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Archive for March, 2010

145 Must Reads

Lately, Men Like Trees Walking posted 145 films that are must-sees. But what about the must-reads? While we are an increasingly media-oriented society, the written text and a good reader’s imagination is still as powerful as it ever was. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like pages, the smell of worn paper, and curling up with a good book. In no particular order and categorized topically, here are the must-reads of Men Like Trees Walking. They are categorized by novel, non-fiction work, theology, and short story. (Note: I use the word “novel” very loosely to describe a full-length work, so I include Homer’s epics and Tolkien’s fantasies here rather than a “literary work of imagination that is grounded in reality”).

Great Novels

  1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The—Mark Twain
  2. Alice in Wonderland—Lewis Carroll
  3. Animal Farm—George Orwell
  4. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man–James Weldon Johnson
  5. Bartleby the Scrivener–Herman Melville
  6. Beowulf—Seamus Heaney
  7. BFG, The—Roald Dahl
  8. Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, and Other Tales—Herman Melville
  9. Canterbury Tales, The—Geoffrey Chaucer
  10. Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger
  11. Charlotte’s Web–E.B. White
  12. Crime and Punishment—Fyodor Dostoevsky
  13. Cry the Beloved Country—Alan Paton
  14. Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  15. Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
  16. Frankenstein—Mary Shelley
  17. Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo, and the Pearl—J.R.R. Tolkien
  18. Gospel According to Dostoevsky, The–Williams, Rowan
  19. Grapes of Wrath, The—John Steinbeck
  20. Great Divorce, The—C.S. Lewis
  21. Great Expectations—Charles Dickens
  22. Great Gatsby, The—F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Hatchet—Gary Paulsen
  24. Hobbit, The—J.R.R. Tolkien
  25. House on Mango Street—Sandra Cisneros
  26. Iliad, The—Homer
  27. Incident at Hawk’s Hill—Alan Eckert
  28. Jane Eyre—Charlotte Bronte
  29. Joy Luck Club, The—Amy Tan
  30. Lake Woebegone Days—Garrison Keillor
  31. Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The—C.S. Lewis
  32. Lord of the Flies—William Golding
  33. Lord of the Rings—J.R.R. Tolkien
  34. Marrow of the Tradition—Charles Chestnutt
  35. Metamorphoses—Ovid
  36. Moby Dick—Herman Melville
  37. Night—Elie Wiesel
  38. Nine Tailors—Dorothy Sayers
  39. Odyssey, The—Homer
  40. Old Man and the Sea, The—Ernest Hemingway
  41. Pilgrim’s Progress—John Bunyan
  42. Screwtape Letter, The—C.S. Lewis
  43. Secret Garden, The—Francis Hodgson Burnett
  44. Slaughterhouse Five—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  45. Sound and the Fury—William Faulkner
  46. Sport of the Gods, The—Paul Laurence Dunbar
  47. Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The—John Le Carre
  48. Tale of Kieu, The—Nguyen Du
  49. Three—Flannery O’Connor
  50. Till We Have Faces—C.S. Lewis
  51. Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A—Betty Smith
  52. Unnatural Death—Dorothy Sayers
  53. Where the Sidewalk Ends—Shel Silverstein
  54. Wind in the Willows, The—Kenneth Grahame
  55. Witness—Karen Hesse
  56. Wuthering Heights—Emily Bronte

Non-Fiction

  1. 1776—David McCullough
  2. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life—D.M. Thomas
  3. Flags of Our Fathers—James Bradley
  4. Getting From Here to There–Florence Grossman
  5. Greatest Generation, The—Tom Brokaw
  6. Heroes—Paul Johnson
  7. History of the American People—Paul Johnson
  8. Imperial Grunts—Robert Kaplan
  9. Impressions of an Indian Childhood—Zitkala Sa
  10. It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It—Robert Fulghum
  11. John Adams—David McCullough
  12. Lost Continent, The—Bill Bryson
  13. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—Frederick Douglass
  14. Nightingale’s Song, The—Robert Timberg
  15. On Becoming a Novelist–John Gardner
  16. Professor and the Madman, The—Simon Winchester
  17. Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family—Duong Van Mai Elliot
  18. Spoke in the Wheel: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Renate Wind
  19. Team of Rivals—Doris Kearns Goodwin
  20. Three Cups of Tea—David Oliver Relin
  21. Understanding Vietnam—Neil Jamieson
  22. Vietnam, A History—Stanley Karnow

