The First Temptation

Have you ever thought about the conversations between Jesus and Satan when Jesus was living in a physical body on this earth? We get some hints of what this may have been like from the book of Job where a conversation between God and Satan is recorded, but other than knowing that Jesus was indeed tempted, we don’t have much to go on. Some years ago, I wrote an epic tale of the Christ and his struggle with his Adversary, Satan. And, yes, I used The Odyssey as a model for my format (not the content). Divided into “Books” (the first being an introduction) the second Book is entitled The Wilderness Temptations. Here is an excerpt which I hope you will both enjoy and will provoke some thought concerning the Christ and his earthly life.

The First Temptation

On that forty-first day, the God-Man woke

to hunger pangs and discovered his body

had become weak from that month-plus trial.

As his eyes focused to face the day,

he saw his Adversary standing at

his feet, smiling a crooked smile and shining

bright as the desert sun. “Good morning,

old friend,” he said. “Surprised to see me? But

didn’t I promise to come back? You will

find that I, unlike some others, keep all

my promises and will never forget

you or leave you for too long, for I am

concerned about you and how you’re spending

your life and squandering your potential.

I suppose with all this time to think and

consider, you’ve come to realize that you

could not possibly be the Son of God?

Since I am the one who has come to check

on you and see if your needs are being

met, it is obvious,” and his eyes swept

the horizon and the God-Man’s surroundings

and came back with a look of distaste, “that

your Heavenly Father,” and he spat the

two words out, “has not been by or if He has,”

and he smiled a sinister smile, “He has

done nothing to secure your belief that

you are His Son, has He?” Unperturbed, the

God-Man rose to his feet and answered, “Quite the

contrary. He has been here in many

wonderful ways–ways you could never see

or understand–and He has only confirmed

my belief and my profession that I Am

His Son and His Chosen.” Satan attempted

to mask the furious anger that welled up

within him with a strained smile which truly

appeared as a grimace. Then with eyes ablaze,

he said in a voice dipped in honey,

“Of course, you are. Whoever said you weren’t?

But, tell me, have you had breakfast yet?” As

if in answer, the God-Man’s fleshly insides

began to grumble, bringing delight to

his Antagonist though he tried to cover

this with a false look of concern and

pity as he waited for an answer. “No,

there’s been no breakfast here. Only rocks and

dust, as you can see.” And Satan nodded as

if in sympathy but then he appeared

to have an idea and said with great

enthusiasm, “But you are the Son

of God, remember? If you are the Son

of God, you should have no problem coming

up with a substantial meal and then we

can talk over some business.” Eyebrow arched,

the God-Man gazed at his rival and said,

“I was not aware we had any business

to discuss.” And Satan again smiled that

patient smile. “Of course, but how can you think

on an empty stomach? An empty

stomach causes the head to be light and

the heart to be weak. Come, you say you are

the Son of God, let us see you come up

with some breakfast. The Son of God shouldn’t

be out here in this wilderness where the

wild beasts are quite well-fed, yet here he is,

his guts crying out in torment, as he

stands by, as if helpless. You say you

are the Son of God but for thirty years

you have lived in practical poverty

submitting yourself to the surroundings

into which you have been thrust and now you bow

to the elements. To the things which you,

yourself, claim to have created. How can

you possibly allow yourself to be

subdued by the works of your own hands? Come,

if you are the Son of God, tell these stones

here to become bread for your breakfast. They

will be glad to be of service to their

Master, for isn’t that why they were formed?

To serve their Master and obey his commands?

In fact, I daresay that your creation

has been watching you in wonder and has

been speculating as to why you have

not called on them earlier. Can you not

see their eagerness to serve you? Come, Son

of God, call on them; exercise your power

and authority. You say God has now

anointed you to be King, so be King.

Prepare your breakfast so we can discuss

deeper matters.” Folding his arms, Satan

stood back and waited, his impatience

obvious, but the God-Man refused to

make a hasty decision knowing well

this was not as simple a matter as

his Adversary portrayed it. He

also knew the power he possessed had

been given to him by his Father, so

consideration of his Father’s will

must be made. But he was hungry and his

insides churned once more as if to remind

him of his responsibility to

them, too. He gazed on the stones and easily

imagined them as loaves and could almost

smell them baking in the sun and taste

their flaky crusts and their soft middle–

He shook his head to clear his thoughts. His

Adversary watched him intently, though

he tried to appear both nonchalant

and impatient. Impatient as in:

‘This is no big deal, you know, get on

with it.’ And nonchalant as in: ‘But then

again, it is no matter to me, one

way or the other.’ A faint smile played on

the God-Man’s lips as he read all this in

his Opponent’s face which caused that angel

to simmer. He managed to keep his

temper in check and gazed calmly back at

his prey as he waited for an answer,

a decision to be made. Then Satan recalled

another king he had tempted, that first

king of Israel whom he convinced that

waiting for God’s provisions and living

strictly by His rules was not only

unnecessary but also senseless

when you could take care of the matter

yourself. So, Israel’s first king bent the rules

of a God of no compromise–not once

but twice–and he who was to be a

great king and leader was instead a

failure and died a scorned and rejected

king and man. Satan knew he did not need

to lead this present and final king

to compromise more than once for once

would be enough. Now he almost became

excited before the deed was done, smelling

the sweet smell of such a victory, and he

trembled but caught himself when he saw the

curious look from his prey. “Come on,”

he snapped. “What’s taking you so long? You act as

if you faced a monumental decision.

