28 February 2015

Book Review: Listen In

If you have followed my blog or book reviews for any time at all, you know that one of the most significant influences in my life has been Dr Larry Crabb. I have read all of his books--some repeatedly, listened to any audio lectures I can find, and attended his School for Spiritual Direction and Next Step School for Spiritual Direction. With that exposure, I have had the pleasure of both direct and indirect contact with his wife Rachael, who was one of the three authors of Listen In: Building Faith and Friendship Through Conversations That Matter (2015, Intervarsity). The brief conversations that I have had with her have mattered to me.

Listen In is a unique book. Rachael, together with her good friends Sonya Reeder and Diana Calvin provide the reader with transcriptions of several intentional conversations they had with one another. The basic process, which Rachael shared near the end of the book, involved each person writing down a shaping event from their lives and reading it to the group, which then led to intentional conversations. The basic structure for their conversations included: identifying intentional purpose, tuning in to present experience, being curious and offering feedback, exploring shaping events, and creating a vision for one another.

As I read this book, I was able to get a glimpse of each of these women's uniqueness and gospel-centeredness. They demonstrated a deep desire to love one another through "sacred curiosity" and "conversations that matter", both phrases that characterize New Way Ministries. Although this book is primarily targeted to women, as a man, I was edified and encouraged by what I read.

So, who would benefit from this book? It is clear throughout that the primary audience is women. I am eager to put this book into the hands of several women that I know. I think Listen In has a very real potential to deepen conversations and help women to grow in love for one another. However, I would also want to put it into the hands of men. As a man, reading this book, I found that it provides insight into how women--at least these three women--think and relate. Yet, men can also benefit from conversations that matter and Listen In provides a practical introduction. Finally, I think this book would help to equip church leaders to guide the church in how we can learn to relate more deeply. 

26 February 2015

Book Review: The Happy Christian

I am not naturally a pessimist, though when I saw David Murray's latest book The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World (Thomas Nelson, 2015), I was a bit skeptical. To be clear, I have a deep appreciation for Dr Murray and I am a committed fan to his blog. As a Christian psychologist and editor of the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology, I believe that Dr Murray is one of the bright lights of the movement. I have put his little book, Christians Get Depressed Too, into the hands of many people. Yet, when I read the the title, "The Happy Christian", I worried. To clarify, I do believe that the Christian faith leads to a joy and happiness that is unparalleled in other worldviews, yet to me, it seems too easy to communicate the message that one must be happy to be a Christian. I do not believe that the biblical record reflects happiness as a requirement for the believer. Still, Murray is a wise man and I was eager to read what he chose to share.

Murray presented 10 ways to be joyful:
  1. Happy Facts: Facts > Feelings
  2. Happy Media: Good News > Bad News
  3. Happy Salvation: Done > Do
  4. Happy Church: Christ > Christians
  5. Happy Future: Future > Past
  6. Happy World: Everywhere Grace > Everywhere Sin
  7. Happy Praise: Praise > Criticism
  8. Happy Giving: Giving > Getting
  9. Happy Work: Work > Play
  10. Happy Differences: Diversity > Uniformity
If I am honest, after the first chapter, my hopes for this book cooled, though in hindsight, I am not sure why. Murray essentially presented a way of examining how we think grounded in a cognitive behavioral model. I think my initial concern was that although extremely beneficial, an exclusively cognitive behavioral approach would be limited. I also had fears that this book would be a recycling of previous writers like Norman Vincent Peale, though Murray quickly set that fear to rest. 

As I continued to read, I was reminded why I like Dr Murray so much. He addresses a broad range of issues and how they can influence the life of the Christian. Briefly, for example, he shows the reader how too much immersion in negative news can be psychologically damaging, how focusing on the past can be problematic, and how giving freely is freedom giving.

Considering how I tend to think, I was particularly drawn to chapter 3, which has to do with Happy Salvation. Murray reminds us, as Christians, that when Jesus said from the cross that it is finished, that he meant it. That has very practical implications for our own happiness. In that chapter he wrote, "What are the ten most disbelieved letters in the Bible? N...O...T...O...F...W...O...R...K...S"  Amen.

Overall, I was very happy with Dr Murray's new book. I would gladly put it into the hands of any believer. It is biblical, practical, and wise.

In exchange for this review, I was provided with a free copy of this book by Thomas Nelson and the Book Look Bloggers Program. I was not required to submit a positive review of this book. 

24 February 2015

A Little Mustard

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.-Ephesians 2:8-9

Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.-Romans 4:3

Sola Fide was one of the grand biblical ideas recovered during the Protestant Reformation. Following after Luther, reformation theologians helped to remind the church that salvation is accomplished by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in the finished work of Christ alone (solus Christus).  My salvation is based not on my good works, my character, nor which church I attend, but upon faith in the finished work of Christ. 