Theology

  1. Air I Breathe, The—Louie Giglio
  2. Collected Sermons—Jonathan Edwards
  3. Desiring God—John Piper
  4. Future Grace—John Piper
  5. Grief Observed, A—C.S. Lewis
  6. Hinds Feet on High Places—Hannah Hurnard
  7. Letters to Malcolm—C.S. Lewis
  8. Mere Christianity—C.S. Lewis
  9. Morning and Evening—Charles Spurgeon
  10. Providence of God, The—R.C. Sproul
  11. Pursuit of Holiness, The—Jerry Bridges
  12. Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ—John Piper
  13. Spiritual Depression—Martin Lloyd Jones
  14. Unity of the Bible, The—Daniel Fuller

Plays

  1. Antigone—Bertolt Brecht
  2. Beauty Queen of Leenane, The—Martin McDonagh
  3. Cherry Orchard, The—Anton Chekhov
  4. Copenhagen—Michael Frayn
  5. Crucible—Arthur Miller
  6. Death of a Salesman, The—Arthur Miller
  7. Glengarry Glen Ross—David Mamet
  8. Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry IV and V, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Winter’s Tale,—Shakespeare
  9. Hello, Dolly!—Thornton Wilder
  10. Iceman Cometh, The—Eugene O’Neill
  11. Krapp’s Last Tape—Samuel Beckett
  12. Moon for the Misbegotten—Eugene O’Neill
  13. Mystery Plays, The (medieval cycle)
  14. Oedipus—Sophocles
  15. Oresteia—Sophocles
  16. Our Town—Thornton Wilder
  17. Playboy of the Western World, The—J.M. Synge
  18. Raisin in the Sun, A—Lorraine Hansberry
  19. Riders to the Sea—J.M. Synge
  20. Six Characters in Search of an Author—Luigi Pirandello
  21. Stones in His Pockets—Marie Jones
  22. Streetcar Named Desire, A—Tennessee Williams
  23. Waiting for Godot—Samuel Beckett
  24. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—Edward Albee

Short Stories

  1. A&P, Pigeon Feathers—John Updike
  2. Araby—James Joyce
  3. Cathedral—Raymond Carver
  4. Christmas Memory, A—Truman Capote
  5. Chrysanthemums—John Steinbeck
  6. Enormous Radio, The—John Cheever
  7. Fat Girl, The—Andre Dubus
  8. Fat of the Land, The—Anzia Yezierska
  9. Fish Cheeks—Amy Tan
  10. Gift of the Magi—O. Henry
  11. Harrison Bergeron—Ray Bradbury
  12. In the Zoo—Jean Stafford
  13. Lottery, The—Shirley Jackson
  14. Man With Enormous Wings, The—Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  15. Marigolds—Eugenia Collier
  16. Minister’s Black Veil, The—Nathaniel Hawthorne
  17. Most Dangerous Game, The—Richard Connell
  18. Necklace, The—Guy de Maupassant
  19. New Directions—Maya Angelou
  20. Rappacinni’s Daughter—Nathaniel Hawthorne
  21. Scarlet Ibis, The—James Hurst
  22. Shiloh—Anne Beattie
  23. Sonny’s Blues—James Baldwin
  24. Sound of Thunder, The—Ray Bradbury
  25. Tell-Tale Heart, The—Edgar Allan Poe
  26. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?—Joyce Carol Oates
  27. Yellow Wallpaper, The—Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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Men Like Trees Walking recently sat down and collectively came up with 145 films that should be seen at least once in life. Some of the films are great history, moving drama, side-splitting comedy, mind-warping action, and even the transporting foreign film. The list represents quite simply, the favorites. The list is not supposed to be the greatest and so Casablanca, Citizen  Kane, any many Oscar-worthy favorites are not listed. After all, the film Gus starring Don Knotts about a mule who kicks field goals probably makes no other list in America. Simply put, they are the favorites of Men Like Trees Walking. The list is simply alphabetical, not in order of importance. So what say you? Which films make you wonder, “Seriously? How could you include that?” Which ones should be on every person’s Top 145 of All Time?

(Caveat emptor: some of the films should be seen when one is +18 and some could additionally use a bit of fast-forwarding or for you super-techies, a DVD skip button.)

