A Mosaic of Images on Joy and Prayer

I come from a tradition that is suspicious of written or scripted prayers, believing that spontaneity is a sign of sincerity and casting askance glances at those who must borrow the words of others in order to talk to God.  Then I became a mother and realized that not only were my own words in prayer untrustworthy at times, but there were also events in life for which words would not come. Praying the examen of conscience at the end of a day has often given my tired brain a place to go and an outline to guide my conversation with God.

Light When It Comes by Chris Anderson is a guide book for the practice of “paying fierce attention” to life in order to enhance one’s prayer life and to ensure that we catch all the stories that matter.  At the end of the day, it is helpful to me to remember that I have an audience with God and to review the events of the day with thanksgiving, paying attention to emotions, to the ways in which guidance has come and miracles have happened.  It is also a time to offer up all the failings and disappointments for forgiveness and grace and to make plans for a more Christ-centered tomorrow.

In the midst of this reflection, I find that life distills down to a series of moments.

“The only place I can be is the moment.
Everything else is an abstraction.” (25)

Chris Anderson intersperses his teaching on joy and prayer with vivid re-tellings of moments from his own life in a way that I found to be jarring at first:  a story about a yellow warbler calling “sweet-sweet-sweet-sweeter-than-sweet”  jostles around between a vignette from a funeral and a description of the sound of his son playing the harmonica with a Bruce Springsteen CD.  Eventually, though, these disjointed stories began to “appear in their real potency,” just as the unsettling stories of Scripture do when we let them speak for themselves and to communicate beyond the stained glass and the flannel boards.

Reviewing the events of the day in the presence of God is an opportunity to face the darkness as well as to remember the joy.  This too is part of the paying attention, part of the humility that acknowledges that “God is greater than our hearts and He knows all things“– including the things we wonder about.

The author examines servanthood from his perspective as a church member and a deacon, acknowledging his own mixed motives (the only kind of motives available to humans), and the thirst that tries to satisfy itself with something other than Living Water (Praise?  Order?  Certainty? No, these do not quench the thirst . . .)

He portrays service as a learning process:

“Whatever else it is, the story of Jesus is the story of letting go and the giving up we have to do every day of our lives.” (86)

This paying attention to life means that God shows up in surprising ways:  in the midst of confusion, on the days when I don’t like myself, when what I really need to do is to stop analyzing and to start trusting. It is a recognition of the humility of a simple “and” when viewing the pieces that make up the mosaic of our lives, not striving for or forcing our way into “thus” or “therefore” before light has come, but offering up the individual events, both good and bad, so that the creation of the mosaic is, in the end, left to God.

Chris closes with two premises that bring the pieces together into a joyful whole:

  1.  “God is present in every moment and in every molecule.  His grace and His love are nowhere less than complete and full, anywhere in the universe, anywhere in time.
  2. The love of God and the grace of God are freely given, are nothing but gift, [and] there’s nothing we can ever do to earn them.  No matter how much I read or pray or do good works, I will never be more loved by God than I am in this very second.  Yes, we should strive to be better, we should strive to be more moral and faithful people, but not in order to merit the love of God but rather as a loving and grateful response to it.”

Having said all that, it is not in premises that Light When It Comes urges us to find our life, but rather in the blessed randomness of holy joy that flows into the wildly disjointed pieces of our moments and our days, making of it all a gift.

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This book was provided by the William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Finding Rest in Humility

Apparently, in addition to all his better-known gifts, Thomas Jefferson was a gardener. His experimentation with horticulture added over five hundred new fruits and vegetables to the world, but he was never able to successfully cultivate a vineyard at Monticello, his beloved Virginia home.  Here’s why:  the French varieties of grapes he coveted had no resistance to the tiny root louse which feeds on the roots of grapevines and thrives in North American soil.  His dream of a beautiful vineyard was being, quite literally, cut off at the roots.

Hannah Anderson shares Jefferson’s gardening woes as an illustration of the effect of pride on the human heart.  An infestation of pride not only cuts peace and joy off at the roots, but also heightens stress levels and causes the oblivious host to strive for levels of self-sufficiency and competence that we were never meant to shoulder.  In Humble Roots, Hannah shares a number of definitions of humility that give structure to her words and that also reveal the important role that a humble heart plays in the formation of a soul that is both grounded and nourished.

