which they should pay eighty dollars. It takes years of careful instruction to arrive at that piece of logic.” (p. 134)

Meantime, our culture rocks and reels like a drunkard over what a single channel may produce on a given day. Bloodlust is upon the people — if only for a season or until the next new series. Voyeurism abounds in our living rooms, but one click makes it all go away, so it’s not hurting anyone. Oh, how we’ve been dumbed down. Even if nobody ever exactly believed in something called a “wardrobe malfunction.”

At the very least, Kingsolver sees the writing on the wall enough to decry television’s wasting influence. But what she doesn’t address is the trickster part — and how in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan’s predictive observations dating back to the 50’s about twentieth century media culture have now come to fruition.  Indeed, “the medium is the message.”

The issue goes far beyond how many people are getting shot up with blanks or how much ketchup is used and whether or not we should let Johnny see. Our death culture is far more sinister than fake blood.

Screens “R” Us. From television to laptop, DVD player to iPad, we’ve been channeled and changed by the prowess of a mastermind: this, our hell-bent media culture.

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A BIBLICAL LENS:

The topic of TV can land one atop mounds of food for thought to which all the popcorn in the world would not equal. There’s the good stuff and the bad stuff and then there is the very bad stuff. Beyond that, there exists the unmentionable. Surely the sheer ever-increasing amount of channels has had some bearing on this ratio. I mean, The Carol Burnett Show from the ’70s gave us some really good laughs, thanks to her sidekicks, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Even so, long before there was television, the Psalmist wrote, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” Ancient paths are new again. We really do have a choice.

Now, let’s have some fun. Time to think outside the box. In this vast wasteland of electronic suffering, I will play roving reporter and ask a few questions:

How do you choose to be entertained? Informed? Instructed? Influenced?

Or are you even choosing at all?

Perhaps you’re letting television (and other various forms of media) make all the choices and have been allowing it to nibble on your mind, if not suck up your time.

At the most basic level, we were made to think, live consciously, and walk upright for the better part of the day. TV is not only a one-eyed monster, it’s a trickster, and can transform into an invisible phantom that will eat our brains if we’re not awake and watchful.

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A warm thanks to all who have read along for all or some portion of our Small Wonder discussion. It’s my hope that you’ve benefited  in some way from these sessions. Maybe you’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for common grace, developed a keener sense of some of the issues all around us, or have caught a burden for your neighbor’s soul. More than anything, I pray a window has been opened from which you can look out of and upon the world with a more redemptive eye:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

-Matthew 6: 22-23

Many special thanks to my dear friends and sisters in Christ, Becky Pliego, Melissa Jackson, and Diana Lovegrove, for your generosity by kindly offering your time and talent in contributing to this project.

Soli Deo Gloria.

session seven: household words

Please welcome dear friend and sister in Christ, Diana Lovegrove, blogger at Waiting For Our Blessed Hope and contributor for today’s session on Household WordsDiana lives in England with her wonderful husband, adorable 7-year-old son, and naughty Jack Russell terrier. She loves nothing better than gentle family cycle rides at the weekend through the English countryside, but she also recently appreciated the opportunity to drive a racing car at speeds of 130 mph. Tea is her drink of choice, and the guitar her instrument to praise her God.

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“Home is place, geography, and psyche…It’s a place of safety.”

-Barbara Kingsolver

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Kingsolver opens Household Words with a modern telling of the parable of The Good Samaritan. Except in this true account, it appears there was no Good Samaritan. Kingsolver is endearingly honest about her own inability to act, as she sits frozen in her car in a queue at traffic lights, and witnesses a homeless woman being assaulted by a homeless man on the sidewalk. As the traffic lights change, she drives away alongside many others, taking her guilt over her failure to intervene with her. I probably would have done the same.

Kingsolver considers homelessness to be an “aberration” of a civilised society. She is right. Homelessness is a sign of the curse we are living under, ever since Adam and Eve were banished from their God-given home in the Garden of Eden for their sin, and Cain, their son, was told he would be a “restless wanderer on the earth.” Homelessness is what living apart from God looks like, and I’m not talking about those without a permanent roof over their heads. What Kingsolver doesn’t realise is that those who have comfortable homes to live in are just as homeless as the man or woman on the street packing cardboard inside their clothes to help to keep them warm at night.

Whether or not we agree with Kingsolver’s political views of how to help the homeless, I am grateful that she has a compassionate heart, recognises that the home she has to live in is due to providence (although she doesn’t call it such when she recounts the conversation with her wheelchair-bound friend: “Barbara, the main difference between you and me is one bad fall off a rock.”), is aware of the sinful attitude of pride in all of us (“…smart like me, hardworking like me…they’d have a house like me.”), and has the urge to do something to help her neighbour in need.

I am arrested by her definition of home:

“Home is place, geography, and psyche; it’s a matter of survival and safety, a condition of attachment and self-definition. It’s where you learn from your parents and repeat to your children all the stories of what it means to belong to the place and people of your ken. It’s a place of safety.”

