BOOK REVIEW: “I Will Always Write Back”

 

I-will-always-write-back

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK

This amazing book relates the miracle of two high school kids whose pen pal relationship transforms both lives. Martin is a brilliant boy living in abject poverty in Zimbabwe; Caitlin is an admittedly pampered junior high girl in Pennsylvania suburbia. For the first half of the book, the contrast is stark. Martin works against insuperable odds to better himself while his lily-white counterpart in America goes to the mall, goofs off, and wastes her extravagant allowance.

But the thrill of this story is witnessing how Caitlin’s family develops a sympathetic heart for her bereft overseas friend, sending him $20 bills, then care packages, and finally a desperate attempt to get him into a prestigious U.S. university with a full scholarship.

Special kudos must go to Liz Welch, who took the collected stack of saved letters from these two young people, endlessly interviewed them, and then created this amazing saga of “Love Thy Neighbor.” And a big thanks to Scholastic for spotting this literary gem and putting it in their bargain catalog where millions of children might be inspired to go and do thou likewise.

 

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Red Hat Blue Hat

HATS

Christian #1: “Send her back!”

Christian #2: “You’re all bigots!”

I got a prickly surprise the other day. It leaked out here on Facebook that an admired friend of mine is a diehard and enthusiastic member of The Other Party. And I didn’t know. I really didn’t know.

Let me say, first of all, that she’s a sweet and precious Christian. Our email exchanges are cheering, heartfelt, and bathed in the gospel. Her passion for Jesus is palpable. She lends her talents to the cause of growing the Body of Christ.

And hey, she’s in The Other Party. In the 2016 election, it’s painfully obvious her vote cancelled out my own.

Thinking about this brought to my mind a classic line from C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book, Mere Christianity: THERE WILL BE SURPRISES.

In terms of my Facebook friend, she might not yet suspect that I’m the Enemy. But if she has, I can picture her muttering imprecations to herself, fingers trembling over her keyboard: “David? You? Say it isn’t so!” And I have a decent confidence she’d return what I hope are the above spiritual compliments. I know for a fact she appreciates the Christian stories I pen and the good they hopefully accomplish.

Okay, is this an amusing or terrifying sci-fi scenario? A large congregation senses some sort of divine “pulse” right during the morning prayer. When they get up from their knees, every believer is wearing either a blue or a red rally hat. We’re all outed! People are craning their necks and gaping. “You! No way! I believed in you! You spoke at prayer meeting!” I still recall how my daughter was comically aghast to learn one of her favorite aunts was really and truly one of “them.” She shook her head, confused. “Didn’t Uncle Danny INTERVIEW her?” How could such a fatal character flaw go undetected for so long? “There will be surprises.”

Here’s my takeaway for this week of unexpected realignments. There are wonderful, solid disciples of Jesus Christ in the Democratic and Republican parties. Millions of them. As you kneel for prayer this weekend, there might well be people on both sides of you, also on their bended knees, who passionately donated to and campaigned on behalf of and voted for That Other Person.

I’ll go one step further. Most everyone in that faraway D.C. club of 535 people – senators and representatives – are amazing, passionate, well-informed, articulate citizens. They all won tough political races against savvy, well-organized foes, something you and I have not accomplished. In the Venn diagram that is our current Congress, yes, they do split off into discrete D / R subsets . . . but they’re all still American patriots. Not one person walking those frescoed halls hates their country or wishes for its demise. And it’s grossly unfair when we imply that they do.

So the question comes. How do men and women grow up in the church, attain to voting age, read the literature and watch the presidential debates, and then split into two such vehemently warring and polarized camps? I can’t fully answer that question for others, but I can look back at my own 46 years of studying issues and formulating a core philosophy. My variables aren’t yours; nudges came at me that bypassed your neighborhood. I came of age during Watergate; your formative moments might be poles apart from that wrenching time. And as I think about my recently unmasked friend, me on one coast and she on the other, I have to bow respectfully in accepting that a different set of factors gave her a passion for a distinct set of national and cultural priorities.

I don’t fully understand it, but our shared friendship forces me to acknowledge that her Christian ardor isn’t diminished or compromised by the fact of how she marks her ballot.

Just to fill out my musings, here’s the Lewis paragraph:

“Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really wore than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? THAT IS WHY CHRISTIANS ARE TOLD NOT TO JUDGE. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off of others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one of us as he really was. THERE WILL BE SURPRISES.”

None of us can comprehend the gut-wrenching 2:00 a.m. experience which might have tugged any one of us into, say, either the pro-life or pro-choice army. Or why one devout believer supports same-sex marriage while the Christian one pew over feels they cannot. I daresay if we could open up and share these testimonies and then hug each other while blurting out, “Okay, now at least I understand,” the surprises would begin to fade into the shared sunset of our national identity.

In the meantime, “Love one another. For love is of God.”

 

 

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Movie Review: “Yesterday”

YESTERDAY

 

You’d have to be a Beatles fan, but the new film “Yesterday” is a wonderful nostalgia-drenched ride. Its basic premise is that the entire world has blinked . . . and all of a sudden, only Jack Malik has any memory of songs by the Fab Four. So out of the blue, this inept songwriter is coming up with brilliant new tunes. There’s a stunning scene early on where Malik begins quietly singing McCartney’s hit, “Yesterday,” for three female friends of his who have never heard anything from him beyond June-croon-spoon. The look on their faces as those classic lyrics bathe them for the first time . . .

The film nicely grapples with the reality that he’s morphing himself into a global phenom by plagiarizing the creative brilliance of others. But the whole movie is really stolen by actress Lily James, who seems to be luminous in every role she picks. You’ll hardly recognize the same blond beauty from “Mamma Mia” or “Downton Abbey,” but this story of unrequited love between her and Malik is very touching.

The soundtrack is awesome, of course, and the film has tons of inside jokes, some of which I’m sure I missed. But if you’re a fan of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, don’t miss it. I enjoy ditching work and seeing a classic like this when I’m 64. See, like that.

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MercyMe Concert!

mercy me

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”

Jon Meacham Photo and Book 07242015

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”

 

GRISHAM

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”

MICHELLE OBAMA2

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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