“Humility is accurately understanding ourselves and our place in the world.  Humility is knowing where we came from and who our people are.  Humility is understanding that without God we are nothing.” (56)

In directing our gaze to the lilies of the field, Jesus invites His followers to a humble dependence on His provision.  With 75% of Americans reporting that they experience some level of stress on any given month (21) — and all its attending health issues — a humble acknowledgement of our need can be life-saving.

“Humility is not feeling a certain way about yourself, not feeling small or low or embarrassed or even humiliated.  Theologically speaking, humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result.” (103)

This clear view of the self reveals that most of our struggles are rooted in a pride that exalts and prioritizes our own feelings over all else.  It takes a certain amount of courage to agree with John the Beloved Disciple’s assessment that God is “greater than our hearts.”  The humble admission that He “knows all things” — and by extension that I do not know all things — is a tremendous first step in admitting the limits of human reason and in acknowledging the truth that all is gift.

“Humility remembers both your human limitation and God’s transcendent power.” (157)

Proverbs 16:9 yields truth that eases my control issues with the knowledge of the choreography that exists between my decision-making and God’s sovereignty, for indeed, plan as I may, it is God who directs my steps.  How glorious that God invites me to dream, while also reassuring me that I need never lose sight of His ultimate control as the One who is writing the patterns for every figure of the dance.

“Humility teaches us to find rest in confession.  Rest from the need to hide, the need to be perfect.  We rest by saying, both to God and others, ‘I am not enough.  I need help.'” (186)

Life here outside The Garden means that no one is immune from brokenness and fallibility, but humility alleviates some of the sting, for when we freely confess our brokenness to God and others, we are free to grieve it, to stop hiding it, and to take grace.

There is irony in Hannah Anderson’s choice of a title for her book, for it quickly becomes clear that it is pride that lives in the roots of humanity.  Thus, it becomes the lifelong journey of the Christian life to uproot all that is harmful (or, depending on one’s perspective, to cooperate with God in His uprooting) and to transplant (by grace) all that redeems.  In the meantime, having read and allowed the truth to land on plowed soil, I’m enjoying the message that “God raised Jesus up because this is how God responds to humility.” (199)

And on this February day in which my refrigerator is playing host to two tomatoes that can only be described as “plastic,” my gardener-soul is nourished by this lovely sentence:

“A sun-ripened tomato is one of God’s clearest acts of common grace.” (118)

In Humble Roots,  Hannah Anderson has drawn a clear connection between the cultivation of those sun-ripened beauties and the pursuit of soul-nourishment, peace, rest, and an end to the ceaseless striving.  Using metaphors as earthy as our clay-based bodies, she cooperates with the Word of God to reveal that the quality of life we most desire will not come to us through power or reason or productivity or any number of quick fixes, but, rather, through roots that are sunk deeply into a theology of need and answering grace — and a humble acceptance of a life that is lived close to the ground.

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This book was provided by Moody Publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

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Embracing Brave

It certainly doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does, it’s a glorious thing — the meeting over tea that has all the marks of the C.S. Lewis definition of friendship:

““Friendship … is born at the moment when one [wo]man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

Open the cover of Brave Faith by Mary Geisen and begin to ponder with an understanding friend what it means to move toward the courage that leaves “fear, uncertainty, and other stumbling blocks behind.”  Read Mary’s personal narrative, and find yourself also yearning to be on the way to a soul-enriching journey down the road and away from your comfort zone.

Dipping her brush into the Scriptural accounts of the lives of brave saints, Mary also consults with well-known authors who have offered their wisdom on the brave life including Holly Barrett, Preston Yancey, Annie Downs, Emily Freeman, Jennie Allen, and Ann Voskamp.

Living brave may mean correcting our misunderstandings of what qualifies as brave.  In her own journey, Mary found herself staying put when that was not her plan at all.  Caring for her father in the final days of his life, Mary put her dreams on hold and found a contentment that was every bit as inexplicable as the wild courage that enabled her to tackle a mid-life missions trip to Nicaragua.

The brave give thanks by faith, and Mary challenges her readers to stop in their tracks and to give thanks for the gift of their present circumstances — whatever they may be.