I only want you to eat, so we can talk.

Sustain yourself, my friend,” he added

more gently, his words becoming

like honey at his command, causing

the God-Man to once more remember his

hunger. Again, he looked at the stones, but

this time they brought to mind days of old,

and he saw the children of Israel

led into a similar desert and

led into a similar temptation

to be taught . . . what? Obedience. Yes, that

was it–obedience. Now he recalled

they had failed their test and he reflected

on why. He remembered their grumbling

and identified their discontent as

an expression of their lack of trust

and confidence in God as their provider.

Knowing himself to be the new Israel,

he realized if he treated himself to

breakfast (as his Adversary had so

artfully suggested), he would be

expressing the same lack of confidence.

So, summoning up the Scriptures in his mind,

he recalled God’s word on it all: ‘Remember

how the Lord your God led you all the way

in the desert these forty years, to humble

you and to test you in order to know

what was in your heart, whether or not you

would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing

you to hunger and then feeding you with

manna, which neither you nor your fathers

had known, to teach you that–‘ and he stopped and

smiled as the answer was there and the

clarity in his mind shone on his face,

and Satan inwardly recoiled as he

caught a whiff of the air of defeat.

But stiffly he waited and then it came

as in a clear and steady voice the God-Man

said in his new-found strength, “It is written:

‘Man does not live on bread alone but on

every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.'”

Now Satan cringed outwardly and the

rocks trembled and the heavens smiled and the

God-Man waited, but not long for Satan

knew this was a small defeat and the day

was young with boundless opportunities

and uppermost in his mind remained the

refrain: ‘It will only take one. Once will

be enough.’ With this thought, Satan

recovered his poise and said, “Very well,

you do not wish to eat; that is your privilege.

I was only thinking of your comfort.

You are too quick with your suspicions, but

come, ‘Son of God,’ (for you have yet to prove

to me that you are such) and let us go

to Jerusalem, that ‘holy city,’ and

there you can show me whose son you truly are.”

P.M. Gilmer

Soli Deo gloria

Reading Around the World: Mexico

I read two books from Mexico in the past few weeks for the #readtheworld21 challenge, but I am only going to review one here (I did write about both on Goodreads). The first one I enjoyed; the second I wanted to throw against the wall when I finished. I refrain from reviewing books I don’t like because I’m not interested in reading reviews of books not recommended by the reviewer. I find that a waste of time. This book has been popular and even made into a movie, so I’m doing it no harm in not recommending it.

Now on to my recommended read.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea is a story of legend combing historical fiction and magical realism. Urrea heard stories of his ancestor, Teresita Urrea, while growing up; the fantastical stories of her life and miracles. How much was true and how much legend, he set out to discover and spent some twenty years researching and writing her story.

Teresita was the illegitimate daughter of a young girl called Hummingbird and wealthy rancher, Tomas Urrea, during the late nineteenth century in Mexico, a time of unrest and the beginnings of a civil war. Abandoned by her mother, Teresita brought herself to the attention of Urrea and Huila, a curandero. Seeing Teresita’s gifts and potential, Huila teaches Teresita of herbs and healing and promises to help her cultivate her gifts. What leads to Teresita becoming the Saint of Cabora is told in dramatic fashion. Don’t be like me and miss the family tree in the front of the book until you’ve almost finished the book. I would have find this more helpful at the beginning when I was trying to keep names straight but somehow overlooked it.

In lieu of the book, I can’t recommend, let me do a repeat and make a case for one that was on my favorites’ list of 2020–The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, translated by Simon Bruni. Another story of magical realism and family, the tale begins when Nana Reja finds an abandoned baby under a bridge, covered in a blanket of bees. Though some are horrified both by the bees and the baby’s disfigured face, Simonopio is adopted by landowners who love him as their own. Simonopio soon becomes special, not only to his family but to the whole town. This one is also historical fiction taking place during the Mexican Revolution as well as the influenza of 1918.

I’m sure there are many books about and from Mexico that I need to add to my TBR. If you have any suggestions, please share!

Bird Watching: Beyond Quarantine

Much has been written about the hobbies people have started while in quarantine– everything from raising chickens to baking to bringing home a new puppy. Few of these hobbies are anything new and maybe some of us would have started them at some point in our lives anyway. We just needed a nudge to make us use our imaginations That many people will continue with these hobbies–finding a new joy or way of entertainment that doesn’t involve a screen–is one of the pluses of being forced to entertain ourselves. Much like when our parents told us to go outside and play, we found we could actually find something new thing to do without someone giving us a script.

male and female American goldfinch

Whether because of the enforced quarantine or because my kids are mostly grown and out of the house, I have been baking more (with some success and not a few disasters), and also have picked up birdwatching as a daily obsession. Last summer I bought a pair of binoculars and a North Carolina birdbook and began observing more closely all those feathered creatures around me. I could recognize a robin and a cardinal; knew the difference between a bluebird and a bluejay; but who knew there were several types of woodpeckers living nearby? And why had I never seen a goldfinch (which according to my birdbook is fairly common)? How could I have missed such a bright yellow color?

