22 December 2014

My Top Ten Books of 2014

In each of the last couple of years, I have put together a list of my top 10 favorite books from the year. Parenthetically, several months ago I decided to shoot for 100 books this year, but a friend of mine encouraged me to intentionally not meet that goal. I had been on track to avoid that goal, but in looking back through the year's list, I overshot the goal by a few.

This was a banner year for book reading as I read some exceptionally good books. Sometimes it is hard to know what to include in my top 10, but this year, it wasn't difficult because I fudged a bit. You will see how below.

1. Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid. I read Duguid's book early in 2014 and I began my review, "I picked up Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness (2013) on the recommendation of a friend (Keith Plummer) who tweeted, 'OK, so I didn't put together a Best Books of 2013 list, but if I had, this would have topped it.' I received an Amazon gift card for Christmas and included this book as a part of my order.

"Unlike my friend, I did put together a best books of 2013 list, BUT if I had read Extravagant Grace, this would also have topped my list. To me, this book was simply remarkable. Strongly influenced by the work of John Newton, Duguid wrote an extended meditation on the work of grace in the lives of weak sinners."  As far as I am concerned, Extravagant Grace maintained the top spot all year.  

2. Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg. I loved this book. In my review, I described it as gold. In the book, Ortberg explores why relationships and boundaries are important. He writes with an engaging style and is a wonderful storyteller. So far, I have purchased 5 copies and given a few away. If you read this review, and you want a copy AND you will actually read it, let me know. The first person to let me know, I will give a copy of the book. [Honorable Mention: I also read Ortberg's Soul Keeping this year, which is also excellent.]

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. When I first received a copy of this book, the Amazon ratings seemed improbably high, but my 5 star rating was happily added. The story is autobiographical and deals with Qureshi's explorations of, and eventual conversion to Christianity. 

4. The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund. In this book,
Ortlund moves out with the gospel in concentric circles, starting with its importance to the self, then the church, and eventually "for everything". He rightly argues that the gospel transforms at each of these levels. In other words, Christ's redeeming work is not just for the individual soul, though it is assuredly for that, but it is also for the whole world. [Honorable Mention: I also read Ortlund's Supernatural Living for Natural People, an extended meditation on Romans 8. This would also be in my Top 10 of the year, but I will just include it here so I can write about more books.]

5. Joy For the World by Greg Forster. Forster believes that the Christian's joy in God can change things. I believe he is right. In my review, I wrote, "though I have read hundreds of books over the last few years, there are only a very few that I consider must reads. Joy for the World will now be on that list and that is especially true if you are drawn to books like Not the Way It's Supposed to Be by Plantinga, Culture Making by Crouch, or any of the works of Tim Keller, Chuck Colson, or Francis Schaeffer." 

6. Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn.  A good friend of mine loaned me a copy of this book. I left it sit for a while, but once I began reading, I couldn't put it down. In my review, I noted that although the front cover would lead one to believe this is primarily a book about sin, I think it is much more about grace. In fact, I emailed Dr McMinn and told him how enamored I was with this book and he sent me a signed copy. I encouraged him to talk with his publisher about a re-release of the book under a different title because I want to see people read this one.  

7. What's Best Next by Matt Perman. I probably would not have chosen this book if it was not included as a selection from a blogger review program I am a part of, but seeing it there, I thought I might as well give it a try. I was not disappointed. I went in wondering how someone could apply the gospel to issues of productivity and I came away with my eyes opened wide. There is so much meat in this book that I will likely have to revisit it a few times to a get a fuller sense of what Perman has to say. 

8. Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli. I heard about this book from my friend Mark.  In my review, I wrote, "Messy Spirituality is not a book for those who have it together in their spiritual lives. It is not for those who are pretty good at Christianity. It is not for straight-laced, well-behaved people who like their Christianity easily definable and controllable. Rather, it is a book for sinners, wretches, and rogues who have no hope apart from Jesus who loves them and lavishes them with grace." This book will likely leave some of you feeling uncomfortable in the same way that Brennan Manning leaves you feeling that way. 

9. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. This year, I read a handful of books about the Trinity and this was my favorite of the bunch. Reeve's approach drew me closer to God, which is a great outcome of any book.  If you want to know more about the Trinity this is a great one. 

10. Jesus, Continued... by JD Greear. Jesus Continued... is about the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals all too often have a poor pneumatology, or theology of the Spirit. In this book, he writes passionately and in a way that gives glimpses to what we are missing. 

More Honorable Mentions: I read some other excellent books this year. I read through nearly all of Larry Crabb's works this year and their influence upon me is unparalleled. I have some favorites, though I generally like them all quite well. If I would have included him in the above list, he probably would have replaced some of those on the list.  I guess my advice is, read Larry.  There were also several re-reads this year that are perennial favorites of mine: Desiring God by John Piper, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, True Spirituality and the Mark of the Christian by Francis Schaeffer, Prodigal God and the Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Tim Keller, and Mere Christianity and the Great Divorce by CS Lewis.

If you are looking for some good reading material, anything from this list would be wonderful. If you want recommendations on a specific theme, just ask! 