Brave living is seasoned liberally with an abundance of well-placed yeses — and circumspect noes — and a clear-eyed awareness that much of life is not ours to control.  Living life’s messy stories with grace and strength requires a God-given courage and a living faith that trusts when God says, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you . . .” (Jeremiah 29:11).

With daily Scripture reading and an offering of questions that invite the reader to ponder and to journal in reply, Brave Faith opens a soul-lifting conversation and then leaves space for the Holy Spirit to work as the reader steps out in courage — and in surprise, for the journey toward brave is a life-long process with a new vision and a fresh opportunity to experience the wonder around every corner.

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This book was provided by the author in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Filling Up a Concept: Black History Month

capture

Discrimination, equality, dignity, and justice are abstract, intangible concepts, and some would say that they are beyond the reach of small children — completely inaccessible to the sippy cup and board book set.

But story is an effective conveyance of meaning and The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Story of Rosa Parks (Worthy Press, 2017) have anchored these abstract concepts in the bedrock of real situations with vivid pictures that bring them to life.  Concrete descriptions of discrimination are given context against familiar backdrops:  restaurants and schools, water fountains and crowded buses.

While it is true that some of the story details around dates and places will be lost on the tiniest story lovers, astute parents will explain what Rosa did when she worked as a “seamstress,” and that the day Martin spoke to a crowd of “more than 200,000 people,” he was talking to the number of people who live in a medium-sized city.  They will share the fact that this February would have been Rosa’s 104th birthday — that if Martin had lived, he would be the age of a very old grandpa.

Set within the narrative arc of a key historical figure’s life, justice looks like fairness – a concept near and dear to the heart of every child.  Intangible virtues of vision and courage are filled up with meaning by stories of a quiet woman stepping out of her comfort zone and into danger and a small boy imagining what it would be like to eat at any restaurant or to drink from any water fountain.

And in this tumultuous year of devastating news and untethered violence, parents can use a dose of unquenchable optimism portrayed in short stories that transport us back to our history of hope.  We all need the reminder that Rosa and America did win.  Martin’s dream did flourish.  His hopes saw daylight, and because of the bold actions of those who ushered in the civil rights movement, we celebrate.

Black History Month marks our resolve that America must continue to win Rosa’s fight for equality, dignity, and justice.  All that has been accomplished in the past pours meaning into the challenge for renewed vision.  Remembering and sharing stories of courage and commitment reinforces — with urgency — the conviction that Martin’s dream must live on.

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This book was provided by Worthy Publishing Group in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

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If You REALLY Want to Help those Who Grieve

We sat on the couch, side by side, but miles apart.  She had just lost her son in a tragic accident.  I had four living and healthy boys — and no words that could touch her loss.  In the weeks and months that followed, I wrote notes, shared Scripture verses, listened to her sadness, and showed up at her door bearing food, but never feeling confident that any of it held meaning, and often feeling as if I was missing the whole point.

Nancy Guthrie writes to bring clarity and a measure of confidence to people like me:  those of us who want to help and bring comfort to our grieving friends, but want to avoid saying all the wrong words and assuming things that are not true.  Her “research” for What Grieving People Wish You Knew was gritty and uninvited, and began on the day when her infant daughter Hope was diagnosed with a rare and fatal metabolic disorder.  Grief “barged through the door,” and Hope’s 199-day life was a day-by-day good bye that was all too short.

Certainly, this experience alone would qualify a well-known Bible teacher like Nancy to speak wisdom into the lives of those who grieve, but then, a year and a half after Hope’s death, Nancy discovered that she was, once again, pregnant with a baby who had the fatal syndrome and who also lived for about six months.  Working through all this sadness sharpened Nancy’s awareness that often, when Christians try to help those who have suffered losses, we mainly reveal that we just don’t “get it.”

In response, she conducted an online survey in which she asked grieving people for examples of what others said or did for them that proved to be helpful and meaningful. She shares many of these suggestions in her book, and they were truly a highlight, including thoughts as simple (and as obvious) as using the name of the deceased in casual conversation or sharing pictures and memories with family members.

