Review of Without Warning

President Harrison Taylor just saw firsthand that all the whispered warnings about how far ISIS would go were true – from inside a metal cage. He heard the screams of the children in the night. He watched as nearly an entire special forces unit was decimated with sarin gas during his rescue.

He knows Abu Khalif, the apocalpytic psychopath behind all of it, is just licking his chops.

At least, he should know.

As J. B. Collins observes the president during his eloquent address to an adoring nation, his heart sinks. Rather than dig in his heels to stop at nothing to stop Khalif, President Taylor appears ready to get boots off the ground the moment he’s saved face.

The President asks J. B. Collins to rise. No matter that the president is ticked with him. They both know Collins deserves the spotlight after his heroic rescue months earlier.

Thwump. 

Thwump.

Thwump.

What comes next is no surprise to Collins, who’d just warned the peacenik POTUS of imminent danger.

For us readers, though, it’s the ride we’ve been waiting for since the end of The First Hostage, when we left J. B. gazing out the window at the fighter jets accompanying him to safety.

In a Nutshell

When J. B. Collins rescued the President of the United States from ISIS forces intent on bringing about the end of days, the nation believed it was a resounding victory. The president keeps saying it – “ISIS is on the run. Victory is ours. The cowards are in the death throes.”

Only Collins seems to remember the promise of Khalif to raise the black flag of ISIS over the White House.

With approval ratings through the roof, Collins knows President Taylor is irritated to be warned of the clear and present danger that, if anything, is growing.

That’s the opening. I refuse to spoil the book for you, but I tell you this: You need to read this book. If you haven’t already read The Third Target and The First Hostage, you’ll want to start there. There’s time, too – Without Warning doesn’t hit the shelves until March 14, 2017.

And don’t worry if you aren’t a fast reader. With these books, you’ll be a fast reader. The pages just…turn.

My Impression

Joel C. Rosenberg has grown as a writer. While I’ve long enjoyed his books for the compelling accuracy he employs, his ability to keep me on the edge of my seat has deepened into an art. The writer side of me often found myself pausing to savor the technique – something I usually reserve for Thoene books.

This book rivals some of the best I’ve ever read.

Why?

It speaks to me. Repeatedly. I see myself in President Taylor, and I wonder if I’m too concerned with what people think. I see myself in Yael, and I realize that the best career in the world can’t match the satisfaction of caring for those you love. I see myself in J. B., wondering if I’m crazy to try to make a difference when I’m the least likely person.

It grips me. This line says it all: “J. B., have you completely lost your mind? What, you suddenly think your initials stand for James Bond? Jason Bourne? Jack Bauer? You’re going to get yourself killed.”

It ends well…without warning. It was one of the most satisfying, moving endings I’ve read in a long time. But I never saw it coming.

The Big Test

Without Warning, above all, accomplishes its spiritual mission. As the world goes up in flames, J. B. continues on his quest to find Khalif while evading the faith of his brother.

I don’t know when I’ve met such a sympathetic character. I feel bad even calling him a character – he seems real. He’s a New York Times star who wants a great story. He’ll break stories from Twitter, if necessary. As a wannabe writer, I totally get him.

He knows – down to the day – how long he’s been sober. He’s trying so hard. On so many levels he’s on the outside, looking in. He’s missed his family. He misses Yael. He’s still reeling from his divorce years ago.

As the story pressed in on him, he changed from a sympathetic character on the brink to a strong person facing unimaginable odds and surviving. I understand that’s what’s been happening throughout the series, but this book ratchets it up a bit. From physical danger to moral temptation* to career jeopardy, J. B. is forced to face his own limitations.

You can’t not like him.

He’s friends with Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis, and U.S. VIPs. He’s touched by his nephew memorizing “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” even though he’s not yet willing to think about his need for the Saviour who said it. There’s preaching without preachiness. Never did I want to just skip to the action. It’s interwoven, and it’s good.

If you’re the type who’s typically scared off by “Christian books,” then you’d totally get Collins. If you’re the type who’s scared of by people who are scared off by “Christian books,” you need to meet J. B. Collins.

You can’t not like him. Get this book.