  1. Age of Innocence, The
  2. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  3. Akeelah and the Bee
  4. Amadeus
  5. Amistad
  6. Anne of Green Gables
  7. Annie
  8. Apollo 13
  9. As Good As It Gets
  10. Awakenings
  11. Babe
  12. Back to the Future
  13. Band of Brothers
  14. Beautiful Mind, A
  15. Beauty and the Beast
  16. Bella
  17. Benji
  18. Big
  19. Blackhawk Down
  20. Braveheart
  21. Brian Piccolo Story
  22. Chariots of Fire
  23. Charlie Brown Christmas Special
  24. Christmas Story, A
  25. Cinderella Man
  26. Color Purple, The
  27. Crimson Tide
  28. Crucible, The
  29. Dances With Wolves
  30. Dead Poet’s Society
  31. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
  32. Dumb and Dumber
  33. Elf
  34. Elizabeth
  35. Elizabeth: The Golden Age
  36. ET
  37. Father of the Bride
  38. Few Good Men, A
  39. Fiddler on the Roof
  40. Field of Dreams
  41. Finding Nemo
  42. Fireproof
  43. Forrest Gump
  44. Gandhi
  45. Gattaca
  46. Gladiator
  47. Glory
  48. Godfather (I and  II)
  49. Good Morning, Vietnam
  50. Good Night, and Good Luck
  51. Good Will Hunting
  52. Goonies
  53. Great Outdoors, The
  54. Green Mile, The
  55. Groundhog Day
  56. Gulliver’s Travels
  57. Gus
  58. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)
  59. Henry V
  60. Home Alone
  61. Hoosiers
  62. Hotel Rwanda
  63. Hunt for Red October, The
  64. Inherit the Wind
  65. It Could Happen to You
  66. JAWS
  67. Jerk, The
  68. John Adams
  69. Joy Luck Club
  70. Jurassic Park
  71. Karate Kid, The
  72. Killing Fields, The
  73. La Bamba
  74. Lean on Me
  75. Legends of the Fall
  76. Les Miserables
  77. Lion King, The
  78. Little Prince, The (1974)
  79. Lord of the Rings (all)
  80. Mary Poppins
  81. Miracle on 34th Street
  82. Mission, The
  83. My Best Friend’s Wedding
  84. My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  85. Nativity, The
  86. Natural, The
  87. Neverending Story
  88. Ngay Gio (The Anniversary)
  89. North and South
  90. Nuremberg
  91. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  92. Of Mice and Men
  93. Oliver!
  94. On the Waterfront
  95. Passion of the Christ
  96. Patriot, The
  97. Perfect Storm, The
  98. Pinocchio
  99. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  100. Pride and Prejudice
  101. Princess Bride, The
  102. Psycho (the original)
  103. Pursuit of Happyness
  104. Ratatouille
  105. Rebel Without a Cause
  106. Remains of the Day, The
  107. Remember the Titans
  108. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
  109. Rudy
  110. Saving Private Ryan
  111. Scent of a Woman
  112. Schindler’s List
  113. Shadowlands
  114. Shakespeare in Love
  115. Shawshank Redemption, The
  116. Shine
  117. Short Circuit
  118. Signs
  119. Sleepless in Seattle
  120. Slingblade
  121. Slumdog Millionaire
  122. Son of Flubber (1963)
  123. Sound of Music, The
  124. Spitfire Grill, The
  125. Stand by Me
  126. Star Wars (original)
  127. Streetcar Named Desire, A
  128. Superman
  129. Ten Commandments The
  130. To Kill a Mockingbird
  131. To End All Wars
  132. Tombstone
  133. Tommy Boy
  134. Toy Story
  135. Up
  136. Usual Suspects, The
  137. We Are Marshall
  138. Were Were Soldiers
  139. Whale Rider
  140. What About Bob?
  141. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
  142. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  143. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder)
  144. Wizard of Oz, The
  145. Young Victoria, The