Under the best of circumstances I’m not a great conversationalist, so it was a relief to me to hear the news that “it matters less what you say than that you say something.”  In fact, “even if you come up with the perfect thing to say (as if there is such a thing), it simply won’t fix the hurt or solve the problem of the people who are grieving.”  This is absolutely critical, and with that taken care of, Nancy goes on to provide additional insights:

  • Grieving is as unique as the individuals who grieve.  There is no one-size-fits-all comfort formula.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Don’t assume anything about their feelings, about the spiritual condition of the deceased, or that your own grief experience is comparable — or helpful to share.
  • Don’t feel the need to be a fixer.
  • Examine your heart for selfish motives in your caring or for a warped tendency to get your own need for significance met by ministering to your grieving friend.

Nancy quotes Dr. Kenneth Haugk who cautions us that if you hear yourself starting a sentence with the words “Well, I . . “; “When I . . .”; “I remember . . .”; or “My . . . ” — just don’t say it.

Other red flags that call for a re-thinking of our words include:

“Well, at least . . .”
“It was God’s will . . .”
“I know someone else who . . .”
“God took him/her so that . . .”

According to Nancy, one of the best statements you can make is “I don’t what what to say,” while one of the incorrect assumptions we make is that the grieving family is being ministered to by people who are “closer” to them, or, even worse, that they would rather just be left alone.  Showing up makes a powerful statement of support.

Esteeming the grief of those we love will look like patience and will keep us from putting a deadline on someone else’s grieving process.  It will keep us from looking away when they cry, and will give us courage to shed our own tears in their presence, because this demonstrates the fact that their loved one is worth grieving for.  Our shared sadness is tangible evidence of our love.

Nancy and her husband David host respite retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are actively involved in GriefShare which offers a ministry of education and counseling for those who are walking through loss.  She encourages grieving families to laugh and reminisce together and to seek community rather than trying to soldier their way through healing alone.

Over the long haul, friends who mark their calendar to remind them of anniversaries and birthdays, who provide practical help ranging from the casserole brigade to the repair of the broken back step, who offer to baby sit for children, or contribute money for the onslaught of expenses are truly demonstrating the love of Christ and are helping their grieving friends move toward healing and hope.

What Grieving People Wish You Knew is a resource of words and ideas, and it’s a gift to readers which will certainly result in greater courage and a more sensitive engagement of the Body of Christ with those who need to experience first hand the love and mercy of God.

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This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Love, Faith, and Courage in the Killing Fields

“One death is a tragedy.
One million deaths is a statistic.”      ~Joseph Stalin

Banking on this banality of evil, the Khmer Rouge murdered or starved 1.7 million Cambodian citizens during the years in which they were in power, all with an eye toward establishing themselves and their Community ideology. Having wiped out 25% of the population, the Khmer Rouge will go down as history’s most totalitarian regime, for even though Mao and Stalin were responsible for more deaths, no dictator has ever destroyed one fourth of its citizens.

This chilling period of history forms the meta-narrative of Les Sillars’s Intended for Evil, but he has brilliantly shared the harrowing story through the eyes of one man, Radha Manickam who survived the Cambodian Killing Fields.  Of Indian ethnic descent, Radha was born into a Hindu Brahmin family, but came to faith in Christ as a young man in 1973.  Accustomed to a life of plenty, Radha’s world turned upside down in 1974 when Phnom Penh, his home city, was caught in the cross fire of the war between Vietnam and the United States.  As the violence progressed, the Khmer Rouge gained power, adding to the death and destruction.  As refugees streamed into Phnom Penh from surrounding villages, fleeing U.S. bombs and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the population more than tripled and food was very scarce.

Lee Sillars’s journalism background is evident in his skillful reconstruction of the political and historical implications of this period, the pointless movement of the masses and the evacuation of entire cities, the irony of communism’s rejection of an existing social structure only to create their own class system based on “kum, a revenge so brutal that it destroys an enemy so they never can rise again,” (79).

In 1975, year zero of Pol Pot’s “new calendar for a new era,” Radha and the entire Manickam family concluded that there was no future for them in Cambodia, and so they joined the current of bodies flowing from their makeshift camps to the next uncertain stopping point.  When their passports were confiscated, they learned the folly of trusting Khmer Rouge officials and eventually discerned that any mis-step could have devastating consequences, for even gathering food in the woods to supplement starvation rations was considered a “betrayal” and, according to Pol Pot’s brutal rule book, the guilty party “will be crushed,” (99).