Male & Female Cardinals

Besides gazing with my binoculars and snapping some pictures, I’ve also been enjoying a few books (of course!) concerning birdwatching. I recently finished A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, a charming work of fiction that had me googling different birds (in Kenya) as two men had a contest on who could identify the most birds in a certain period. The winner would be able to ask a certain lady to a dance. I’m now reading a memoir, Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. Long before Covid, Zarankin discovered birdwatching in the midst of some other life-changing events. Though at first reluctant to align herself with this strange group of people who all seem to wear shirts decorated with birds as well as multi-pocketed vests and have an abnormal interest in the various optics of binoculars, Zarankin soon enough found herself enthralled with learning about the birds around her and what they could teach her about herself and her own migratory habits.

In my own backyard, we have several trees, but there is also an empty lot next door, our own little forest. But, as progress would have it, the lot has been sold and now trees are coming down. Trees which surely house some of these birds I’ve been watching and feeding. Yes, I know. I’m living in a house on land that also once held a small forest, and I go to stores where a forest along with its birds and other animals used to live, so I’m trying not to be hypocritical here. But I have learned a few things both in my birdwatching and hearing the crunch and crash of trees. I’m learning to be more observant of my surroundings and more aware of the details in God’s creation. After all, they’re not my birds or trees; they are His.

I’ve also enjoyed observing the response of these birds as parts of their world comes crashing in. At first, they were quiet and out of sight, but soon, even with a bulldozer ramming its way through, they continue to come to the feeders; first the courageous chickadees and titmice, followed by the downy woodpeckers and then even the hummingbirds. A chickadee even put up a vocal protest, chirping above the crunching of branches before he grabbed his share of seeds and flew off.

So, post quarantine, I will continue to watch and observe the birds around me, and I will even try another new baking project.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Jesus in Matthew 6:26-27)

male downy woodpecker

Reading Around the World: Southeast Africa

In February, #readtheworld21 took me to southeast Africa which includes several countries. The countries I read from were Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

First published in 1959, The Flame Trees of Thika is a memoir by Elspeth Huxley who moved to Kenya in 1913 with her parents. Huxley’s unusual childhood with her optimistic and idealistic parents is described with the eyes of a child though also with the benefit of an adult’s hindsight. Her parents’ attempts to make a go of a coffee farm was interrupted by war with Germany, but before that Elspeth grew to love the country and it became her home. She learns about the different groups of people–their customs and bits of their history–and makes friends as a child in an adult world. Huxley’s beautiful descriptions of this country, its people, and the nature surrounding them made this a classic book.

“. . . when the present stung her, she sought her antidote in the future, which was as sure to hold achievement as the dying flower to hold the fruit when its petals wither.”

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is another memoir. Noah was born during Apartheid in South Africa. Having a white father and a black mother made his existence a crime, hence the name. I listened to Noah read the audio and found it an excellent read. I had heard this was pretty funny (he is a comedian by trade), and there is humor (I love the way he mimics his mother and grandmother), but the story is much more than humor. It is about growing up poor in a country undergoing growing pains of its own. It’s about the fierce love of a mother who works hard and does not put up with anything including Noah’s many antics.

“My mom did what school didn’t. She taught me how to think.”

“Comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.”

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is one of those books where you become invested in the characters, their lives and how they interact with each other and to their surroundings. I loved everything about this book which takes place in Ethiopia during a time of unrest and revolution. The story begins in 1954 when twin boys are born in a missionary hospital (known as Missing) to a British surgeon father and a mother who is a nun and a nurse from India. Their mother dies and their father disappears but the boys (Marion and Shiva) are raised in love by two other doctors and they both become fascinated with medicine. When Marion is betrayed by both his brother and the girl he loves and then is accused of a terrorist act, he flees to America where he studies medicine but also runs into his biological father. Not someone he had ever wanted to meet but life does not always take you where you want to go.

“You are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play the ‘Gloria’? No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

On deck: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia) and A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (Kenya).

Reading Books Around the World: Japan

Though traveling is at a minimum these days, traveling through books is still a great way to view and learn of other cultures. This year I’ve been making a conscious effort to read books around the world by jumping into the #readtheworld21 challenge.

January was #JanuaryinJapan. I’ve read three books from Japan and have several more on my TBR. In fact, at this point, I could have just made the whole year “reading in Japan.” However, I have been trying to keep up with the other months as well, which I will discuss in future posts.

For Japan, I’ve read Before the Coffee Gets Cold, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and The Great Passage.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes place in a cafe where if you sit in a certain chair, you can go back in time to a certain time of your choosing. You will be poured a cup of coffee before you leave and you must come back before the coffee gets cold. Also, you must understand that you can change nothing. So, why go back? Four different people with four different reasons take the challenge to see someone one more time even if nothing can be changed by it.

“I was so absorbed in the things that I couldn’t change, I forgot the most important thing.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a small but beautiful book of how a housekeeper and her son care for a mathematics professor whose memory has been impaired by an accident. After eighty minutes, his mind “refreshes,” so every day the housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the professor who always asked her for her birthday and tells her the importance of that number. Though he keeps sticky notes on his jacket to remind him of important facts (like the name of his housekeeper), it is a constant challenge to both of them. The professor becomes very fond of the housekeeper’s son, calling him “Root” because his flat head reminds him of a square root. They both love baseball, so there’s the added bonus of reading about baseball as well as prime numbers.

