Thursday, April 28, 2011

And Now It's Been Two Years

How strange it is to gloat over the passing of time when that passing means moving away from the point of cancer. Today marks two years cancer-free. And yet, moving past the point of cancer seems never to mean it is really gone. Even its shadow has tentacles. It seems as poor form to celebrate such an event as to be happy that one’s home was spared in the wake of a tornado that obliterated a neighbor’s home. When I think of all my friends and acquaintances who have not been able to continue that celebration, all I can do is be quietly thankful and remember that “cancer-free” is never a certain decree.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

But it takes people to make those connections...

"The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man; nothing else that he builds
ever lasts... Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out. After an era of darkness, new races build others; but in the world of books are volumes that live on still as young and fresh as the day they were written——still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead...." ——Clarence Day

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Four Hundred Year Test


Final exams.

No matter what bull-dog determination students grab to wrestle through their testing seasons, there is no resilience to compare with a test of a very different sort, one I learned from the traditional American Thanksgiving saga. This is the test I have come to call the Four Hundred Year Test.

We all know about the fabled pilgrims who, buffeted in England for their faith, journeyed first to Holland, and then finally to the “New World” to seek religious freedom. On their ship to America in 1620, their faith and resolve were tested with all the rigors of primitive ocean-crossing travel of that time. Blown off course, their tiny vessel, the Mayflower, brought them to an inhospitable rocky coast where they were forced to winter. The hardship of New England weather coupled with the ravages of disease and near-starvation made it a miracle that any of the little band of travelers survived at all. We owe them much for their desire for God’s direction in all they did. The foresight to anchor their every act in His Word gave our nation the foundation that has made it the strong, blessed “harbor” for freedom that it still is today.

It wasn’t until my daughter stumbled upon those ubiquitous Dear America stories that the well-worn Pilgrim tale took on flesh and bones for me. Patience, the character from whose fictitious pen the narrative unfolds, was reflecting on her personal dilemma. On the ship whose uncertain voyage literally held the fate of her family’s survival, what little confidence she had began to dwindle. Such a price her family had paid—and all the other voyagers—that she mused whether it was worth the effort. They had all put so much into the voyage—not only into the voyage but into their entire lives—to obtain that elusive goal of being able to worship their Lord in the way of their convictions. Would all these hardships just be dashed upon some allegorical rocks and sink them into oblivion in that raging ocean? Would their convictions ever count for anything? She wondered if all their efforts would even be so much as remembered in a hundred years. Would her family’s simple day-to-day choices make any difference at all in the future?

It was from that plaintive entry in a fictional diary that a flesh-and-blood picture sprang up in my mind and took on the form of a rallying cry—a call to arms for a mission much broader than any five-year goal or ten-year plan. It painted a picture in my mind of a mission bigger than life—my life, at least. It stood as a rock-solid reminder that we don’t live for ourselves, that our actions have repercussions that reach far beyond our own life span. Those Pilgrim families chose a path whose impact has echoed through nearly four hundred years of history, and has set the foundation for a powerful government with international influence.

Can what I do in my lifetime pass a four hundred year test?

I am often dismayed to read articles and letters regarding people who agonize over whether they should continue the difficult course they have chosen for their betterment or for the benefit of their family. Perhaps these thoughts come from losing the insight that brought them to their decisions in the first place. Just like Patience in the Mayflower, blown off course in the midst of the stormy Atlantic, these people have lost the vision of what they are really doing. We think we are only attempting high goals for ourselves. But we are doing so much more! What we do may possibly provide future generations with an invincible foundation rooted in God’s ways—just like the Pilgrims—that will provide them with Life that will make a difference in more than just one life span.

While our nation is chipping away at the very bedrock truth that once made it great, conscientious parents and their families are going against that tide, seeking to provide a new generation with the resilience it will take to once again find that New World—and pass it on. We still hold these truths to be self-evident, and are determined to make them part of our lives in everything we do. We want to train up our children in the way they should go, to take on the whole armor of faith, and arm themselves for effective “battle.” But the battle does get weary when we set our sites on a target close at hand.

Instead of aiming for the target of “getting through this year” or even the target of graduation to another stage of life, let’s aim for a different target—the target of knowing that our arrows will make a difference in generations to come. As we set sail into each new endeavor, consider those whom your goals, once achieved, will benefit. Remember the Four Hundred Year Test.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pivot Point

It is only half the story to say that the power of books is through their doorway to the Great Conversation with the past. The real impact will only be seen in what we have to say to the future.

It takes faith to talk to the future. We don’t know that there even will be one. Yet, from one devastating epoch in treacherous history to another, there have thankfully been those who have had the faith that time would still move on—that there would be someone at the receiving end to talk to.

From one of those tumultuous past eras comes a vignette I’ve often pondered. It is from the life of Jane Lucretia D’Esterre. One of those stories that you just have to stumble upon, hers was one I found deep in the middle of a book I was reading about something else.

How can any romantic resist the pathos of a story that begins, “Jane Lucretia first heard of the duel that shattered her life when friends carried her dying husband into the house.”

There is every reason to be gripped by the story. The young woman—vivacious, talented, beautiful—is just the one to win hearts. Married to a man with a promising political future, she is the mother of two young children. Circumstances, however, rip her away from the contentedness of the good life.

“The year was 1815, the time of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Dueling was still legal....”

“Devastated” was not an adequate word to describe this woman’s reaction to events. She fled her country to the north, finding safe haven physically, but not emotionally. Her tragedy brings her to the brink of attempting suicide. But for what might have seemed mere happenstance, she would have taken that step. Somehow, she snapped back to her senses, returned home, and resumed life.