19 December 2014

Finding Beauty in the Ordinary

I recently learned from Eugene Peterson's book The Jesus Way that when the sculptor, Rodin, would instruct his students, he would tell them, "don't look for a good-looking model, some perfectly proportioned specimen--take anyone you come across. They are all beautiful." Somehow, we've exchanged what is truly beautiful for counterfeits and cheap substitutes. Men exchange the unique beauty of their wives for imposters on a screen. They trade their wives, beautiful with wrinkles and dimples and scars and blemishes, a relief map of a lifetime lived, for two dimensional on screen attempts to portray what society commands should be beautiful. Wives look beyond husbands who possess a lifetime of emotions and thoughts and motivations-- real people--swapping them for pulp characters who lacks nuance, who are lifeless.

Our magazine covers look the same. Our actors look the same. Our hamburgers look the same.

We have attempted to homogenize what is meant to be unique.

Every person you meet is breathtakingly beautiful. Every sunrise, every sunset unique. Every meal, every conversation, every day, a joy to behold.

Slow down and breathe delight.

18 December 2014

Book Review: NASB Note-Taker's Bible

Not only do I like the Bible--the Word of God--but I like Bibles. I like to look at the different translations, construction, and features of the Bible. Recently, I have been looking for a new Bible with wide margins that allows ample space for taking notes. Zondervan's NASB Note-Taker's Bible seems to foot the bill nicely.

 when I do reviews of Bibles, I like to discuss the operating system.  This particular Bible is in the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is considered to be one of the more literal, word for word translations of the Bible. If you are trying to get a feel for exactly what the Greek and Hebrew say without mastering these languages, this version is a good bet. However, with the rather more literal approach, it can at times feel wooden when you are reading it. Regardless, it remains a wonderful translation of the Bible. I would add, however, that Zondervan has also released the Note-Taker's Bible in the following versions: NIV, NKJV, KJV, and Amplified.

The Bible itself contains all 66 books, both Old and New Testaments. The Bible also includes a concordance, promises from the Bible, perspectives from the Bible, ministry of Jesus, teachings of Jesus, miracles of Jesus, and parables of Jesus. On the other hand, it does not contain study notes, chapter introductions, or cross references.

 At just over a thousand pages, this Bible is smaller than I expected it to be. It is certainly of a size that one could easily transport it to church or in a backpack. The print is a bit smaller than I would like, it appears to be about an 8-point font, but the lettering stands out on the page. The words of Jesus are in red, a feature that I personally do not like because the entire Bible is the word of God, not just those red ones.It is presented in a double column format, a common feature that I wish would become less common, yet seems to be the established standard for most Bibles. In my opinion, a single column format improves readability. As to the primary selling point, the outside columns are generous, by my measure nearly 1.5 inches. The bottoms of the page leave more than 1.5 inches. If you wisely purchase good archival pens like Pigma Microns, you will be able to write plenty. The gutter (interior margin) is a bit cramped, though you should still be able to read the words. The pages are bright white and there is minimal ghosting.

One of the features I look for in a Bible is will it lay flat when opened. As you can see from one of the pictures, I opened the Bible to Genesis 1 and it lays flat open without support. Initially it closed on its own after a few moments, though I was able to open it wide and have it stay open on its own. To me, this is an essential feature and one to look for in purchasing. After removing the dust jacket (because let's be honest, if you are in the Bible, your Bible shouldn't be collecting dust), I was presented with a dark, rather unadorned Bible. Rightly so. The overall construction seems quite good.

On the whole, this is a very good Bible that I would happily recommend. The availability of multiple versions is a beneficial feature. I did not see an ESV version, but this Bible is in some ways reminiscent of Crossway's Legacy Bible, which is my go to Bible. The list price is $34.99, though I have seen it for less. As a side note, Bible readers place many demands on publishers. We want our Bibles to be small, yet with large print. We like study notes, but want ample space to write our notes. We want them durable, but inexpensive. This Bible is a good balance.

A complimentary copy of of this book was provided to me free of charge in exchange for a review through Zondervan and the Book Look Bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review of this book. The review represents my own viewpoint.

17 December 2014

As Straw From Fire

As we wait in anticipation to celebrate the coming Christ in the flesh, I thought it a good time to ponder the words of St Athanasius (296-373) in his incomparable book On the Incarnation. I was struck by this section early in the book. As you get ready to celebrate Christmas, ponder these words--slowly and often.

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father's Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

10 December 2014

Book Review: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I had not heard of Peter Scazzero's Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006) until a few months ago when a pastor friend of mine mentioned it in passing. Since then, when I have shared that I was reading this book, many friends and acquaintances told me how excellent it was. I am not sure why they left me in the dark so long. 

As a pastor of a church, Scazzero was trying to lead through pure effort with no attention to his emotional life. Only when his relational life began to fray at the edges did he begin to take a closer look at emotion. At the outset of the book, he identified 10 symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality that serve as a useful diagnostic tool.

Once we understand our emotional feebleness, Scazzero spends the later half of the book talking about what to do about. He encourages a deeper look inside, acknowledging the reality of emotions as a normal part of the Christian life. I particularly appreciated chapter 6, which dealt with the concept of a dark night of the soul, an issue too frequently ignored in the Christian life. For Scazzero, I think rightly, the dark night is a normative part of the Christian life, though too often, people run from it, rather than toward it, much to their detriment.

