The Magnificent Defeat, by Frederick Buechner

I’ve read Buechner before, but it’s been a long time. I’ve had an interest in his writings for a couple of reasons. One, he is a great inspiration to my favorite Christian singer/songwriter, Terry Scott Taylor. Two, I follow his page on Facebook, and there frequent nuggets of wisdom that come from his writings.

The Magnificent Defeat, published in 1966, is a series of messages/meditations that were “presented to congregations composed largely of young people.” There are three parts: Part I, The Challenge to Surrender; Part II, The Triumph of Love; and Part III, The Mystery and Miracle of Grace.

The titular message, “The Magnificent Defeat,” focuses on Jacob as he wrestled with God at Peniel. And I love the opening paragraph. “When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read, but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson–something elevating, obvious, and boring. Only that is too bad because if you really listen–and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it–there is no telling what you might hear.”

The point of the “magnificent defeat” is this. Anyone who fights hard enough in this life will get power, success, and “happiness.” But peace, love, and joy, are things that we can only truly get from God. The problem is, before God will give us those things, before he will give us everything, he demands everything from us; before he will give us life, he demands our lives.

“Will we give them, you and I? I do not know. Only remember the last glimpse that we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet, out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”

And that’s just the first chapter. There are seventeen more, each as eloquent and insightful as the first. Part II, The Triumph Love, progresses from the birth of Christ through the Resurrection, and in one chapter, gives the author’s version of the birth of Christ through the eyes of the innkeeper, the wise men, and the shepherds.

A couple more lines that I underlined: “To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.”

“Prayer is the sound made by our deepest aloneness.”

“The face that a child wears is his own face, whereas ours are the faces that we have spent years arranging and rearranging.” (Ouch.)

Wonderful book. I highly recommend it, and it can be easily read as part of a morning (or whenever) devotional, as the chapters are usually no more than three to four pages.

TTFN, y’all!

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Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries is a horror anthology of twenty short stories. It’s a mixed bag for me, with some stories being gripping and entertaining, and some that leave me with uncertainty as to what just happened.

All of them, though, definitely fit the bill of the weird and wonderful, some quite horrific. According to the summary, Ellen Datlow’s compilation won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Edited Anthology, and it’s easy to see why.

My favorite stories in this anthology were “The Atlas of Hell,” by Nathan Ballingrud, “Kaiju,” by Gary McMahon (this one wins the plot twist award, in my opinion), “Will the Real Psycho in this Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cardigan, “The Window,” by Brian Evenson (in which horrors from another dimension somehow slip over into ours), “Mount Chary Galore,” by Jeffrey Ford, “Power,” by Michael Marshall Smith (perhaps my favorite of all of them), “Bridge of Sighs,” by Kaaron Warren, “The Attic,” by Catherine MacLeod, and “Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow,” by John Langan.

Some of the others were good to a point, but I must confess, I didn’t quite get the ending. So, as a whole, I really liked it, but didn’t quite feel that it was amazing.

I would recommend it, however, to lovers of horror anthologies.

TTFN, y’all!

Letters By A Modern Mystic, by Frank C. Laubach

Forty-seven pages that pack a serious punch.

The gist of this book is Frank Laubach’s attempt to make God a constant part of his every day life by thinking about him constantly while doing other things that might, otherwise, be mundane tasks.

Impossible, some might say, and Laubach did, indeed, find it challenging.

The beauty of these letter excerpts is his honesty in speaking of his failures in this challenge. But, then, when he did succeed, the results were extraordinary.

This little book comes at a perfect time in my life. I had just finished reading The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard (and Willard speaks of Laubach a number of times), and had already discovered the immediate presence of God in my life, everywhere I am, at all times. This has had a tremendous impact on my daily life.

When I remember to think about it.

So here comes Frank Laubach’s letter excerpts, showing me the value of working to think about it more often. Every minute if I can manage. The very thought of thinking about God’s presence every minute of every day is probably daunting to some people. Some would even object and say that you wouldn’t get anything useful done at all. You might be “so heavenly minded that you’d be no earthly good,” I’ve heard it said.

Laubach begs to differ. He believed that doing so would actually help one get more accomplished, and that one would be much happier in the process.