Thank you, Mr. Rosenberg, for following God and letting Him use you. I pray that He greatly uses this book to bring revival and save souls. It’s perfect for such a time as this.

It was such an honor to get to review this book, and I thank Tyndale wholeheartedly for providing the free copy and the opportunity. 

*This book does contain a scene that pushes the limits of propriety. While absolutely nothing happens, the scene serves to show how resolute Collins is about his choices. If you’re a reader who wouldn’t read the story of David and Bathsheba, or if you prefer to not read about tempting situations, you might want to skip this book.

Review of Deep Undercover

“Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”
C.S. Lewis

Albrecht Dittrich – or Jack Barsky, as he’d soon come to call himself – had it made.

He’d flown to the top of his class and landed an impressive professorship as a fresh-faced youth.

He had friends in high places – close friends, and soon to be powerful friends – rising in the ranks of the Communist party there in East Germany. “You only tell the Party ‘No’ once,” he’d been told.

It came as no surprise, then, when a mysterious stranger showed up and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Soon, he was across the Berlin Wall in forbidden West Germany, testing the waters to see if he’d crumple under the pressure of an assumed identity.

The KGB’s Plum

Certain they’d landed a prodigious young spy, the KGB started grooming Albrecht. His proficiency with languages caught their attention, and when his aptitude for American English surfaced, they decided he was destined for big things.

One day his handler sighed, “You’re going to be the kind of person all the girls dream about.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was at a movie the other day, a spy movie, and I overheard two girls who were seated behind me. One of them said, ‘I wish I could meet a guy like that.'”

Ironically, his invisible connection to the KGB would clothesline his prospects with a long list of ladies.

It wasn’t until the innocence of a brown-eyed baby girl would stir his emotionless soul that he allowed himself to face the growing conviction that the KGB wasn’t the Glorious Cause he’d believed it was.

Now…what would he, a deeply committed Communist spy entrenched in his own American dream, do about it?

My Impression

Deep Undercover, as a memoir, is one of those books that makes me keep reminding myself that it’s all true.

It’s unnerving, realizing that KGB operatives openly communicated in plain sight on American streets, oftentimes transmitting information about American citizens and their families. It’s heartening to think how God directed so many steps to lead this spy to peace and rest.

I’m glad to know that he turned to the freedom offered by the clemency of the United States, but more fundamentally, the freedom offered by the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As a history lover, I was intrigued to hear a detailed account of how a spy gets trained. Even more interesting was his mixed-up perceptions about the West. I loved watching the realization as it dawned that the Berlin Wall was not to keep the West Germans out, but to keep the East Germans in.

The Post-World War II history of Germany is a fascinating subject. I learned more from this book than I’ve ever known about this tense period. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of either Germany or Communism.

More than anything, it underscored to me how overrated money, power, and prestige really are. When Jack Barsky had the world at his fingertips, he realized how very empty it was.

He’d trade it all for one innocent smile.

I so appreciate Tyndale for providing this book for free in exchange for my honest review. 

A Letter to My Lonely Younger Self on Prom Night

Dear Rebekah,

I see you slumped on the floor of your room. You feel like such a lonely dork, sitting out the prom. You kind of are, but that’s okay. I bet you’re remembering how the guy who asked you said people predicted the rest of your life you’ll regret refusing to go.

Guess what? At this minute he’s being crowned prom king with Tori as queen.

So that’s cool.

But I know tomorrow, as happy as you’ll be that the two people you’d pick got picked, you’re gonna feel outside the loop. Yeah, for the rest of the year get used to it. I know you think high school is really important in the grand scheme of things, that deep down, being out of the loop will scar you and you’ll carry it like a weight forever.

Ha! You won’t.

You won’t look back one second. If you only knew the adventures that await you.

I wish you’d stop moping. It’s pretty ridiculous, from my perspective. That glittery prom dress that you aren’t getting to wear? You are going to wear it so many times with the love of your life. You will enjoy much better nights than prom could have ever been. And there won’t be a single bad moment at any of them. No pressure, no partying, no pepper spray.

Jesus deserves better than a pity party.

I know, sitting there, that you think in the back of your mind that since you’re trying to honor God by skipping prom that He just might bless you, but you can’t see it.