Near the end of the book, he encourages the practice of two specific disciplines--the daily office and the Sabbath--to grow in our understanding of God and understanding of self.  Attention to God and delighting in his creation are essential practices that we too often hurry past. 

On the whole, I think this is very beneficial book. It is a relatively easy read, but if you read it, take your time and ponder what the author has to say. He writes with lists and bullet points, which many people will find desirable, though don't believe that represents naive ideas that can be cast aside quickly. 

07 December 2014

Finding Blessings in the Dry Parts

The Holy Bible contains 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. If you're like me, you prefer certain books to others. Almost everyone likes John and Romans. For me, Ephesians is also a favorite. In the same way, there are other books that you may avoid if you can help it. For many people Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible, tops that list. It's often repetitive and unclear. But there is beauty.  

In Numbers 6:24-26, we read Moses's benediction:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

I have been soaking in these words for the last few days. If you are a believer, God is for you and God is with you. He will not let you go.  The look upon his face is not stern, it shines with grace. The word countenance can imply a smiling look of approval. Imagine God looking upon you, smile upon his face, saying, "rest child, you are mine."

03 December 2014

Book Review: Eat this Book

Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message paraphrase of the Bible is a prolific author. He has also authored several other books, including a 5 volume spiritual theology series. Eat This Book (2006) is the second book in the series. Peterson informs the reader about the importance of how we read the Bible and not just that we read it. Too often, evangelicals come to the Bible with a desire to parse and master the word rather than have the word master them. In the first section, he makes a strong case for the transformative nature of scripture. In the second, he presents the Lectio Divina, a method of sacred reading. Well, to be fair, he is careful not to provide a prescriptive method, but rather talks about what spiritual reading looks like. I particularly benefited from his description of the contemplatio as this has never been entirely clear to me before.  In the third section, he addresses how Bibles are translated including his own approach to translating the Message. This section did not flow from the other two, but was interesting nonetheless. I think this is a beneficial read for those wanting to grow in godliness through interacting with the word.

02 December 2014

Practicing Settledness

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Next Step School of Spiritual Direction in Colorado Springs. Weeks like this are a constant flood of thoughts, feelings, and ideas to be processed. No normal person can process them all; anyway, I can't. Rather, I have learned that it is better to sit with open hands in the flood, eventually grasping onto an idea or two that I can examine more closely once the deluge passes.

One idea that has remained in these last few days is that of "settledness." I do not recall if it was over dinner with Larry or if it was during a group meeting where the term arose. Probably both. Good ideas tend to swirl back around. What really has stirred me is the connection between settledness and masculinity.

As Larry and I have come to know each other a little bit, one of the things that he is helping me to see about myself is my desire to please others. I like to be liked. Unfortunately, because of that desire, I tend to live out of a relational persona that masks my true self. One of his encouragements to me is to live more authentically out of the masculine identity that already resides in me. As a Christian man, my identity is found fully in Christ and the Holy Spirit lives through me. Knowing who, and whose, I am leads to settledness regarding how I relate to others.

I do not need others to appreciate me for my intellect nor my humor. 
I do not need to live to impress.
I do not need to soften my answers to make people happy.

Because my identity is bound up with Christ, I am free to be who God has created me to be.

18 November 2014

Book Review: The Prodigal

Brennan Manning died last year. Writer extraordinaire and grace addict. For those who love the message of grace, his books have been a rich source of sustenance. The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story (2013) co-authored by Greg Garrett was the last book of Brennan's before he died.

The authors tell the story of Jack, a megachurch pastor, who has built a church and a huge following on a message of door more, try harder. At the beginning of the book, we discover that he has been caught in a moral failure. The rest of the book tells the story of his ailing father bringing him back home to small town Texas. 

Although I suspect the text itself was largely constructed by Garrett, the story has the unmistakable fingerprints of Brennan, particularly in the character of Father Frank, the aging Catholic priest. If you have enjoyed Brennan's works, this book is for you. If you have lost hope in the church, this book is for you. 

16 November 2014

Book Review: Jesus Continued

In Jesus Continued: Why the Spirit Inside You is Better Than Jesus Beside You (2014), JD Greear tackles an important issue: the neglect of the Holy Spirit in the modern, presumably American, church. Although we are often sincere, we weary because we rely not upon the promised Spirit, but upon our own efforts.

Early in the book, Greear draws out an important distinction between the two extremes (p. 22) that Christians tend to gravitate towards. On the one hand, there are Christians who seem to regard experiences of the Spirit, apart from the Word of God as the normal Christian life. On the other hand, there are those who operate as though there is no current involvement of the Holy Spirit (i.e., hard cessationism). Greear argues that neither extreme represents biblical Christianity. As someone who probably tends toward the second extreme, I appreciated his view of the ongoing work of the Spirit. I want to hope in His continued work on a bigger scale than I do. In chapter 15, Greear quotes AW Tozer, who wrote, "if the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference." Is the Spirit still active as he was with the New Testament church? Greear says yes and I am inclined to agree with him.