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Not wanted even by the actors. Admired. Bright-eyed. Violence in motion. Biting the inside of my lip. Unlike anyone else. Castaway. Outsider. Sneering. Dismissive. The willing against the weak. I remember an old aunt who once called my name. Meant “Son of the Father” and I laughed because I was never my father’s son. No one calls me Bar-Abbas anymore. I live quietly. Outcast. Renamed. Part of the joke in choosing me. A quiet life. A haunted life. No one really wanted me. It was only a temporary fix. A convenient answer. The alternative. The chains were too tight. Four teeth rotten. Aching. I expected no good when they came. I had heard the shouts. Nails brown. This was it. They called my name. Yanked my chain as an animal. I did not expect the bloodied man. What had he done? I acted to break Rome’s yoke. A method in the madness. The Romans were different. The Praefectus had said I was worse than any man if I could be called that. Filthy animal. But that day, I saw someone worse. Something worse. The whole lot of them. The Praefectus in a bad bind. Chained worse than me. Between the absolute power of Caesar’s stare and the thousands. Trying in his weakness to use me as the holy mercy prisoner near Passover. And yet I saw worse. I looked at that man. Looked at how he looked at me. And I knew. I know. Take him. Take me. Choose me. Do not choose him. I heard even worse that day. My name. I heard them all yell in one accord given the choice of having the Holy Man or me, they shouted, “Bar-Abbas.” I thought how he would have to wear my chains. Legs tremble still. They called for him to go. Take him! The most infamous place. The place where one leaves only a skull. The place of Gûlgaltâ. No faith in humans. Worse than animals. Every person would have chosen the same. In the crowd. In my place. A good man died for a bad. What justice. The meaning changes in my dreams. Stretching the cloth. Keeping the moonlight from my eyes. The sand from my hair. I ask the Praefectus to choose me, do not choose him. But he will not. And a coward, I wake free. And live a live enslaved to that moment forever. Wishing to never be haunted by hearing the sound of my distant name.

30 March 2010

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Have you ever felt that God is trying to speak to you in many different ways? Hebrews 1:1-2 says that, “Long ago God spoke to us in many times and in many different ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.” While we ultimately are spoken to by Jesus Christ, the beautifully rich diversity of the spots of time (as Wordsworth would call them), the locations, the forms are diverse. Different ways, one message. We understand how this works.

Take for example a husband and wife. At chapel on my military installation, there is an old couple who are probably in their late seventies or early eighties. The husband gives the announcements, smiles and greets people, and has a sharp mind with a warm and gentle heart. His wife is almost certainly suffering from loss of memory. I have heard her utter one phrase, “Your hands are warm,” but more often than not he has to gently remove her hand from mine after shaking it and lead her back to her seat. In a single week, this gentleman might show his wife that he loves her by fixing meals one day, reading to her another, telling her of his love, and leading her in prayer. In other words, while all the forms are different, the message of care and love is the same.

So I have had four seemingly different messages this week all of which seemed unconnected until today. One was a scientific talk about the vastness and theological significance of the universe, an allegory about our fear and God’s love, a World War II documentary, and the text of John 12:1-8.

Let me see if I can come at each one and allow the message I hear in retrospect to organically emerge.

A STUDY OF THE UNIVERSE

Louie Giglio in a couple of incredibly powerful talks, Indescribable and How Great is our God, describes the universe in a way that reflects the enormity of God’s magnificence and the smallness of man’s habitat in comparison to the universe. Giglio does this by a plenitude of scientific facts: Our Earth is tiny in comparison to the Sun. If the Earth is a golf ball, then the Sun is a ball that is fifteen feet in diameter! 960,000 earths could fit inside it. The sun alone is 93 million miles away, and yet it is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Betelgeuse, an enormous (if that word can even fit) is 427 light years away and is so gigantic that 262 trillion earths could fit in it! Canis Majoris, the largest known star is so incredibly massive that seven quadrillion earths could fit inside it, enough to give each person on the planet a thousand earths per person if my math is correct.

I don’t know about you, but seeing the images of God’s universe is stunning and makes me want to worship, but I also feel strangely dizzied by it all. A great fear grips me and I desire, as the earlier medieval model, to put a large Earth at the center of the cosmos for the very fear that our tiny insignificance should be ignored.

We are indeed that tiny and small because the universe, rather than to be a place for God’s creatures to inhabit, is instead a place for the reflection of His magnificent glory (Ps. 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God”). Yet the same God who breathes out the stars from his mouth (Psalm 33:6) is the one who cares intimately about us and seeks to rescue us. As Giglio puts it, the star breather has become the sin bearer. The universe maker is also our redeemer, and He came incarnate as one of us to die for for His glory and our new life and joy! How great the Father’s love for us when He declares that as far as the east is from the west (incalculably and infinitely beyond our measuring powers), so far He removes our transgressions and shame (Psalm 103:12). What a love!