Too often though, Christians have a way of taking that glorious gift of grace and repackaging it into works based salvation. We give assent to salvation by faith alone, but then begin to ask questions like, "but is my faith enough?" and "how much faith is required for it to be a saving faith?"  Turning faith into works brings us right back to square one, where salvation depends on me. But how much faith is necessary?

In Matthew 17, Jesus is talking with his disciples and he tells them, "truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'move from here to there' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20). This is not a verse about how a little belief makes me stronger in my own self. It is a verse that tells me that even a weak, anemic faith is sufficient. With my little faith, Christ saves.

So today, if you find yourself saying, "my faith is so weak. Jesus all I have to bring is a mountain of doubt and a molecule of faith", Christ can redeem that for "nothing will be impossible" with him.

My salvation is all of grace, all of faith, and all of God. 

Book Review: The Skeletons in God's Closet

A friend of mine has been having some serious doubts about Christianity and one of the reasons he gives for his doubt is hell. How could a loving God send people to hell for eternity? If most of us are honest, its hard for us to reconcile too.  When another friend of mine was raving about Joshua Ryan Butler’s book The Skeletons in God’sCloset (2014), I couldn’t wait to read it. 

In Skeletons, Butler takes on three of the hardest questions that Christians are often faced with and frankly we don’t really know how to answer with grace and truth. First, how can a loving God send people to hell? Second, Isn’t it arrogant to believe Jesus is the only way to God? And third, why is there so much violence in the Old Testament?  

What if Hell, judgment, and holy war are extensions of God’s love? I believe, with all of my heart that when it says in First John that God IS love, that John meant it, but I also believe that the Bible does teach about the reality of hell and that Christ really is the only way to salvation.  Butler goes a long way to help his readers to reconcile these truths. 

Regarding hell, what if God’s purpose is not so much the torture of the unrepentant, but the protection of his holy city from the destructive powers of sin? I think that Butler rightly says “sin takes things that are whole and tries to break them up”—marriages, community, humanity.  In restoring the whole, he will not allow the intrusion of that which destroys. 

Butler says that judgment is meant to heal, not destroy the nations. It is meant to restore relationships, not break them down. Finally, he describes God as outrageously patient with humanity, but that ultimately he is for his people and he will do whatever it takes to defend them.

I didn’t like everything about this book, but I liked it. Butler grounded some of his arguments politically and in ways that I probably wouldn’t have, but this is a thoughtful, important, scripturally defended book that deals with some of the most important questions we may face as believers.

19 February 2015

Book Review: Tell It Slant

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (2008) by Eugene Peterson is the 4th book in his 5-volume spiritual theology series. As the subtitle says, Peterson uses the first part of this book to explore the stories and parables of Jesus and the second half to explore Jesus' way of praying.

The first section the book was centered around the journey to Samaria described in Luke 9 to 19. On his journey, Jesus used the opportunity to teach his disciples, typically through the medium of parable. Peterson looks at how Jesus was not simply a theologian, but that he engaged people through the telling of stories. Too often, storytelling seems to be a lost art today, though Jesus was the master storyteller. In this part of the book, chapter 5 "Manure: Luke 13:6-9" was perhaps my favorite. Peterson, through one of the stories of Jesus, educates the reader that Jesus often does not work quickly. He writes, "Manure is a slow solution. When it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow--yeast, salt, seeds, light. And manure."

In the second half of the book, Peterson introduces the reader to six prayers of Jesus. His exposition on Jesus' "high priestly prayer" in John 17 is essential reading for the Christian to know that we are invited to join in the Trinity. We are loved by a relational God who invites us in.  Another important concept Peterson raised here was that of the importance of silence in prayer and in language, an oft overlooked virtue, particularly in modern culture.

I would recommend this book, or any in the series, to those who want a deeper understanding of the spiritual life of the believer. 

16 February 2015

A Crooked Fence

Our inner Pharisee looks out over the the field of sins and builds a fence around those that do not seem to apply to us. We look out upon our neighbor's fields and see crops of murder, adultery, or drug abuse and think to ourselves, "I would never abuse drugs" or "well, at least I've never killed anyone." Our eyes sweep back to our own fields with pride. "Look at my crops. How tall and beautiful they are! Not a sign of theft. Not a hint of child abuse."

Yet we fail to notice our crooked fence. When we took inventory of our own sins and examined our neighbors, the fence that was required to make our fields look good was tortuous. Twisted and jagged, it kept the sins of others at bay while pleasantly ignoring the perennial lust, anger, and pride that crops up moment by moment in our lives.

The Pharisee does not really seem to believe what Paul said in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." For them, or shall I say for us, we are quick to suggest to the person in the next field "you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but my sins are not that bad."

