What I’ve Been Reading/Best Of 2014…So Far

Having passed the fifty book mark before the end of June, it seemed appropriate to recap a top five for the record. They’re across the board, some by newbies and some by the experts.

Half a King. This is just the beginning of a George R. R. Martin-like saga.

Hands Free Mama. Still the book that has me thinking most this year.

The Emperor’s Blades. Maybe even more compelling than Half a King, this one finds two brothers drawn together from opposite callings to figure out how their kingdom can be saved after a plot kills their father.

The Lincoln Myth. Steve Berry is still one of the best, and his historical thriller/conspiracy is stellar as he tackles the Mormons and Abraham Lincoln.

Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. The pastor of the Church of the Redeemer has some insightful ways to make us consider how we interpret the Bible. You might not agree with everything he deduces, but it’s always smart to consider what you inherit/expect to be true.

And right now, I’m reading…

Christopher J. Yates’ Black Chalk. What happens when are games become too serious? When our egos and macho behavior can’t get out of the way of our common sense? I haven’t finished this one yet, but it sure is intriguing stuff from a new author.

Jennifer Hillier’s The Butcher. Her fans are effusive in their praise, but… I’m not getting it. We’re shown who the bad guy is (and how he relates to the other key characters in the story) before we’ve made it very far. The people we’re supposed to like (because they’re not The Butcher) don’t prove terribly deep or likable, and the overall vibe seems to be banging home the point that our nature is predetermined and unstoppable. I just didn’t dig it.

Jonathan Moore’s Close Reach. Wow, a creepy game of cat-and-mouse on the high seas. A couple looking to redeem their marriage find themselves stalked by pirates who are looking for more than ships, they want to take the people hostage, too! It’s terrifying, and certainly worthy of a cinematic treatment. For those who like their thrillers gritty, or even a little horrifying, this one is for you.

Charles Cumming’s A Colder War. I’ve always been a Robert Ludlum thriller kind of guy, and this, this is more John Le Carre thriller, slow and steady. It’s got contemporary problems and bigger world issues than one guy’s revenge antics (thinking Bourne here) but pace wise, you’ll need to be very patient.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin: Book One of Fitz and the Fool Trilogy. I was sucked into reading the book because it looked like my kind of fantasy knights and mages type of thing. But I got lost in the sometime-narrative, sometime-letter/journal style pretty quickly, and the fact that it seemed to expect me to know who all of the characters were and why they mattered from Hobb’s previous novels. I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m just saying that you better have a background on the Farseer novels.

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The Be-Attitudes: Quiet Strength (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.–Matthew 5:5

The old joke puts a different spin on this: “the meek will inherit the earth… if that’s alright with the rest of you.” It’s somewhat tense, exploring meekness in the midst of the Beattitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Meek is weak, right? We sort of squirm uncomfortably, and the joke highlights what we think of meekness: standing around, polling the court of public opinion, making sure that what we think is “okay” with everyone else.

But what if meek isn’t week? What if there’s more to this inheriting the earth that Jesus says is the reward of the meek? Is your interest peaked?

The former coach of the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets, Avery Johnson was the pint-sized point guard of the San Antonio Spurs when he said, “Don’t confuse being a Christian with being soft.”

Meekness, rather than weakness, is instead a sense of power under control, like the bridled war horse that was used as an ancient image for meekness: bridled, yet powerful; stationary, yet pawing the ground; tightened coil, preparing to spring into action.

What exactly is meekness, and how can being meek make us more like a disciple of Jesus?

Sir Thomas Browne said, “Meekness takes injuries like pills, not chewing, but swallowing them down.”

King David, he of the giant-killing, king of Israel fame wrote this in Psalm 37:

1 Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
2 for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
7 Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
8 Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.

We can see that all of this, all of David’s writing, gets wrapped up in verse 11 with “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” That’s pretty close to Jesus’ “the meek will inherit the earth” sentiment! But this meekness is written about by a king who was also a warrior, a ruler, a poet. He didn’t discern meek as weak, did he?

