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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fiction Review: Candle in the Darkness

Candle in the Darkness by Lynn Austin is Book 1 of her Refiner's Fire Series. It is probably the best book I've read in a couple of years. It's strongly Christian yet not preachy. This is historical fiction but not pedantic. It is amazingly written and researched. It moved me to tears—not my usual reaction to a book and not exactly because it was tragic. It's amazing!

The setting is in the time of the U.S. Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up. I could easily imagine the scenes of this book. When I was a child, I often played with my brother on the earthworks at Drewry's Bluff at Fort Darling. I know Richmond, the James River, and so on. But, even if you aren't acquainted with the setting, this book will delight you—whichever side of the Civil War you identify with. This is by far the best Civil War story I've ever read.

Caroline Fletcher is a lovely young woman who lives on a plantation in Richmond. Her parents are delighted to be having a new baby, but sadly, the baby boy dies shortly after birth. Her father doesn't understand his daughter and has a difficult time communicating with her, though he loves her dearly. Caroline's closest friends are her mammy, Tessie, who's about fifteen years older than she is, servant Eli, her father's manservant Gilbert, and Grady, Tessie's little boy.

As a young teen, Caroline gets acquainted with her cousins. A visit to Hilltop, her aunt and uncle's plantation, is an eye-opener for her. These people treat slaves as if they were animals. Caroline gets busy helping sick slave children and ends up sick herself.

Caroline's mother is expecting again. After a long labor, the baby is stillborn, and shortly afterwards, Caroline's mother takes her own life. Caroline's father is desolate. Her Aunt Martha comes for the funeral and invites Caroline to go back to Philadelphia with her. There, Caroline meets the Reverend Nathaniel Greene, who heads up an anti-slavery group in the north. They become friends. In the meantime, she seeks comfort and friendship from her cousin Robert, who adores her. He's her savior at social events.

After some time, Caroline returns home and meets a most infuriating man with blue eyes—and one of the handsomest faces she ever saw. Oh, how he makes her mad. She never wants to see him again. Of course, she does, and they argue every time they're thrown together. Soon, she realizes he is Sally's brother, a member of the notable St. John family. She can hardly believe it, and her feelings for this man are beginning to change.

Caroline is also growing in her faith. Her convictions are the same, but she is learning to follow God—no matter what dangers she faces. Her spiritual mentor is Eli, the pastor of the slave church.

In order not to spoil the story, I'll let you read Candle in the Darkness for yourself. Whether you are black or white, whether your ancestors fought on one side or the other, you will love this book. I only wish all historical fiction was this good!

I must read the next book in this series. Candle in the Darkness easily gets five stars.

Candle in the Darkness contains one "white lie" that's not corrected, non-graphic descriptions of war casualties, a storyline about master-slave sexual abuse and implied adulterous relationships. There are no explicit scenes or details. I would recommend this book to older teens and adults.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The True Story that Beggars Belief

Writing is a scary thing. Putting words on paper is more than merely typing. It's finding the words and forming them into coherent form. Writing means baring one's soul to others. It makes us vulnerable. So, why write? Because it's important to share.

What have you experienced? How did you confront your circumstances? What happened next? Tell a story. Are you stumped? If I tell one of my stories, you might remember one of yours.

This one's true. You couldn't make it up. (The names of people and place have been changed for anonymity.)

My husband and I arrived at the church in the late morning of a weekday. We noticed quite a few dirty, troubled people in the hallway. They were waiting for something—a meal, perhaps? We passed through these men and proceeded to Pastor Martin's office.

Entering his study, we scanned the jam-packed room. The pastor made space for us to sit down. He was friendly, but his surroundings were … odd. A leopard pelt covered his high-backed desk chair, and here and there I noticed stuffed animals. Crammed with mementos, the office appeared colorful, almost gaudy, like a carnival. My husband continued speaking, "Would you allow us to present our work in your church?" he asked the pastor. We were surprised to hear "yes" but pleased, since each meeting was important to reaching our goal.

Ours was on a Wednesday evening. The yawning church building contained only around twenty people, mostly women. Pastor Martin strode across the platform in a shiny black suit, dazzling diamond rings on his fingers, and a mic in his hand. He introduced us in a showbiz voice, "And nooww … the Keisers." I could've died. It sounded like we should perform. What had we gotten ourselves into?

My husband calmly gave our presentation, complete with slides. The audience applauded, and then it was prayer time. Pastor Martin asked everyone to come to the front and join hands in a circle. I forget what happened next, but I left that meeting with disquiet in my soul. What was wrong? I couldn't put a finger on it. My husband said, "Look how few people were there in that huge church. Surely, they can't take us on."

But, they did. A few weeks later, we got our first support check from Pastor Martin's church.

Some months afterwards, we were talking with another pastor, who asked us which churches we'd visited in the area. My husband's list included Pastor Martin's church. The young pastor was Pastor Martin's relative, and he asked if we knew about Martin's moral failings, which he briefly described.

What were we supposed to do now? My husband felt we should ask the pastor of the practically empty church if the accusations were true, confront him with what we'd heard, and not just believe one person's account outright. So, my husband wrote a letter to the flashy pastor. He didn't get any reply. After several months, he wrote to Pastor Martin a second time and asked the church to discontinue our support.

At least a year later, we were packing to move to Spain, and the telephone rang. "Hello," I answered.

"This is the Jonesville City Police, Detective Steven Montgomery. Is Mr. Keiser there? I'd like to ask him some questions." I handed the phone to my husband and listened to our end of the conversation.

"Yes. Yes, I did. Well, it was of a delicate nature…. You see, we had heard he had had some moral failings, and we wanted to give the pastor an opportunity to reply. Well, yes. Let me explain. We are missionaries, and we want to be supported by churches that don't have these problems. Since I didn't hear back from him, I wrote him again."

After a pause, "No, I hadn't heard. No, it was only because of the moral problem. Thank you. Good bye."

I was all ears, curious to find out the remaining details. My husband told me that the huge church in Jonesville had burned down. The police suspected arson. One of the few papers surviving the fire was my husband's letter stating, "Since you have not responded, we have to believe that these accusations are true. Please cancel our support immediately."

Later, Pastor Martin was found guilty of burning down his own church in order to collect the insurance money.

I told you it's a story that beggars belief.

As you read my story, what incident from your life came to mind? Write it down. Share your experience. You are enough. And, your life can be shared. Just write.


Note: My contest entry ends at the above line. 

Now, for some lessons learned from our incredibly unique experience:
  • Don't outright accept everything you hear about others. My husband was correct to give the pastor an opportunity to respond. Jesus said, Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment (John 7:24).
  • When God calls, He provides. He has always met our needs over the thirty-four years we've served in Spain.
  • Be sure your sin will find you out (Numbers 32:23b). Sad, but true.
What's your story?