Best Books of 2018

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Since we’ve been talking about books that changed us, it seems appropriate to do a book wrap up blog—not an unheard of thing in the blogging world, and you’ve probably read a few already.

Usually, when I consider writing about the books I’ve read in the past year, I think, no one on earth except the nineteen other people in your doctorate class care about the books you read all year. And maybe not even them.

Truth, most of my reading is tuned to the thesis-writing channel these days. That might be over this year. It might not. Professional reading is fun to me, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I do a lot of it. It’s a blessing to love to read about what you do.

Nevertheless, here are some reads from this year I’ll pass on. I think you’ll find something you like. Maybe we can talk about it!

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The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis, Patrick  Kingsley

Yes, it’s heartbreaking to read. I’ve had it on my list for a while. The author takes us on the journey of one refugee, while bringing together the tales of other men, women, and families, as well as facts about the refugee crisis. It’s riveting, horrible, and hopeful, all at once. It’s also the sort of book I’m working on right now, so stay tuned.

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All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way, Patrice Gopo

I heard Patrice at Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference and knew from the first night I would like her. When I listened to her teach about memoir, I had already picked up her book the night before. It’s a treasure of one woman’s learning how to navigate growing up, race, marriage, family, and not belonging anywhere yet finding grace. It’s beautifully written and relatable. I loved meeting her and hearing her heart. Also, that cover.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown.

What can I tell you about this one you probably don’t know? I read it on a plane in a few hours. It was painful, arresting, and true. There are so many things I don’t know about being someone I’ve never been. It is so helpful to read about others’ experience so we can open our eyes wider at the world and our space in it. There is no fear in knowledge—especially if it makes us better able to love our neighbor as ourselves. There is never anything lost by hearing another story.

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Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans

I got to be on Rachel’s launch team for this book, so I got to read it before the world! There is poetry, drama, logical analysis, theology, and story, all woven together in this ode to scripture and our use or misuse of it. If you want to look at Scripture with fresh eyes and maybe see it in ways you haven’t, check out Rachel’s writing and her way of bringing love of the Bible to reading of it.

Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity, Frank Viola

Why do I seem to like unsettling books? There is a trend here. I love a willingness to deconstruct church and its practices and not fear imagining something else. Not everything he suggests might work, but the candor to say it is refreshing. Viola offers a model for church that pulls us away from American cultural church and toward its roots. He dares to say that what we practice might be closer to our own preferences and heritage than to Jesus. It will make you think, and that’s the goal of all good books.

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Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, Bob Goff

I wanted to preview this book because Bob raises a question I struggle with—how do we really love people who try their hardest to be unlovable in today’s political and religious climate? Bob manages to open eyes to not only how we do that but, of course, how we sometimes are those unlovable people to someone else. His striking humility and hands-on personal testimony about how this works are enough to sell his authority.

One of my favorite quotes right off was: “I’m trying to resist the bait that darkness offers me every day to trade kindness for rightness.” Knowing it’s many of our struggle, not just mine, was a great start. It’s a daily thing, not a one and done. We have to resist that bait every single day it’s offered. And believe me, it’s offered a lot. Needless to say, I bought the whole book after being on the preview team, because I needed the rest of the story.

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Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin.

Full disclosure—this is my second read of this book. I love Rubin. She is a soul mate in some ways. Her work here on how we form good habits is perfect because it takes into account the many different people we are and that what works for one utterly fails for another. A great choice if you want to create better habits for 2019. I’m eagerly awaiting her next book.

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, Ian Cron, Susan Stabile.

OK, I’m late the the party on this one, but it was so helpful. Learning I am an enneagram 5 is a life-changer. I understand my motivational forces so much better, as well as the poor directions they could take me if allowed. Knowing why I have to feel so capable has led me to be able to put down some of those burdens and let myself be questioned and taught. I also understand my loved ones’ motivations and needs so much better. We have two 5’s, two 6’s, and one 4 in the family. It’s fun.

Books I am looking forward to in 2019:

Dare To Lead, Brene Brown. Enough said. It’s Brene. Also, I just got this one for Christmas, so maybe I’d better finally read it first.

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Outer Order, Inner Calm. Gretchen Rubin. Same. If it’s hers, I’ll read it. Also, that title. Who doesn’t need that?

Can We Trust the Gospels, Peter Williams. Just found this today, and I think it will be a valuable resource as a pastor. I like to discuss the hard questions with the congregation, especially the younger members, and this promises to be easy to understand and interact with.

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The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, Helen Thorpe. How did I not know about this one? It’s recommended by Malcolm Gladwell, and that’s enough for me. Also, I volunteer with refuge high school students, so this is needed reading for me. Can’t wait.

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Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth. This beauty. It came to me on my birthday . . . I cannot wait to be unbusy with doctorate stuff long enough to dive in. The illustrations alone are stunning enough to buy the book, if you’re a Tolkien fan (um, fan might not be strong enough a word) like me.

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Small Church Essentials, Karl Vaters. I read his blog very day because I need all the wise info on how to lead a small church and love it. Another Christmas present I need to find the time for soon.