Weakening the population through starvation was only one technique of the Khmer Rouge.  They undermined family bonds by separating relatives whenever possible, and they scorned (and ultimately abolished) all religions, including even those indigenous to Cambodia.  Anyone wearing glasses (the sign of an ability to read), possessing an education, owning a business, or practicing a profession was systematically eliminated, leaving behind a bankrupt culture that would take generations to recover.

Our family was introduced to the regime’s lasting effects ten years ago when we hosted a family of missionaries on home assignment following a term in Cambodia.  Arriving in our yard, their kids and our kids poured out of vehicles, mixed and mingled, and then headed straight for the woods to pursue adventure. Witness to the stricken look on their mother’s face, I was surprised at her explanation:

“Land mines.  In Cambodia, the kids can’t just go running off into the woods unless there is a well-marked trail.  For a minute, I forgot that it’s o.k. here.”

In that moment, the legacy of Khmer Rouge terror migrated into a back yard in Maine.

By grace, Radha Manickam’s life was spared because he was able to persevere in forced labor — a city boy, learning by trial and error what to do with the business end of a shovel and how to plant and harvest rice for back-breaking, spirit-crushing hours on end.  The soldiers in charge of his work details were essentially a brute squad who subjected workers to unspeakable torture and cruel indignities while overseeing canals that collapsed and agricultural projects that failed abysmally due to mismanagement and ignorance.

Disease and starvation were all that flourished until the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.  Tragically, most of Radha’s extended family had already perished, but grace triumphed when Radha learned that Samen, the wife he had been forced to marry in a mass wedding ceremony (set up to breed the next generation of new socialists), was also a believer.  Sponsored by Samen’s family in the U.S., they made their arduous way to California where they began to heal from the years of devastating loss and began to minister to other victims of the crisis in Cambodia.

Les Sillars’s chosen title, of course, brings to mind the biblical story of Joseph, the refugee, slave, and prisoner who found, at the end of his waiting that God had transformed the evil intentions of his brothers and all of his own suffering into a great good — for himself and for the people of Israel.  Brought face to face with the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I am forced to question the contents of my own heart.  After all, the people who were conscripted into service as guards and soldiers were just common peasants and farmers, and following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of them went quietly back to their homes and families.  There is a sobering subscript to this inspiring story about Radha’s God-given courage under extreme circumstances:  a society can be plunged into evil by the removal of all that is good, and “those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves, and those terrified by the discovery have not grasped the grace of God.”

Like Joseph, Radha would affirm that his years of suffering are evidence that what evil men intend for harm, God was able to turn upside down for the accomplishment of His purposes and the advancement of His kingdom.

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This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group,  in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Love Hides Close By

Until I put it on display, love is sometimes hard to see.

Dr. Mary Manz Simon invites pint-sized theologians to embark upon a delightful scavenger hunt, looking for all the places love hides in the daily life of a preschooler.  She does this with precision, because when we demonstrate the love of God to others, it is not with the intention of motivating Him to love us in return or to increase His love for us.  Rather, we love Him (and others) because He first loved us, and all our acts of love or obedience serve to demonstrate the unselfish mercy and grace that is God’s love.

So . . . where does love hide?

Readers will find six replies, hidden under the flaps that have been incorporated into the construction of Hannah Wood’s large, vivid illustrations which feature a rainbow of children who have been caught in the act of being good with actions with which even the youngest toddler can identify.

My grandson’s tiny fingers were well able to grasp and open the flaps, and it turns out that love hides very close at hand, for the revelation of love can come with an invitation to a friend, a sharing of cookies, a cheerfully executed chore, or practical services offered to the weak or the elderly.

Relevant and simply stated Scripture verses make a solid case for each example of loving deeds and will help parents (and grandparents!) to set the example in establishing memory habits as they work together to learn the verses.  A fun way to encourage this would be to let the child pull back the flap and give the answer to the question while the adult says the verse — and then switch roles.

Giving and receiving love involves words as well as actions that lend weight to those words.  After all, God Himself communicated His love to us through the Word, but He didn’t stop there:

“God demonstrated His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,”                 Romans 5:8.

When our children join Him in the joy of giving, His love is put on display for all the world to see.

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This book was provided by Tyndale Kids, a trademark of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

This is the third of Mary Manz Simon’s books that my grandson and I have had the privilege of reading and sharing.  You’ll also be interested in discovering God Made the Sun and God Made the Moon. (Click to read my review.)

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.