Jesus Continued is divided into three sections. The first section is entitled "The Missing Spirit" and deals with our feeble pneumatology in the church today. In many regards, this book is good companion piece to Francis Chan's excellent Forgotten God, another book about the Holy Spirit. Part two is "Experiencing the Holy Spirit." Here, Greear demonstrates the different ways in which the Spirit manifests, not only through the Gospel and through his word, but through our giftings, in the church, in our circumstances, and in our Spirits. Too often, we tend to limit the movement of the Spirit. Part three is "Seeking the Holy Spirit," which deals with prayer, revival, and the Spirit's ongoing movement.

I really appreciated this book.  I share Greear's concern that too many Christians have a anemic view of the Spirit. May He use this book to stir people to be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit. 

I was provided a complementary copy of this book from Zondervan through the Book Look Bloggers Program.  I was not required to write a positive review of this book. 

08 November 2014

Flying kites in a whirlwind

Adoption is not for the faint of heart. Rather, you are called to it. It is no mere weekend adventure. Instead, it is flying a kite in a whirlwind. You throw your sail into the air and hang on for dear life.

Yesterday, my wife and I were talking about our first adoption five years ago when our Tessa came home to us. I was reminding her of how out of control things felt near the end of the process. Heather was going through chemotherapy and we were hoping Tessa would be home by Christmas. In fact, we were specifically praying that she would get a December 17th embassy date, but even a week before she came home, we were told by our social worker that she just didn't see how it could happen. But God...I love those two words...but God moved mountains and we received a December 16th date, almost as if He were saying, "I'll do you one better." As whirlwinds go, that one felt like a subtle breeze compared to this time around.

Adopting from Haiti has brought with it every emotion--fear, joy, anger, sadness, bitterness--the list goes on. This has been a much longer process too, years versus months. Each trip to Haiti makes it harder to leave. Heather, Grace, and Tessa have now been living down there with Jasmine and Calvin for about 3 weeks in the home of a dear friend. Even in that brief period of time, our emotions have blown in a thousand directions, though yesterday was hardest.

We had been searching for the children's birth mother, following whatever leads we could and eventually, they just seemed to dry up. We had no clue where to find her and in a country of millions of people, where do you go next when your leads have led nowhere? Friday morning, Heather purchased plane tickets to come home on Saturday and began packing while trying attend to a sobbing Jasmine and a Grace refusing to come home. I wished I was there with her to help pick up the pieces. After crying for hours, Jasmine went out on the porch to pray. Fifteen minutes later, Heather received a call that the kid's birth mother had heard on the radio that we were looking for her and had come to the orphanage, the one thing we needed to happen. Our mourning turned to dancing in a very literal sense.

Heather and I made the decision to cancel the Saturday return trip, eating the $1600 tickets if need be. It was more important to stay and see this through. Amazingly, I was able to cancel the tickets with only a $75.00 service charge.

So, what does that mean over the next few weeks? God only knows. For us, it means hanging tight to the kite string, knowing that our God lives in the whirlwind.

Postscript: If you want to read more stuff about our adoptions, you can click here.

01 November 2014

Book Review: Vanishing Grace

According to the dustjacket, Philip Yancey is a successful Christian author. He has written 13 Gold Medallion Awards, won the ECPAs book of the year twice, and 4 of his books have sold over 1 million copies. I've had the pleasure of reading several of his books and his reputation is well earned. Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News (2014, Zondervan) is his latest offering.

In the introduction, Yancey pointed out that this is actually a volume of 4 mini-books around a central theme: a world athirst, grace dispensers, is it really good news?, and Faith and culture. In the first section, he explores questions about why evangelicals have increasingly been viewed with derision in society. It seems to me he rightly points out that too often Christians want to propose answers before listening for questions. He writes, "to communicate to post-Christians, I must first listen to their stories for clues to how they view the world and how they view people like me" (p. 21). He showed that Christians are viewed as judgmental, confusing, guilt dispensers and he calls us back to love, grace, and humility. People are thirsty. We must dispense living water.

In the second section he explores three specific groups whom he identifies as grace dispensers--pilgrims, activists, and artists--those he appears to identify as having the most potential impact upon secular culture. He calls us to walk with others on their journeys, to be agents of change in our culture, and to show the world the beauty of Christ through creative, artistic means.

In the third section, perhaps my favorite, Yancey explores the influences that Christians have had on human flourishing and the culture at large. As he notes, "the way of life set out in the Bible is intended for our own good" (p. 163). Christian missionaries have had a greater influence upon societies than anything. I appreciated Yancey's insight into the common rebuttal about European countries like Denmark where Christian commitment is low but society seems to work well. He writes, "to be fair, let's admit that the region was populated by warring and pillaging Vikings until the Christian gospel came along. The gospel transforms culture by permeating it like yeast, and long after the people abandon belief, the tend to live by habits of the soul. Once salted and yeasted, society is difficult to un-salt and un-yeast" (p. 169).

In the final section, Faith and Culture, he dives more deeply into how Christians may be involved in the surrounding culture. He offers suggestions about how Christians may engage with politics and other cultural influences. In the final chapter, Holy Subversion, he revisits the concepts of pilgrim, activist, and artist.

I really liked this book. As a certified Centurion, I frequently enjoy books about how we can influence the culture around us and this book is no different. As I read, there were whispers of Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and Chuck Colson and reflections of books from the Centurion program including Glenn Sunshine's Why You Think the Way You Do, Neal Plantinga's Not the Way Things Are Supposed to Be, Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason, and most notably Colson's How Now Shall We Live? Yet, for those familiar with these authors, Yancey approaches these issues from a different vantage. It is as though he is looking at the same issues, twenty degrees to the left.

