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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction-Biography’ Category

The Roots of Endurance

“Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” –Hebrews 12:3

William Wilberforce spent 20 years of his political career trying to abolish the African slave trade in England and the next 26 trying to end slavery itself.  Along with this tireless pursuit, he was also involved in over 60 different acts of legislation, from ending animal cruelty to opening up the doors to evangelism in India.  Both his friends and adversaries spoke highly of his tireless, enthusiastic service of his country despite ongoing, almost interminable resistance.  But how did he endure?  What was the source of his perseverance?  This is the subject of John Piper’s excellent book The Roots of Endurance, part 3 in the “Swans Are Not Silent” series of biographies.  This volume focuses on the lives of three men:  John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce.  All three were contemporaries, all knew each other, and had some contact, and all faced incredible opposition which required amazing endurance.  I had heard of Wilberforce and Newton (the former slave ship captain turned preacher and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), but had never heard of Simeon.  Charles Simeon was the vicar at Trinity Church in Cambridge for over 60 years.  In over 30 years of that time, he faced opposition from the “pew holders” in his congregation who would lock their pews so no one else could sit in them because they did not want this young preacher.  Despite this, Simeon continued to preach God’s word, dedicate himself to the poor and needy, and focus on his role as peacemaker.  The ability of all of these men to endure is Piper’s prime objective, and a look at their lives reminds us of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us and spurs us on toward love and good works.  I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and am newly convinced that our posh form of 21st century Christianity has resulted in a mediocrity worse than what Wilberforce accused his contemporaries of.  His book, The Fatal Habit of Nominal Christians blamed the lack of morals of his society on the lack of focus on doctrine.  It was doctrine and specifically the doctrine of the cross of Christ that enabled him to endure struggles in politics, in personal relationships, and his ongoing bouts with colitis and other chronic illness.  It was Simeon’s focus on doctrine that enabled him to endure persecution and to count himself as nothing, and everyone else as worthy of his service and esteem.  And it was this same doctrine that gave Newton a love of people and a hatred of his own sin, and caused him to write a hymn that will go down in history as one of the greatest in all Christendom.  If you watched the movie “Amazing Grace”, I challenge you to take a look at the real story and see what truly shaped the lives of these men.  Their lives remind us that trials, though difficult, are able to mold and shape us into vessels truly fit for service of the One who endured such hardship as is impossible to grasp.  Read it again and again, share it with your children around the living room, and let it be one of your “roots of your endurance”.

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Several years ago, I watched a good friend go through a difficult, although necessary divorce.  Before it was even finalized, she began agonizing over the affect this split would have on her minor children.  Her main concern was the relationship or rather lack of that her children had with their seemingly apathetic father and how it would ultimately influence their view of God.  It was an understandable concern, and unfortunately the vast majority of people from broken homes or homes where fathers are somewhat indifferent or have no emotional bonds to their children, struggle with how to relate to their heavenly Father.  However, I can’t help but feel that we have the pattern all backwards.  I mean, should we let earthly fathers inform our view of God, or should we rather take the Father of fathers and let Him and specifically the description of Him in scripture be the benchmark for which all other father’s should be measured?  His care, His provision, His intimacy, His affection, His strength, His protection, etc. are the only standards we even have for what a father could or should try to emulate.  Christian dads should make this their aim, to walk in His footsteps, and single moms should daily hold this up to their children and remind them that there is one who “will never leave [them] or forsake [them]”.  (Dt. 31:6, 8; and Heb 13:5)  This pattern was followed very closely by Phillip Howard, father of the Christian author and teacher Elizabeth Elliott.  Ms. Elliott writes very deliberately of the holy exercises and daily practices of both a man and a woman (her mother, Katherine Gillingham Howard) who desired to show the very face of God to their children in her memoir The Shaping of a Christian Family.  Not intended to be a blueprint for living, but rather a great monument to a couple who joined together for one goal, one purpose, that of glorifying God in their lives and of seeing Christ formed in each of their little ones.  Elizabeth Elliott tells the story of how an ordinary family can in effect, change the world through simple obedience.  Looking through her father’s journal and letters as well as the recollections of her mother, we are transported back to a time that seemed much simpler but was sometimes bitterly difficult.  Ms. Elliott minces no words, as she gives her opinions on how a family ought to run and conduct itself; but where our practices may differ, the principles still hold true:  a father ought to sacrificially love his family, parents ought to fall on their knees daily and ask for wisdom for raising their children, a wife ought to love and respect her husband, and children should be taught to be disciplined and respectful.  Essentially, all are called to “lay down their lives” for the others in the home.  Here are just some of the biblical principles that this book brings to light, told through the beautiful reminiscences of a thankful daughter.  Some might grieve over missed opportunities, or lives that in no way resemble the biblical pattern; however, this is not the book’s intent.  It’s purpose is to remind us that there is a better way to live, it’s true; but I think that it also serves to show us how far short we all fall, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers; and how much we need to cry out for “mercy and grace for help in our time of need.”  (Heb. 4:16)  I was inspired and convicted by reading this book to point my children upward, to raise their gaze, and encourage them to keep their eyes on the plumb line.  I know you’ll be similarly inspired by Ms. Elliott’s heartfelt writing.