BAND OF BROTHERS

Last night, I watched a documentary in which the narrative centers on the experiences of E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. The survivors of those who went airborne and jumped behind enemy lines to help America and the Allies win the war speak in weighty terms. The somberness of their descriptions made sense as I have personally witnessed over a dozen veterans come speak to my high school students and make palpable the Douglas MacArthur quote, “The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

At a poignant moment toward the end, a glassy-eyed old veteran looked at the camera with a quivering lip and whispered, “Imagine being a mother or daughter or son who lost a husband or father” and another echoed the sentiment when he related how his grandson asked him, “Grandpa, were you a hero during the war?” and he answered, “No, but I served in a company of heroes.” Why? Because of sacrifice. Those men who died in war were undoubtedly heroes serving to liberate those whom they did not know and protect those who did not always know them. Yet Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, enemies, the ones who willingly put Him on the cross. What love!

AN ALLEGORY OF OUR FEAR AND GOD’S LOVE

Just two days ago, I started rereading Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds Feet on High Places. In the allegory, Much-Afraid, a bent-legged, deformed woman is wooed to come to the High Places where the Shepherd will restore her strength and beauty. In a similar vein to C.S. Lewis’s dictum that “God loves us too much to leave us as we are,” the Shepherd’s canticle is telling:

I am not fair save to the King, though fair my royal dress, His kingly grace is lavished on my need and worthlessness. My blemishes he will not see but loves the beauty that shall be.

God indeed loves us too much to leave us as we are. The enormity of the universe and yet the sacrifice of His son and now the desire to sanctify us to be His bride. What love!

GIVING US THE BEST (JOHN 12:1-8)

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.7“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

The chaplain this morning had some great thoughts. Could you imagine one of us taking the disdain of relatives if we were to spend $30,000 on a gift for someone else costing us that incredible amount? Even if Judas wasn’t deceitfully pilfering, we can imagine that someone would reasonably object to the lavishness. An example followed. The chaplain’s cousin in Denmark had grown up seemingly living for a magnificent motorized train set. Every bit of allowance money went to track materials, wiring, a new caboose or cab, stations. As the years progressed, his love of the train set took over an entire room of the house and the family graciously helped him seeing their connection to him in the love of his own work. For more than nineteen years, he constructed this sprawling train set as a labor of love–until he fell in love.

The only problem after the cultivation of his relationship was that he wanted to marry his love, and he felt that such a woman deserved a diamond ring. And so he took and sold every single piece of the train set, that nineteen year labor of love. And his family could not believe it. “Why?” and “What were you thinking?” were surely questions to which he replied with a wide-brimmed grin, “I don’t care. I love her.”

So Mary loved Jesus, but yet that is not the end of the story. Was she anointing Him while He was still alive for a coronation. No, the Scripture says it was instead for burial. He would not give a year’s worth of labor, He would give 33 years worth. He would not sacrifice merely the work of a year in His life, but He would endure the excruciating death which ended life. How reasonable it would have been (humanly speaking) for one to look at Him and ask, “Why?” and “What are you thinking?” And yet His answer was to willingly, purposefully become the hero in the truest sense that word was ever spoke.

The universe-creator. The sacrifice-maker. The physician-healer. The gift-giver. Little wonder Paul asks in Ephesians 3:18-19 that God give us the “strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

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The Majestic Symphony

4 MAR 2010

Today is one of the greatest days of my life. It is not without pain. I am absent from my wife who is in excruciating labor pain. I missed a flight by twenty minutes that would have put me within arm’s reach of her for the birth of our child. I messed up confirming I had leave from the military which caused a delay. I cannot use my cell phone on a flight that will put me within two hours of her so I may not know that I am a new father now, and I have no doubt that I will miss the birth of my child as I will get home 17 hours after labor first started. And yet amidst some of the turbulence of the soul, I will chalk today up to some of the greatest blessings of God because “He makes all things new.”

Every night, I’d slept by my cell phone, waiting for the call from my wife that the pains of labor had started. My kids would tell me that we had to have a boy because with three girls in the house and two boys, we needed three Chipmunks to go with the three Chipettes. Though I’d psychologically blocked the hope of going home and told my wife, Kim, it could not happen (lest hoped-for expectations give way to disappointment), I still prayed each night.

My recruiter told me that my school house sergeant had the greatest say. I sighed, remembering the strict glares and seeming callousness and felt my shoulders sag. When I got the courage to finally ask him, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll work with you. Family comes first.