“he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

In The Great Passage, Araki has been working on a new dictionary (not for the faint of heart!) and is about to retire, so when he hears about the odd man in sales who sounds like the perfect man to help him continue his project, he snatches him up. Majime, who never seems to fit in with his love for antiquarian books and his linguistic background, finds that working on a dictionary is exactly where he needs to be.

You will not be bogged down with the details of making a dictionary though there are some interesting insights into what goes into tracking down words and their meanings. And what if you leave out a word? Disaster is always just around the corner. But it’s the characters, their relationships, and how they come together in spite of their differences that make this an enjoyable story.

“Any dictionary, no matter how well made, was destined to go out of date. Words were living things.”

“Reading the dictionary could awaken you to new meanings of commongly used words, meanings of surprising breadth and depth.”

This is just a small slice of Japanese literature. What these three books have in common (besides their Japanese culture) are their quirky and charming characters who are going about every day tasks and learning more about themselves as well as others.

On deck: A Midsummer’s Equation by Keigo Higashino and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.

Any suggestions? What parts of the world would you like to travel to?

Road to Emmaus–An Easter Story

Road to Emmaus

I could no longer bear the crowds, the sounds,

the smells. Jerusalem had become a place

where dreams were killed and hopes destroyed by

bloody Roman soldiers and godless

religious leaders. Both had lost their

humanity and become void of

compassion. Power and might were all they

desired and sought. Neither could accept

God’s gifts of love and mercy–so, love

and mercy they could never provide.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do,

my friend, Cleopas, and I took the road

back to our home in Emmaus. Our walk

took longer than usual for we were

in no hurry. Where did we need to go

after all? What did we need to do?

While we walked–we talked, we argued, we laughed,

we cried. Had we been foolish to put our

trust, our hopes, our dreams, and yes, our faith

in this one man? Had we only hoped he

had been sent by God? Had we only dreamed

he performed miracles? We marveled at

his teaching but had it all been just a

mirage? Had we been swayed by his

kindness? His mercy? His love?

For if it had all been real, how could he have

let himself be killed by such a mob? How could he have

been treated in such a cruel and shameful way?

“Jerusalem has always killed her prophets,”

Cleopas reminded me. “Yes,” I agreed.

“But didn’t we think Jesus was more than

a prophet? Didn’t he have the power

to heal? To raise the dead? How could such a

one be arrested as if he were

a common criminal? Worse than a

common criminal! More like a

dangerous lunatic! Was he mad?

Or is it we who are mad?”

So wrapped up in our thoughts, our questions,

our despair and our arguments–which all

ebbed and flowed like the Sea of Galilee–

we neither heard nor noticed a man

behind us until he caught up to us

and began to walk by our side.

“What are you talking about?” Such

impertinence coming from a stranger seem to

nettle Cleopas, but with feelings raw,

I felt compelled to share our story with

someone who might give us a new perspective.

But before I could speak, Cleopas

blurted out, “Have you not just come from

Jerusalem yourself? How could you not

know what everyone is talking about?

Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock?”

I nudged my friend and told him not to be

unkind. “Perhaps this man can’t understand

why we are so upset. After all, men

are crucified every day by the Romans.”

“Yes, but not usually innocent men.

Men like Jesus who never harmed anyone.”

“Then why was he crucified?” our new friend

asked. “What brought him to the Romans’

attention? And why are you so distraught

over his death? Were you very close to him?”

“We were more than close,” I affirmed. “We

honored him, we–yes, we worshiped him.

We thought he was truly the One, the

Messiah we have been waiting for–

but now, now he is dead.”

The man nodded as he pondered my words,

his eyes set on the horizon as if

he could see what I could not. I wondered

if he thought us foolish. Foolish to place

such hope in a mere man. Foolish to

believe in his teaching, his miracles,

his love.

Then his pace quickened. “Let me explain the

Scriptures to you. Scriptures about the

Messiah. Then perhaps you will better

understand what has happened and why.”

He then began to expound on the

Scriptures beginning with Genesis and

continuing through the Law, the Prophets,

the Psalms. He explained the prophecies

of the Messiah in a way I had

never heard before, and I felt my heart

burn within me. Even Cleopas

remained silent as we took in the words

of this stranger who now seemed both familiar

and comfortable as an old friend.

Before we knew it, we had reached my home

in Emmaus. Our new friend did not stop

walking but continued on past my door.

Neither Cleopas nor I could bear the

thought of being parted from him so soon.

Please, we begged him, stay and eat with us.

We would hear more of your teaching.

We will fix you a meal

and you can even stay the night.

There is plenty of room.

He seemed reluctant, and perhaps he

had more pressing things to do, but

when we convinced him we truly

wanted him to stay and dine with us,

he agreed, and I made haste to

go in and tell my wife of our guest

and our need for a quickly made meal.

Once seated, we served our guest and waited

to hear more of what he could teach us.