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A lifetime of walking with Jesus.James 1:22 “…receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your souls.”

The gardening themes in scripture have always had such rich meanings for me.  Being a lover of gardening myself, I think many times that this is one way I am being an imitator of my Creator.  He plants trees and flowers, he dresses his vines, he grafts into his olive branch, he scatters seed, waters, prunes, and harvests; and I can do the same.  It was by meditating on the above scripture that I began to see more clearly how He lovingly grafts His word into the stumps of our hearts, much like a gardener would graft the sapling of his favorite apple cultivar into a ready stump.  Gardeners have long realized that the seeds of a given apple are not guaranteed to produce the same apple tree.  The seed of a Fuji apple can no more produce a Fuji apple tree than a godly mother can produce a godly child without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.  God has no granchildren, therefore, we are dependent on the wise gardener to infuse or engraft in our hearts the life of His Son, at which point we can either exalt our own potential to bear fruit, or can meekly accept this new sapling which guarantees abundant fruit.

Grafting, however, like pruning, is not painless.  There is cutting involved, and this is where the plant may begin to question the will of the gardener.  It was this grafting analogy that Joni Eareckson Tada returned to time and again when she wondered how a simple prayer for God to change her life and remove complacency far from her could be answered with paralysis from the shoulders down.  The God I Love A Memoir  by Joni helps to answer these questions that so many of us have about why life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect.  I am not one who usually flocks to memoirs, but Joni’s book is an exhilirating read from the outset.  Born into an adventurous family, with a daring father and mother, Joni’s life was filled with excitement, drama, and lots of love.  I have never read a book more descriptive or that had more feeling, and this from a woman who can no longer feel.  The book is not just Joni’s story, however, it is God’s story.  The title of the book says it all.  A passage I especially love sums up the way God infused every facet of her life. 

“All of it whispered about God.  Just the way the harvest moon, every year on time, crested the eastern horizon at the same minute the sun sank in the west.  Or how a breeze left a silvery trace through the undersides of the leaves.  Or the strange light and life in a horse’s eye.  A heart can’t help but recognize a message that keeps insisting, ‘I am here…you are not alone…the world is even bigger than what you see.'”

Joni’s story leaves you breathless, whether it is playing cowboys and indians on horseback with her sisters, camping at Rehoboth beach and listening to her father’s ghostly tales of the Flying Dutchman, her paralysis after diving that fateful day, making a movie about her life, or starting a ministry that still touches millions of hearts around the world.  You begin to see with Joni that her wheelchair has become her “passport to adventure” and even a means to give glory to God.  Joni is frank about her struggles and questions, her wrestling with how God chose to answer her prayer, and early fears about the future.  It is clear that this brave woman has meekly accepted the cuts of the gardener, and in the end has a life that has born more fruit than she could ever have imagined producing on two good legs and with two strong arms.  If you are struggling with suffering, this book is not a deterrent to faith, but rather a means to hope, perseverance, and thankfulness for the cross.  Joni makes no objection to the fact that the same God who formed the universe out of nothing is the same one who has allowed her to remain in a wheelchair so many years; but she can now look at her life as a beautiful tapestry grown and cultivated by the Master Gardener and say indeed “It is good”.  This is indeed “the God I love”.