Once I received the emergency Red Cross call for the high-risk pregnancy, the duty sergeant asked me to fill out an itinerary. Frantically, I booked a ticket for which I would have to have left within a half hour, prematurely jumping the gun before getting command approval. The duty sergeant politely counseled me and worked for an hour filling out forms, pulling information together, and letting me know that he understood my situation as he’s the father of three. The fact that twenty other soldiers needed his time did not deter him.

Once my captain arrived, he took the time to sign forms and even get a hold of my recruiter to verify additional leave even though I am only one of the 400 soldiers under his command.

A soldier from south Indiana put two twenty dollar bills in my hand and told me not to pay him back. Four young soldiers shook my hand on the way out of the bay ironically telling me “Good job!” while I wondered if my missteps would result in my being late for the birth.

A sergeant from my National Guard unit called me. He asked me, “What’s going on? I’m getting a lot of calls about you.” I hoped that didn’t spell trouble. It didn’t. Instead, the sergeant asked how I was getting from Omaha to Sioux City, nearly two hours away after my flight would land. When I told him that I would try to get a hold of a friend or rent a car, he said, “I’m driving you. But let me know when so I can close up shop and let my wife and kids know that I’ll be late tonight. I always take care of my soldiers.

A soldier’s wife in my platoon came with her son and drove me to the airport dropping her plans of working out for the day. She even packed a lunch for me showing much grace.

Time and again at the airport, people expressed gratitude because I am a US Army soldier. An old man would shake my hand, a young woman with kids told them, “That’s a soldier, like how Dad plays in ‘Call of Duty.’ He’s a good guy.” I undeservedly received a first class seat though I have never been “down range.” The eight months of initial training which make me absent from family pale in comparison to active duty members who count in years and not months.

When I called Kim from the airport to her hospital room, I told her the hopes I had hidden for months, “I’m on my way. Honey, every test I’ve taken, God helped me do my best on so I might be granted favor to be there to hope they would understand I could catch up. I’m on my way.”

Though I am so undoubtedly grateful for the kindness of leaders, “battle buddies,” strangers, family, and friends, who orchestrated all of this? When all goes well, I easily attribute it to God. When it doesn’t, I can blame or wonder or wrongly imagine Him an absentee landlord. But He is actively conducting the parts of this symphony whose discords resolve into hauntingly beautiful harmonies.

Listen to them. I have felt helpless as an absent father, but God has enriched my every moment I am privileged to be called “Dad.” I miss my wife’s beauty, friendship, and spirit, but God has taught me never to take her for granted again. My muscles (especially shoulders) ache and throb from painful muscle failure. I gasp for breath near Arizona’s adobe-painted mountains, but God is strengthening an overfed, weak body. My eyes cross and head pounds at the hours and hours of studying maps, symbology, and hundreds of pages of intelligence information, but God is training me to do my job and someday serve well. Right now, I imagine as I type this on a plane (if it’s possible to fully imagine) Kim’s bloody, excruciatingly painful, breathless agony, but God is delivering a new life, a baby boy or girl to whom I can someday tell this story.

Not that any of these experiences—homesickness, separation, physical pain, headaches, a twelve-hour-plus labor without pain medication(!)—is easy. But see what this amazing conductor does? Or to use another image, He plants a seed which dies because there is a greater goal—a giant tree. Hidden somewhere below the surface, like the highest mountains submerged under the ocean, He knows what remains in the deep. That understanding helps me see a purpose to my pain. “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (my emphasis, 2 Cor 4:17).

Two thoughts give me final comfort:

1.   God is my refuge in pain. I love the images that the Bible uses whether I am in His shadow, under His wing, behind His fortress, in the apple of His eye, or having my name graven on His hands. He loves me and works all things to my good. Today, I saw it in a hundred ways, how He makes all things new. Other days, I am blinded by not seeing the purpose when the answer is no and my own plans fail. With trembling, I can say all things work for my good even if this plane does not reach the runway, even if (God please forbid!) my wife’s labor is in vain.

2.  I do not follow a God who does not understand the trials of life. He doesn’t understand your pain or mine? Dorothy Sayers, the Oxfordian author answers so well:

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst of horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.

For His glory. For you. For me. I thought on this plane on a late March night to Omaha that even in the midst of a fallen world, should I be graced only by Him alone in the world, I would be forever grateful. But God is letting me go home to be with a newborn child whom I suspect has now been born. Just being there is grace upon grace. Thank you, Lord.

