Category Archives: Journal

Sidney Chambers in The Forgiveness of Sins by James Runcie

The Forgiveness of Sins is the fourth book of the Grantchester mystery series. These stories are not suspense stories but quiet mysteries, involving more than solving a crime. They offer insight into problems of evil, sin, and redemption. Critics have compared the series to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.

The main character of the Grantchester series, however, is drawn more fully. He is Sidney Chambers, an Anglican priest. He loves jazz and walking his dog. He constantly worries that his investigative pursuits may keep him from both his priestly duties and, eventually, his family responsibilities.

Single at the beginning of the series, he marries and becomes a father. Many of the mysteries involve close friends. One of his sidekicks in the stories is a policeman friend with whom he enjoys games and drinks in a neighborhood pub.

My enjoyment of the stories springs from the dry, British-understated dialog, as well as occasional inclusion of the political and cultural events of his time. The series begins shortly after World War II, when rationing was in effect. In The Forgiveness of Sins, Sidney and his family are in Florence, Italy in 1966 during the disastrous floods that ravaged the city. A masterpiece stolen during the flood plays into one of the mysteries.

During times of turmoil, such as the one unleashed by recent political events, I find such books as the Grantchester series to be soothing while thoughtful, a rest from some of our dystopian who-done-its.

A reviewer of the series for The Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn, wrote: “Runcie meant these novels to be a commentary on life in post-World War II Britain, and so they are. But the themes of good and evil, temptation and sacrifice, remain as fresh as today’s news feed.”

Success: How Much Depends on You Alone?

Robert H. Frank, in his book Success and Luck, explores the role played by luck in the success or lack of it in a person’s life.

Those of a spiritual nature may prefer the term providence instead of luck, but no matter. Frank suggests the good fortune of a person with talent born in the United States rather than, say, war-ravaged Libya. Or the young girl whose parents care for her rather than the girl abandoned by her father and “raised” by a mother on drugs.

Frank doesn’t downplay the role of hard work. Many people beginning with life against them do succeed. He points out, however, that others with talent and a strong work ethic don’t make it to the top but live mediocre lives.

He includes studies to back his claims as well as the results of differing attitudes. Those who believe that their good fortune is a result only of their own efforts are less likely to favor programs giving the less well off a chance to improve their lives.

On the other hand, those successful people who realize how little they deserve their good fortune tend to be filled with gratitude for the good that has befallen them. They are much more likely to favor helping those who were not favored with such advantages. They wish to pay it ahead.

What’s the Secret of a Literary Masterpiece?

We sat mesmerized while the actors spoke in Elizabethan English and dashed around on a small square stage in the middle of four groupings of folding chairs. How could a three-hour play, William Shakespeare’s Richard III, written five hundred years ago, so capture our twenty-first century audience? An audience accustomed to movie masterpieces with all sorts of special effects?

What made the play speak to us? First of all, superb actors. They created emotions, ambition, and desire that spoke through the often unfamiliar and flowery language. They pulled us into a world of treachery and betrayal and ambition. They acted so well that the sniping, arguing, and name calling in the first act recalled twenty-first century political sparring followed on our mobiles.

Shakespeare’s stories remind us of unbridled ambition, as prevalent today, not only in our politics but in our corporate boardrooms, as in the bard’s England. He portrayed the universal type who sees others as no more than tokens on a chess board to be swept aside to win prizes. The story and the characters were real in a basic sense, despite their sixteenth century trappings.

It isn’t always the suspense of wondering how a story will turn out. Most of us in the audience knew what happened to Richard III. It’s the journey, the how and the why that captivates. Because these stories are repeated through the centuries, and we shiver at their familiarity.

Swords into Plowshares: One Way to Deal with Guns

Michael Martin, a Mennonite from Colorado, turns guns into tools you can garden with. (“Gardening with Guns,” Plough, Autumn 2016.)

Martin and his wife, Hannah, decided to change guns from weapons of destruction to tools for growing food. Their first weapon was an AK-47 assault rifle. They turned it into hand cultivators.

One mother, who had lost her son to gun violence, pounded a handgun removed from Philadelphia streets into a hoe and tilling fork. It was used to plant flowers for gun violence victims.

Another mother, whose son shot several young schoolgirls before committing suicide, took a hammer to the barrel of a gun in a demonstration for Martin’s organization. The mother visits regularly with one of the survivors of the shooting, who is wheelchair bound from the incident.

A military veteran, saved from suicide by a passing stranger, turned his Smith & Wesson .22 into a tool he used for planting a garden.

Anther man, whose father committed suicide with a gun, donated it to the group.