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I’m one of the most squeamish people I know.  My friends find it quite entertaining that I erupt in continuous gagging at the sight of bugs being squashed or Survivor episodes where contestants are required to eat the local delicacies.  There have even been instances when I would hide in the back room, to avoid the disgusting feast of beetles, worms, or chicken fetuses, only to wretch at the thought of what was happening on my livingroom television.  I hate those movies that try to make something humerous out of the gross and disgusting.  My husband and I are at odds over whether “Christmas Vacation” has any entertainment value.  There are too many snotty dogs, burnt up cats, and improper waste disposal scenes for me to enjoy it.  I loved the newest Willie Wonka movie, but unfortunately I recently vomited at a outdoor showing when I saw (no, actually “heard”, since I had shut my eyes) the Oompa Loompa’s eating caterpillars.  I bring this up, because we have a local celebrity in town who makes a living out of grossing people out.  Now, this is not his occupation, neither is it his aim, but he does it all the same because he has both a passion for what he does as well as an insensitivity due to the nature of his field.  You might say he is in fact, desensitized to the bizarre, the gross, the macabre.  I have a good friend who, along with several hundreds of others, went to a university alumni luncheon.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Bill Bass, head of forensic anthropology at the University of Tennessee.  At one time, Dr. Bass was holed up in a kind of mausoleum under Neyland Stadium, where the offices of the College of Antrhopology were once located.  Under that massive stadium, where thousands of fans chant and scream out the praises of their precious Volunteers, were stored the remains of Native Americans, as well as bone fragments from the hundreds of cases Dr. Bass had been called on to identify.  This particular sunny afternoon, the UT alum’s were still in the middle of their lunch when the short stocky frame of Dr. Bass approached the lecturn.  Armed only with a simple slideshow clicker, he cleared more people from the room that day, than Clint Eastwood could with a 357 magnum.  Here were the real case files, not CSI, not Cold Case; but the nation’s foremost forensic scientist excitedly promoting his craft to a room full of faint-hearted lightweights.   I have been hearing about these sorts of things for years, but got my real introduction to Dr. Bass through his first book Death’s Acre which he co-wrote with John Jefferson, my former neighbor.  Death’s Acre gets it’s title from Dr. Bass’s acclaimed forensic laboratory, the Body Farm, where the “dead do tell tales”.  In this autobiographical work, Dr. Bass breaks down the particulars of many of his ground-breaking cases, that not only answered questions about the relevant cases, but provided the clues to many future puzzles that coroners and scientists have tried to unravel since.  The “dead” at the Body Farm really have provided the much needed answers to many of these questions facing crime detectives over the years.  Questions like, “how long does it take for a blowfly to detect a dead body half a mile away”.  Don’t even ask me how they did this one.  Just suffice it to say, it included blowflies and nail polish.  The Bass/Jefferson team has done a brilliant job balancing the facts with Bass’s personal memoires.  Though numb to the blood and gore, he is not completely devoid of feeling.  The book finds him not only weeping over a family that is brutally murdered, but saddened at the life of a prostitute that has been needlessly struck down.  The true unveiling of his mask occurs when he questions God.  He remarks to us that although he “used” to believe in God, he no longer does, because of what he has observed about death.  The loss of his first two wives to cancer as well as daily coming face to face with death and suffering has convinced him that human beings have the same end.  They die, decay, return to the earth to be eaten by worms and give live to the trees and grass.  This made me sad for Dr. Bass, sadder than I was for the many victims whom he tried to seek justice for.  Dr. Bass sees a world without justice.  A world which seeks for hope, but which is unanswered by the unseen God who governs it.  His conclusions are based on what he sees.  My conclusions are based on what I know, or rather Who I know.  I know a God who governs all things and is merciful despite the ravings and rebellion of the humans he has made.  I see a world deserving of His wrath and judgement, but recipients of His mercy in the giving of His one and only Son to bear that just wrath.  To look at Christ is to see both the mercy of God toward undeserving sinners and the wrath of God poured out on sinful human beings.  The truth is, we suffer sickness and death because of our father Adam’s sin, yet we have hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus.  How’s that for a Christmas blog.  People die, but there is eternal life.  That is what I am reminded of when I consider Death’s Acre.  Yes, my live is but a vapor, yes, I return to dust; but yes, my soul lives on to eternal life or eternal death, that is indeed my choice and yours. 