Update: Our new born baby boy, Immanuel, 8 lbs. 5 oz., perfect and healthy, was born two hours after I entered the small delivery room.

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Genesis chapters 37-41 only tell the low and high points of Joseph’s Egyptian slavery and imprisonment. But he spent at least 12 years there before he suddenly became Prime Minister. And during that terribly lonely, desolate time, things seemed to go from bad to worse.

This imaginative reflection takes place about 9 years into his sojourn.

*               *               *

Darkness had swallowed the light again. Joseph dreaded the night in this foul Egyptian hellhole. It was hard to fight off the relentless hopelessness as he awaited the escape of sleep.

Day after monotonous day passed with no sign of change. The familiar desperation surged hot in his chest. His youth was seeping out the cracks of his cage. He was pacing in his soul. Joseph wanted to scream.

Fists to his forehead he pleaded again with God in the dark for deliverance.

And he remembered. It was the remembering that kept his hope alive and bitterness at bay.

He rehearsed the stories of God that had filled him with awe as a child. God had promised Great-grandfather, Abraham, a child by his barren wife. But he made them wait an agonizing 25 years before giving them Grandfather Isaac. And God had promised Grandmother Rebekah that her older twin, Uncle Esau, would serve the younger twin, Father Jacob. But God had mysteriously woven human deception and immorality into his plan to make that happen.

Jacob’s smile filled Joseph’s mind. O Father. He covered his mouth to choke back his sobs. It had been 9 years since he last saw that dear face. Would he ever again? Was Father still alive?

He felt something crawl across his leg. Leaping up, he brushed himself off. He shook out the mat. A shiver ran down his spine. Joseph hated spiders.

Laying back down he remembered how Father Jacob had been caught in his Uncle Laban’s manipulative web for 20 long years. Yet God was faithful to his word and eventually delivered Jacob and brought him back to the Promised Land a wealthy man.

And then there were those strange dreams. They had been unusually powerful, unlike any others before or since. He felt ambivalent about them. They likely were the reason he was now in Egypt. His brothers’ envy of his father’s favor turned homicidal when he inferred that he had God’s favor as well.

Distant screams let Joseph know another fight had broken out in the barracks. It made him grateful for his private cell, the favor bestowed on the chief scribe to the warden.

He smiled at the irony of this “favor.” His brothers would love this if they knew. He seemed about as far away from what those dreams foretold as he could be.

Yet, as foolish as it seemed right now, Joseph could not shake the deep conviction that God meant to bring those dreams to pass. And he could not deny the strange pattern he saw in God’s dealings with his forebears. God made stunning promises and then ordained time and circumstances to work in such ways as to make the promises seem impossible to fulfill. And then God moved.

The common thread Joseph traced through all the stories, the one thing God seemed to honor and bless more than anything else, was faith. Abraham trusted God’s word. Isaac trusted God’s word. Rebekah trusted God’s word. Jacob trusted God’s word. All of them ultimately saw God’s faithfulness to his promises, despite circumstances and their own failings.

Faith-fueled peace doused the anxious fire in Joseph’s chest. “I trust you, my God,” he whispered. “Like my forefathers, I will wait for you. I have no idea what my being in an Egyptian prison has to do with your purposes. But I will keep honoring you here where you have placed me. Bring your word to pass as it seems best to you. I am yours. Use me!”

*               *               *

In the biblical account it’s tempting to only see Joseph’s heroic character and achievements. But God does not want us to miss the largely silent, desperate years Joseph endured.

Imagine the pain of his brothers’ betrayal, the separation from his father, the horror of slavery, the seduction and false accusation by Potiphar’s wife, and the desperation he felt as his youth passed away in prison.

Sometimes faithfulness to God and his word sets us on a course where circumstances get worse, not better. It is then that knowing God’s promises and his ways are crucial. Faith in God’s future grace for us is what sustains us in those desperate moments.

We all love the fairytale ending of Joseph’s story. And we should, because Joseph’s life is a foreshadowing of a heavenly reality. God sent his Son to die and be raised in order to set his children “free indeed” (John 8:36). There is coming a day when those who are faithful, even to death (Revelation 2:10) will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

Our current circumstances, however dismal or successful, are not our story’s end. They are chapters in a much larger story that really does have a happily ever after.

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