Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Book Review – Murder on the Orient Express

November 9, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I went through a brief stage in early adolescence of reading classic mysteries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were both tutors in this brief foray. It didn’t last long because I tired of the genius of the detective becoming evident only at the end of the story by the introduction of additional facts, clues, and background information I as the reader could not possibly know. I was frustrated because I wanted to solve the mysteries myself, and the authors weren’t giving me what I needed to do so.

But when I found a copy of this book at the tiny library near where we’re sojourning along with a British television adaptation of the book, I knew we had to read it as a family and then watch the film. I’m glad to say that my particular irritations of many years ago notwithstanding, we all roundly enjoyed the book as well as the movie, and had a delightful interchange comparing the two and the interpretative license the director of the film version engaged in, both for good and bad effect.

The story finds Christie’s protagonist, Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot trying to unravel a particularly complicated murder on board the said Orient Express. The ending is truly a masterful stroke of genius. The characters are wildly diverse and curious in their own right. The book is well-written, engaging without pandering. It keeps the readers involved as clues are unveiled and alibis examined.

The television version of it, a 2010 British production, does an admirable job with some interesting twists. It adds scenes and skips over others. But as a whole, the director picks up on religious themes both expressed by Christie in the book and others not in the book but created to better flesh out the character of Poirot. Performances are solid though, as is typical in most adaptations, the characters can’t possibly be given their full due in 90 minutes of film as they can in 200+ pages of text. Still, if you can find this version I’d encourage you to watch it (ideally after just having read the book!) and sit and ponder the meanings of rosaries and prayers and God that find such a central place in this adaptation.

Then drop me a line and let’s talk about it more together!

Book Review – Old Man and the Sea

November 4, 2021

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’d read this back in one of my high school literature classes. It’s not a complicated little story so it wasn’t as though the intervening decades clouded the storyline or the outcome. But as part of our less-connected, wi-fi-unpredictable life for the moment reading together as a family has come to the forefront. The place we’re staying had a copy and I knew it would be good for everyone to experience it.

I like Hemingway, but his sparcity can be exhausting at times. Where Bradbury or other authors bury you in similes and metaphors and adjectives, Hemingway remains terse, no doubt a throwback to his days in journalism. The story is slow, as slow as being stuck in a boat at sea alone for days on end, trailing a line connected to a massive, unseen fish below. I would likely be tempted to tighten it up a bit, but tightening it up ruins the entire point of the story. You feel the interminableness of Santiago’s situation. You feel his hope as well as his wariness. You admire his stolidity.

His dedication is to a code of manhood rapidly being erased in a Western culture intent on desexing and unisexing everyone and everything. No doubt he is dubbed as an example of toxic masculinity in college literature classrooms on two continents. How foolish, to risk his life on such an uncertainty, against overwhelming odds. Yet Santiago’s decisions are set by larger forces than himself and he seeks only to measure his mettle against them, just as he continually measures his own pain against the pain reported of his beloved DiMaggio. Does his suffering come close? Does he measure up?

If you haven’t read this for a while go back to it. As a father of boys and young men it is helpful to show traditional masculine qualities evaporating in the world around them. Like other much longer epic works it highlights the importance of doing what you know to be right and proper despite the potential loss you may personally suffer in doing so. Some things are worth dying for. Some battles should be faced squarely that the stories may be told and passed down to younger generations who will one day have to face their own giants, whether under the waters or in the stars or in their own hometowns.

Book Review – Muslims, Christians, and Jesus

November 2, 2021

Muslims, Christians and Jesus by Carl Medearis

Gifted to us by life-long Bible translators, this book offers personal insights in how Christians can meet and build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. The author speaks with confidence and experience in this regard, sprinkling the book with real life anecdotes about interactions with a variety of people in a variety of settings.

It’s clear Medearis’ overriding concern is to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, can be loving and good neighbors, and can engage in meaningful religious discussion based around common elements of Christianity and Islam. Towards this end he would much rather sidestep some of the most awkward conversation points that might arise, preferring to encourage his readers towards that common ground. This is important to keep in mind. If you’re inclined to see discussions with others primarily as an opportunity to engage in debate – whether academic, historical, or theological – you will probably be less than thrilled with Medearis’ approach.