What about you? What was your favorite read of 2018? The one you most look forward to in 2019?

Learning to Believe

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Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.

Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.

But One Remained

The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.

Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.

My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.

You Can Be Smart and Still Believe

Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.

“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”

He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

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The pulpit from which Lewis preached “The Weight of Glory” in Oxford.

And There Were Others

It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.

Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.

_There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it._

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.

I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.

The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.

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And Now

Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.

“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.

Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.

Books Have Helped

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Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

In the beginning, the baby bird’s cries sounded not so much plaintive as curious. “Are you my mother?” He didn’t know, as he ran from one being to the next, dog, cow, boat, plane, asking his question. Nearer the end, I’d hear the increasingly frightened baby, fearful of being alone in a giant world of snorting cranes and belching barges.

The turquoise cover with the sparsely-drawn little hatchling always closed on a happy ending, and I didn’t know if it was his safe return to his mother or his adventures in the great wide world I loved the best as a little girl.

Favorite Friends

I can still see my favorite book covers that I pulled open over and over as a tiny girl. Are You My Mother? sat on the shelf near the white polka-dotted Put Me in the Zoo and the Old World deep red of Ferdinand the Bull. They all fell open easily, their bindings creased with jelly-butter hands and little girl adoration.

Now that I review the past, it shouldn’t amaze me that all three have a protagonist who feels mismatched with the world he experiences.

Those are the stories that spoke to a little girl, the last of seven, the one no one in that family of nine quite understood, except perhaps my sister Marilyn who stayed home with me all day, because her wheelchair didn’t allow her the freedom to explore the world as she would have liked. My smallness didn’t, either.

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Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

More Old Friends

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Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

By eight, I rode my hand-me-down teal green bike to the McHenry Library once a week. We lived outside of town, over the one-lane metal Old Bridge, so it felt like riding to the next county. My mother told me it was only a mile—google maps now tells me two. Mom didn’t have google.

At least a couple times a year, I strained high and took a blue book off the shelves in the “big people” section. I knew exactly where it resided on that shelf, a biography of Helen Keller the name of which I don’t remember but the content I don’t forget.

The cover felt worn, partially because I had worn it but mostly because it was old, the blue fabric wearing into strands rough on my small fingers rather than a smooth linen. 

Helen, too, felt alone. Helen, too, had dreams of leaving her confined world. Helen, too, was, as my mother described her last offspring, “stubborn as a mule.” I liked Helen. I loved that she won. I struggled with her every time I read her story, and I read it a lot.

I didn’t know as a little one that my firm standing as an INFJ and a female Enneagram 5 would always ensure I felt not quite “in” anything. Such knowledge comes much later, if at all, and we’re left to navigate the whys of feeling in this world but not of it on our own when we’re small.

I only knew books helped.

It wasn’t even hard to feel countercultural when I became a Christian near the end of high school. I already was.

The hard part was taking “me” out of the center of it all, a struggle I continue every morning when the alarm wails at me.

Books have continued to help.

New Friends

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Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

When I stood beneath the venerable tan archway of Wash U as a new student, looking alternately up at the looming arch and down at the bronzed, scuffed circle beneath me that honored our equally venerable founder, William Greenleaf Eliot, I knew the next four years would involve a lot of books.

I planned a major in political science. Economics stood in the second-place slot, at least until I discovered how much calculus it involved. Third, in what the horses races call “show,” was English. Somehow, by the beginning of sophomore year, that third horse pulled around the outside corner to become the winner, surprising no one but me.

Four years later, with a black flat cap, gold cords, and a three-hundred degree graduation ceremony out in the quad (English majors know the proper use of hyperbole), I held a degree that led me to teach high school literature, not sit at a table learning of amicus curiae, habeas corpus, torts, and writs.

Thank you, Jesus.

Always Friends

Books saved me as a child. They told me there were others out there like me. No one could be completely alone if stories brought into my bedroom nearly-orphaned little birds, not-quite-dogs whose spots led them to seek acceptance in a zoo, or bulls who sniffed flowers and imagined a world in which they didn’t have to be who they weren’t.

Books opened my confined world as a teenager. Sometimes, the discovery left scars, because the world I didn’t know could be brutal, even more than the one I did. That was Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Darn Steinbeck. 

Sometimes, they left yearning, like half-breaths I didn’t know I was breathing, catching in my throat. That was Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time—books I didn’t even read until I was twenty-two, but that doesn’t matter.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Books have formed me as an adult. I’ve turned from fiction to theology, sociology, biography, history. Non-fiction, well done, still drives the imagination, and that it drives mine toward a better me, a better church, and a better world resonates with me more than fiction these years.

With the tribute to Eugene Peterson last week, I thought perhaps I would continue in a series of books that changed me, in some way, spiritually. In a positive way, that is. We’ve got way too much negative swimming around already.

What works have stuck with me, making me a better version of the small child who wondered if anyone else out there understood what life felt like, real life, the kind that feels everything and wants to know the limits and go beyond them. That child is still there. I hope, believe, she’s less her, more Jesus by now.

Books have helped.

A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

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Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

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Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

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We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

Maybe It’s the Hands

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

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Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

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What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

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Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.