MercyMe Concert!

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I was re-baptized last Friday night, and no, I didn’t actually get wet. Lisa and I were fortunate enough to be at the Microsoft Theater in L.A. to hear MercyMe perform from their 25-year legacy of Christian hits. I know of no musical artists anywhere who convey in such pure and powerful form the totality of Calvary’s saving power.

This concert tour has it all: powerhouse music, the stadium light show, the passionate singing-along of a huge temporary “congregation” of 7,000 fans united in Jesus. What’s more, the band put all the lyrics up on massive screens – often in effective rapid-fire bursts that tattoo the gospel message in our minds. We sang “Because He Lives” and “Amazing Grace” as a cappella anthems, and those were amazing moments.

On the drive down I confided anxiously to Lisa: “When they sing ‘Flawless,’ I’m gonna lose it.” Sure enough. Less than 200 yards away at the adjacent Staples Center, the Lakers were beating the Clippers in a Friday night game, and that’s comparatively about as important as, well, nothing. But we were on our feet, tingling with Sabbath joy, as Bart Millard took us right to the gates of heaven with our favorite song:

Let me introduce you to amazing grace . . .

No matter the bumps

No matter the bruises

No matter the scars

Still the truth is

THE CROSS HAS MADE YOU FLAWLESS

No matter the hurt

Or how deep the wound is

No matter the pain

Still the truth is

THE CROSS HAS MADE YOU FLAWLESS

 

Okay, maybe I lied. I did get a little bit damp right about then.

 

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Book Review: “Destiny and Power”

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It’s a fine blessing to devour the engaging work of a seasoned historian, and Jon Meacham qualifies handsomely. This biography of President George H. W. Bush makes you wistful for the days when tough but realistic men and women sat across from each other in political offices, drew up bargaining chips on yellow legal pads, and refused to get up from their chairs without forging a deal to make their shared nation better. Today not many presidents epitomize that more than Bush 41, often now described as America’s most successful single-term president.

Tomes like this one always start clear back at the beginning of a dynasty family’s Mayflower history, and it’s a temptation to skip ahead to the subject’s own White House years. And the three campaigns where Bush sought the White House are the most interesting part of Meacham’s story. But it’s also instructive to dissect the entire Bush lineage on both sides, and get a sense of how he grew up always harboring the idea of getting to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Meacham does well in capturing George Bush’s heady romance with Barbara, and then the young family’s grief at losing a daughter. A long-time editor of Newsweek, Meacham is skilled at compiling a story and getting details right; Bush contributed years of diaries and notes and recollections, and the writer’s skills as an interviewer are legendary. Interestingly, even though Meacham has often written about issues of faith and the role of religion in America, e.g. the “Wall of Separation,” this biography is often graphic and earthy. President Bush was a religious man, but also at ease with the sometimes raw intrigue and flavor in a White House or a rough political campaign.

The two most interesting points in this portrait are, first, Bush’s globally successful campaign to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The second was his clear-eyed but wrenching choice to abandon his glib “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge in order to craft a durable budget during America’s economic crisis of 1991.

After biting the bullet, the President and aides went to the Rose Garden to announce what had been brokered between the two parties. “Sometimes you don’t get it just the way you want, and this is such a time for me,” he soberly confessed. “But it’s time we put the interest of the United States of America first and get this deficit under control.” He later mused to friends: “Sometimes you have to govern; you have to make things come together; you have to join with responsible leaders on both sides to get something done for the country.”

It’s interesting to note that a brash new House leader named Newt Gingrich announced that this was an ideal time for brinksmanship, and a threat to “shut down the government” if necessary. “I think the Democrats would have blinked,” he boasted later.

It’s a vignette that seems to describe two starkly different approaches to governing, and I suspect a myriad of readers of this finely crafted book will look back respectfully to that more dignified era when patriots in both parties cared most about the nation’s reputation and health.

If you appreciate thoughtful analysis delivered with a dose of wit and savvy style, anything written by Mr. Meacham has got to be high on your list.

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Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Reckoning”

 

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This is typical Grisham: a well-thought-out story with interesting legal ramifications. His plots are always nicely complicated, and in this case the reader can know all the way through that a plot twist will pop loose right at the close. Sure enough. No spoiler alert here, but I will confess that there’s really no one at all to admire in this story.

The one negative to this book is that the Bataan Death March part of the story is rather longish, without much payoff to it. There have been other relentlessly grim accounts of this part of WWII; Grisham’s is also descriptive and bleak, but there’s really no redemptive purpose to a whole lot of pages given to that extended detour.