For someone unfamiliar with the basics of Islam, the Qu’ran, or Islamic history Medaris’ suggestions might not raise any eyebrows. And even as someone with at least a passing familiarity with each of these areas, I’m willing and able to give Medaris a lot of latitude as his goal is not confrontation but conversation, and this is desperately needed at all levels and all over the world! Combatting an us-versus-them attitude is not only unhelpful but contrary to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.

Medearis purports both anecdotally and directly an attitude that promotes the idea of spirituality against religiosity. Only by refraining from some of the broad connotations of spirituality and thinking of only the worst excesses and abuses of religiosity can I come close to sympathizing with his position, which I think I find ultimately to be either unhelpful to Christians or dishonest to them. I understand his emphasis on Jesus only to be particularly helpful in cross-cultural discussions, but it falls short ultimately as a way of living the Christian life. Only by attempting to live life as an isolated Christian without meaningful Christian community can such a Jesus only theology work, and such an isolated life is contrary to Jesus’ own practice and the direct instructions of the Bible.

Medearis does a good job at introducing the basic tenets of Islam, providing a brief historical overview of Muhammad and Islam and explaining differences between the three major sects of Islam.

This is a good starting reference for Christians who feel led, or interested, or realize they have an opportunity to build a relationship with a Muslim person. His insistence on doing so not as a means to an end but simply as a fulfillment of the command to love our neighbor is admirable. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for meaningful, deep, and sometimes complicated and difficult religious dialogue down the line. It just acknowledges that’s not where things should – or can – start.

Book Review (Partial) – A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200

November 1, 2021

A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, 4th Edition by M. C. Ricklefs

Another partial book review, this time because I didn’t finish it. I barely started it, but it’s obvious it’s far more detailed and in-depth than what I need right now. While I feel I have a good, broad-brushstrokes familiarity with the major eras of Indonesia’s history, I need to better cement that foundation before filling in with the detailed academic treatment Ricklefs brings to this book.

By his own admission in the introduction he prefers to provide details and allow others to draw broader conclusions, an approach I resonate with. I’m just not ready for this level of work quite yet! Once I’m a bit more conversant in the overarching history of Indonesia I’ll undoubtedly go back to this as a more detailed resource!

Book Review (Partial) – Healthy, Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry

November 1, 2021

Healthy Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry by Laura Mae Gardner, D.Min

I call this a partial review for two reasons. The first is the copy I was gifted from long-term overseas Bible translators is a pre-release copy that only has the first eight chapters – roughly the first half of the book. Secondly, I only really skimmed it as it’s designed for sending agencies and those who oversee overseas workers.

From that perspective it’s an amazing book, even in the unfinished form. I have no doubt that folks in our own Office of International Mission have read this or other resources like it, as I recognize some of the recommendations from the book in how OIM is structured and the interactions I’ve already had with them. A fantastic resource (and the link above is to the finished Kindle version of the book – a print version of the finished book is here) for those entrusted with the recruitment, evaluation, deployment, management and ongoing care of overseas workers!

Book Review: Serving Well

October 25, 2021

Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie or Weary Cross-Cultural Christian Worker by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter

Recommended by a friend who had it recommended to him, this is not my favorite read. The style is not one I’m very fond of, overly friendly and informal with useful tips interspersed with emotional self-disclosures. I think this book probably has some very helpful advice to the various groups the title highlights, but it’s the sort of helpful advice that isn’t really useful until you’re in the midst of a situation, and then you’ve got to figure out where that particular nugget of wisdom might be. Major sections are organized by what you might want to know or think or feel before you go, as you’re leaving, once you arrive, before you leave, and as you return to your country of origin.

There’s some good advice in here, or at least it makes sense. There’s also plenty of stuff that isn’t helpful for an analytical person like me. Others may find the personal and intimate approach very appealing.

If you like relational sort of heart-to-heart writing you may love this. And those of you with overseas experience already may find it really quite helpful. But it’s not going to be helpful to me at this point, and therefore probably not the first resource I would reach for down the line.

Law and Kings

October 10, 2021

This morning we worshiped with a small LCMS congregation in between Tacoma and Olympia. For Bible study, they’re working their way through 1 Kings and we joined them for the latter 2/3 of Chapter 2. This section deals with the transfer of power and how the new king Solomon dealt with several questionable characters his father David had shown mercy to but remained potential sources of future problems. Since Solomon was not the eldest son of David, to whom the throne would have been expected to pass, Solomon’s position is a bit precarious, as this section highlights.