Forty-seven pages. I read it while waiting during my wife’s knee-replacement surgery. I will read it again, you can be sure. And again, probably.

TTFN, y’all!

The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

“Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us.”

This is my new favorite book.

I had tried to read this once before, but, for some reason, I just wasn’t ready for it. After reading some other books by Willard and others on Spiritual Formation, I tackled this one again. This time, it was life-changing.

There is too much information in this book for me to try to recap it in a reasonably-lengthed review. Let me just say that, in my opinion, if every person in the world who calls themselves “Christian” would live by the principles in this book, they wouldn’t need any other books outside of the Bible. And the world would be a much better place.

There are so many things that I grew up hearing and, consequently, believing, that just aren’t quite accurate. One of the most important is the idea that the Kingdom of God is something that we don’t begin to experience until after we die. Much of mainstream Christianity teaches a gospel that is inaccurate. It might produce Christians, and they might very well “go to heaven” when they die. But the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is here, now, and available for us to walk in now. This was the gospel that Jesus taught when he was on the earth. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17); “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The Beatitudes are all about “the kingdom of heaven.” He told his disciples, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'”

This is the Gospel of Jesus, and if we can grab hold of this and live in it, our lives will be changed.

Another thing that I got from this book is the knowledge of the immediate presence of God. I’ve always had this sort of head knowledge that, yeah, God is all around us. But, in reality, I mostly believed that he was “out there” somewhere, that he was watching, and that he could, somehow, interact with us. But what if we understood that God is right here with us. He’s in this room with me while I’m typing this. He’s in the atmosphere (the ancient Christians’ understanding of “heavens” was vastly different than ours . . . “heaven” begins at ground level), he’s in the air that I’m breathing. This knowledge has had an impact on my life that I can’t even begin to describe.

Willard writes about Jesus being the smartest person who ever lived. I wonder how many of us Christians have truly thought about this? Have we ever considered that, when he changed water into wine, he didn’t just wave his hands and say, “Abracadabra,” but that he actually rearranged the molecules in the water to make it wine? How does this kind of knowledge affect one’s prayer life? Let me tell you, it’s huge!

The book begins with Dallas describing the world as “flying upside down.” I’m going to list a few of my favorite quotes from the book, and the first one deals with that subject.

“What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound. That is what it means to fly upside down.”

“The idea of having faith in Jesus has come to be totally isolated from being his apprentice and learning how to do what he said.”

“Some current critics of the U.S. Supreme Court like to point out that it does not allow the Ten Commandments, though written upon the walls of its own chambers, to be displayed in public schools. But where do we find churches, right or left, that put them on their walls? The Ten Commandments really aren’t very popular anywhere. This is so in spite of the fact that even a fairly general practice of them would lead to a solution of almost every problem of meaning and order now facing Western societies. They are God’s best information on how to lead a basically decent human existence.”

“The key, then, to loving God is to see Jesus, to hold him before the mind with as much fullness and clarity as possible. It is to adore him.”

“Dear Father always near us, may your name be treasured and loved, may your rule be completed in us— may your will be done here on earth in just the way it is done in heaven. Give us today the things we need today, and forgive us our sins and impositions on you as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us. Please don’t put us through trials, but deliver us from everything bad. Because you are the one in charge, and you have all the power, and the glory too is all yours—forever— which is just the way we want it!” (This is Dallas’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer)

“But Jesus’ own gospel of the kingdom was not that the kingdom was about to come, or had recently come, into existence. If we attend to what he actually said, it becomes clear that his gospel concerned only the new accessibility of the kingdom to humanity through himself.”

“The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings. No one is actually being told that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, and so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top ‘after the revolution.’ They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.” (Dallas’s teaching on the Beatitudes is staggering and radical.)

“Still today the Old Testament book of Psalms gives great power for faith and life. This is simply because it preserves a conceptually rich language about God and our relationships to him. If you bury yourself in Psalms, you emerge knowing God and understanding life.”

“The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do. Just as we desire and intend this, so far as possible, for our children and others we love, so God desires and intends it for his children. But character, the inner directedness of the self, must develop to the point where that is possible.”