Though sorrow still enveloped our souls,

somehow this man had wrapped us in a peace

and filled us with a hope that our faith in

the man Jesus had perhaps not been in vain.

What happened next remains the most

astonishing of revelations given

to simple men such as ourselves. One

minute we were waiting for our guest, this

stranger in our midst, to further enlighten

us, and the next, our eyes were opened to the

true identity of one we had taken

to be unknown and unfamiliar

to us. When he stretched forth his hand

to pass the bread to Cleopas on

his right, we all saw the round scar–bright and

shockingly white–on his wrist. A scar

so fresh it was scarcely healed and

almost glowed there in the dusky light.

The sight of that scar caused the scales

to fall from our eyes. It was Him!

Jesus! The One we had followed and

seen crucified. The One we thought to see

no more on this earth. What Peter and John

had said was true. He had come back to life!

Then just as quick as our eyes had been

opened, he was gone–along with our

despair and grief, leaving us with joy

and excitement instead. He was alive!

Truly alive! We had seen him in the

flesh. I remembered now. How my heart

had burned within me as he spoke to us.

Spoke truth to us. Now, without

speaking, we knew we must go back to

Jerusalem. And we could not delay.

We had to go back that very night.

My wife protested. We would be tired,

she said. We had only just gotten home.

But even she knew we could never

sleep and we could almost run back to

Jerusalem. To go back and tell

our brothers and sisters the Good News.

P.M. Gilmer

Soli Deo Gloria

 

20 Favorite Reads from 2020

In spite of all the craziness of this year, reading never stopped for me and continued to be an escape as well as a part of learning and growing. I had several favorites but wasn’t sure I would list twenty, but why not? These are my favorites from 2020 in no particular order of preference though most were published earlier.

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  I started the year reading this first book from Russell and though science fiction is not my usual genre, I did enjoy this one. A listening post in Puerto Rico picks up some music from another planet and a group of scientists and Jesuits set off to find this planet. Only one returns. Why? What happened to the rest of them?

2. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (1998). Allende, a Chilean/American, writes historical fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers is raised in a British colony in Chile, falls in love with an unsuitable servant, and when the servant leaves for the goldrush of 1849 in California, Eliza manages to secretly follow him. I loved the beautiful writing of this book as well as the descriptions of the historical places and events.

3. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (2018). Pike read a book which traces the origins of the real Merlin who had a twin sister who became a strong Scottish queen. From that, Pike writes an entertaining and compelling first book of a coming trilogy.

3. The Historian Elizabeth Kostova (2005) This book is long, slow-paced, rich in description, and a bit creepy. A father and his daughter are on a quest to learn more about Vlad the Impaler and what, if anything, he has to do with the legend of Dracula. Again, not my usual genre, (horror) but I enjoyed this one.

4. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (2015)What would my year be like without reading a Robin Hobb book? Hobb is my favorite fantasy writer, and I have spent years following Fitz and his adventures  or  misadventures.

5. Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder (2018) If you’re looking for a good murder mystery, look no further than Anthony Horowitz. He always delivers and this mystery within a mystery is no exception.

6. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia; translator Simon Bruni. Historical fiction, magical realism, this tells the story of a family during the Mexican revolution and the influenza of 1918. I loved it!

7. Started Early, Took My Dog Kate Atkinson (2010). This is the fourth of the Jackson Brodie books. I recently reread the first (Case Histories) for a library group meeting next week. I enjoy Atkinson’s rather dark humor and the way she weaves several story lines together.

9. Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick (2013).  I’ve been reading Chadwick for years. One of my favorites for historical fiction. This is the first of a trilogy about  Eleanor of Aquitane. She married King Louis of France at the age of 13 in 1137.

10. A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (2019). A count is put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in Moscow in 1922. Consequently, he spends the rest of his life in a hotel. If this premise doesn’t sound fascinating to you, you’ll just have to trust me (and hundreds of other readers) who found this book full of charming characters, humor, and great descriptions.

11. Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (2020). “Unforgettable novel about friendship and forgiveness set during a disastrous wedding on picturesque Cape Cod.” Though I did enjoy this (more than I thought I would), unforgettable is a bit of a stretch but maybe that’s just my age. Still, this was a fun read covering some serious issues concerning friendship. 

Audio These are my four top audiobooks. All fiction as I rarely listen to nonfiction.

12. The Mother-in-Law Sally Hepworth (2019). A woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law ends in suicide; or murder? This was so good, going back and forth with the different viewpoints and the ending totally surprised me.

13. The Goldfinch Donna Tartt (2013). This book won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2014. A young boy is with his mother in a museum when a bomb goes off. His mother is killed and he takes a priceless picture away with him. Both of these events haunt him for the rest of his childhood and into adulthood. Parts of this book I loved. The audio was excellent and I became attached to Theo and his friend Boris. Other parts were tiresome (drug use, language, etc.), but overall, a book that kept me entertained for many hours. 

14. The Tidelands Philippa Gregory (2019). In England 1648, Alinor is a woman skilled with herbs and suspected of witchcraft. Her husband is missing and believed to be dead, so Alinor must use her wits and skills to provide for herself and her children. Another long one that kept me enthralled and ready for the next in the series.