Martin’s group, RAW (WAR turned around) does not take away gun rights. They simply transform guns into instruments for healing and growth.

Meditation After Another Mall Shooting

Last weekend, the news flashed across our digital screens: yet another mass shooting among mall shoppers in our normally quiet corner of northwestern Washington state,

Beyond the rise of gun deaths, which should trouble us all, I pondered the heartache of ordinary people. A carefree outing can vanish in the time it takes for a troubled young man to pull the trigger of a gun a few times.

Five people killed at random, out for innocent Saturday evening fun—shopping, movie watching, perhaps a meal out.

Then I remembered an eighth grade Valentine’s Day party when I was thirteen years old.
It was also the day my father was due to come home from the hospital, An ambulance had taken him there following a sudden heart attack. Now, so medical tests showed, he had recovered well enough to return to us.

Instead, in the middle of the Valentine party, a family friend appeared at the classroom door and took my teacher aside to talk to him. I will always be grateful to that teacher for then leading me outside and so gently telling me that my father had died.

I learned at an impressionable, early adolescent age that good things are not guaranteed to continue.

No matter that mall outings join the list of community spaces where innocent fun can change in an instant to soul numbing tragedies. Yes, we’re called to address the issues that allow people to be killed so easily, but first we must take care of families plunged into tragedy through no fault of their own.

After my father died, we learned the value of friends surrounding us with care. They led us again to believe in purpose. They moved us beyond tragedy, able again to enjoy life’s blessings, of which many more were to come.

Good times may not last, but neither do bad times.

Five Favorite Books

My list of favorite books varies according to what I’m currently reading, but here I list, in no particular order, five books that gave me new insights.

Gary Sick, All Fall Down. Gary Sick was part of Jimmy Carter’s presidential team. He outlines in detail the thinking and events that led to the Iranian student takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Our relationship with Iran since then has been, to say the least, tortured. I referred to this book while researching for my novel, When Winter Comes.

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life. One of the best biographies I have ever read. It won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. It opened up for me a part of twentieth century American history that still influences us today.

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This book, published in 1996, describes the author’s perspective on major civilizations in the world today and their differing world views.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. A little book that arose out of Frankl’s experience in the death camps of the Holocaust. He explains not only the philosophy that helped him survive but gave him meaning afterward.

Elizabeth Elliot, A Slow and Certain Light. Elliot was the widow of Jim Elliot, killed while serving as a missionary to the South American Auca tribe. I began reading and rereading this book during a period of purposelessness, a time I thought would never end. It gave me hope until something better arrived.


The American Mission, by Matthew Palmer, is the story of a young U.S. diplomat in Africa. The diplomat, Alex, suffers from post traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a massacre he was unable to stop, in Darfur, one of the troubled regions of Sudan.

The disorder has damaged Alex’s career. In his new assignment, he deals with a corrupt African government, as well as his own betrayal by some of his colleagues, and his progress toward redemption.

I loved the story for many reasons. Readers love a decent but damaged hero who struggles to overcome the forces of evil. As a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, I also personally identified with the settings.

Finally, someone has written a realistic story (with certain novelistic liberties, of course) about the U.S. Foreign Service. Palmer has taken U.S. diplomats out of the realm of striped pants cookie pushing and created a more realistic picture of what they do.

Matthew Palmer should know. He is, in fact, still an active Foreign Service officer. I watched a video interview with him about his newest book, The Wolf of Sarajevo, which I look forward to also reading. Palmer, of course, can write realistically about diplomats in the Balkans, as well as other places, because he served there.

Palmer said he cringes at popular perceptions of diplomats in the literary world. He had difficulty getting his novels accepted by a publisher. Publishers had problems with the “foreign” element of the story. A story about Americans in Africa? they asked.

I sympathize. In pitching my novels, at least two editors told me they would have difficulty pitching a story set in a foreign locale to their American readers.

This perception is changing. Several such novels have become popular with American audiences. (Books by Khaled Hosseini, set in Afghanistan, come to mind. In a lighter vein, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith are popular.)

Even U.S. political campaigns seldom explore foreign policy in any depth. Perhaps the publishers and the politicians are missing a newer population, more interested than they had supposed in countries beyond our shores. After all, Americans should know about the countries where they send their soldiers to die.

How Religious Pluralism Strengthens Faith

Peter L. Berger, a professor at Boston University, wrote an article, “The Good of Religious Pluralism” (First Things, April 2016).

What’s good about it? Doesn’t pluralism undermine faith?

Berger says no and lists four benefits of religious pluralism:

It becomes more difficult to take a religious tradition for granted. Acts of decision become necessary.