Four individuals receive judgment from Solomon based on combinations of past and present actions. Adonijah, who had already attempted to take the throne while David was still alive; Abiathar, priest under David but who had also supported Adonijah’s claim to the throne; Joab, David’s general who also had supported Adonijah’s claim; and Shimei, a kinsman of King Saul who had cursed David during his dispute with another usurper son, Absalom.

The passage reads rather harshly. Abiathar gets off the easiest – he’s banished and replaced in his role as priest. The other three are all executed by order of King Solomon. It’s a passage that may strike our sensitive ears rather dissonantly. How is it that Solomon, soon to be bestowed with divine wisdom, should condone the execution of these people his father saw fit to spare?

We must remember Solomon is king, but not just any king. He is king over the only Biblical theocracy in all of human history. He rules the people of God by the Word of God, in conjunction (at least theoretically) with the priests and prophets. Disobedience to the king is the same as disobedience to God. Those who thought it was their duty to determine who the king should be erred grievously in doing so. And those who felt they were not bound by the king’s law or their own promises discovered this was not the case. Just as God’s people are not exempt from his Law and are in danger (as the opening of Hebrews 2 warns us) of being drawn away from the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and suffering the condemnation of the Law.

We see in these historical passages both grace and judgment, and are called to remember we have not simply a Savior but a Lord, and that Lord is due and rightly expects our obedience. Our obedience won’t be perfect, flawed as we are with sin. But we must remember always who is the only proper and fit ruler of our lives – and it isn’t us! When we feel we can dismiss the Word of God for our own ideas or the ideas of our culture and day we err grievously and need to come back to repentance. The warnings of Psalm 2 are just as appropriate in our day and age as they were in Solomon’s!

Reading Ramblings – October 17, 2021

October 10, 2021

Date: 21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 17, 2021

Texts: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-13(14-16); Mark 10:23-31

Context: A challenging group of readings in a culture where earning and buying is how we are taught to define our worth. In a culture where display of what we have accomplished (or what we want others to think we’ve accomplished) drives massive debt and the corresponding anxiety that accompanies it. Where we are taught to work hard to save up to spend and have fun in the so-called Golden Years, even if it means sacrificing time with children and family and friends in the short term. But the Biblical message is clear and consistent – these goals are not only unhealthy they are misleading. In the short term because wealth is fickle and sometimes fleeting, and in the long term because wealth can distract us from what matters most and eternally – our relationship with our Lord and Savior.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 – Traditionally ascribed to Solomon despite the enigmatic attribution of Qoheleth, which means preacher or collector in Hebrew. Solomon is said to have written this challenging work in his old age, reflecting on a life of pleasure but also a life spent looking for meaning. This chapter begins with an exhortation to fear and honor God which forms a natural transition to a warning against the major distraction in our lives – an obsession with wealth. This obsession is dangerous whether still in the pursuit of wealth or after the acquisition of it. There is never security from this obsession, never a point at which the pursuer can be sure they have enough and can rest. Acquisition means nothing without expending, and so peace is never achieved despite the false promises that wealth brings security. In fact, wealth can be lost in an instant, perhaps far easier and faster than it is acquired! The alternative is a more balanced perspective on life that keeps wealth in proper context. Wealth may or may not be attained but life can still be enjoyed as the gift from God that every life is, whether rich or poor. We are designed to work (Genesis 1:28), but to work in right relationship to God rather than in an unbalanced drive for riches. When we lose track of who we were designed by and for, the inevitable result is sorrow and loss.

Psalm 119:9-16 – The second section of this great acrostic psalm echoes some of the language and concepts of the reading from Ecclesiastes. The young man is exhorted to seek not riches but God and his Word, and to guard and keep it as the rich man guarded and fretted over his treasure. God’s Word is more than capable of delighting us more than the passing wealth and trinkets of this world if we only recognize this! What better way to live our lives than with our eyes fixed on our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, from whom all blessings flow whether in times of need or plenty, and who alone promise us a peace that passes all understanding? This requires an intentionality on our part. We can become distracted (as Paul reminds us in the reading from Hebrews 4) and lose our focus. We must daily re-affirm our intent to remain fixed on God’s Word and statutes.