15. All We Ever Wanted Emily Giffin (2018)  Set in Nashville and told with three different viewpoints (with different narrators), a girl’s picture is taken at a high school party and spread over the internet. Not only is the girl half clothed, a racial slur has been inserted. One boy is accused but is he guilty? A story of entitlement, family drama, and the dangers of social media. Excellent!

Nonfiction Yes, I do read some nonfiction.

16. Owls of the Eastern Ice Jonathan C. Slaght (2020). Slaght, a field scientist and conservationist, saw his first fish owl in Primorye, Russia. Though they have a wingspan of over six feet and a height of over two feet, they are elusive and little has been known about them. Slaght spent five years with other scientists in the wilds of Russia tracking, capturing, and learning about these fish owls and what they need to survive.

17. Isaiah by the Day Alec Motyer (2014) This is a translation by the Biblical scholar Alec Motyer along with a daily devotional. A friend and I have been studying Isaiah together and this book along with Motyer’s commentary has been a tremendous help and blessing to us. Highly recommended for anyone serious about studying the book of Isaiah.

18. Proverbs Eric Lane (2007). I used this book in a Bible study and though it was listed on my goodreads as the least favorite of my books for 2020 (meaning not many people listed it on goodreads), I found this to be a good study tool with intelligent questions.

19. Pudge: the Biography of Carlton Fisk Doug Wilson (2015). I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid, and I found this biography interesting both in telling about the life of Fisk and the history of baseball during the 70’s and 80’s.

20. The Prodigal Prophet and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (2018). An excellent study on the book of Jonah though I don’t think I’ve read anything by Keller I didn’t enjoy and learn from.

Those are my favorites from 2020. Looking forward to another year of reading. How about you? Any highlights from 2020?

One Starry Night (rerun)

I posted this story last year in three parts. I wanted to repost but decided to put it all together & hope you will all read to the end. I pray it will be a blessing and a time to reflect on what it must have been like on that first Christmas night–to be the first to hear the Good News.

One Starry Night

A long day finally over, the sheep

now settled to sleep. The weary shepherds

found places to rest–some to lay their heads;

others to keep watch over their flocks (many

of them destined to be a sacrifice 

for man’s sins) alert for any dangers

that might be lurking or for any sheep

that might decide to take a midnight stroll.

Under a clear sky with stars so bright,

the night air took on a chill, causing the

sheep to huddle together and the shepherds

to wrap their cloaks around themselves and most

stayed near one of the fires kept burning throughout

the night. The men on the first watch neither

saw nor heard anything to make them believe

this night would be any different than hundreds

of others. When their time was ended, they 

went to wake their companions for the second

watch. Before they could rouse the slumbering

shepherds, a light so bright filled the sky and

caused the poor shepherds to gasp and cover

their faces. Some fell to their knees and one

even stumbled into the companion

he had come to waken causing a stir

amongst the others whose dreams had just been

shattered. But when they tried to open their

eyes and grumble at their rude awakening,

they too were blinded by the light and covered

their faces in fear. Barely able to 

think or breathe, they heard a Voice speak from–

where? The Light? The sky? It seemed to fill the

the very air. “Do not be afraid!” the voice

cried out. Though still they trembled, they slowly

lowered their arms and their hands from

their faces; and their eyes began to make

out a form. A form so majestic they

knew it was no ordinary being

and had to have come from Heaven. “Behold!”

the Being proclaimed and as he continued

to speak, the shepherds ceased their trembling and

stared and listened in awe. Even the sheep

had shaken off their drowsiness and seemed

to be listening as well. “I bring you

good news that will bring great joy to all

people. Today in Bethlehem, the city

of David, a Savior has been born to

you. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the

Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you

will find a baby wrapped in cloths and

lying in a manger.” Before the shepherds

could marvel at these words, the Messenger

Being was, in an instant, joined by a

whole host of more of these Heavenly Beings.

They began to sing in voices so sweet,

the shepherds stood entranced and the sheep

bleated softly as if in accord with

their song. “Glory to God in the highest

of heavens, and peace on earth among all

those who delight Him.” And as suddenly

as they had appeared, the messenger choir

was gone, leaving the shepherds to stare up

into the star-filled sky as if waiting

for more miracles to appear. The sheep,

however, knew the heavenly show

was over, and so settled themselves to

return to their peaceful slumber.

The shepherds all gathered together to

discuss this news that had been given to

them. “Could this be true?” one old grizzled

veteran shepherd asked. “A baby who

is the Christ?” “Did you ever hear such

singing?” asked another, his eyes still on

the sky and his ears still ringing with the

fading heavenly melody. “What should

we do?” worried a third. “Go and see!”

exclaimed an eager shepherd. This shepherd

put on his sandals, grabbed his cloak and staff,

and made ready to leave for Bethlehem,

not caring if anyone joined him

or not. He wanted to see this baby

whose birth had launched a choir of heavenly

messengers. “Now, wait,” the old shepherd

cautioned. “We can’t just run off and leave our

sheep, especially when we’re not sure who

those creatures were or even where they came

from.” The rest of the shepherds looked at him

aghast. “Why, they surely came from heaven.