Oh, girl. If you only knew the blessings that await you. The lonely lump in your throat that you’ve felt a lot lately is nothing compared with the happiness you’re going to enjoy in the not too distant future. Please swallow that lump and start loving the classmates around you. You’re gonna kick yourself for not getting over yourself. People matter, and your life will only be happy to the extent that you allow them to matter to you.

And God is going to be gracious, even though you haven’t been. You’re gonna meet some crazy cool people.

There’s gonna be Breezy. And Brittney. And Danica. And Maegan. And Jolina. Girls that you point, or that point you, to Jesus. Girls that challenge and change you. Guy friends to balance you out.

And David.

Very soon comes love, marriage, and a very full baby carriage.

You’re going to butcher chickens, teach school, and enjoy a taste of every profession you’ve ever desired. You’ll travel. Your daughter will give her heart to Jesus. You son will have his first migraine and hurl in front of the whole church while the preacher’s speaking. In the same night. You’ll appreciate even the dull moments.

If you only knew the times that I’ve looked back on nights like the lonely one you’re spending, remembering that seed of faith and how God delivered exceeding abundantly above all you thought He would.

It’s gonna keep you going, this night sitting on the rough carpet wondering if you’re as big a loser as you feel.

So chill. It’s all gonna be even better than you fear to dream. You aren’t missing anything this year except shining some joy on that senior class because of that lump in your throat. Please get over it. Go hug Daddy and Mama. Go bug the boys.

And go call Rachel. And pray for your sweet little sister. She’s a gift, and God’s got a plan for her you’re gonna want to watch unfold.

One more thing. I know right now you see yourself as some devout martyr, missing prom and all.

You should know that there will be times you fall. Hard. Jesus is the one who keeps you from falling – not you. When you fall, He’s the one who catches you and clothes you in His righteousness. Don’t focus on your goodness. Look to Jesus Christ and live.

Sleep good, Bekah.

Jesus loves you.

Infinity.

A Time to Rejoice

One year ago today, my brother told us they’d left for the hospital. Baby Lilly was on the way.

We never expected the emotional roller coaster that followed.

As a mother who’s got two babies waiting in heaven I’ve never met, I’m well acquainted with the apprehension that laces the joyful anticipation of new life.

With life comes pain – sometimes disease, but always, death. Everything in between depends on how realistic we are about accepting that fact and living each day like it’s our last.

The Fear of Comforting

I remember the unexpected waves of anguish that rolled over me when a new mother entered the room with her perfect baby. I was still reeling from my miscarriage, wondering if I’d ever hold a baby of my own. I fled the room, hating how my heaving sobs refused to shush, knowing I was traumatizing that friend who’d done nothing wrong.

Since that time, I’ve had friends lose babies far beyond the first trimester. Some got to hold their babies. Some got to see their child walk; some saw them graduate. I never know what to say, torn between my desire to comfort and my fear of inflicting further pain.

In the end, all I know to do is what the Bible says: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”

I say all that to say that there is a time to rejoice, even in a world rife with pain. We do everyone wrong when we refuse to acknowledge God’s miracles for fear of hurting those we perceive as “not receiving a miracle.”

This video is an attempt to praise God for His goodness to our family, hoping that in so doing I haven’t suggested that He is not good when the “ending” isn’t always happy.

Because, thanks to Jesus, the ending can always be happy.

“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

-Romans 8:28

Here is Baby Lilly today, who’s developmentally leapfrogged her cousin, my precious Baby John, who’s two months older…

lilly

How has God recently astounded you with answered prayer?

Review of The Divide

In the award-winning Amish thriller, The Alliance, Jolina Petersheim’s mighty pen probed deep into the “what if’s” that keep many a survival webstore afloat.

In the sequel, The Divide, she digs deeper, striking nerve after raw nerve, both entwining readers to the unforgettable characters while holding up a mirror to show us what we’d be without the mysterious “consisting element” that keeps all our lives from spinning into oblivion.

An aeon beyond standard bonnet fiction, The Divide is the story of Leora, Moses, Jabil, and Sal, and how each of them faces their own weakness to save the day when it becomes their turn to do so.