Look again at the opening sentiments:

-Don’t waste your time worrying about how the unjust or wicked win or succeed. You’re not comparing yourself to them.

-Trust, delight, and commit to the Lord. Make God your focus, not a corollary or an afterthought, or an “add-on.” [I love that: on Amazon, you can "add-on" items for free shipping, but they are not "the main thing." David knows what the main thing about his life is, and it's God.]

-Do not be angry, or filled with wrath or worry. They are not worth your time.

Do all of those things, be meek, and you will “inherit the land.”

That’s a powerful testimony to what it means to be meek, to be characterized by meekness as a disciple of God! And those are ideas that the authors of the Epistles keep coming back to.

Consider Colossians 3:12-13: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patiences, forgiveness. All ‘brands’ or offshoots of meekness. All… Christ-like. All because we have been forgiven!

In James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

Okay, so slow to anger is tough enough, but am I a “quick listener? Am I slow to speak?”

[If you know me at all, you know the answer is a resounding "no."] But what would it look like if I didn’t need to “win”? What would it look like if I didn’t need the last word or to come out on top or to persuade someone else that I was right?

I would look more like Jesus. Whoa moment!

But that doesn’t sound easy. There’s no big red button to hit.

I remember often in my childhood that the reasons things were the way they were was because “that’s what’s best for you.”

Why do I have to eat more vegetables? Because that’s what’d best for you!

Why can’t I watch more TV? Because that’s what’s best for you!

Why can’t I stay up until 2 a.m.? Because that’s what’s best for you.

At my second church, I realized the lesson was actually spiritual, too. At the Confirmation class meeting every year, the senior pastor would sit the parents down, and talk with them about how important the every week attendance at Sunday School was.

The pastor asked how many of them made their kids brush their teeth, how many of them had to go to school everyday. They all raised their hands.

“It’s not optional, right? It’s what’s best for them?” And all of the parents nodded.

That’s when she dropped the hammer: “Sunday School is that important, too.”

Sure, these words from the early disciples sound like they’re tough. They sound like maybe just maybe we’re biting off more than we can chew. But then Paul throws out Galatians 5:13-26 and we see that the fruit Adam and Eve chewed in the Garden, with a desire to get smarter, is nothing compared to the fruits of the Spirit, aimed at making us more like Jesus. They’re like Fruit of the Loom only better, even if they aren’t quite as soft!

Paul reminds us that we are called to be free. We are called to use our freedom to serve one another humbly in love. Paul doesn’t say that we are supposed to “go along weakly” with something wrong, but if we have freedom in Jesus Christ, we don’t need to worry about whether or not someone thinks we are “right.” Frankly, most of the time in an argument, both people are at least a little right!

But in 5:15, Paul takes the image of battling, of grinding at life, of wrestling with another human being this way: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” When we are not meek, it’s not just that we knock down, beat up, or win over another person; when we are not meek, we actually turn those arrows of attack back in on ourselves. We lose who we are and we hurt ourselves more than we help.

Consider Paul’s list of negative, non-meek behavior: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies,…” We might not have been guilty of witchcraft lately, but how many of us are guilty in the last week of:

-sowing the seeds of gossip about someone we don’t like?

-losing our temper at a family member or coworker when we’re tired?

-making decisions about work that revolve around money more than they consider relationships?

-eating or drinking more than we need while someone else struggles to make ends meet?

This is tough stuff because it goes against our inclinations most of the time. But it’s not like the recognition is ours alone.

There’s an old Native American tale about two wolves. It goes like this:
“An old Cherokee once told his grandson about a fight that was going on inside of him. He said it was between two wolves. One was evil: Anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, gossip, resentment, and false pride. The other was good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf do you think will win?’ The old Cherokee replied, ‘The one I feed.”

Paul knows that if we would recognize the power we have been given through the love and grace of Jesus Christ, that we would steer clear of those non-meek behaviors. Paul knows that we would cling to the kinds of behaviors that lift other people up, that make the world a better place.