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A BIBLICAL LENS:

I read Kingsolver’s definition of home and I am silently awed…common grace pours from her heart. I read it and I want to share with her how this is all so true, and how God fulfils all of this! How He calls us to Himself and adopts us as His children through the blood of Christ, so that where we were once estranged from Him and restless wanderers, now we can enjoy the embrace of our Father. I want to tell her that really understanding what it means to be adopted as His child and welcomed into His family sends a thrill through my heart every time I contemplate it. Attachment to Him, being defined by Him…there is no greater security in life. How He assures our survival and safety: “But not a hair of your head will perish.”  How we regularly gather with other believers, our family members, children through to grandparents, to celebrate and remember all the goodness He has given us in Christ. I want to show her the limitations of Robert Frost’s quote:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”

My Home is a gift. “They” do not have to take me in at all, given the extent of my sin. BUT…because of the sheer grace of God, because of Christ’s sacrifice, because I can now call God “Abba, Father!” I don’t even have to go there alone, hoping my knock at the door will be answered:

“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

-John 14:2-3

And then I want to look Barbara Kingsolver right in the eyes. I want to tell her how the story with which she opened this essay walked right into my heart. How it wasn’t merely her vulnerability and honesty in telling the story and her subsequent soul-searching which stirred my heart. I want to tell her how I personally identify with her guilt of not intervening when witnessing the abuse of a homeless person. How I was aware that my own sister was at risk of being abused by a “care worker” in the “care home” she was living in — a home in no meaningful sense of the word, but which epitomises the curse we are living under — not a home of safety, but a place to be survived. How I desperately wanted to inform the authorities, but for complicated reasons (which make no sense to me now, this side of the events) felt I couldn’t…so did nothing. How I have had to sit in court in recent days and listen as my sister described before judge and jury the harrowing extent of the abuse she suffered as a result of my saying nothing. Yes, I know something of that guilt.

How to deal with it?

I want to grab hold of her hand here and tell Kingsolver there is a much better way than how she dealt with her guilt, of rehearsing a different scene of the abused woman in her mind so that, “If I meet her again, I hope I can be ready.”  There is another way to deal with guilt, a way that leads to forgiveness, to life, to hope, to HOME!

When we have failed to love our neighbour as ourselves, we need to cry out to the One who did, who left His own Home to come to this earth where He had nowhere to lay His head. We need to cry out to Jesus, who took all our failures to love our neighbour in need on His own shoulders, died and rose again, that not only could we be forgiven and have our hearts sprinkled by His blood to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, but that He would give us His love for our neighbour, and a new Home.

It is no coincidence that she concludes her essay by referencing this Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It’s the presence of justice.” Here, God has revealed His very heart to her of what Home really is:

“Justice will dwell in the desert

and righteousness live in the fertile field.

The fruit of righteousness will be peace;

the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.

My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,

in secure homes,

in undisturbed places of rest.”

-Isaiah 32:16-18

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Next Thursday: The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

session six: letter to my mother

Geraldine Mary Robertsky Clarke 

May 28, 1935  —  September 4, 2012

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Who are you apart from me? For so many years, I thought we were one and the same. Unfortunately, we made that mistake. But God, He changed all that — by setting us both free. How do I know? In my hands I hold the mirror you gave me and I see a perfect reflection of myself. Thank you.

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Mater. Madre. Mère. Mum. Mom. Mommy. Mama. Ma. Mother.

Greater than an ordinary sailing vessel, larger than a merchant ship — Mother — she exists for others. Her hull is commissioned with strength to brave the high seas of life, carrying goods from afar. She maintains the spirit of the ages, takes her cues from above, has eyes in the back of her head, and can tell a storm is coming by the way the wind blows.

Her arms are of borgana softness, providing for the heads of all her children. She remembers everything, including what she was wearing 20 years ago on a certain day. All her yesterdays are kept as memento and patina is her middle name, and by which time itself is framed. She perceives beauty even in blackness and trusts God for light when there is darkness. Her kitchen is never closed even if tomorrow is another day.

Me: But what about all those storms? 

Her: Oh, those? They were just stepping-stones to the mountains I learned to climb and the Rock I learned to cling to.  

Me: You taught me that. On my right hand I wear your wedding ring.

Her: Love endures all things.

Me: Thank you.

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In Letter to My Mother, Barbara Kingsolver delicately scans with a silent eye every stage of her developmental life, recounting how it was, who she was, and what she saw — from her earliest memory at 3 to her gawky adolescence and those fierce, independent college years and beyond to the time when she herself became a wife and mother — where ego’s bloom finally fell off and her arms opened wide to the realization that giving supersedes taking and love truly is possible.

She’s amazed at love, really. Amazed at how her firstborn daughter’s “tiny hand is making a delicate circle, index finger to thumb, pinkie extended…” just like hers did at eight weeks of age. Amazed at how loving and being loved by a man is not horrible and how willing she is to bear the cross that is motherhood. She celebrates the event known as coming full circle and when Mother receives her reward. Sort of. Let’s face it, the need for Mother doesn’t ever really go away. And mothers and daughters don’t ever actually retire from the mother-daughter relationship. As Kingsolver admits:

“A week past my due date you are calling every day. Steven answers the phone, holds it up, and mouths, “Your mother again.” He thinks you may be bugging me. You aren’t. I am a woman lost in the weary sea of waiting, and you are the only one who really knows where I am. Your voice is keeping me afloat. I grab the phone.”

♦   ♦   ♦

We cut our teeth on the figurehead of Mother — a developmental task that extends far beyond toddlerhood. Emotional growth is painful. But it’s teeth we need and a good mother knows that. So she offers her edge and bears the pain along with us. Cries for us, too. Then she cheers us on. Through a million and one little things, she shows her love, mirrors back to us who we are. How else can we know ourselves but through the eyes of another? Children need a face to look into to know they’re loved. And they need eyes that speak back to them, “Yes, you are loved.” Through our most significant relationships do we become that person of certain expression, disposition, demeanor, stature, spirit.

Mothers are God-given.