All in all, another fine effort.

 

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BOOK REVIEW: “Becoming”

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People who loathe President Obama and his wife Michelle will resentfully skip right past this soaring bestseller. And I get that; most of us don’t go out of our way to digest tell-all books from the other side. But in this case, that’s a shame. Because “Becoming” is an aspirational biography written and shared with grace and honesty. On top of that, if you take the time to consider this life experience of one of your fellow citizens, if you’re fair-minded, you will concede that Michelle Robinson’s story is the essence of the pure American experience: work hard, seek excellence, offer to serve, and ask God to richly multiply your efforts.

If you’re mainly interested in the Obamas’ White House years, just know that only takes up the final third of her story. So there’s plenty of interesting stuff from her days as a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago in an ordinary African-American household. This is the classic “local girl makes good” tale of a high schooler who worked her buns off to get into Princeton so she could prove wrong her guidance counselor who flat-out said: “You don’t have what it takes to get there.” Then landed jobs with top law firms, only to move on for half the pay because she thought she could do more for her community helping to build more accessible hospital systems and improve education.

One thing I appreciate about a book like this is how it dispels commonly held stereotypes. I’ll mention three. For eight years a meme floated around that the Obamas were “lazy”; that they endlessly vacationed and flew around on Air Force One. It’s true that she and her husband took a load of well-deserved heat when the Secret Service had to guard “Renegade” and “Renaissance” for a New York City “date” that was a major traffic inconvenience and expense. But in terms of workload, the reality is this. Every single evening, his team and hers sent binders up to the White House residence. His was admittedly larger, but staffers and experts daily prepared large briefing folders they had to go through.

So in the President’s case, he would dutifully have supper with his wife and kids. Then, after the three Obama ladies were in bed, President Obama would retire to a study. And almost nightly, between ten p.m. and 1:30 in the morning, he would study and bone up on issues, filling his mind with stats and anecdotes and trend lines and the latest intel from foreign hot spots. Michelle Obama writes with awe at how, from her first days dating this Chicago newcomer, he carried around a zest for learning, for determinedly absorbing important factoids and stats and the broad, unshakable themes of history.

Several times a week, again, well past midnight, he would carefully read through ten selected letters sent to him from ordinary citizens. “While the rest of us slept,” she confesses, “he took down the fences and let everything inside.”

(As an aside, I did once read a Republican exposé by press secretary Scott McClellan. Even though I didn’t vote for George W. Bush, and Scott’s book had its “tell-all” moments, he does describe his boss as being diligently prepared and hardworking when it came to studying for important cabinet meetings.)

The second canard it’s good to set aside is that the Obama family was somehow “unchristian.” The Rev. Wright scandal was a political mess, pure and simple, but it did lead to one of candidate Obama’s finest moments when he gave his Philadelphia speech on race. But she writes about the family always saying grace before meals, having special “Sunday School” moments for Malia and Sasha in the White House. One of the quietly poignant moments is how she describes lying in bed next to her husband. “Every night, I’d look over and see Barack lying with his eyes closed on the other side of the bed, quietly saying his prayers.” She admits with profound gratitude how citizens of all races and backgrounds regularly murmured to her: “We pray for you and your family every day.”

Thirdly, it’s wonderful to read all through these pages how the First Couple loved, appreciated, and lauded the many military heroes who heroically serve our nation in uniform. Michelle had endless meetings with soldiers and vets and their families; she describes holding hands with war wives and crying together as they shared a prayer. “What I saw of military life left me humbled,” she writes. “As long as I’d been alive, I’d n ever encountered the kind of fortitude and loyalty that I found in those [Walter Reed Hospital] rooms.”

In terms of writing style, it’s no secret Michelle Obama enjoys having a good team of collaborators around her to help make this a compelling story. The writing is crisp and interesting all the way through, infused with emotion, although I would have like to read more, for example, about how she and Barack felt when Mitt Romney creamed him in their first 2012 debate. Again, the Obamas’ two White House terms are described in just the last hundred pages or so, beginning with this vulnerable confession: “There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.” But all of it is warm, kind, and a powerful expression of what she hopes will always be an America – this unique place of opportunity – striving to be all that it ever can.

 

 

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BOOK REVIEW

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I could list some legit criticisms of this book, and other reviewers have. But the bottom line is this: holy cow, this is a masterpiece of poetic beauty! Patti Callahan has a style and grace with words that is just plain divine and God-given.