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Angels in HellRecently I found myself in Borders Bookstore (go figure), but strangely enough I wasn’t looking for a book.  The object of my desire at this particular time was the new Josh Groban Christmas CD “Noel”.  Alas, they were already sold out, and it was only Veterans Day; but I was not to go home empty handed.  Passing by a display, I spied a crimson paperback with a black and white photo of a smiling young girl on the cover.  I am always intrigued by WWII survival stories.  People that lived through that generation faced things that we cannot even fathom.  However, after scanning the back cover, I was even more intrigued.  This was not only a story of a “Jewish-Italian child’s survival of WWII”;  it was the story of a girl who grew up in Tripoli, Libya.  Why is this significant?  Well, my own mother-in-law, Millie, was born and raised in Tripoli, living there for 19 years.  She survived the bombing of Tripoli and we have recently begun working in ernest on her own story.  I bought the book and let Millie read it first.  She was amazed as she read the story of this young woman, Giovanna, whose life so paralleled her own.  When I asked her if she would like to talk to Giovanna herself, she just shook her head saying, “That would be a miracle.”  Well, she still doesn’t understand the power of the internet, because I was able to very quickly track down the woman’s daughter, the author, and soon they were chatting away in Italian with plans to meet each other very soon.  I finally got my chance to read the book, and have to admit I was not disappointed. 

Giovanna Bonifazio, not only lived through a difficult time, she lived in the very midst of the cauldron.  With the untimely death of her father and the failing health of her mother, Giovanna was virtually alone; and at the outset of the war, was sent away from North Africa to what should have been a place of safety in a convent in Naples.  Although loved and aided by these nuns, they were unable to protect Giovanna from the scourge that came to threaten her ordered world.  Guided by an unseen hand, she cheats death and imprisonment and discovers that those who claimed to be their allies were on a mission much more sinister than she had ever imagined.  This book, written by a loving daughter, Sylvia Smith Skrmetta, is a perfect blend of history and exposition.  Written in the first person, you are transformed into the mind and emotions of this young girl, knowing her every thought and feeling.  You are enchanted by her descriptions of a pre-war Tripoli and the opulence in which she lived.  You grieve at her losses, experience fear at her possible capture, and hope with her when she waits to return home.  Anyone reading this book will be amazed at her tenacity, strength of will, and strength of character.  You might expect her to emerge from all of this jaded and callous towards fellow human beings; but like many of that generation, she is made of greater stuff than any of the bridges blown up by the Germans.  She crosses to the other side with both her innocence intact and a plan and a purpose to rebuild her life and that of her young brother. 

If this description sounds a bit cliche’ to you, then I might further add that my final analysis can be summed up in the words of Robert Browning:  “God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world”.  I think you will agree after reading Giovanna’s book, which you can read more about at the following link: http://giovannaangelsinhell.com/ .

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It was on one of those rare trips alone with my husband that I first heard Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham Ashcraft.  This book is amazing on many levels.  First, as a person who is absolutely terrified of the ocean (its immensity, its depth, creatures lurking below, etc.) I am also amazed and in wonder of people that have somehow conquered it.  I have a strange and maybe sick fascination with it as well.  I am drawn to stories of tragedy at sea, and want to read every detail.  I remember one evening I spent hours reading minute by minute “play by plays” of the sinking of the Andrea Doria, as if somehow I might figure out the pivotal moment that would have changed everything.  Red Sky in Mourning was intriguing to me, because against all hope, and all odds, facing (my) worst nightmare, this woman was able to think clearly and do what needed to be done through much ingenuity and a whole lot more providence, steer herself to safety.  Tami Oldham and her fiance, Richard,  set sail together from Tahiti in what promises to be a romantic and lucrative venture when they steer into fierce hurricane winds.   Tami trusts in Richard who is in every way strong and capable, but when he is lost, she must find the courage and strength within herself to reach safety.  No motor, no masts, just a will to live–and some important ancient navigational skills didn’t hurt. 