But I am only too aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to have been fed from the spoon of a mother’s love. Sin, brokenness, sickness, absence, narcissism, selfishness — how often the effects of the fall play their role, rob us of the good things. Inasmuch as we want her to be, expect her to be, demand her to be, Mother is not perfect. But love is. And why there is forgiveness. If we are looking to Christ, He redeems the faults. Heals the wounds. Fills the gaps. Works wonders.

Kingsolver does a masterful job in this essay at capturing and conveying vivid moments of her life and the genuine love she received from and has for her mother. She writes with depth and candor, both of which I can relate to on so many levels, except for maybe the phone call her mother made tracking her down at a remote café in Beaurieux, France. Amazing how mothers have a way of knowing. They just know.

A BIBLICAL LENS:

If there’s a single trait that binds mothers together the world over, it is the sacrifice of self.

I think of Eve, mother of all the living, and how she models for us the quintessential role — the woman of firsts: She was first to be second. First to be deceived, to feel guilt, shame, and fear for her sin. After Satan, she was first to stand before God in judgment to receive her sentence. First to receive a promise, to find mercy, to submit to her husband’s authority, to suffer pain in childbirth, to bear children, to lose a son. What did God require of her? Body, soul, and spirit, the sacrifice of self. 

And what of the other mothers who beckon to us?

Sarah was called to sacrifice many years while waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a sonHannah sacrificed on her knees in prayer, asking God for a son, only to give him back to the Lord. Rachel travailed and died in childbirth. Upon the angel’s announcement, Mary said, “May it be to me as you have said.”

These mothers have not flatlined somewhere in the annals of history.  By faith, we can receive from them still today, be fed from their spoon, receive instruction, emulate their character. Mother love is synonymous with sacrifice.

Our spiritual DNA is secure.

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Next Thursday: Household Words by Diana Lovegrove 

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

 

session five: letter to a daughter at thirteen

Please welcome friend and sister in Christ, Melissa Jackson, blogger at Breath of Life and Out of the Ordinary, and guest contributor for today’s session on Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen. Melissa is a working mother living a quiet and simple life in Virginia with her husband and teenage daughter. She enjoys reading, writing, coffee, football, and bonfires. She ministers in her local church as a choir member and deacon’s wife. She has a passion for discipling teenage girls, especially her own.

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“I’ve spent so much of my life stitching together the answers to the hard questions that it’s natural for me to want to hand them down like a glove, one that will fit neatly onto an outstretched little clone hand. I try sometimes. But that glove won’t fit.” 

-Barbara Kingsolver

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Somehow, Barbara Kingsolver has crept into the innermost recesses of my mind, finding the very thoughts that I’ve never wanted to face. I couldn’t believe they were real. Yet the words find me and lay my soul bare. I have tried to make my daughter into the me I always hoped to be.

 Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen is part commendation and part confession. Commendation for the young woman Kingsolver’s daughter is becoming; confession of Kingsolver’s own past failings as a teenage girl. Its poignancy and honesty unravel the hem of the neatly sewn life I’ve stitched for myself, forcing me to remember the torment that followed me during my teens and early twenties.

She writes, “It took me years to get over being flattered and flattened by any kind of male approval.” Oh, how my poor heart knows this truth! It is the one thing I want most to protect my 13-year old daughter from, the lonely ache of not feeling good enough, beautiful enough to be loved. Kingsolver believes her daughter is much stronger than she. I could say the same. Yet sometimes it finds me, the nagging doubt that my girl feigns her confidence just as I did. Then I see it — the one shining difference between me and my girl at the rocky age of thirteen. Jesus.

The wonder of it catches my breath. The grace that found my soul, starving for attention and sick with sin, called me unto Himself. All these years later, I’m still undone. As grateful as I am that He called me in my late twenties, I am incredibly thankful that He called my girl before she started walking that same filthy dead-end path I walked during my teen years. I know her confidence is not found on any earthly accomplishment or accolade she may garner; that it is far more complete than any self-confidence she may muster; and that it has a great reward, all because it is based on Christ.

A BIBLICAL LENS:

Kingsolver admits that what “saved” her from her unhealthy self-image and dependence on male attention was reading books by Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and other feminists. As a young adult in 1973, she fell victim to the feminist movement’s inculcation of our culture. She compares reading these authors as a “soul-shattering revelation” akin to a religious salvation. As I read, I couldn’t help but think, there but for the grace of God go I.

Friedan called women to “trust no other authority than our own personal truth.” (“It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement”.) Greer once said: “Womanpower means the self-determination of women, and that means that all the baggage of paternalistic society will have to be thrown overboard.”

The fallacy of the feminist argument is that it denies the basic truth we cannot ignore: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  In pointing to male oppression as the source of blame, feminists deny that sin has caused the problems between the sexes. By overlooking their own sin, feminists have elevated women to god-like status. They believe we have the right to question everything and the power to change anything.  They either do not realize or do not care that this right and this power is reserved only for God.

 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

 Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:
“Ask me of things to come;
will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?
 I made the earth
and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.”

(Isaiah 45:9-12, ESV)

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My own girl will celebrate her 14th birthday this weekend. If I were to write her a letter, I’d say:

You are more beautiful, more loving, more compassionate, and more considerate than I could ever hope to be. You are smart, funny, and fun to be around. On days when you find these things hard to believe, remember that they are true — not because of you, but because of God. In His grace, He created you to be the perfect you, for His pleasure and His delight. Don’t ever ask why. Just trust Him. Trust Him.