Picking up where The Alliance left off, The Divide opens as desperate gangs invade the Amish community. Despite her desire to stay behind with Marine pilot Moses Hughes, Leora Ebersole reluctantly assists her community’s escape to the supposed safety of the Montana wilderness.

Moses braces himself for invasion, willing to use force to fight off the onslaught despite the Amish commitment to nonviolence. When he falls, Sal, the young mother, goes to great lengths to save him.

Jabil Snyder watches every night as Leora walks outside the perimeter of their new compound, knowing she’s hoping for Moses’s return. As one by one, community leaders fall, Jabil moves closer to the position of leadership he fears. He’s determined that without Leora, he’ll never be able to rise to the fearsome task before him.

Add to the plot a mafia-style terror group complete with interment camps, forced slavery, and an airplane ride that brings to mind the first scene of The Alliance, and you have the recipe for yet another Petersheim masterpiece.

A Gripping Sequel

If you’ve read The Alliance, you’ll find that these characters are beginning to feel like family, which makes the apocalyptic tone believable.

If you’ve never read the first book or if you’ve forgotten it, you’ll definitely want to start there since the books are so interwoven.

The book is replete with takeaways, but my favorite was to savor each moment as if it’s the last so I can love well.

It makes me want to pray, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

It makes me want to thank God for every convenience I enjoy, but even more, it makes me want to worship Him for being that “consisting element” that has kept my world from falling into chaos. By Him, truly, all things consist.

Thanks, Mrs. Petersheim, for another epic read. May your beautiful writing cause each reader to cherish every moment, never taking another undeserved day for granted. May it be true for me.

.

 

Letting It Go

Coach slipped through the seldom-used back entrance and slid halfway onto the crowded bleacher, half-standing next to a sweaty tuba player who didn’t even notice him. Over the band director’s waving arms he could see the bench where the guys – his guys – glared at the new coach.

He imagined the stony silence as the new coach reminded Butch to stay on the point guard. He’d dealt with it all those last couple games – eye rolls, smirks, glares for no reason. Guess I shoulda seen it coming.

As the buzzer sounded and the ball snapped back in, he anticipated Butch’s defiant scrambling for the ball – far away from his man – and the inevitable turnover.

The opposing forward lobbed the ball to the open point guard, who swished it like string music.

And boom goes the dynamite.

For a second, Coach wanted to chuckle, to cheer at his former protege’s humiliation. The “I-told-you-so” release would feel so good after so many fruitless speeches. So many after practice heart-to-hearts that blew his own heart to smithereens with that one visit in the principal’s office.

He’d sat, unable to breathe, as his boss sucker-punched his dreams of victory for these players.

“Some of the kids are saying you don’t care about them. They say you’re working them too hard, you don’t believe in them as people. They say winning is impossible with you as coach.”

He’d sat frozen, unable to form a coherent response, it was so unexpected.

Driving home from that meeting, he’d thought of a ton of brilliant defenses. All the late hours he’d spent pouring his best teaching – both about the game and about life – into young men who seemed like they were poised for greatness. Hungry to improve. All the prayers he’d prayed for them, for their families, for their futures. He’d wiped an angry tear and wondered where he went wrong.

Now, with his heart steeled against any emotion but scorn, he observed the team as both mentor and critic. The shredded part of his heart that had loved these players, believed in them, lived for them even, wanted to weep as the hardening part of him silently cheered their mistakes.

When the final buzzer sounded the resounding defeat, he made his way across the floor where his guys – the guys – headed for the locker room. Every one of them but the manager refused to even meet his eyes as he passed them.

He stopped his replacement, the twenty-something string bean straight from student teaching, and pumped his sweaty fist in a firm handshake, speaking low, reassuring words. New Coach straightened, nodded, and followed the team out. Coach pitied him.

Time passed, but the pain did not. Coach figured it proved he really had cared about the guys, but it didn’t change the fact that his heart had hardened to stone. He got other jobs with even more promising players, but nothing could bring back that first love he’d lavished on his team. It had died.

He watched as one by one, his first players became men. Some of them played college ball, suspensions and all. Others fathered children; one of them, Skeeter, became a father. Of all the players, only Skeeter ever willingly spoke a good word to Coach. Coach noticed.