Paul knows we need to be reminded what they look like, and he lists them here, not as an optional fifth food group but as a necessary way that we should evaluate how we are living our lives. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Take a look at that list. Having just completed our study of the Ten Words or Commandments, it seems that there are some echoes here in the writings of Paul.

You’ll know love and joy when you recognize that the I AM is Lord of all.

You’ll enjoy peace, goodness, and self-control when you don’t take what isn’t yours or want what you don’t need.

You’ll represent faithfulness and gentleness when you honor other people, and don’t act out in violence.

These are not new ways of behaving but ways we too often dismiss because it’s just too difficult. We don’t want to think that the discipleship of following Jesus would require us to, gasp, change our attitudes.

I heard a story about a mother trying to wake up her son one Sunday morning. She went in and found him sound asleep, with the sheet pulled over his head. She told him that it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, “I’m not going.”

“Why not?” she asked.

I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me, and two, I don’t like them.”

His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why you should go to church. One, you’re 59 years old, and two, you’re the pastor!”

Let me tell you this: being a Christian isn’t about being weak or soft, but it’s about recognizing that no one said this way of life would be easy and it’s still the best way.

We need to recognize that if we’re going to say we’re Christians, that they will “know us by our love,” then we need to act like it. Even the hard parts. Even the people who can hurt us the most!

Casting Crowns’ latest album, Thrive, has a song called “Broken Together” on it that speaks to the ways that marriage isn’t the fairytale we see on TV or in a movie, but it speaks to the way that we lose sight of who we are and who we’re meant to be. It also provides us hope in each circumstance, not just a romantic relationship, that we might actually thrive if we learned to love others as they are and admit that we need love that way, too.

What do you think about when you look at me
I know were not the fairytale you dreamed wed be
You wore the veil, you walked the aisle, you took my hand
And we dove into a mystery

How I wish we could go back to simpler times
Before all our scars and all our secrets were in the light
Now on this hallowed ground, weve drawn the battle lines
Will we make it through the night

Its going to take much more than promises this time
Only God can change our minds

Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we’ll last forever is broken together

Can we admit that we’re broken, that some of our fruits of the Spirit have attracted some fruit flies from disuse? Can we admit that it’s a battle only won by recognizing that God is God and we are not? Can we see that recognizing that Jesus came to save, to forgive, to heal, to redeem is the only way we can really be disciples, by giving up on trying it on our own?

I believe the only way we can succeed is by admitting that more often than not, we can’t be as fruity as we want to be. That we are broken and we need more than bandaids to make us right. That instead of “fronting” and blowing smoke and acting with bravado, we need the quiet strength of knowing we’re loved by God… anyway.

What will you do this week to show that you are “meek”? Who will you not argue with? Who will you not seek to have the last word with? Who will you show a gentle spirit to because you recognize you are loved and forgiven by the great God of the universe and you don’t have any reason by comparison to be upset with anyone else?

Meekness isn’t weakness; it’s just what’s best for you.

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A Little Light (A Mustard Seed Musing)

For those who fight the darkness every day, in battles we see some days but not all of them, and for those who keep the light burning for the rest of us.

When you stare into the darkness

Something stares back

When you call into the darkness

It’s true that something there knows your name.

Is it because the darkness knows the real you?

The you that you hope no one knows?

The you that fears things you can’t name or control?

That you that wonders how it all ends or what happens next,

That carries sadness  for the disappointments, the failures, the past mistakes,

That feels the deep longing to know and be known

That mourns the tragedy of those lost along the way?

 

There are days when the darkness seems to win

When the depth of its blackness threatens to block out the sun.

Days when getting up and moving on seem impossible

When the present death is all papercuts and piranha bites

That quick and absolute ending isn’t even where the battle lies.

No matter what you know or who you know, those days

Threaten to envelop and level you, hold you down

Starve away your breath.