In sum, I would happily recommend this book. Yancey is an engaging, thoughtful writer and consistent with his typical style, he winsomely takes on issues that matter.

I received a complementary copy of this book free from the Book Look Bloggers program and Zondervan publishers. I was not required to write a positive review of this book.

27 October 2014

Book Review: God at Work

A friend of mine sent me a video of Tim Keller talking about the doctrine of vocation, which brought back to mind Gene Veith's God at Work (2002, Crossway), an engaging, accessible summary of the doctrine of vocation, particularly through the lens of the Reformation tradition. Veith, a Lutheran scholar, draws particularly on the writings of Luther himself, a source we all benefit from.

Veith sets out to examine what is meant by vocation or calling. Too often, it seems, we are limited to thinking of our jobs as our vocation, though we all have a variety of vocations. For example, I hold the vocation of neuropsychologist, but I also hold vocations of husband, son, father, citizen, deacon. Veith explores how we live out our callings in each of the roles God has called us to.  I particularly appreciated his chapters on "your calling as a citizen" and "bearing the cross in vocation." In the first case, understanding how we live as citizens of two kingdoms, how we submit to the governing authorities, and how we resist when necessary were all good and useful topics.  His application of Luther's Theology of the Cross to vocation was also beneficial.

I would happily recommend this book to those interested in learning what does it mean to live as a Christian in the world.

23 October 2014

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

They say "absence makes the heart grow fonder", whoever "they" are. When separated from your beloved, you develop a deeper sense of longing, or perhaps appreciation. All I know is that I miss my wife. I feel like when she is here at home, I am fond of her, yet I can see the truth in this pithy statement. Seeing the tenderness in the pixilated face of my wife tonight, surrounded by our children--four of them, at least--filled me with a desire to be with her. Not just romantically, but in all ways. She is my best friend and after just four days, I miss her so deeply it hurts. I think the most difficult thing is not knowing when she will come home.

How do soldiers manage? Or those left behind? How do they pass the days separated from those whom their hearts long for? How do they fit all the pieces of each daily puzzle together when some very important pieces are missing?

O Lord, I am grateful that you allow me to continue to delight in the wife of my youth, my companion, and friend. Thank you for reminding me of the desire for her that you have continued to fan into flame for over 17 years.

Bring her home to me.

You’ve captured my heart, dear friend.
    You looked at me, and I fell in love.
    One look my way and I was hopelessly in love!

-Song of Songs

21 October 2014

Book Review: The Making of an Ordinary Saint

The spiritual disciplines are a curious thing to me. I have read numerous books about them over the years, but I have never been quite sure what to do with them. The message that I seem to hear from the conservative side of evangelicalism with which I would align myself would suggest that spiritual disciplines can be a dangerous business if improperly understood. And yet, I have read many books about them. When I saw The Making of An Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (2014) by Nathan Foster, I was intrigued. Certainly, as a "Foster", the child of author Richard Foster, he has a regal lineage. Honestly, though, the book cover was just as inviting and a wise choice by the publisher.

In the book, Foster set out to explore twelve spiritual disciplines--those initially described by his father in the Celebration of Discipline--stitched to his everyday life. This approach allowed for an honest, autobiographical description of the spiritual disciplines in his life. Foster shared his challenges and new understandings in an engaging way.

As I read the book, I was deeply affected by some of his chapters, but with others, I was less engaged. The chapter on submission was my favorite. I could find myself easily connecting with what he was saying about some of the frustrations he experienced, but was drawn to his description of an Eskimo man who didn't fit the mold of the bike racers he was with. I also learned from the other chapters as well.

One of the criticisms that Foster anticipated was hearing from fundamentalists...like me, I suppose.  On page 143, he wrote "While I try to remain teachable and open to the insights of others, I'm finding I have little interest in learning from extreme fundamentalists whose lives and careers are based on criticizing others--you know, those people who call themselves Christians but seem to know nothing of love." I wonder if Foster cuts himself short. I share a concern for a lack of love, but I also share a concern for truth. There is an old proverb that says, "don't become so open minded that your brains fall out." I wonder if Foster's unwillingness to learn from those whom he considers unloving is actually an unloving thing to do.

On the whole, this is a good book and I would commend it. Foster is a captivating writer and tells his story well. 

A review copy of this book was provided to me by Baker Books in exchange for this review. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book.

09 October 2014

Book Review: Daring Greatly

I think that more people need to read Brene Brown. She came to notoriety through a TED talk that she gave and was thrusted into the international spotlight. Brown is a PhD social worker who researches shame, vulnerability, and wholeheartedness. I previously had the chance to read her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, which I thought was quite good. Recently, however, a friend of mine recommended Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012). As much as I liked her first book, this one was better.

Brown accomplishes what we all hope with our research. She is able to examine her data and personalize it in such a way that it grabs the reader. This book is a perfect example. She describes how she distilled 12 years of research into this book about vulnerability.  She shares numerous anecdotes from her own life and the lives of those she has met to animate her thoughts.