He remembered back to that year when he’d taught Butch and Skeeter how to spin a ball on their fingers. He’d always pretended to hate players wasting time on tricks, but after practice one night they’d cornered him. He’d spent three hours showing off all his trick shots, and they’d gone home convinced he was the greatest.

He kicked back his recliner and scrolled through Facebook. He was friends with most of that first team, even though he knew if he passed them on the street they wouldn’t speak. For the thousandth time he wondered what he’d done wrong.

His heart raced as he read a whining post from Butch. Something about politics. Coach didn’t care. Butch’s constant griping about everything people gripe about was Coach’s nightly cure for sleepiness.

He flipped the phone to the couch, his head pounding. God, why does he bug me so much? What do I do? I hate how I hate him, but I can’t stop. He doesn’t care about my forgiveness, so how can I forgive?

Instantly the verse superimposed his vision. “Pray for your enemies.”

His eyes widened. Really? That’s all there is to it?

“Pray for your enemies.”

He kicked shut the recliner and fell to the floor. “Lord, bless Butch. Be good to him. Show him You love him.

“Give him a purpose. Bless his family like I want You to bless me. Make him a happy person.

“Make him successful, Lord. Make his kids godly. Make his wife good to him. Make him confident in Your goodness to him.

“Give him grace, Lord. Keep him from sin and bitterness. Erase hurts in his heart that he doesn’t even know are there.

“And use him to do a great work for You, and then bless him for it. I beg You to do this because You loved me when I hated You. I ask in Jesus’ name.”

And for the first night in a long time, Coach went straight to sleep. Happy.

How do you forgive loved ones who don’t care that they’ve hurt you?

The Memory of the Just is Blessed

Five-year-old Daniel sat in the passenger seat the other night as I pulled onto Memorial Boulevard. The truck was still cold – the heater hadn’t had a chance yet to warm the cab, and I guess it made Dan extra talkative. A mile a minute, he jumped from one topic to the next so fast it was all I could do to nod and smile intelligently.

“You know where I got my belt with the buckle? I know where I got it. Do you know?” I nodded, about to answer, but he was off again. “I got it from the man who used to come in my class to give me five.”

I smiled, remembering Brother Joe painfully navigating the hallway, bent from cancer yet always ready with a questionable joke. He was always willing to wait for each member of my herd to take their turns winding up to deliver the hardest five yet. If we ever got to talking about growing ‘maters I’d be very late for church. Guaranteed.

I smiled and didn’t tell him his friend was also the craftsman of our family paddle. “Yes, Daniel. Brother Joe gave that belt to David Alan a long time ago. Did you know he’s in heaven now?”

Dan gasped. “He is?” I nodded. For once, Dan was silent – for a minute. Then, “I don’t think I’ll go to heaven when I die.”

It was my turn to gasp. “Why?”

“I’ve done a lot of bad things.” He told me how he took something from a basket and said he didn’t but he did. “You never spanked me for it, Mama.”

“Well, Dan, Jesus died for our sins. He died for every bad thing we’ve ever done, so we won’t have to go to hell. Spankings just help us not feel guilty now.”

“But I just don’t think I’m going to heaven.”

Silence fell between us, punctuated by the passing streetlights. We pulled into Belk, shopped for David’s birthday present, and returned to the truck. As we pulled out of the parking spot, I remembered. Finally I spoke.

“Dan, what if you worked really hard to buy Baby John a present, and you told him you had something he was going to love. How would you feel?”

He grinned at me with that starry-eyed look that nobody can nail like Dan. “I’d feel really good!”

“Okay, then, what if John said, ‘No, Dan, I don’t think you’re really going to give me a present.’ How would you feel then?”

His face dropped. “I’d be sad.”

I said, “Well, Jesus said if you believe in Him, you won’t perish. How do you think he feels when you say you don’t believe He will give you what He said He would?”

He looked up, knowing. “He feels bad.”

We pulled in the driveway.

“So don’t you want to believe that He’ll do what He said He’d do? Don’t you want to thank Him for letting you go to heaven, even though you’ve done bad?”

Dan grinned that brilliant smile, pounced, and hugged an inch or two off my waist.

Pretty sweet.

And all from a blessed memory of one just man.

How have memories of just men and women touched your life?