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger was another book I read during what I call my “sea period”.  This book did not have a happy ending, but was interesting none-the-less.  Its central focus was, of course, the October storm of 1991, also known as the “Halloween Storm”.  It produced waves 10 stories high and 120 mph winds.  What really happened to the Andrea Gail, the ill-fated fishing boat heading into the nightmare storm?  The book uses eye-witness interviews of rescue divers, local fishermen, bar owners, and other seamen rescued from the waves to give you a glimpse into the lives of these doomed men who were just trying to make a living–the hard way.  In fact, the book gives you the whole history of the sword-fishing industry in America, and the facts about commercial fishing and what has come to be known as the second most dangerous occupation.  (Logging happens to be number one.)  You hear about near misses with sharks, hooks, and drownings–just so you can know what its really like to suck water into your lungs. 

These books are just another reminder of why I am and will always be a “landlubber”.  Give me a good old lake by the mountains any day.  I really think waves are overrated.  As I told someone recently, “they’ve got those at the local waterpark”.

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Cabin and fence
Originally uploaded by Gasparino1I remember my mother getting angry the first time she saw the movie Christie. She didn’t like the portrayal of mountain people as dirty, shoeless, and ignorant. “My father’s family were mountain people.” she said. “They were poor, but they always made sure their children had shoes.” However, this is exactly the impression you get about people that lived in the Appalachian Mountains at the turn of the century if Hollywood is your only source of information. Movies like Nell and even Deliverance come to mind. Although there are pockets of extreme poverty and isolation, the vast majority of mountain people are vastly different than they have been branded.  Cades Cove is an area in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park which was an inhabited, “tamable” region of wide-open space.  It is a large valley surrounded by beautiful tree-covered hills, and now grazing land for cattle and white-tailed deer.   The Cades Cove Story by A. Randolph Shields is a wonderfully written glimpse of life in Cades Cove written by a former resident. He portrays (and rightly so) the people of the Cove as hard-working, God-fearing, and social people–not at all the backword, illiterate, Cretans you would imagine. The picture Mr. Shields paints is one that resembles what true pioneer life was like. Cades Cove life was not unlike what you would see on Little House on the Prairie. People weren’t rich (at least not by our standards), but they had everything they needed. Harvest time and hog killing time became great social occasions. The people of the Cove knew how to enjoy life, as well as work hard. They were serious about their Sundays, as well. There were at least three churches in the Cove and although there were differences in doctrine, it didn’t stop them from visiting one anothers churches on “Decoration Day”, when everyone would go from church to church and decorate the graves of those who had died and hear a little preaching besides. News and information, though limited, still reached the Cove. Telegraphs and telephones made their way in for a time. There was always a regular post office. Teachers and travelling preachers came from outside. Students were educated in one-room school houses and some parents even sent their sons and daughters to Porter Academy and Maryville College’s Preparatory School. By 1904, Maryville Polytechnic served as a highschool and for those who went beyond highschool, they had the choice of Maryville College or Johnson City Normal School (now ETSU).
Residents of the Cove contributed to the newspapers outside the cove, although the news wasn’t as exciting then as we find today. Here is an excerpt from the Maryville Record, June 4, 1904:
“The recent rains have refreshed the corn and the weeds so that the farmers can set their hats proper and take a harder hold of their plows and hoes to keep the corn from smothering the weeds. Mr. Sparks had porches put all around his house so that on a rainy day if his dogs get tired of looking in at one door they can trot around to another to look in without getting wet.”
The papers were not without excitement, however, as we see from this account of a murder in the Cove:
Theodore Rose and Will Burchfield, son of Sam, of the Flats, went to Harvey B’s home and raised a quarrel over some old grudge when Rose pulled a revolver and shot once…A wife and three small children are left in destitute circumstances without any means of support. Both Rose and Will Burchfield had been drinking and were quarrelsome when they arrived at the home of Harvey Burchfield.”
For residents of East Tennessee or really anyone who would like to know more about the people who lived in this area of Appalachia from about 1820’s to the 1930’s, this book is an interesting and easy read, and I believe sheds a little bit of light on a frequently misunderstood people.

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