“Until our thoughts of God have found every visible thing and event glorious with his presence, the word of Jesus has not yet fully seized us.”

I am “an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

“We are becoming who we will be — forever.”

I could go on and on and on.

I can’t overemphasize how important this book is. From beginning to end, Dallas Willard crafted an explanation of the Christian life that is unsurpassed by anything else I have ever read. I will definitely be reading this one again.

TTFN, y’all!

Night Shift, by Charlaine Harris

Another fantastic tale of the odd residents of Midnight, Texas! In this, the third installment, people are coming to the crossroads in Midnight for the sole purpose of killing themselves.

Eventually, the residents figure out that something supernatural is going on, and more than likely, it lives underground right below the traffic signal at the crossroads.

In the meantime, as a subplot, someone seems to be after Olivia (the local assassin), and Teacher and Madonna Reed (Madonna runs and cooks at the local diner), don’t seem to be exactly who we thought they were.

It turns out that the entity living under the crossroads is attempting to rise. And it wants Fiji, the local witch. Virgin witch.

There’s plenty of fun and action in this story, and the Midnight series has become my favorite of Ms. Harris’s. I’ve really grown rather attached to the people of Midnight.

Now, I have watched the first season of the TV show adapted from these books. What is weird to me, as I began to read the third book, is that they took plot elements from both book one and book three. And threw in a few non-book scenarios, as well. The TV show was fun, though, and they teased the second book at the end of the first season, so I hope there will be a second season. I also hope that Charlaine will change her mind about this being a trilogy and write some more Midnight, Texas books.

TTFN, y’all!

Entanglement by Sameer Ketkar

This was a fascinating tale of two people, born on opposite sides of the earth, at exactly the same moment, whose lives were inextricably entangled.

They felt each other’s heartbeats. They felt each other’s emotions. They could even feel each other’s pain. There were other downsides to this, as well, as each one could only sleep when the other one slept. So, as long as they were far apart, they slept about four hours a night.

Eventually, they met, and fell in love, assuming that they were perfect for each other. The closer they got, the louder they heard each other’s heartbeats. And, when they were in the same location, they both slept all night long.

But that’s also when the storm started. Their relationship was a fiery one, made complicated by the fact that each one always knew what the other was thinking.

It’s a fun read, with a tragic ending, although I will not reveal the details of that here. I’m not sure what genre I would place this in. In some ways it is science fiction, but in some ways it is also fantasy, and even a bit of romance thrown in.

TTFN, y’all!

Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith and Formation

They had three different memorial services for Dallas Willard, after he passed away in 2013. The essays in this book are divided into the same categories as the three memorials; close friends and family, colleagues in the philosophy realm, and students and others that were inspired by Dallas’s life and work.

I didn’t recognize very many of the names. Richard Foster opened up the book, followed by Dallas’s wife Jane, then his daughter, grand-daughter, and his son. The first two essays had me crying all the way home from work (I listened to this on my drive home from work each day).

I will confess that some of the essays by the philosophy colleagues were a bit over my head, and not quite as inspiring. And there were a couple of the other essays that I simply didn’t like. One person was a gung-ho evangelist type (not there’s anything wrong with that, mind you) who seemed to try to transfer his own passion for evangelism onto words that he thought Dallas would have said in a large stadium full of people. It sounded more like what Billy Graham would have said. I found myself thinking, “I don’t think Dallas would have said that at all!”

The book closes out with John Ortberg, a close, life-long friend of Dallas’s, talking about all the questions that people constantly asked Dallas, all beginning with, “Hey, Dallas!”

I could easily add my own essay to the mix, about how Dallas Willard’s work has inspired me, and continues to inspire me. I’ve read The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God (previously titled In Search of Guidance), and Renovation of the Heart. I’m currently reading The Divine Conspiracy. Very slowly. Dallas’s work has been described as “dense.” It is that and more. It’s like every single word has meaning, and must be chewed slowly, like a delicious steak dinner.

One of the contributors said something to the effect of, “When Dallas died, we lost a five-star general in the army of the Lord.” That very well may be true, but he left behind a lot of people to carry on the work of transformation in the body of Christ. Many of those contributed to this volume.

TTFN, y’all!