 

Those days remind us we are not in this on our own,

Those days when those around us seem to be the only strings

Holding us together, holding us to each other, tracing us to the Other.

It’s on those days when calling out and calling up seem necessary

Even when all we feel back is the cold fingertips of what lurks in the darkness

What calls our name, whispering and dreadful, or sugary sweet in self-pity

Reminding us of what we can’t be, what we’ve failed to overcome,

Urging us to just surrender our lives into giving up,

That lying down our lives wouldn’t be that bad.

 

This darkness is heart-stopping, seemingly absolute

And yet in the darkness, there’s something, some point of light.

You can tell me that darkness is deepest before the dawn.

You can whisper platitudes about holding on, not giving up.

You can promise me that it will get better just because,

You can try and tell me that I’ll muscle through it, but those things fail to generate light.

In the end, I’ll have to believe in light I can’t see just because

The light has broken through before, the light can’t be beaten by darkness.

A little light…

A little light is all you need for it to not be so dark.

 

A little light.

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The Be-Attitudes: What Jesus Says When Someone Suffers (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.–Matthew 5:4

There’s an old joke about humanity that goes something like this:

After God created Adam, and Adam had been in the Garden for a really long time, he started to get a little lonely. So, Adam went to God and said, “This Garden is amazing, but I’m starting to get a little lonely; is there anyone that you can send to keep me company?”

God answered, “I have the perfect person. She will help you with almost everything. She’ll clean, cook, wash you clothes, be your friend, and even rub your feet after a long day. She really is perfect in every way!”

Adam said, “That sounds great! How soon can you send her?”

God replied again, “I can send her right away, but there is one thing. It’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to get her.”

Adam thought for a moment, and then said, “What can I get for a rib?”

The truth is that we often want the trappings but we want the easiest route, the short cut, the painless way that doesn’t cost us much. But as we navigate through the Beattitudes, the attitudes that are earmarks of being the disciples of Jesus, we recognize that the life of a disciple comes at great cost. As always, Jesus cuts to the chase, to something deep and meaningful: our relationships in life and death.

In John 11, we are brought back to Bethany, to the hometown of Mary, Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. We may remember the story of Mary and Martha, how the first is more focused on sitting and being with Jesus, while the other thinks that the work of preparation, of hosting, of feeding Jesus and his disciples is most important. We know less about Lazarus, merely that the gospel of John says that Lazarus was “the one you [Jesus] love.”

Word arrives in Jerusalem that Lazarus has died, Jesus says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” His disciples try to dissuade him from going because of the fear of the plotting Jews, but he shows little reluctance to go, making it all the stranger that he stayed for two more days in Jerusalem before going to see the family.

Jesus knows his friend is dead, and that his friend’s sisters are mourning. And still, he delays the two-mile trip from Jerusalem to Bethany.

Jesus lets the mourning process go its course; he allows the friends of the family to assemble, to comfort Mary and Martha, to mourn.

Imagine what’s going on in the minds and hearts of Mary and Martha. They know who Jesus is, or at least, they know something more about him than most people have acknowledged so far, and they know Jesus loves Lazarus.

Why would he delay? Why would he allow this suffering? Why would he allow their loss? Why… wouldn’t he care?

Mary stays home but Martha goes to meet Jesus. Martha wants “a piece” of Jesus; she wants to speak her mind. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Whoa. Yes, she’s angry. “You could’ve prevented this.” But there’s something else: “I still believe you can fix this. I believe you can bring him back. I believe…”

Jesus goes through the same, at least similar, thing with Mary. She meets him at the tomb, and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus is really taking it on the chin! But there has to be part of us that thinks he deserves it. There’s part of us, who have lost people, who have suffered loss, who have watched others struggle, who want to know why God would allow this.

Isn’t that the question: “why would God allow suffering?”

But here, Jesus doesn’t answer the question, he doesn’t respond to the accusation. It says that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” that he was empathetic and he mourned the loss of Lazarus himself.

“Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Bible, right? But maybe one of the verses that shows us the depths of God’s heart, that shows us what God really thinks of us. That God, who has watched the lives and deaths of millions of people; that God, who has seen the birth of planets, stars, and whatever Pluto is; that God, who knows how this whole string will play out. That God, weeps at the loss of one soul.

Notice what Jesus says when he experiences someone frustrating. Go back and look at it again. What does Jesus say?

Nothing.

Think about all of the times you’ve experienced someone’s tragedy, their mourning, their anger. Think about the things people say.

“It happened for a reason.” Bad stuff always has a reason? Can you really explain something that happened away like death or cancer or the loss of a job?

“God needed another angel.” Really? God couldn’t make an angel, so he decided cruelly to take a kid?

“God won’t test you with more than you can bear.” Again, really? What can I bear exactly? And even if God does provide a way through it, does that mean God wanted to try me out, see if I could make it?

That’s not how I understand God. No, I think we get an image here of God that’s different than the way a lot of people see God.

You know when you cry and it gets ugly? You know when your belly and your shoulders shake? When you think of someone or something related to them and you tear up, and the tears become a river? And it ends… with a snot bubble?

I think Jesus is snot bubbled here. I think when it says “Jesus wept,” that it wasn’t like, “I’ve got something in my eye.” I think Jesus felt with all he had the extreme pain of someone who’d lost a family member or a friend.

And yet, there’s a diversity of response to Jesus weeping by the people standing around. Some notice him crying and think, “his grief is deep.” Others see it, and ask, “why didn’t he stop this?”

Again, we can relate, right? Even among ourselves who are here worshipping and believing, we feel torn between the truth, the hope, and the other, that sense of loss and pain and suffering.

But for a second time, Jesus doesn’t respond directly.

Instead, he tells those gathered at the tomb to roll the stone away. Does that give you chills? I know it moves me. It’s a foreshadowing of the way that the stone is miraculously rolled away that first Easter morning, how Jesus’ resurrection puts in place a different way, an eternal way, a life-giving way.

Here is Jesus previewing, hinting at, a great and miraculous day when death shall be no more, when loss will no longer be our reality, when life will overcome death forever. 

But before there can be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

Before a seed becomes a new flowering plant, something has to die.

John 12:24 says, “I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

Jesus knows this. Jesus understands the realities of death and life, and the realities of new life, forever, that is coming. He knows Lazarus has to die because he is sick and broken, but he knows that it doesn’t have to stay that way. Jesus knows that Lazarus living like that in the midst of sickness just brings more suffering for Lazarus and his family. And so, in the midst of mourning, in the midst of loss, in the midst of the ridicule he can hear murmuring around him, Jesus prays.

“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Jesus places his grief, his struggle, his request squarely in the presence of God and for God’s glory. In the midst of his own sorrow, Jesus goes to God. Jesus’ suffering brings him even closer to God than he already is. Jesus reframes the death of Lazarus as a moment where God will shine through and everyone will know who God is.

And then he tells Lazarus to get up.

Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that my wife tells me to wake up when I’ve fallen asleep on the couch and it’s time to go to bed.

Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that you try to rouse a teenager from sleep when it’s time for school.

Jesus tells Lazarus to get up the way that a porter comes to wake you up so that you recognize it’s your stop on the train.

Jesus makes the death of Lazarus a temporary thing, one complete with pain and suffering and struggle, with a happy ending.

I know empirically that a seed is a dead part of a flower or tree or plant that has to be dead to grow something new. I get that, just like Mary and Martha knew that Jesus was the Messiah and that they got that he loved Lazarus.

But that doesn’t make the suffering go away. That doesn’t make the loss go away. That doesn’t make the pain go away.

It does mean that God alone holds the end of the story, which isn’t over yet, even in John 11. And it does bring the community together with purpose.

Jesus tells those gathered there, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Jesus includes the people around Lazarus in being part of the solution. Jesus uses the crowd to make it happen. Jesus says that suffering and the glory of God both happen in community. Jesus makes sure that the people who were mourning are part of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Because resurrection happens in community.