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Next Thursday: Letter to My Mother 

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

 

 

session four: lily’s chickens

USED TO BE ONE KNEW from whence the evening meal came — the chicken coop or cattle stall via the slaughterhouse, with maybe some potatoes or beans from the garden thrown in. Bread making was part chore, part rhythm, after milling the wheat. A family’s sustenance was an occupation born of necessity harnessed by the knowledge of living close to the earth — something akin to breathing — stemming from a certain built-in dependency.

Today, we’re more apt to be found whirling a cart around the periphery of a big box store, debating over the vast selection of packaged foods and calling it an adventure — but not before we critique the sample of this or that as either too salty, too bland, or just plain off. If short on time, we might throw down a hefty chunk of change for take-out. Shame. Not only are we what we eat, but how we eat. 

Thrice removed from the source.

In Lily’s Chicken’s, Kingsolver records how she and then 5-year-old daughter, Lily, taught each other a thing or two about love, food, and resourcefulness.

When it came to love, allowing her daughter to own a small poultry farm gave way to motherly sanctions against cooking “Mr. Doodle” or any other feathered creature dubbed with a proper name. After all, friends don’t eat friends. As for food, Lily discovered it to be the means of her own resourcefulness, learned to work all things for the common good: the daily chore of collecting eggs meant “FREE BREAKFAST” for the natives on the plantation. A burgeoning work ethic with a side order of kick.  A kind of entrepreneurship that makes a mother proud.

Kingsolver’s generosity spills over by offering reasons why she grows her own food, crusades for new politics on agriculture both local and organic, lobbies for energy conservation, and stumps for the simple ideal of consuming less. Not bad for a list of survival skills considering the present dangers we face. Not only are natural disasters resulting in widespread blight and food shortages, but also does the perpetual threat of fertilizer and pesticide contamination and the ever-looming reality of GMO’s present an entirely different sort of consideration.  Boiled down, fallout from manufacturer greed is the leftover slop we’re left to feed on — or not.

There is a better way. Choosing to live closer to the earth doesn’t necessarily mean maintaining a 40-acre field or even rototilling a 6 x 6 backyard garden plot. And it doesn’t mean to never again eat another Lay’s potato chip. But it will cost in ways that might take some getting used to, perhaps by simply looking at our food with a new pair of eyes and instituting smarter, healthier ways of doing things for reasons beyond selfish. Kingsolver provides thoughtful incentive for supporting the local farmer:

“Americans have a taste for food that’s been seeded, fertilized, harvested, processed, and packaged in grossly energy-expensive ways and then shipped, often refrigerated, for so many miles it might as well be green cheese from the moon. Even if you walk or bike to the store, if you come home with bananas from Ecuador, tomatoes from Holland, cheese from France, and artichokes from California, you have guzzled some serious gas.”

But all this is slowly changing, thank God. People are wising up. They’re tired of Frankenfood. They’re getting educated about what they’re swallowing, voting with their dollars and feet. There’s a buzz. CSA’s and local farmer’s markets are popping up everywhere. Public space is being transformed into urban community gardens. Mothers are milling their own flour. Fathers are building coops and sheds. Families are composting. Five different neighbors who live within a 5-mile radius of us are not corn-cob farmers wearing overalls, per se,  but they have chickens. Breakfast is free at their house, too.

And Lily is one of this world’s natural resources.

“All of us sooner or later must learn to look our food in the face.”

A BIBLICAL LENS:

I’m no tree hugger, but I dearly love the gustatory satisfaction of biting into a buttered ear of sweet corn or slicing up a thick, juicy beefsteak tomato that sprouted from seed planted in the loamy dark of my own backyard. But that’s just one pleasure. Gardening is an enterprise of unquantifiable returns for the whole man, not only the senses.

Where to begin?

For starters, growing your own food is honest. It’s economical. Cuts out the middle man. And you know what you’re getting. No mystery meat or recall notices. It’s organic, like breastfeeding — nothing artificial and a perfect economy — as long as you’re willing to put in the time and labor, mostly the waiting kind.  Plus, there’s something to be said for possessing a measure of self-sufficiency. And the seventeenth zucchini of the season forces neighborly generosity. Good for everybody all around.

But perhaps the most resourceful aspect of growing your own food comes from the genteel quality of learning to be dependent on the One who makes things grow. Most rewarding is coming to the table to celebrate the harvest with a heart of thanksgiving more than just once a year.

What it means Biblically to draw close to the Source:

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
    the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for man to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
    oil to make his face shine,
    and bread that sustains his heart.

-Psalm 104: 13-15

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Next Thursday: Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen with Melissa Jackson 

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

 

session three: what good is a story?

I am pleased to welcome Becky Pliego as our guest contributor for this session. Becky is a Mexican living the Christian life under God’s sun and by His grace. She loves her man and her four children, who make her sing for joy as they are all walking in the Lord. Becky enjoys reading big books as well as small books, but always accompanied with a cup of coffee and friends to converse about the words she discovers.

“We should favor the short story and adore the poem.”

-Barbara Kingsolver

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ISN’T OUR LIFE LIKE A SERIES of short stories? Many events, many seasons, many characters. Some we love and some we don’t. Some characters remain in our lives forever, and some are gone before we had ever wished them to leave.

We plan our lives just like Barbara Kingsolver, just like our neighbor, our friend; just like those who seek God and those who are always running away from Him. We “put a tidy plan on our calendars,” and without a warning we all are hit by the unexpected. The squares on our wall calendar seem to fall down as pieces from a puzzle and we feel like we don’t know how to live our days anymore. And through it all, and as best we can, we keep trying to read the stories within the story.