This book dives deeply into topics of shame, boundaries, feelings of unworthiness, wholeness, and vulnerability. Brown talks about the toxicity of shame and the benefits of being vulnerable to risk and emotional exposure. I suspect this book will be deeply challenging for many, especially those who deal with shame, but on the other side, there is hope and healing. Don't let that keep you from reading. Indeed, I would like to put this book into the hands of many people that I know.

02 October 2014

Book Review: Unshockable Love

I think I like this book. Unshockable Love (Baker Books, 2013) by John Burke is really a book about the love of Jesus. Burke, the pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas makes the case that too often Christians are prone to evangelizing with the model: bad news first, then good. Admittedly, I have typically operated from this mindset and I think it has its place at times. I once heard someone say that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, or something like that. Some people, self-righteous people, often need to be shaken up a bit. Nevertheless, I think that he is right in suggesting not enough people hear the good news of the gospel. Early on in the book, he indicated that he intended to look at the life of Jesus and make a case, based on Jesus' own way of interacting, for how we should interact. He made headway toward this goal, though I expected it to be a more central part of the book. Rather, the book seemed to be filled primarily with stories of redemption that occurred through Gateway Church.  It seems that a large part of these stories of redemption was rooted in the belief that every person is an image bearer of God and, given grace, mercy, and the love of Jesus, will often flourish. The final 100 pages or so presents a model for how to put this into practice, though admittedly, I found this less engaging then the first half of the book. 

On the whole, I think this book gives an important message. Too often, we look like Pharisees, not Christ, in terms of how we relate to others. We are called first to love, and this book helps show the way.

I received a complementary copy of this book from Baker Books for purposes of review. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book.

02 September 2014

The Way of Self Centeredness

The "love chapter", 1 Corinthians 13, is familiar to many of us. Perhaps too familiar. It is a classic wedding reading and its words fill many greeting cards. I was reading it again this morning and was reminded what a dynamite chapter it really is. Most of us casually handle these few verses like some comfortable trinket, tossing them into a junk drawer until we happen to be rummaging around and happen back upon it when we think, "oh, I used to love this chapter." We must guard against that mistake.

As I was pondering the words of 1 Corinthians 13 this morning, I began to think about love's opposite. Elie Wiesel has said that "the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference." I am not sure that is exactly right, but it begins to get at truth. I also think that the opposite of love, at least a part of it, is self-centeredness.

I learned from David Powlison that sometimes writing passages out as their opposite adds new clarity to the intended meaning. I know that for me it did. I tried to come at this passage with no pre-conceived ideas about what might emerge by rendering its opposite. I am grieved to see myself in so many elements here.

The Way of Self Centeredness

Self-centeredness is demanding and rude. Self-centeredness wants what other people have. It draws attention to itself, bragging in its accomplishments and abilities, embellishing stories and puffing itself up. It is mean-spirited and unkind. It demands that others follow its protocol--its way or the highway. Self-centeredness is set-off easily, irritation rising to the surface at the slightest provocation, particularly when it observes others getting what it believes it deserves. Self-centeredness accepts wrongdoing when it improves its position and it rejects the truth when it does not. Self-centeredness quits when relationships are hard, it is chronically suspicious, it expects things to get worse. Self-centeredness drops out of the race of life as soon as it develops a stitch in its side.

Self-centeredness is a quitter.

May these words help you to understand the way of self-centeredness and the way of love more deeply.

O merciful Father,
Forgive us for our self-centeredness and the many ways in which we justify it,
Make us more loving and other-centered, as you have steadfastly loved us.
Apart from your mercy and grace, we are undone.
May we glorify you in love.

31 August 2014

Affected by our Presuppositions

Peter's past affected him. Raised a Jew, he had specific ideas about who was in and who was out. The Jews were the chosen ones, the one for whom Messiah came. Even after Peter was befriended by Jesus, he maintained his strong Jewishness and apparently was reluctant to move outside of that former way of thinking.

In Acts 10, an angel appeared to Cornelius who was not a Jew, telling him to seek out Peter. So he sends for him. In verse 9, the story is seemingly interrupted as we read about a vision that Peter had. Hungry, Peter sees "a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: 'Rise Peter, kill and eat'" (Acts 10:11-13). Peter essentially responded by saying, "no way Lord. I've never broken this law you set forth and I'm not about to start now."

I used to read this story and think it was about food, but its about people. Its about Peter seeing that Gentiles were God's children too (Acts 10:27-28) and so he relented and met with Cornelius. And Peter and the church lived happily ever after, right?  Not so fast.

In Galatians 2:11-14, there is another story about Paul opposing Peter for a very similar issue. Peter had been hanging out, having lunch with the Gentiles, but then the Jews showed up. Peter was scared about what the Jews would say, so he quietly pulls back from them and Paul confronts him for behaving this way. 

I have said it before, but I am glad Peter is in the Bible. Peter is the rock on which Jesus would build his church, but as Michael Card pointed out, Peter was a "fragile stone." He was an impetuous sinner. He was also a new creation, but still seemingly affected by his former way of thinking.

Here's a little secret...all of us are affected by our pasts. Your style of relating, your way of thinking can be subtly or not so subtly affected by what has gone before. So what? First, it is important to acknowledge that how you think and feel can be deeply affected by your history. Second, it is important to remember that you are a new creation. The words of truth are written on your heart and in God's word. Submit your thinking to the word of truth (Romans 12:2). Third, seek wise counsel from people who know you and know God. They may help to hold up a mirror for you to see blind spots you may not see, as Paul did with Peter.