Hebrews 4:1-13(14-16) – Paul continues on the theme he began expositing at the start of Chapter 2 – the risk we are at continually of drifting away from the faith and hope we have in Christ. This is a real possibility (as opposed to those who would teach that salvation cannot be lost) given the reality of our enemy Satan and his powers, as well as the sin within each one of us. Certainly based on the other readings it would be reasonable to read into Paul’s concerns the role of wealth and material riches that seem to distract so many from the most important things in life, but Paul isn’t necessarily talking about wealth specifically. The problem with the Israelites was not the pursuit of wealth but rather a lack of trust in God. An obsession with wealth could certainly be interpreted as a lack of trust in God in some instances. Our trust is ultimately in our great high priest, Jesus, who unlike the limited and imperfect high priests of old has made perfect atonement for us in his own blood, yet understands our weaknesses and distractions and intercedes for us with the Father and Holy Spirit on our behalf not only in justification but in strength for sanctification.

Mark 10:23-31 – For the Jews of Jesus’ day (and for Christians today who subscribe to the heresy of prosperity theology), wealth was understood to be a sign of God’s pleasure with a person. This wealth in turn could be used to give to the poor and sponsor other good works which would in turn further increase God’s pleasure with the individual. So if a rich person who could give to the poor actually was disadvantaged in some way in entering the kingdom of heaven, what possible hope could the average person have? This is the astonishment and dismay of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ response is clear – it is not possible to us, but only to God. We cannot do what is necessary to earn our place in the kingdom of heaven, but we can receive membership by the grace of God through forgiveness found in the saving blood of Jesus Christ shed on our behalf. The second part of Jesus’ teaching, in response to Peter’s reminder that the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus is more complex. Jesus assures Peter these sacrifices are not unnoticed, and nor are they uncompensated, both now and eternally. In embracing Jesus, the believer is united with all the faithful through space and time. The believer becomes part of Jesus’ own family (Matthew 12:50) with innumerable brothers and sisters! This is a reality here and now, though we too often value it too lightly and think of it too infrequently. Family ties are complicated things and sometimes it is easier not to dwell on this reality in this world, and the obligations it may place on us to place our riches second to the needs of our family members. These realities are true here and now. As Luther noted in Christ we are lords of all things and subject to none – although this reality is rarely recognized by those around us! We are at the same time the servant of all, so that our lordship is hidden in our poverty, our lack of control, our willingness to suffer if necessary rather than reject the citizenship we have in the kingdom of heaven. All of this Peter and the disciples and you and I receive here and now – and we look forward to the age to come and the eternal life we will have free of the persecutions that haunt us here and now.

Wealth is not our servant here, nor is it our hope. It is often just the opposite. It often becomes our master, whether we have too little or too much. And it betrays our hope by oftentimes loading us with fear, distrust, and other attendant difficulties. Only in holding our poverty or wealth lightly and continuing to insist on focusing on Christ and his eternal gifts to us does wealth better remain a tool rather than a temptation.

Book Review: Introducing Indonesia

October 7, 2021

Introducing Indonesia – 3rd edition, published by the American Women’s Association, 1975

This was a short and fascinating read. Short mostly because at least half the book is a phone directory of services and businesses in Indonesia – particularly the island of Java and the city of Jakarta – that might be of use to an American moving to Indonesia. Fascinating because, published by the American Women’s Association, it’s clearly oriented to the wife/mother/homemaker who will be setting up house in a new place.

The book provides a brief bit of history but mostly to give an exceptionally broad overview of the many cultures and influences present in Jakartan society. It is the purpose of the book to inform, not to analyze or comment on that history. A similar broad treatment of culture, religion, and arts are also included. It’s clear the emphasis is on Jakarta and the island of Java – not surprising since it’s the capitol and the most likely destination of either government or industry-based relocation. There are a fair number of black and white photos to help provide context for the commentary and to give the reader a basic impression of their new home.