Kingsolver says: “The problem is, life is like that. Editors, readers — all of us have to work reading into our busy lives.” I agree. We can’t remain spectators in our own story. We, as long as our heart keeps beating, are part of a bigger drama. But how can we accurately read this story?

Only through the lens of the Word of God.

In the Scriptures we find out who is the Author of the storms at sea, why there is a rainbow, who we are, why we were created, how babies are woven in their mom’s womb, and why there are seasons to laugh and others to mourn. We keep reading the Word, and the bandages from our eyes fall down and the pages don’t look like paper any more, they seem more like a mirror, and we see ourselves — our sin — and we start to understand.

We certainly don’t live in a “white room with no emergencies.” We live in a real, broken world where sickness happens, tears fall from our eyes, pain pierces the heart, and the unexpected happens. All of us, God’s people and those who hate Him, live on Planet Earth, bound by time and walking around in a fragile body.  The difference in how we live our lives is that we know God’s people are not lost in the story. We know how it ends. We know that in the end, all things, all of them, work for good for those who have been called according to His purpose and love Him (Romans 8:28).

The author asks, “What makes writing good?” And then she answers, “The lyrical description, the arresting metaphor, the dialogue that falls so true on the ear it breaks the heart, the plot that winds up exactly where it should.” And as I read, I had to make a pause here to consider. How am I living my life? How would those around me describe me? What kind of metaphor am I portraying? Oh my dialogue! If I could only listen to myself more often! What words do I say? Do they break the hearts of those whom I love or do they build them up?

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A BIBLICAL LENS:

If we all, the redeemed and the unbeliever both, go through the same kind of trials, through the same unexpected changes in a story’s plot, how are we supposed to read the story, to live differently?

First and foremost, we must know God’s Word. He is the Author and Narrator. He has spoken, He has come, the Son is the Word Incarnated and has lived among us to show us how to live. We are not wanderers.

So, let us open our Bibles and read, read, read with wide-open eyes praying that we will have eyes to see and ears to hear. His Word, let us not forget, is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).

Second, let us remember with a grateful heart that God’s story is wonderful because it is a redemptive story. In His story, sin is sin; but there is hope for the sinner. God changes stone hearts into hearts made of flesh; He turns schemes upside down , tears down walls. He brings storms and big fish to swallow the prideful (at least for three days, until he repents). God holds in His hand the king’s heart as well as that of the servant to do what He has ordered to happen.

And lastly, let us not live like those who don’t have hope. Let us live with a grateful heart, knowing that soon we will be seated at the Lord’s Table with all the Redeemed.  Oh, what a beautiful end to the most wonderful story!

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Next Thursday: Lily’s Chickens

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

session two: saying grace

HOW KINGSOLVER CAN HANG themes together like paper chains on a Christmas tree and make them sing on key is impressive.

Saying Grace begins with her giving pause at the lip of the Grand Canyon, where she and her family went instead of flying cross-country to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with relatives. Their refrain was partly due out of deference to the horrific losses, both national and personal, suffered on 9/11 and as a solemn act of humility. Thus, the backdrop on which the one-woman drama unfolds:

With what I imagine to be a raised hand, Kingsolver lifts her voice to decry embarrassing American wastefulness, echo the cries of the poor, give ode to Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, and revolt against wartime’s perils past and present.

Wait, she’s not done.

Afterwards, on behalf of the nation and with all due politeness, she requests that we be even more generous than we are and asks for another helping of humility, thank you, please. As though she is dabbing at the corners of her mouth, Kingsolver ends on what sounds more like a mournful prayer:

“A land as broad and green as ours demands of us thanksgiving and a certain breadth of spirit. It invites us to invest our hearts most deeply in invulnerable majesties that can never be brought down in a stroke of anger. If we can agree on anything in difficult times, it must be that we have the resources to behave more generously than we do, and that we are brave enough to rise from the ashes of loss as better citizens of the world than we have ever been. We’ve inherited the grace of the Grand Canyon, the mystery of the Everglades, the fertility of an Iowa plain — we could crown this good with brotherhood. What a vast inheritance for our children that would be, if we were to become a nation humble before our rich birthright, whose graciousness makes us beloved.”

Sounds rather utopian or much like what candidate speeches are made of, but her feet are planted firmly on the ground and she’s not running for President. She’s a daughter. A wife. And a mother. An American citizen who cares about more than just herself and is willing to roll up her sleeves, go to the backyard and figure out how she might feed a small village if need be.

Her point is just that. There be a need. And it’s vast and wide, all-American, like the Grand Canyon — the generosity of God now upturned; an endless cavity created by what she sees as a bully nation’s upraised fist full of pride, careless waste, and the ever-spiraling downward wanton lust for worldly pleasures. Dumpsters across the land reveal the truth of who we are.

To a great degree, she gets it.

I pain over these things too.

However, one question Kingsolver asks caught my eye:

“What is safety in this world, and on what broad stones is that house built?”

I can answer that, but it’s probably not what she’s thinking of.

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A BIBLICAL LENS:  

Certain people have an uncanny ability to see the big picture. They don’t look at the calendar week-by-week or month-to-month, but decade by decade, century to century, looking down the long corridor of history. If old enough, they preside over the better part of a century as if it were a museum in which they are the docent.

But a Christian sees the span of time from Genesis to Revelation, a proper framework from which the BIG picture hangs — more informative, inclusive, and thoroughgoing a calendar than any other.