Freedom is a great gift, and pluralism opens up new areas of freedom.

If pluralism is combined with religious freedom, all religious institutions become in fact voluntary associations (whether religious believers find this theologically congenial or not).

Pluralism influences individual believers and religious communities to distinguish between the core of their faith and less central elements.

Religious pluralism, it seems, encourages personal commitment to a faith rather than blind obedience.

Loving What Is Not Used Up

Material things—our clothes, our iPhones, our gourmet meals—aren’t in themselves evil, but they are finite.

The problem with material things is the emphasis we place on them. The saying “money is the root of all evil” is incorrectly quoted. The correct admonition is: “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.”

Excesses of material things—harvested fruits or wealth—are not to be loved or hoarded but shared as well as enjoyed. The Hebrew Old Testament enjoins the people of Israel against too much efficiency. They are not to reap to the borders of their fields but to leave the leftover for the poor to gather.

Our nonmaterial resources follow different laws. They are not “used up.” One learns to enjoy music. To reach higher levels of musical understanding brings greater enjoyment and does not take from anyone else.

The good gifts don’t decrease with use, but grow with use.

My Kind of Escape Reading

My reading is more or less divided into two camps: stretching and escape. Most of my nonfiction is of the stretching variety, magazines and books I read to learn and to encourage ideas.

My fiction tends to be of the escape variety. Recently I’ve discovered a detective series that suits my kind of escape reading. It’s Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge novels. Rutledge is a detective from Scotland Yard, well beloved locale of many British novels.

Rutledge, however, is a wounded hero. He suffered trauma during World War I as a commanding officer for four years. In his imagination, he carries on conversations with one of the men, Hamish, a Scottish soldier Rutledge sent to his death for disobeying orders during the terrible Battle of the Somme.

Seeking to recover from what we now call post traumatic stress disorder—as well as he could recover—Rutledge suffered a broken engagement.

His investigative work is his salvation. He struggles to quiet Hamish’s sometimes accusing voice; yet Hamish provides a foil against which Rutledge can bounce off his theories as he attempts to solve complicated crimes.

Though grim deaths are a part of the plot, violence is not glorified, nor is sensuality.

I enjoy the fight for survival the hero makes, the cynical comments that are honest but not overwhelming, and especially the small lives of villagers and ordinary characters drawn well by the author.

The series is my kind of fiction: realistic, yet not drowning me in despair. Occasional kindness. An imperfect hero, yet with high standards. Bringing me out of my everyday world, but not, as my mother would say, leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth. Enough hope that I check out the next one.

Elie Wiesel and Others Died This Week

During the past few days, hundreds have died violent deaths in the Middle East and South Asia. Other deaths included five police officers in Dallas, a man in Minnesota, and the named sniper of the police officers. A survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, also died naturally at the age of 87.

Of all of them, Elie Wiesel knew the most about hatred. At the age of fifteen, he and his family—Elie, father, mother, and two sisters—were forced into cattle cars and taken to Nazi death camps. His mother and two sisters were taken from him. His mother and one sister died; the other survived. He saw his own father die in the camp, pleading for water.

Elie Wiesel did not kill anyone in revenge. Instead, he dedicated his life to a search for the meaning behind such senseless inhumanity. He earned the Nobel peace prize, and his writings are read widely.

He helped establish the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He set up a foundation to pursue human rights in Cambodia, Bosnia, South Africa, Chile, and Rwanda.

Wiesel did not seek revenge. Instead, he worked to save others from suffering as he had.

Smoothing Out Life’s Ups and Downs

“When the flames of devotion are within your soul, it is wise to consider how it will be with you when the light is taken away. And when the light is extinguished, remember that eventually the light will return.”

–Thomas à  Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, compiled and edited by James N. Watkins

I confess little enthusiasm for old classics, especially the spiritual ones. Many, when I read them, leave me bored with what seems to me only Middle Age piety.

Recently, I discovered a modern translation by James N. Watkins of the book attributed to Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. I’ve been hungering lately for deeper meaning, and this book has met some of that craving.

Yes, the book sometimes talks of our nothingness before God. We post-moderns consider such thoughts heretical, arrayed against a we-must-feel-good-about-ourselves mentality.

Yet, the book speaks to me when I feel failures staring me in the face, ambitions unrealized, loved ones hurting.

It also touches me when I’ve triumphed. It keeps me from riding so high that I think life is always going to be this way, a never-ending victory.

As à Kempis says, “And do not depend too much on spiritual emotions, for they can quickly turn to the opposite feeling.”