Where else could they be from?” “They were angels,

I be certain,” declared another. “And 

I am with Reuben. To Bethlehem, I

am bound.” And he, too, put on his sandals

and took up his sack and staff. Soon, they were

all picking up their things, murmuring with

excitement. “A message from heaven, did

you ever hear of such a thing?” “No,” said

the old shepherd. “I never have and neither

have any of you. Why would someone from

heaven want to speak to the likes of us?”

Reuben placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder.

Good news for all people. Come with us, Asa,

and see if this baby is where the

Messenger said he would be. Our sheep will

be fine until we return.” The old shepherd

considered his companions, shrugged, and fell

in line. A trip to Bethlehem in the

middle of the night seemed like madness to

the old shepherd, but this whole night had been

unlike any he had ever encountered

in his eighty some years. A messenger

from heaven? Or a demon to mislead

and taunt them? His friends seemed certain the word

came from Heaven, but he had experienced

more of the latter than the former. Still,

a surge of hope went through him as he

tottered after his fellow shepherds,

listening to their excited chatter

as they made their way along the moon-lit

road to Bethlehem, the city of David.

They entered through the gates of Bethlehem,

(How did those shepherds know which way to go?)

and walked unerringly through the darkened

streets. Shops were closed and houses still, but from

overflowing inns, light and noise spilled out

and in front of one of these the shepherds

stopped and considered again the words of

the Messenger. “You will find a baby

wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

A manger, they knew, would be found where the

animals were fed, so they made their way

behind the first inn and followed the sounds

(and smells) of animals whose nightly slumber

had been disturbed. Quietly, they approached

a cave carved into a small hill where the

soft, smoky glow of an oil lamp cast a

shadow. They stopped as one when they reached the

entrance, suddenly unsure of their next

move. Just as Reuben decided to go

forward, the cry of a baby broke the

stillness of the night. The shepherds gasped and

several of them surprised themselves with tears.

Going in together, they peered in awe

at the sight. A young woman (a girl to

their eyes) along with a man dressed in

garments plain, crouched over a manger where

a tiny infant lay wrapped in cloths just

as the Messenger had told them. They crept

as close as they dared, wondering at the

babe whose birth had been declared to them by

a heavenly being and even sung

about by a heavenly choir. “We

were told to come here,” the old shepherd broke

the silence. “By a . . .” He stopped, unable

to continue and unsure of how to

explain the phenomenon they had witnessed.

The young woman smiled at them. “An angel?”

she suggested. “Yes!” they all said at once.

Then mindful of the sleeping babe, they told

their story in excited, though hushed whispers.

“Yes, yes! An angel, that’s what he was. A

messenger sent from God. He told us he

had good news.” “Good news for everyone. The

whole world.” “He said it was great joy.” “For

everyone.” “He said we would find a baby.”

“A baby wrapped in cloths.” “In a manger.”

They stopped for breath and gazed anew at the

sleeping babe. How could such a small, helpless

newborn baby be the cause of such a 

revelation? Of a heavenly

announcement? The promise of good news for

all people? “He said,” the old shepherd, Asa,

cleared his throat. “He said, the Messenger, I

mean, that this baby is the Christ. Our

Messiah.” Tears filled his eyes. “I never

thought he’d come for me.” The plain-dressed

man, who seemed to be the baby’s guardian,

put an arm around the old shepherd’s shoulders.

“We were as amazed as you when the

Messenger came to us and gave us the 

same good news. This baby is God’s gift to

us and will do more for us than we can

ever imagine.” “We must go and tell

everyone what we have seen and heard,” Asa

declared. His companions, though mildly

amused at the old shepherd’s change of heart,

joyfully agreed. With a final look

at the Christ child and a farewell to the

young couple, whom they all knew would face times

of trouble and sorrow as they raised this

baby in this sin-struck world, they set out

to walk the streets of Bethlehem as morning

broke and people began to stir. They stopped

and told everyone they met of the

celestial announcement they had received

about the baby and the significance

of his arrival. Though some had no interest

in hearing news of any kind from lowly

shepherds, many others marveled at their

story and spread the word throughout their town

and still others carried the story to 

their homes in places near and far throughout

Israel. “A baby has been born to you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

 

 

“Holy, holy, holy”–A Christmas Carol

 

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.

A Christmas carol? But aren’t those songs about the baby Jesus? With angels and shepherds, the virgin Mary, a donkey ride and a manger? Yes, of course, all those things are important but none of them would matter without God becoming man. A doctrine we can never take for granted as even some who call themselves “Christians” have doubted the divinity of Christ. And this hymn is very much about the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty! God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

In his teachings, “Christian” priest, Arius (250-336 A.D.) of Constantinople stated a belief in a created finite nature of Christ rather than having equal divine status with God the Father.

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.

Church leaders met in Nicea, Bithynia (present day Iznik, Turkey) in May 325 to formulate a consensus of belief. Arius was declared a heretic for refusing to sign the formula of faith that stated Christ was of the same divine nature as God the Father.

Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee, which wert and art and evermore shall be.

Nicene Creed: We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the world. Light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.

Reginald Heber (1783-1826), a rector of a small church in Shrewsbury, England wrote the hymn Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! to be sung after reciting the Nicene Creed.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye made blind by sin thy glory may not see,

Heber based his hymn on the words from Revelation 4. The Apostle John saw one seated on a throne and around the throne were creatures who “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'”

Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love and purity.