Friends, Jesus came to uproot them all.  Your neighbor's murder, the adultery of the guy down the street, and your belief that your sins are not that bad and do not require forgiveness. Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount was to show us how deeply rooted our sins are. None of us are exempt. On our own merits, we are all fields of unrighteous weeds.

By His grace, he can uproot your sin and by His Spirit--and by His Spirit alone--He will walk your fields with you and enable you to bear fruit in keeping with your repentance.

11 February 2015

Book Review: The Allure of Gentleness

A few months ago, I saw this book show up as a pre-buy on Amazon and immediately purchased it. To say that I could not wait for it to come was a bit of an understatement. Yesterday, I saw that it was out for delivery and I couldn't wait to get home and get started.

The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (2015) by the late Dallas Willard is an exceptionally good book. It is unusual for me to be sad when I have finished a book, though I wish this one had kept going.

Willard, a former philosophy professor from the University of Southern California, offered this book as a gentle pushback on the apologetics engine that occupies much of Christianity. Apologetics, or the defense of the faith, has unfortunately become an adversarial enterprise where the goal is to win the argument rather than love the person. Willard calls us to something more; he calls us to love others with the compassion and wisdom of Jesus.  He also rightly makes the argument that our lives and the outworking of our faith is essential to our defense of the faith.

Hints of his previous books--Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, and the Divine Conspiracy, to name a few--find their way into the pages of this book, yet this book stands alone as a unique, important, and much welcome offering from Willard.

May our lives of love reflect our message of truth.

10 February 2015

Book Review: Miracle on Voodoo Mountain

Miracle on Voodoo Mountain (Thomas Nelson, 2015) by Megan Boudreaux deals with "a young woman's remarkable story of pushing back the darkness for the children of Haiti." The beginning of the book tells the story of a young woman who felt God's prompting to move to Haiti. She had been there twice previously, though had recently settled into a new and enjoyable job.  Seemingly against all logic, she obeyed the call to go.

She writes a compelling story about moving toward others, in this case the Haitian people, in the name of Jesus. Writing of her new determination, "Now I know what I can do. I can show these children love. I can show them joy. I can show them compassion. I can show each of these children Jesus. Fear will not affect Haiti. Politics will not have an impact on Haiti. Jesus will." (p. 31). Many who live there may disagree.  Fear is prevalent. Political unrest is a constant presence. Yet, Boudreaux is right; Jesus is the answer.

Boudreaux evidences trust. Through difficult trials and circumstances, she continues to put one foot in front of the other in following Christ to overcome financial barriers, language barriers, and cultural barriers. With gripping language, she shares about the many trials and triumphs of life in Haiti.

If I had to pin down my takeaway message, it is that people matter. As God's image bearers, everyone has value. Megan Boudreaux brought that message to Haitians first to her daughter Michaelle and then to more.

People matter.

On a personal note, I have deep appreciation for this book. I have been to Haiti twice as we attempt to complete our adoption. My wife and my eldest daughter Grace, who reminds me a lot of Megan, have been to Haiti 5 times, most recently having lived there for 7 weeks. This message is important. Read this book and be encouraged.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review from Thomas Nelson and the Book Look Bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review of this book. 

02 February 2015

Book Review: Revolution Within

I first heard of Revolution Within: A Fresh Look at Supernatural Living (2002) in a Larry Crabb lecture (the author of the forward to the book). Indeed, the influences upon one another are evident in Crabb's lectures and in Edwards' book. Considering my fondness (some would say excessive fondness) for Dr Crabb, it is unsurprising that I deeply enjoyed this book.

In essence, Revolution Within deals with New Covenant living. Too often, Christians continue to live Old Covenant lifestyles even though the Bible tells them that they are New Covenant believers. Edwards tells the reader that the New Covenant has given believers a new purity, a new identity, a new disposition, and a new power. Apprehending each of those realities that already exist helps the believer to live more fully to the glory of God and for the love of others.

The influences of many of my favorite authors found their way into the pages of this book: John Piper, Chuck Colson, Eugene Peterson, Francis Schaeffer, CS Lewis, not to mention Crabb. In fact, there were a couple of occasions where his books were so closely reminescent of books I love that I assumed Edwards and I had the same books on our shelves. For example, on page 77, Edwards writes about Luke 15 being a story about a prodigal father who "gives to the undeserving with outrageous generosity and irrational kindness", which is the essential message of Tim Keller's excellent book, Prodigal God. Much to my surprise, Edwards' book predated Keller's by 9 years. Second, in chapter 12, he asks the question whether it is better to have Christ physically at your side or the Spirit inside you, a question well-explored with JD Greear's recent book Jesus Continued...

I would like to get this book into the hands of most believers. There is so much food for thought here about the realities of the Christian life that, unfortunately, many believers rarely explore.