Close your eyes for a minute. Imagine yourself driving. Now, “crash!” That’s how so many people see death. Keep your eyes closed! I see you peeking.

Now drive a little bit farther… and hit a speed bump.

That’s what life after death is really like (really simply). Death is part of the trip, and it’s inconvenient, and sometimes, in a small car, it really really hurts. Wait, that was the speed bump. Okay, so the analogy doesn’t work forever.

But death is not the end. We know it wasn’t the end for Lazarus, and it’s not the end for Jesus, and because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the way that God raised him from the dead, death is not the end of the story.

There’s more to the Beattitudes than death. It doesn’t end here. Discipleship doesn’t end here. Jesus doesn’t end here. We don’t end here.

But those who mourn, they’re to be comforted, in community, as part of the kingdom of God.

By weeping. By silence. By hugs. By prayer.

Because one day, those who mourn will be comforted, and this will be their story: death is not the answer, but merely a chapter; death is not forever, but merely momentary; death is a speed bump.

Yes, Jesus wept. We weep. And then Jesus prayed that God would use even his suffering to show God’s glory.

Can we pray that? Can we comfort those who mourn? Can we acknowledge that life hurts sometimes, that our relationships aren’t meant to be terminal, but that the reality of life is that sometimes, we feel broken?

There are no shortcuts, no easy ways through life. But Jesus shows up, and says, focus on joy. Your happiness will come and go, but your joy, your joy in the Lord and the truth we believe in through Jesus’ resurrection, that is forever.

We don’t have to understand. We just have to follow Jesus.

Cry. Mourn. Pray. Trust. Come together.

Be like Jesus.

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Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King: What Does A Leader Look Like? (Book Review)

I sped through Joe Abercrombie’s latest, Half a King, in one sitting. It’s the fantasy coming-of-age tale for fans of Game of ThronesThe Emperor’s Blades, or Red Rising that won’t bog you down with subplots and elaborate, near-annotated family trees. This is a pure tale of a young man’s coming-of-age, of revenge and friendship, the brutality of life and the conquering of fear.

Yarvi is a prince of Gettland, but he’s the ‘lesser’ son of the king, so he’s being trained to be a Minister (seer, chemist, adviser) to the king instead, as our story opens. Yarvi’s inadequacy is apparent for all to see, as he was born with a crippled hand, and must choose between a blade or a shield, unable to bear both. But the tides of this Shattered Sea series premiere change when his father and elder brother are murdered, and he’s crowned king.

It’s a short-lived coronation before he’s betrayed by those close to him, and he finds himself enslaved in a foreign land. It bears similarity to the story of Joseph in Genesis 37, sold into slavery by his brothers, but here, this ostracized prince draws a motley crew of former slaves to him. While not exactly Spartacus, Yarvi proves that he can compensate for what he lacks with cunning, guile, and… compassion, in the appropriate times.

Working his way back to Gettland, Yarvi discovers love, courage, and identity, not in what he is not but in what he is. He proves noble, courageous, and strong in ways that he never imagined possible because he was constantly told he was not. He, like the shepherd boy David, proves to be made up of what he is internally, and not what appearances others focus on (I Samuel 16:7). He becomes heroic, and in the process, we see that what we thought we knew (in several layers) may not be true at all.

Abercrombie’s latest is a gripping, entertaining read, where we question the reality we see, and hold on, hoping that our heroes will find success. Still, he proves a nimble narrator, like George R.R. Martin, proving to be less concerned with sentimental attachments, and more focused on the narrative of who people become and what we can learn from them.