Some might try to argue that the one on the throne to whom these “holies” are being sung could only be God the Father and this all has nothing to do with Christmas at all, never mind the divinity of Christ. But the Apostle John made clear in the beginning of his Revelation that he saw the Lamb, the risen Christ. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.'” (Revelation 1:17-18a)

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth, and sky, and sea;

To further the argument that the life of Jesus did not begin in Bethlehem, some 700 years before his birth, the prophet Isaiah also had a vision and heard those words, “Holy, holy, holy”. In the Hebrew language, repetition is used as a superlative, something of the highest quality or degree. But only here in Isaiah is a quality raised to the power of three “as if to say that the divine holiness is so far beyond anything the human mind can grasp that a ‘super-superlative’ has to be invented to express it and, furthermore, that this transcendent holiness is the total truth about God.” (J. Alec Motyer in Isaiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries).

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty! God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

But who did Isaiah see? According to the same John the Apostle who had the vision in Revelation, Isaiah saw Jesus. “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” (John 12:41) 

“The prophet, standing outside the temple, sees the Divine Presence seated on the mercy-seat, raised over the ark of the covenant, between the cherubim and the seraphim, and the Divine glory filled the whole temple. This vision is explained, John 12:41, that Isaiah now saw Christ’s glory, and spake of Him, which is a full proof that our Saviour is God.” (Matthew Henry in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible).

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

North Carolina Writers

 

One of the reading challenges I have participated in this year is the 2020 #mmdchallenge (The Modern Mrs. Darcy, aka Anne Bogel) which includes twenty-four different challenges. One of these challenges is to read a book by a local author. Bogel, a Kentucky native, posted a list of Kentucky authors a few weeks ago, so I am going to present a list of North Carolina authors. Though not exhaustive (we have quite a few writers to be proud of), here’s a few of my favorites.

The book I intend to read for this challenge is Down the River by John Hart. This will be my first book by Hart though he has written several thrillers set in North Carolina. Born in Durham, Hart is also one of the many lawyers turned writer who are putting out books today. This particular book was a Barry Award nominee and an Edgar Award winner in 2008.

Robert Morgan is a poet and author with many books and awards to his credit. I’ve read Gap Creek twice which won the North Carolina Literature Award as well as the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize. This “story of a marriage” takes place in the mountains at the end of the 19th century. Julie Harmon works hard–“hard as a man” and she needs to in order for the couple to survive. Morgan is a wonderful storyteller, and two other books I can recommend are The Road from Gap Creek and Brave Enemies.

 

Wiley Cash has written several best-sellers and serves as writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville. I wrote a review of The Last Ballad  https://pmgilmer.com/2018/01/04/wiley-cash-the-last-ballad/  a couple of years ago. The Last Ballad is also a book I’ve read twice–the second time when my library group selected it for that month’s read. The book tells the true story of woman, Ella May Wiggins, who tried to help form unions for the textile industry in 1929. Her courage and determination to help herself, her family, and others like her makes for a gripping read.

A native of Asheville, Sarah Addison Allen writes sweet, romantic family dramas with a bit of magical realism. Her first book, Garden Spells, tells the story of the Waverly women who are guardians of an apple tree that contains strange and magical properties. Drawing on her grandmother’s culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business. When her sister returns home, her young daughter in tow, Claire’s quiet, ordered life is turned around–but in a good way.

I’ve loved the characters and relationships in all of Allen’s books. This quote from First Frost is a good example of their personalities. “Oh, please. Everyone in this town always says that like you have to be born here to understand things. I understand plenty. You’re only as weird as you want to be.”

Charles Frazier is best known for his first novel, Cold Mountain, the story of a Confederate soldier making his way home after the war. That story was based on stories from Frazier’s great-great-great grandfather as well as local stories and legends. It’s been several years since I read this one, but I remember the capitivating narrative told in a beautiful way.

Another book I enjoyed by Frazier was Thirteen Moons. As a “bound” boy, twelve-year old Will Cooper is sent to run an trading post in Cherokee territory. He becomes friends with Bear, a Cherokee chief, and is adopted into his tribe. Frazier writes descriptively of the time period, the scenery, and the growth and adventures of Will.

“What I wanted to do was slap him down a bit with wit and word. Grammar and vocabulary as a weapon. But what kind of world would it be if we all took every opportunity presented to us to assault the weak?”

One more author I will mention–Ron Rash, a poet, short-story writer, and novelist who was born in South Carolina and teaches at Western Carolina University. I’ve read several poems and stories by Rash as well as his novel The Cove though he is better known for his novel, Serena, which was also made into a movie.

The Cove takes place near the town of Mars Hill in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina during the time of the Great War (or WWI). A young woman, Laurel, lives with her brother, Hank, who has recently returned from fighting in France. Laurel finds a man in the woods nearly dead from yellow jacket stings. Mute, the man carries only a silver flute and a note saying his name is Walter and he is on his way to New York. Walter also carries a secret which may prove a threat to Laurel and Hank as the war in Europe is coming to an end.

As with Frasier and Cash, Rash is able to bring you back in time and to another place and helping you to understand a little part of history.

Any other North Carolina writers you would like to recommend? Or your favorite one from another state?