Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is one of my favorite stand-up comedians. In fact, I think he is the only one I’ve ever seen live, save one show of nobodies that was in Arlington at some comedy club that some people from work went to about thirty years ago.

I read Gaffigan’s previous book, Dad Is Fat, and really liked it, as well, so when my mother gave me Food: A Love Story for Christmas (a signed, first edition, no less), I was excited. And it did not disappoint.

In Food: A Love Story, Jim gives us a little background on why he loves food so much. Then he proceeds to give us his “food map” of the United States. He starts with what he calls “Seabugland,” which is the northeast, New England, area. A “seabug,” is a shellfish, basically. Lobster, shrimp, or even mollusks. He hilariously calls oysters “snot from a rock.”

He moves on to “Superbowl SundayFoodland,” which is mostly the “midwest.” He does go on a little rabbit trail about how the “midwest” is neither “mid” nor “west.” He’s from there, so he can get away with that. This is followed by “Steakland,” a large portion of the country, “Mexican Foodland,” “Eating BBQLand,” “Wineland” (specifically northern California, but only about two counties), “Food AnxietyLand” (Lousiana, especially New Orleans, because there is so much good food there, he can never decide what to eat), “Coffeeland” (as you can guess, Oregon and Washington), “Blubberland” (Alaska), and “LuauLand” (Hawaii).

Texas, he notes, has Steakland, Mexican FoodLand, and Eating BBQLand.

This is a great romp through our great nation, focusing on the best food in all the areas. He talks about pizza (his favorite is Chicago), burgers, french fries (McDonald’s still has the best), and many other kinds of food.

I did note that several of the chapters (he even brings up his trademark Hot Pockets) were almost verbatim from some of his stand-up routines. But there were just as funny in writing as they were on the recordings. I could almost hear his old lady voice as he went off on some of his “side quotes,” or whatever you want to call them.

I recommend this book for a change of pace, if you mostly read heavier material, as it is very light-hearted, and an easy read. It won’t take you long, and you will laugh a lot.

TTFN, y’all!

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Meeting Rich: A Liturgy, A Legacy, A man with a guitar in my living room, by Caleb J. Kruse

In 1997, an event happened that would change the life of Caleb Kruse. Rich Mullins and Mitch McVicker came and stayed at his house for three weeks while they worked on recording an album.

Rich and his Ragamuffins had just performed a concert in a nearby town, which Caleb and his family attended. Shortly after the concert, they received a phone call. Rich and his crew were trying to sleep on the floor of an old church, but it was just too small. They needed somewhere to stay. Assuming they meant for the night, Caleb’s parents readily agreed.

It wasn’t just for a night. But they didn’t mind. Rich and Mitch shared life with the Kruses for three weeks.

Alas, that record was never truly finished, because on the night that Rich and Mitch left the Kruse’s house, they were involved in an accident that killed Rich and put Mitch in a coma for three weeks. “The Jesus Record” would eventually be released as a two disc set. One disc is the raw recordings of Rich playing piano and singing in that old church (recorded, by the way, on Caleb’s brother’s cassette player). The other disc would be the same songs, recorded by friends of Rich Mullins. I have that recording, and both discs are wonderful.

In Meeting Rich, Caleb gives us a delightful account of those three weeks. It’s a short book, really just a story, only 48 pages in paperback form. But it was wonderful to read. I had just finished reading another book that compiled many people’s different experiences with Rich, so this just flowed right in, could almost have been part of Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth.

Thank you, Caleb J. Kruse, for sharing your experience with us.

Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, by Andrew Greer and Randy Cox

I would give this book ten stars, if I could.

In Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, Andrew Greer and Randy Cox have accumulated a veritable plethora of brief conversations, as noted in the subtitle, “inspired by the life and lyrics of Rich Mullins.”

People who know me know how much I love the life and work of Rich Mullins. I cannot listen to some of his songs without crying, to this day. It has been over twenty years since he died, and I still almost break down when I think about that day. There has never been another artist, much less human being, who has had such an impact on my life.

The book’s contributors, besides Andrew Greer and Randy Cox, include such people as Amy Grant, Andrew Peterson, Ashley Cleveland, Brandon Heath, the late Brennan Manning, Cindy Morgan, Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay), Mark Lee (Third Day), Mark Lowry, Carolyn Arends, and many others, whose names may not be quite so recognizable.

Sometimes, the book is about Rich, other times, the brief chapters don’t speak so much about him, as they do about things that he wrote or said, and how that has inspired the person speaking or writing. The book even includes several song lyrics that were never published.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching statement in the entire book is the first line of Mitch McVicker’s chapter. “I have no memory of what happened that night.” You see, Mitch was in the car with Rich the night of that tragic accident. He woke up three weeks later, with no memory of that night. His close friend and musical accomplice was gone.

Rich Mullins died on September 19, 1997, 41 years old. But his legacy has lived on and will continue to live on, not only in the hearts of those who knew him, but in all of us who have loved his music and the effect it has had on us.

I, for one, am forever moved by lyrics such as:

“Talk about your miracles,
Talk about your faith;
My Dad, he could make things grow
Out of Indiana clay.
Mom could make a gourmet meal, out of just cornbread and beans
And they worked to give faith hands and feet
And somehow gave it wings. . . .

Never picture perfect,
Just a plain man and his wife
Who somehow knew the value
Of hard work good love and real life.”

And then, there’s that wonderful little chorus, that Rich didn’t even write. If my memory doesn’t fail me, which it frequently does, it was written by his close friend, Beaker (I don’t know all of Beaker’s name).

“Oh, God, you are my God,
And I will ever ever praise you.
Oh, God, you are my God,
And I will ever praise you.
I will seek you in the morning,
And I will learn to follow your ways,
And step by step, you’ll lead me,
And I will follow you all of my days.”

If you like Rich Mullins, you should read this book.

TTFN, y’all!

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!

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!