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Open Grave: Sharlto Copley Vs The End Of The World (Movie Review)

This is not the kind of film I’d normally go looking for, but when I saw that it starred South African up-and-comer Sharlto Copley (District 9ElysiumMaleficent), I had to give it a spin. It’s framed like a gritty “what is real?” reality like the Cilian Murphy thriller Retreat or Dominic Monaghan’s The Day where we don’t know who we should believe, or if the characteristics of the small world we’re exposed to are symptomatic of all of society or not. It’s terrifyingly entertaining and it all begins with Copley’s John Doe waking up in an open grave of countless bodies.

Copley’s John wakes up, gets assisted by a fellow ‘survivor,’ and breaks into a group of five, including a mute woman, a German who speaks French, and three Americans. Reasonably quickly, the group fragments again and sets off to find out the truth about their present conditions, finding various structures around the grounds that show a variety of sophistication and simplicity. Each of them begins to have their own sense of memory return (or is it hallucination?), while their overall experiences tend to reduce their sense of trust and community.

By a third of the way in, our band of subjects have encountered three other different types of ‘survivors’: a woman chained up in a barn (she’s slightly more sane than those held in the barn of The Walking Dead’s second season), a man wrapped in barbed wire who calls for help but uses his state to trap one of the five, and finally, a young boy with a Doberman. What are we dealing with here? Is it an alien movie? A zombie movie? A virus/disaster film?  Director Gonzalo López-Gallego keeps us guessing for a good part of the film, in a way that allows plenty of genres to be hinted at in the exposition. But it all comes back to Copley’s depiction and acting skills, in one of the best casting decisions I’ve recognized lately.

Regardless of what the film ends up being, it’s an intriguing study of what it means to be morally responsible, soulfully human. How are we responsible for our actions, whether we remember them or not? When do the rules of life and community suspended or turned aside? What does a community have to do to survive? How do we make rules after the end of the world as we know it?

Open Grave won’t be everyone’s cup of tea: it’s more horror-based than some will appreciate, but it offers an entertaining couple of hours, and some questions about who we are when everything else is stripped away.

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I AM Small (A Mustard Seed Musing)

The pace of my schedule lately has been… breathtaking. And not in a good way. The end of the school for my family, the denominational annual conference weekend, Vacation Bible School. It’s not bad stuff, but it hardly leaves one with the opportunity to sit back and reflect on the meaning of life.

And if you’re anything like me, you need some reflection to keep the shadows at the corners from appearing bigger than they are.

Thankfully, that month or so of breakneck hecticness (I made that word up) was followed by a four-day trip to Rhode Island. For the uninitiated or just those bad with geography, that’s an actual state in the Union, not a burrough of New York. But, it does actually include islands, one of which is where I grew up.

That’s right: you have to take a bridge to get to where I grew up, as it’s completely surrounded by water, with Narragansett Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. (I’m clearly an “ocean” guy, not a mountain one.)

The first morning we were there, we took the boys to an inlet on the Bay. My eldest was thrilled to search for treasures, like sea glass and crab shells, perfect skipping rocks and other New England oddities. My youngest even decided that the seaweed wasn’t enough to keep him landlocked, and before long, he was paddling around with my dad in tow. All of this meant I wasn’t ‘on duty.’

As I watched the cormorants land on the buoys, and the white caps gently toss up and down, I thought about how great the sea is. Maybe I was waxing poetically a la Ernest Hemingway, but in the moment, I thought about… how small I was.

The author of Genesis gets it. He/she writes, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” in Genesis 1:1. Right off the bat, there’s a sense that the author and Lee Ann Womack would be on the same page. It’s like that great opening salvo from “I Hope You Dance”:

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
GOD forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

It’s a reminder from the very origin of the world, to a country music singer, to me standing there in the cool breeze rolling off the water, that I am so small compared to the vastness of Creation and the depth of the creative, loving power of God. And that makes my problems, my struggles, my worries… even smaller.

I can’t always capture that peace when I’m not at the water. I wish I could. I wish I could remember, breathe in, rest on the truth that I’m just a little kid learning to skip rocks, or stick my head underwater to look for fish, and that God has me covered.

I’m working on it, by trying not to work on it. Which sounds crazy… but it just might happen.

 

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