“England embraced us with cold, foggy arms.” “Ripples radiating outward, a circle of misplaced water that reached the shore’s edge to dance with the fall grass.” “Flowers outrageous in their glory, raindrops settling in the cups of their raised faces.” I don’t personally have the DNA to dream up such lovely word pictures, but I extravagantly admire those who have been so blessed.

I’m a fan of C. S. Lewis, and did enjoy both film versions of “Shadowlands,” so I was grateful when my wife passed this book on to me. Readers should know that the familiar story from the films/play aren’t much in this telling. The arranged civil wedding, the cancerous collapse, the remission, the deathbed nuptials . . . all happen in the last 12 percent of Patti’s gripping story. But she delivers exactly what she promises: the saga of how two fascinating idealists defy the odds to fall in love.

Some can rightly object that Joy Gresham is sometimes an unappealing figure: pushy, brash, way too full of herself. She injects herself and two sons into Jack Lewis’s life in a way most of us would find hugely intrusive and demanding. But it’s part of the story, and C. S. Lewis bears it with grace.

My one small critique would link to the poetic beauty of Callahan’s writing. Sometimes in conversations between the two – and these are understandably fictional recreations – the same metaphor-dripping tone creeps in. They’re still classic moments, but now don’t ring quite as true. Right when they both realize she’s dying, the scene gets somewhat maudlin, or what I sometimes call “Aaron Sorkin-y.” Great for the stage, but too artificial for an actual ICU.

Still, that is a minor criticism. You will want to read this fine tale in one sitting and savor the beauty of how Callahan tells this story.

The finest line in the book comes near to the grim ending. Joy Gresham reflects on the hand she and Jack have been dealt by the Lord, and quietly concludes: “Just because we love God and are committed to him doesn’t mean we are exempt from the pain and loss in this world. We can’t ask to be the exceptions.”

Spread the word, because this book is a jewel to treasure.

 

 

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FILM REVIEW: “The Green Book”

GREEN BOOK

 

Okay, no kidding, “The Green Book” is easily the finest film I have seen in YEARS. Scanning back through my personal favorites, nothing even close comes to mind except “The Green MILE” – so that’s a bit weird. And Stephen King’s masterpiece about a man with healing power came out in 1999! This wonderful movie is right up there: it’s pitch-perfect on every level.

A classically trained black pianist is about to tour the Deep South in 1962, giving concerts in many venues where he can perform as a headliner, but not eat as a diner, or sleep as a hotel guest, or use the restroom as a . . . human person. So his recording firm hires a driver, and the two men are armed with “The Green Book,” a list of places where colored folk can safely stay and eat while in lovely places like Mississippi where cops can pull you over and rough you up for just being out past sunset.

Viggo Mortensen has added at least 60 pounds from his days as Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings,” and you honestly wouldn’t recognize him on the screen. But he perfectly fits the role of Tony, a loudmouth two-bit street hustler whose demeanor is right out of “The Godfather.” Italian, Catholic, wise guy, whattayakiddinme? His wife is played by Linda Cardellini, formerly of “E.R.,” and she has a wonderful brief role.

Both Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (“4400,” “Moonlight”) go through scene after scene in such wonderful form; this truly is a moving and inspiring story about race and learning to understand and appreciate one another. When do you take a stand and when do you deliver a soft answer and live to fight another day?

I won’t give away anything of the plot, but if you see this great film you will not be sorry. One more thing: if Ali and Mortensen aren’t both nominated for Best Actor, and if one of the two doesn’t win the award, I’m gonna stand outside the Dolby Theater in sackcloth and ashes.

 

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BOOK REVIEW

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“Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House”

It’s challenging to review a major book penned by someone who is plainly a clever and sometimes grasping opportunist. Omarosa Manigault Newman confesses to a deep admiration of Barack Obama. She served for two years on the Ready For Hillary PAC, hoping to elect Mrs. Clinton – “a woman I deeply admired” – as America’s first female president. Then, when Hillary officially declared her candidacy, Newman and her team were passed over for permanent positions with the campaign. In a fit of pique, she did an about-face, cashed in her Trump connection from her days on The Apprentice, and worked 18-hour days to elect Donald Trump instead. So if you don’t read any further, I totally get it.