Perhaps the most fascinating section was the brief treatment of the issue of household workers. Like most of Southeast Asia it is assumed that at a certain economic level you will employ one or more household workers. This is an important source of income to a large section of the population. The book lists various roles household workers might have, including driver, maintenance person, cook, maid, nanny, and several others. Advice is also given as to how to best manage a household staff, clearly intended for the American unfamiliar with this situation. Advice on how to find qualified staff, how to vet them and when necessary terminate them is all very curious and undoubtedly much of it is still applicable today.

Published in 1975 this clearly is not an up-to-date snapshot of Indonesia but is interesting for what it is – a snapshot of American perspectives on life in Indonesia nearly 50 years ago.

Reading Ramblings – October 3, 2021

September 26, 2021

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 3, 2021

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-13; Mark 10:2-16

Context: Life is a blessing from God. We do not own it, and we are mistaken when we believe we are free to arbitrarily create or end it on our terms. Disengaging life from the Creator is a dangerous path leading to unforeseen consequences both short and long term. We should rightfully leave life in our Lord’s hands, trusting in him rather than risking drifting away from him (Hebrews 2:2) into our own ideas and methodologies.

Genesis 2:18-25 – Although some prefer to read Genesis 1 & 2 as two separate accounts of creation, they needn’t be read in that way. Some read vs. 18-19 as out of order with the account of creation in Genesis 1, but this is not a necessary reading. God’s intent from the beginning was to have a suitable helper for Adam, and had already created the other creatures that were then brought to Adam prior to creating Eve. The relationship of man and woman as created by God is unlike any other relationship in all of creation, so that St. Paul can proclaim in Ephesians 5:32 that this is the profound mystery of human marriage – it echoes and reflects the relationship between Jesus and his Church. This passage declares the profound beauty in our created natures as male and female, and helps us look forward to when these natures will be restored to perfection individually and in relation to one another and our Creator.

Psalm 128 – The pilgrims move towards Jerusalem, lifting their spirits and passing the time with the citation of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134 & characterized by the word ascent in their opening lines). They are reminded in doing so of the blessings of God, blessings both already received and realized and those yet to come. These blessings are understood to be part of the covenantal relationship, the proper relationship between God and mankind described in Genesis 1&2. In our fallen state this relationship (and these blessings) are experienced in a limited and imperfect sense. In this sense, this psalm can be taken as prophetic – these are the blessings we look forward to in our Lord’s return and our resurrection to perfected life.

Hebrews 2:1-13– I think the passage is fine ending at verse 13 instead of continuing on to the end of the chapter as the lectionary provides the option for. The emphasis here is also on what we look forward to in our Lord’s return, a reality glimpsed by those privileged to see Jesus after his resurrection. Salvation has come, but salvation can be lost Paul clearly indicates at the start of this passage. Satan is always working to pry us away from our faith and trust in Christ and lead our hearts and minds after other things. Paul cites Psalm 8 as evidence of the glory that is rightfully ours and which has been lost in sin, but to which we will be restored through Christ. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ incarnate nature and work on our behalf, by which we are privileged to call our Lord and Savior our brother. We have much to look forward to!

Mark 10:2-16 – Is it too much to read the first verse!?!?! Good grief! For the careful reader, this verse has meaning and helps explain the context of the question posed to Jesus. The geographical context of the Jordan River and Judea should remind us of John the Baptist and his fate as detailed in Mark 6. John the Baptist was arrested and ultimately executed for his stance on marriage that angered Herod’s wife Herodias (who formerly was married to Herod’s brother). Now Jesus is posed a question on marriage and more specifically divorce, likely with the hope that Jesus would run afoul of Herodias as well and suffer a similar fate to John the Baptist!

Jesus’ words on marriage are challenging in a culture where divorce is presumed a right and option by most people – including Christians! But if the marriage relationship is an echo or image or foreshadowing of the revealed relationship between Christ and his Church, we should not be surprised that divorce is prohibited. What God has joined together should not be separated, including by the participants. Some are quick to argue that there are cases where divorce is necessary – in the cases of abuse or negligence. While we would acknowledge that our sinful human nature sometimes makes divorce inevitable or even necessary, this does not legitimize it in broader application. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 provides additional insight regarding when divorce is permissible – but even then it seems clear the hope and goal would be reconciliation and healing. A high view of marriage should be the goal of the Church, the congregation, and the married couple, and all levels of community from family and friends up through the congregation should be blessings and assets to married couples in helping them honor their marriage vows to one another and God.