I like how Kingsolver thinks. She sees something of the big picture, understands how one thing affects another. If I could sit down with the author, I’d pick her brain, get to know her. But first, I’d make sure we were both comfortable and I’d have coffee ready to pour.

Somewhere in the conversation, I’d look for an opening to broach her question, “What is safety in this world, and on what broad stones is that house built?” Then I’d offer to answer.

She would be all ears.

I’d begin by saying that this present world is not all there is. Next, I’d open my Bible to the book of Genesis, talk about God as Creator of heaven and earth, and how He made man in His image. Name some of His attributes. Define sin and man’s fall. Talk about Israel and the covenants, starting with Noah, then Abraham, the patriarch of the faith, the one who was looking forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

At this point, I’d offer her another cuppa and ask if she has any questions.

While pouring, I’d explain how the Law was given through Moses and how kingship came to David. I’d paint in broad strokes, to help her see the big dots on the timeline of redemptive history. Finally, I’d affirm the infallibility and inspiration of Scripture and share the gospel’s promise of salvation as found in none other but Jesus, of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke:

“So this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

‘See, I lay in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.'”

Then I’d look at her lovingly square in the eye and say something along these lines: “These are the broad stones — the ‘invulnerable majesties’ — upon which a house of safety is built.”

Then I’d ask her to stay for lunch.

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Next Thursday: What Good Is a Story? with Becky Pliego

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

session one: small wonder

CHOOSING 8 OUT OF twenty-three essays isn’t easy. And if they happen to be written by Barbara Kingsolver, it’s like selecting from a Jacques Torres dessert menu. Très difficile. But beginning somewhere is how anything gets started, and since Small Wonder (HarperCollins 2002) is the kind of book that can be read back to front no matter, consider this a friendly push into the secular tide even as we dive deep into the gospel, cresting the waves of Biblical thought.

For those just arriving, please read the introduction here to better understand the faith-based premise for this discussion challenge.

Today and every Thursday through October 25, we’ll be discussing one of Kingsolver’s pieces while looking through a Biblical lens at her take on life, genuine concerns, and impassioned insights. Our goal is not to provide exhaustive Biblical commentary but to stir our minds to pure thinking and learn to discern with a redemptive eye, resting in the fact that Truth is perfect — we are not.

So glad you’ve decided to join us. Welcome!

SESSIONS

September 6- Small Wonder 

September 13- Saying Grace

September 20- What Good is a Story? with Becky Pliego

September 27-Lily’s Chickens

October 4-Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen with Melissa Jackson

October 11- Letter to My Mother

October 18- Household Words with Diana Lovegrove

October 25- The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In (Conclusion) 

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SESSION ONE: small wonder

I’ve never been to the Lorestan Province in Iran, but the story as retold by Barbara Kingsolver about a missing 16-month-old boy brought me to the mouth of one of its caves, where he was found encircled in the arms of a bear, safe and fed.

Why a lactating female bear became the boy’s wet nurse explains part of the equation. But to understand why it didn’t tear the baby limb from limb takes faith. What’s more, the event took place in the obscure dark, in the mountains, halfway around the world — just days after America’s skies were exploding and raining down scraps of metal, dust, and fuselage — and people. A disparity of global extremes.

That Kingsolver was riveted by the events of 9/11 is more than understandable — shock and awe were universally suffered by nearly all. So much death in the name of ideology was a hard pill to swallow, one many still can’t get down all the way. Then comes along this highly improbable story. Research verified it as true.

What to call it? An act of grace? A miracle? Yes. What to do with it? Give tribute to Allah? No. But that she did shouldn’t cause us to shut down, lest we be guilty of the worst kind of fundamentalism. The weightier matter for the Christian is to beg for wisdom in how to respond to someone dangling from a tightwire of hope and despair. Find the lead straight into their heart. Tell them of the one true God.

Folk tales convey a broader cultural parallel; make us smile. But obscure, amazing news reports cause our jaw to drop. Should they occur in the wake of terror and disaster, even an atheist may be compelled to look up. Or set someone to wonder hard and long. A whole different kind of shock and awe, the kind that tempers the soul, summons hope.

Sometimes, timing is everything. This was one of those times, as Kingsolver wrote, “the lion could lie down with the lamb.”

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A BIBLICAL LENS:  

  The many times the author refers to “God” in this essay can’t be missed. But we must make distinctions. When an unbeliever acknowledges a transcendent Being at work in the world in a pluralistic sense, it’s a Christian’s obligation to make the most of the opportunity, use it to Christ’s advantage. Note how Paul preaches to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17:

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” 

-Acts 17:22-23 ESV

From there, he plots the course of redemptive history by first describing God as Creator of heaven and earth, the Giver of life and breath to all men. He even quotes some of their own poets. He then recounts God’s work based on the covenantal promises. Finally, he declares God’s ultimate redemptive plan as revealed in Christ Jesus. From a polytheistic platform at the Areopagus, Paul posits the gospel by means of common grace to proclaim God’s saving grace.

As for Kingsolver paying tribute to Allah for the miracle, I hazard to think she was, out of respect to the story’s origin, trying to be gracious in a politically correct way. Regardless, God isn’t threatened by man’s darkness, nor should we be. He determines both sight and blindness, who sees and who cannot. When a person ascribes to deity but not specifically Christ, it’s a matter of what Paul explains in Romans 1, what theologians call general revelation. Understanding this doctrine should serve to heighten our sense of obligation to preach the gospel to all men.