Life, though, was now different. She had found the Lord. Things didn’t change immediately, but in that imperceptible way that it often does, healing took place. A few years later, she met and married a man whose surname many will recognize: Captain John Grattan Guinness, youngest son of Dublin brewer Arthur Guinness.

The story isn’t yet over. In the telling of it by her great-great-grandson Os Guinness in his book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, he describes her as “unusual for several reasons.” He explains that she “conscientiously prayed for her descendants down through a dozen generations.”

But Dr. Guinness is only her great-great-grandson. That means there are eight generations still to come. Her prayer is yet to be fully answered. That’s the measure of one woman’s faith.

The trajectory of my faith—or yours—may not be as remarkable. After all, these are tumultuous times. There is one thing to keep in mind, however: the beginning of the trajectory marked the pivot point from past to future. It takes a decisive action to turn our attention from our heritage—receiving it, benefiting from it, enjoying it—to our legacy. It takes work to pass something on.

We are the pivot points between the turbulence of the past and the possibilities of the future. We carry the faith forward when our actions show our trust that our work will bring some good to light for those yet to come.

It takes faith to believe in a future. But if we don’t work for that future, too, our trajectory will be very short, indeed. While faith without works may be dead, works without faith are near impossible. As much as those of the past have spoken to us in the Great Conversation of our heritage, we need to speak to those who are yet to come.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I can’t adequately express my amazement at considering what—to others, I’m sure—is a simple procedure: to read a book. Reading is receiving what another has written, and writing, alone, is such a miracle. To think that the very thoughts of a person could be captured by mere scratchings on a page, and thus preserved in a manner making it possible to pass them along for years, generations, centuries, millennia—that, to me, is awe-inspiring. To know someone whom you will never be able to meet is incredible. But it happens all the time.

Recently, I uncovered a quote passed along by William Targ, known as one of America’s most distinguished editors. He, at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, was responsible for giving the go-ahead to one of the most widely recognized blockbusters of the 20th century, The Godfather. Targ had a deep love of the product of “the magical 26 letters by which we live” so it is no surprise that he would find, preserve and pass along this observation of an author of his time:

“When I was a ten-year-old bookworm and used to kiss the dust-jacket pictures of authors as if they were icons, it used to amaze me that these remote people could provoke me to love. Once I discovered that some author I loved had been dead for years, and my response was astonishment. Love beyond the grave! Love from people you will never meet! Love seeping through paper and parchment and ink! ...A piece of paper would be the magic mirror through which I stepped to join the imaginary friends who really loved me.”

While this author’s philosophy and works in no way match mine, in just this one aspect, I find her simpatico. Timelessness is to touch the paper that holds the words that change my world.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Keep the Conversation Going

There is something ethereal yet palpable about the power of the written word. It reaches far beyond a writer’s life span to romance another age.

I’ve lately been reminded of a quote concerning books—that they are a conversation between the reader and authors long since having died. In today’s transitory culture, though, you would think the conversation is over before the book exits The New York Times Best Seller list. The Internet’s version of niche marketing fractures that conversation and scatters it.

Though the publishing world leaves me behind in its reading dust, I find some rare gems, both antique and near-current, in my public library. Pity, though, that when my eyes cross the last page of a loaned treasure and my heart determines that I cannot live without my own copy, too late do I see that “back ordered” dissolve into “out of print.”

One library book, lately, claimed my heart only to meet with that very fate. Amy Hollingsworth’s Gifts of Passage offered a tender message skillfully interwoven with a narrative of her own experience in losing her father. It so resonated with me. I wanted to buy a copy for myself. And I wanted to have extra copies on hand to pass along to others who are finding themselves in the same place. Though Thomas Nelson published it only a short while back (2008), when I ordered several copies for myself, I was told it was no longer available.

A shame, too. Though I read Gifts of Passage after losing my own mother to the aftermath of a freak accident, the subsequent rapid succession of both my in-laws’ passing and a half-sister’s lost battle to cancer made this book the number one candidate to share with family members skimming dross from the painful message. The book spoke to me where I was, at that time, and gave me a pivot point, a “refresh” button, to focus on a more beneficial direction. Everyone passing through such pressure needs a touchstone. Amy Hollingsworth’s “conversation” provided that gift.

The loss of good books in these less-crossed streams of interest makes me more of a believer in print-on-demand options or even e-publishing. I know, I know—I’m a true believer in the wonder of the printed page, too, a connoisseur of the feel of the paper, the affect of font choices, the ambience of graphic handling. There is no virtual experience to compare with coupling text and texture. But there are so many parts of life moving at the speed of light that waiting to hear the roar of the presses dooms some conversations to obsolescence.

While exploring this brave new virtual world of e-publishing, it reminds me of one aspect the forward-thinking forget to consider: looking backward—backward to the many past volumes of the conversation. We’ve had a very, very long conversation, and we can still capture its content.

Wired’s Chris Anderson wrote The Long Tail to examine how technology enables movement away from mainstream products and markets (a few blockbusters at the “head” of the monolithic demand curve of the past) toward an economy able to serve many niches in the “tail.” Anderson focuses on case studies in the music and film industries, but the same is true for books. The conversation is not over before the book exits The New York Times Best Seller list. It isn’t over when the author gets the contract for the next book—not even when the writer passes on to a deeper recess of history. It shouldn’t be, because every book cries out to have a long tale.

With e-publishing, books can have that long tale. With print-on-demand, I can have that book even after it’s gone “out of print.” With e-publishing and print-on-demand, we can keep the conversation going.
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