Finally, show grace to others because their past affects who they are as well.  If they are Christians, they are called saints by God, but they remain flawed saints until glory. There will be times when they seem to be living well in the rhythm of the Spirit and there will be times when their past pops back through. Be patient, give grace, and thank God for the work in their lives, just as He continues to work in yours.

26 August 2014

Book Review: The Case for the Real Jesus--Student Edition

When one thinks of mainstream Christian apologists, Lee Strobel's name is assuredly at the top of the list. A former atheist and journalist, he initially came to recognition by applying his journalistic skill to the excellent book, The Case for Christ. He has since applied the same engaging, journalistic method to several other books such as the The Case for a Creator and the Case for Faith. His typical approach is to tackle questions Christians may discuss with nonbelievers or that they may struggle with themselves.  The Case for the Real Jesus (2008, Zondervan) was no different.

In this book, Strobel sets out to address six different challenges:
1) Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus through ancient documents just as credible as the four gospels.
2) The Bible's portrait of Jesus can't be trusted because the church tampered with the text.
3) New explanations have disproved Jesus' resurrection.
4) Christianity's beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.
5) Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah.
6) People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus.

In each case, he would find expert theists and apologists to address the questions at hand. Although many people may be unfamiliar with these authors, writers such as Craig Evans, Dan Wallace, and Paul Copan are highly educated, knowledgeable about the topics, and capable of defending. In each case, Strobel essentially lays out his conversations with these individuals to the benefit of the reader.

I would say the only place where I was puzzled was in trying to understand what classified this as a "student edition."  I was unable to locate anything specific, other than the cover, that specifically mentioned that it was for students. The writing style employed inside is classic Strobel and doesn't appear different from how he typically writes. Admittedly, I did not have a copy of the non-student edition for comparison, though I suspect they would be vastly similar.  Perhaps what made it a student edition was the inclusion of various text boxes, tables, and figures to highlight parts of the text, though to be fair, these "call outs" would be beneficial whether a person was a student or not.

In sum, this was a fine book. It could have been more comprehensive, but that was not the focus and there are other fine volumes to fit that niche. The purpose of answering these basic questions is handled clearly and effectively.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. 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.”

23 August 2014

Book Review: Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them

In the past, I have read a couple of engaging books by John Ortberg, so when I saw Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Zondervan, 2003) on the shelf at the thrift store, I thought I would give it a go. To not delay your suspense, I told a friend of mine that this book was gold. In fact, when I was half-way through the book, I purchased two other copies to give to people. I've already given one away.

Ortberg has an engaging writing style that shows a wide breadth of knowledge and a capacity to capture the reader's attention. In this book, he explores the concepts of loneliness, community, and boundaries. In essence, he reminds us of the need for healthy community. 

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was his discussion of the Canaanite woman who approached and asked him to heal her daughter. He told her that "its not right to take the children's bread and toss it to dogs."  I have always hated that verse. It doesn't fit with my conception of Jesus.  Ortberg used it as a lesson, not so much for her, but for his disciples, showing the role of faith rather than lineage. I had never looked at it that way before.

Just this morning, I was reading from John 17 and Jesus is praying that we would be one, just as he and the Father are one and that we may be in them (the Father and Son) as they are in each other. That's a call to Trinitarian community and Ortberg writes of that idea well. 

21 August 2014

Book Review: Three Philosophies of Life

Peter Kreeft's Three Philosophies of Life (1989) is a philosophical, theological, and practical exploration of the the themes of vanity, suffering, and love. He explores each of these "philosophies of life" through the biblical wisdom literature. In particular, ecclesiastes represents vanity, Job represents suffering, and the Song of Songs represents love.

The longest section dealt with Ecclesiastes, which Kreeft regards as one of the finest philosophical "books" ever produced because it deals so well with a basic human issue. He writes, "Ecclesiastes is as great, as deep, and as terrifying as the ocean." For him, though the book is several thousand years old, its practical relevance today is unparalleled.

The second section, which deals with the suffering of Job, is also deeply relevant to modern life. He wrestles deeply with the what suffering means in life without minimizing it or avoiding its reality, much like the author of Job did.

My favorite section dealt with Song of Songs, the final "philosophy of life." He writes, "The Song of Songs is the definitive answer to the question of Ecclesiastes and to the quest of Job." He proceeds to show the many different manifestations of love evident through the writings of this short book. One of my favorite, extended quotes, appears near the end of the book.

"But what about sin? Does God just hide his eyes? How can that be realism? God does not hide his eyes. Your eyes are hidden in time, hidden from your eternal destiny and identity. You see only the present crude sketch of yourself. He sees the completed masterpiece, for he sees from eternity. Your life is like a string pulled taut. Like an ant, you crawl along the string of your lifetime, from one end (birth) to the other (death). But God sees the whole string end on, from the end. He blinks at nothing; he sees everything in its true perspective. He sees your whole life, but not as you do, piecemeal. He sees you whole, as a finished painting. And the judgment he pronounces on you is 'perfect.'"

Three Philosophies is a good little book. Despite the fact that it is written by a philosopher, it is accessible, clear, and engaging.