Back to the boy and the bear and the aftermath of 9/11. We know that Providence deems circumstances both bitter and sweet. We also know that all things serve Him. When a real-life parable of such magnanimity forces hope out of hiding, it helps us accept tragedy and heal, offering, as Kingsolver said, “the possibility of taking heart.”

I’m grateful Kingsolver perceived the power and mystery infused in this survival story and had the largesse to write about it. It’s inspiring, humbling — the boy and the bear, yes, but also how she unwittingly brags on the God of hope and wonder. As she said, “God is in the details.”

Yes, yes He is.

For from him and through him and to him are all things. 

-Romans 11:36

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Next Thursday: Saying Grace

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

discussion: small wonder

“My mother never once told me not to stick my neck out.”

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IF THERE’S SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver, it’s that she has a fierce conscience, whether one agrees with her politics or not.

Known mostly for her ever-growing collection of novels, including The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver exacts a form of catharsis with Small Wonder (Harper Collins 2002). A compilation of 23 essays which reads like a running speech, here is where she spills her poetic guts on things like 9/11, patriotism, American wastefulness, ecology, heartache, mothering, gratitude, and the titular category of wonder. With each stride, she makes her point along with a thousand other points, but what never gets thrown out is the resourcefulness of her audience. She understands the value of compost and respects the fact that her readers may actually disagree with her from time to time, but it doesn’t have to make for hardened enemies. She believes, as do I, humaneness constitutes what’s best shared among neighbors.

Barbara Kingsolver

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 You may be wondering, why is this particular book the chosen vehicle for discussion among Christian women?

This should help:

As Christians, it’s a given that we have a moral responsibility to respond decisively to injustice and abject evil, but it’s equally ours to learn to contend for the faith in the face of peace-loving and socially conscious secular reason and thought. All too often, we’ve not adequately prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have, so we either run and hide, fight too hard, or let things go bust. But nobody wins when that happens.

Small Wonder is a springboard for table talk. Kingsolver is a 20th century voice of compassion, honesty, wit, intelligence, and social conscience. She’s a master chef of words and a sheer pleasure to read, even among Millenials. But despite the many refreshing and redeeming qualities of her work, there is a blatant flaw; blindness to the existence of a Creator God, namely, Jesus Christ. Albeit, acuity and accuracy are not always the same thing. She’s a dual representative of  what is best about this nation and what’s vitally at stake in society: a Biblical worldview.

The challenge in getting there is two-fold. First, we must be willing to learn. Next, we need to defend the Truth with a right spirit. On a more practical level, do we really know what our unbelieving friends think? What our neighbors believe? Or that of the Gen-Xer who came to church last week? Do we care?

If we do, the onus is upon us to make an effort to bridge the great divide. Perhaps this is something of what loving God with all our mind looks like. Then, to gently reach across the table armed with a Biblical worldview will no longer remain an insular exercise in Truth, but one that holds the possibility of bearing the pleasing fruit of righteousness not only in our own lives but in the lives of others in and around the world.

To that end, please join me for an 8-week online book discussion beginning Thursday, September 6 through October 25 where we’ll be diving into the deep end of the pool of Biblical thought, allowing Scripture to inform us as we read and discuss each Thursday one of Kingsolver’s essays.

I look forward to your company and what you will bring to the discussion.

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Read for Thursday, September 6 – Foreword & Small Wonder


Chapter Nine: The True Nature of Spiritual Warfare (Chapter Ten, too)

“Even the devil is God’s devil.”

— Martin Luther

WEEK 6

¡Arriba! Piña colada smoothie…it’s what’s for breakfast! Just in time for summer, too, as we come to the end of our book discussion. Thanks for reading along and sharing your thoughts. I’ve enjoyed every minute — studying, summarizing, posting, and responding to your comments. But to be honest, I didn’t find “A Place for Weakness” to be an easy read. A bit dense in places, perhaps better editing would’ve helped to streamline some of the clutter and repetition. Hopefully you;ve been edified. With sound theological underpinnings tied to our mast, we can sail on the high seas of life in hope that somehow, through us, God is glorified. Such is the way of faith for those who endure, come what may.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 9

Winding down Part Two, “God of the Empty Tomb,” Horton focuses on two major themes: Satan and death. In “The True Nature of Spiritual Warfare,” he zeroes in on the conflict that takes place in the unseen realm between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan and how the drama plays out in our lives. But the Director never once abandons the stage. With Satan’s role as “prosecutor and Christ as our defense attorney…Satan’s objective in this contest is to undermine our confidence in God’s merciful will toward us, while God’s is to strengthen it.” Here’s where we soldier up to engage in Ephesians 6-style combat: “As counterintuitive as it is for us, we must turn outward at precisely these times and hope only in the Lord, whatever our conscience threatens, whatever blandishments Satan offers, whatever our experience tells us is the obvious case.”

While there’s no denying the reality of spiritual warfare, Horton decries a certain theology some circles employ, where a whole vocabulary has emerged to navigate what he terms to be borderline “cosmological dualism,” — “the belief that the universe is in the grip of a cosmic duel between God and Satan, as if these represented two equal forces.” And there’s the rub — there is only one Sovereign. As Luther said, “Even the devil is still God’s devil.” Horton argues for a faith that understands this both Biblically and empirically, based on the fulfillment of prophecy in Scripture and historic eyewitness accounts.