Was this pure cynicism, or a raw craving for power and position? It’s true that both parties need to court the minority vote; it wasn’t a bad thing for Ms. Newman to want to help Mr. Trump relate to the African-American community. Democratic big-shot Donna Brazile, stunned by her defection, managed to say: “Okay, it’s important that we have people in both camps.”

So readers have to take everything this lady writes with a wheelbarrow-full of salt. Will she write or say literally anything to sell a lot of books? I don’t know. However, from a purely literary and reporting POV, this is a decently crafted exposé of an exploding, bitterly dysfunctional administration. And no one can deny that Omarosa “was there”; she went right into the Oval several times a week and was a Trump confidant for many years.

One must also put on the table that this woman is now an ordained Baptist minister and has served as a missionary. After her relationship with Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Green Mile”) was tragically ended by his death, she fell in love with and married a devout Christian minister and serves side-by-side with him in a megachurch in Florida. So there’s that.

The world of bestsellers is awash in books like this one, so I’ll simply pass along three points that she makes with conviction. First, she attests to a scary deterioration in Donald Trump’s abilities and mental acuity. “The Donald Trump of 2003 was as smart and shrewd as he claimed to be,” she writes. But thirteen years later in the White House? “His mental decline could not be denied.” He rapidly gained weight, eating mounds of junk food. This may partially explain the president’s purple rages. “When his temper flares, he does not – cannot – hold back, and it’s terrifying to watch,” she says. “Trump screamed at [Chief of Staff] John Kelly with such violence; he’d never been spoken to by anyone that way before.”

Many political junkies were surprised and offended when President Trump literally shoved Montenegro PM Dusko Markovic out of the way during a photo op. “You came off a little aggressive,” Omarosa protested to him. “Why did you do that?” The president waved her off with this: “Oh, he’s just a whiny punk bitch.”

Many Christians quietly acknowledge that Mr. Trump isn’t their ideal candidate, but hope and trust that the Lord will “use him anyway.” One anecdote upends that cherished longing. On September 3, 2016, in the fiercest part of the campaign, Newman and others arranged for their candidate to speak at a large black church: Great Faith Ministries Church. Candidate Trump’s repeated complaints to his aide went along these lines: “You can’t leave me with these people.” “This is the longest I’ve been in church in my life. When is this going to end?” And finally: “God, how much longer do I have to sit here?” When elected, and planning for his inauguration, he openly mused about his desire to get sworn in using “The Art of the Deal” instead of the Bible. “Trump has no knowledge of the Bible at all.” Once in the White House, she regretfully noted: “Being offensive, inappropriate, and off-color is normal for him.”

Her most wrenching confession is how she was so blinded for years to two stark realities that were never going to change. “Donald Trump’s single greatest character flaw as a leader and human being is his complete and total lack of empathy,” she now testifies. Second: “The change in my mind and heart was due to a combination of factors, but mainly, my growing realization that Donald Trump was indeed a racist, a bigot, and a misogynist.” It’s no secret that he hated Obama to the point of paranoia. “The only item on his to-do list would be to erase the legacy of Barack Obama by undoing his policies.”

Again, this woman, faults and all, was right there standing next to her boss as the hate spewed forth in an unadulterated stream. “I had to go through the pain of witnessing his racism with my own eyes, and hearing it with my own ears, many times, until I couldn’t deny it any longer.”

I’ll let the writer share one glimmer of optimism in her conclusion, and then let me tack one last thing. “Playing upon people’s fears for the sake of legislative expediency is not a sustainable model for a healthy democracy, and, ultimately, we will reject it. We will come to the conclusion that the apparent gains of division pale in comparison to the benefits of unity and the pursuit of the common good.”

I can only hope and pray she’s right.

In C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Christian sci-fi thriller, “That Hideous Strength,” there’s a minor character named Mark Studdock who is enthralled by his chance of getting into that inner circle where the big men like Professor Frost make dark and thrilling plans. It’s pure evil, of course, but he’s too naïve, too trusting, too fawning,  too gullible and in awe of the power neckties and the boasts over cocktails in a posh men’s club.

And finally the scales are stripped away and this fragile man begins to find his soul. Lewis writes about that moment of conversion. “But what Mark could not understand was how he had ever managed to overlook something about the man [Frost] so obvious that any child would have shrunk away from him and any dog would have backed into the corner with raised hackles and bared teeth. Death itself did not seem more frightening than the fact that only six hours ago he would in some measure have trusted this man, welcomed his confidence, and even made believe that his society was not disagreeable.”

 

 

 

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