20 August 2014

Foundational Ideas in One Paragraph

Every one of us has ideas about how the world works. Our underlying presuppositions, even if we are unaware of them, affect how we view and interact with the world (worldview matters). As a Christian, several ideas inform how I view the world. Christianity is unique in the centrality of relationship. God is Trinity--a perfect relationship that has existed for all eternity and, as Christ followers, we exist to be in relationship with others as well (Relationality). We don't do this perfectly because we are flawed. We err in keeping God's law, we err in relating well.  However, through the finished work of Christ, we are also saints--image bearers of our perfect King. We sin, but possess value (flawed saints). Because we are imperfect, but saved by a perfect God, we pursue humility. We admit that we don't have all the answers. We listen attentively to try to understand. Even in the face of disagreement, we act from a perspective of sacrificial love and service (self-denial/humility). Nevertheless, I believe that truth is objective, and much of it is discoverable. I have no doubt that I am wrong about many things, but being wrong assumes that there is a right and wrong.  Humbly pursuing that truth is a noble endeavor (absolute truth). One of the truths that most deeply affects my worldview is that I am a great sinner and God is a great Savior. Apart from his saving grace, I am hopeless (grace/forgiveness). However, the gospel is much bigger than me individually. When sin entered the world, it affected--infected--everything. There is nothing in the universe not touched by sin (the fall affected everything). At the same time, the gospel is more powerful than my salvation, though it is not less than that. The good news of the Kingdom, brought by Jesus Christ, is that He is in the process of restoring all things, restoring shalom, and in that, there is great hope (the gospel affected everything).

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw

Beautiful Outlaw (2011) by John Eldridge is an excellent treatment of the humanity of Christ. Eldridge points his reader to the humanity of Christ, the ruddiness of him. I tend toward the tradition that bristles at books like this one. The risen Christ is majestic (he is) and unapproachable (he is not). Unfortunately, in focusing so much upon the divinity of Christ, it is easy to miss his humanity.  This book may be one of the better explorations of the humanity, the personhood of Jesus. Reflecting on biblical story after biblical story, Eldridge shows the reader that Jesus was not some aloof, distant sage, but a man who felt things, a man who engaged with the people around him.  There were some things in the book that seem a little goofy to me (e.g., his son seeing Jesus in a pirate hat), but I wonder if that was not a little bit of Eldridge's point, to see the playfulness and approachability of Jesus. 

More than anything, I found myself challenged to begin asking people "Who is Jesus?" and "What does Jesus think of you?" I would recommend this book if you are interested in exploring the humanity of Christ in more depth.

19 August 2014

Men and Women wrap up

Over the last couple of months, Mark Halvorsen and I have been talking about Larry Crabb's book Men and Women. We have spent three hours discussing it on his show, Front Page. If you haven't had a chance to listen in, here are the three parts.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

One of the things that I pointed yesterday on the show was that although the book is called Men and Women, it should not be thought of merely as a marriage book. The topics that are discussed, particularly in the first half of the book hold a broad importance.

Dr Crabb opened his book with this quote from Fredrick Buechner: "'Original sin' means we all originate out of a sinful world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves the center of the universe." Anwounded, and people are self-centered. We must decide which is the greater problem." It is easy to consider our woundedness, which should not be discounted or avoided, yet we are all deeply self-centered as well, which has a significant effect on relationships.
d so Dr Crabb begins to address how self-centered each of us are.  In our first show, we spent quite a bit of time discussing Dr Crabb's idea that "people are

In the second show, we spent time talking about justified anger. Each of us has a tendency to find ways to justify how we think and behave in self-centered ways. When we become angry at others, we make it seem like we are the victim and so feel righteous in becoming angry. Unfortunately, this "justified self-centeredness" blocks relational formation.

Yesterday, we made it through three chapters, which was amazing for us! The fourth chapter is entitled "surely I'm not that bad". Most of us, if we are honest believe that the way we act and behave is "not that bad."  Just today, I was convicted of a sin that I didn't make much of before hand, though today, I was confronted with the depth of my sin. The fifth and sixth chapters move into discussing that "change is possible" through the "celebration of forgiveness." 

It was a blessing to talk about this book and these important topics. I would highly recommend the book and I look forward to discovering what we will discuss next!

18 August 2014

Foundational Ideas: The Gospel Affects Everything

As sin affected everything, so the Gospel will restore everything. God makes all things new. In the midst of our depravity, there was quite literally nothing we could do to save ourselves from continued descent. Only Christ, who came to redeem sinners, offers any hope. But we must not be so short sighted as to think that Christ’s only job was to rescue sinners.   No doubt that was a massive part of what he came to do, but he came to usher in his kingdom. There will be a day, because of his ongoing redemptive work that he will wipe every tear from every eye, when there will be no more crying, no more pain, and no more sorrow. He will restore what needed restoration.

We are called to participate in God’s redemptive work today. We should bloom where we are planted. When we love others, when we work for cultural renewal, when we promote a biblical worldview, we serve to improve the world around us. As believers, Christ’s work for us was much broader than we could ever have imagined. For further information, anything by Chuck Colson would be appropriate, though I also liked Matt Chandler’s book “TheExplicit Gospel” for understanding this Kingdom vision.