“The most exciting and liberating thing a believer can hear in the middle of spiritual and physical distress is not that there is a secret battle plan for defeating the powers of darkness if we will only come together and follow its fail-proof steps, but the announcement that Jesus Christ has already accomplished this for us in his first advent.” (pp. 166, 167)

This is the good news. There is no better news. For the “Judge himself — whom the transgressors had originally arraigned — takes off his robe and dons the warrior’s suit.”  Then the question “Who wins?” becomes the declarative: “He won!” — the verdict by which the believer truly lives and overcomes.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 10

In “When God Goes to a Funeral,” Horton makes clear that the account of Lazarus in John 11 is not some contrivance about Jesus arriving late to raise a dead guy so everyone can gawk. Rather, it is the scene where sin’s worst fruit, death itself, is on display, now about to be subject to the power of God for the glory of God. This Biblical narrative reflects the eschatological truth of the hope yet to come: God’s triumphant defeat of the last enemy — Death. Jesus wasn’t late. He knew exactly what he was doing — pointing to Himself as “the Resurrection and the Life.”¹

But Mary and Martha’s tendency is our tendency. They didn’t understand. If only Jesus had come sooner…though they believed, they weren’t able to see the big picture. And so often, we can’t either. “God, if you really care about me, ________________— fill in your own blank.” (p. 181)

But Jesus doesn’t condemn them for their frustration. Instead, He lifts their vision.

Finally, Horton makes an appeal for the restored significance of grief by reminding us that “Jesus wept.” From this, he cautions against false piety. Whether the approach be stoic or sentimental, neither are commended. Both are given to extremes, seeking to avoid “the messiness of life.” We’re meant to grieve, but “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” ²

“At the graveside, neither optimism nor pessimism; sentimentalism nor stoicism tell us what is happening here. Only Jesus’ cross and resurrection define the event for us.” (p. 191)

1. John 11:25
2. 1 Thessalonians 4:13

MY TAKE

It’s one thing to write a book on suffering that offers treacle, it’s quite another to offer moorings for theological sanity. In “A Place for Weakness,” Michael Horton writes with the welcome bedside manner of one who has observed and endured a variety of life’s conundrums. There is no grandstanding. He’s a realist — a believer in a gospel that “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” ³ He makes his case for finding answers to the hard questions by presenting the truth found in Christ and nowhere else. Of all the efforts made by men to diffuse the stress and strain of life’s sufferings — whether it be blame, denial, a “theology of glory,” hyper-spirituality, inspirational platitudes, bad theology, stoicism or sentimentalism — none of them are sufficient to answer the cardinal questions: Why? and “Is God good?”

Horton’s answer doesn’t bother to cater to man’s felt needs as though they were ultimate. He points to a far more glorious future by proclaiming:

“The good news is twofold: (1) justice will be done; liberation will come; righteousness will be vindicated; evil, oppression, and violence will be wiped off the face of the earth; and (2) all who repent and turn to the Redeemer will be saved.” (p. 173)

This is no cop-out. Genuine saving faith in Christ rests upon these truths and are of the most profound consequence for an individual. The iron-clad nature of Truth is substantiated upon the inerrant Word of God; there is no greater place to put our faith and trust. That these claims are true whether believed or not is a great comfort to God’s people, and ought to give skeptics pause.

But perhaps one of the most heartening aspects of Horton’s view is that he’s fully grounded in reality. He doesn’t negate the pain and heartache of this life. There’s a time for tears and a place to fall apart. A shoulder is to cry on. God can bear our questions, fears and doubts. Grief and mourning are normal this “side of Easter,” and part of the poignant beauty of what it means to be human. As the book title suggests, there is a place for weakness.

In case you missed it, throughout the book Horton makes clear that death is not a celebration, but the “last enemy.” He’d rather that we face the consequences of the Fall head on than be falsely comforted by hearing, “Death is a natural part of life.” At least the former allows for the gospel to shine! Sadly, even today’s Church has run aground on this one. Amid Horton’s pastoral warnings against the prevailing doctrinal winds of our day, his greatest exhortation to the Church is to trust in Christ and find in Him the unshakeable hope that transcends this vale of tears.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

John 1:4

3. Romans 1:16

WORTH REPEATING

“there is a cosmic battle…”

“Life’s crises, whether they start out as physical or spiritual, end up involving the whole person in any case.” (p. 164)

“Satan is bound, under house arrest. And yet, like a Mafia boss in prison, he still manages to cause trouble.” (p. 168)

“This is where Satan sets up his battlements and builds his ramparts: God and His Word are not to be trusted; instead, be your own boss, find your own path, believe in yourself, and be true to yourself.” (p. 172)

“We will not grow without a fight…”

“Christ is enough, even for you.” (p. 178)

“It simply did not make sense.”

“Jesus wept.” (p. 187, John 11:35)

“We do not grieve “as others do who have no hope,” but we do grieve.” (p. 191)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (p. 192, 1 Cor. 15:26)

“In Christ, the end has already begun.” (p. 193)

“O Death, where is your sting?”

GROUP CHAT

  • As usual, you’re welcome to leave a comment on these last chapters. Also, feel free to share your impressions of the book, too.
  • Now that you’ve finished reading “A Place for Weakness,” think about how you’ve been challenged in your view toward suffering/trials. Please share with us what you’ve learned, as it could be helpful to other readers.
  • Want a challenge? Answer the following question from Chapter 7/Question 4:

“Does Christianity “work”?

(for a refresher, re-read “Our Faith is not a Fix”on pages 131-133)

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A warm thanks to all for reading, listening, and contributing to the discussion.
I trust it’s been as enriching and edifying for you as it has been for me.

“May the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

-Numbers 6:25-26

♦  ♦  ♦

-Soli Deo Gloria-