16 November 2017

Book Review: Love Big. Be Well.

If it weren't for the high praise offered by John Blase, author of The Jubilee, one of my favorite collections of poetry, I am not sure I would have happened upon this remarkable book. Love Big Be Well (2017) by Winn Collier is such a warm and welcome gift. About two-thirds of the way through it, I wrote inside the front cover, "this whole book is a benediction."

Love Big Be Well offers a unique premise. A disenchanted man, Jonas McAnn, responds to a handwritten letter from a pastoral search committee from Granby Presbyterian Church, ultimately becoming this small town church's pastor. The book is a collection of pastoral letters, which routinely conclude with "Love Big. Be Well. Jonas."

In these letters, Jonas addresses several aspects of the Christian life, identifying what he sees as marks of true faith and those that seem to be counterfeits of what Jesus actually said with a raw honesty. One of the advantages of using a fictional story like this is the ability to describe one's convictions without seeming self-important.

Collier also accomplished what I think was an impressive rhetorical feat: I came to care deeply about the members of the church, and especially Don, through the pastor's descriptions in his letters. Fictional letters about fictional characters, and yet I was moved.

Several times, I found myself longing to read more about Port William, Kentucky, Wendell Berry's fictional small town because in many ways, Collier's book was reminiscent of Berry.

I certainly see why John Blase endorsed this book. And Eugene Peterson. I am happy to add my unknown name to that list. I will be reading this book again, and likely purchasing copies for others, because I won't want to share mine.

14 November 2017

Book Review: Recapturing the Wonder

I picked up Mike Cosper's Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (2017) from the Intervarsity Press table at the AACC world convention along with a few other books. I tucked it in my briefcase and when I got home, shelved it. Thankfully, I didn't forget it was there because this book is excellent.

I found myself immediately engaged in this book. He writes of a modern faith that has somehow lost its sense of mystery and wonder, a supernatural faith stripped of the "super" and thus becoming mundane. He observes this trend and tells his readers "open your eyes!" I have been trying to communicate this message to fellow believers, and I don't know if the message ever lands. Often, I suspect I am regarded as either a religious nutjob, or simply as kooky.  Honestly, I'm okay with those characterizations, but once one has tasted supernatural wonder, he wants to invite others to the same. When one recognizes that God's kingdom is so much larger and more glorious than most people ever imagine, he wants to shout, "come and see! come and see!" 

I cannot commend this book strongly enough. If you find your faith boring, mundane, or disenchanted, please get this book and read it.  I don't think you'll regret it. The last page and a half of the book proper (149-150) are alone worth its price.

21 October 2017

Ten Statements about emotion

Ten statements about emotion that one will have difficulty supporting biblically:
1) Emotions are a sign of weakness. 
2) Life would be better if we learned to suppress our emotion.
3) One cannot be logical and emotional at the same time. 
4) People who express emotion are not thinking clearly. 
5) Emotions are unnecessary.
6) Emotions are dangerous.
7) Just like Spock, Jesus was unemotional.
8) God the Father is unemotional.
9) In the process of sanctification, we will become less emotionally expressive.
10) Church is not the place for emotion.

Soil of the Divine

In late 2016, I began working on a book of poetry based upon the Psalms. Each weekday morning, I would read one of the Psalms, meditate upon it, and see what stirred in my heart, with the goal of writing a poem inspired by each Psalm. Some mornings, words flowed easily; on others, I felt blocked, but each day, I wrote. After finishing the draft, I spent a few months editing and tweaking the poems. Some friends graciously agreed to offer editorial assistance as I neared the end (thank you Briana and Cindy!). I formatted the interior, designed the cover, and ultimately sent it on to publication.

Earlier in the week, I received my first case of books. They arrived while I was meeting with 7/8 of my life group. I gathered my children to the basement and subjected them to the grand unveiling. I am grateful they humored me. I sent copies along to a few people, but remained rather tight-lipped. I wanted my mom and my aunt Sandy to see it before I went public with it. They both have their copies, so I am glad to be able to tell you all about it.

I do hope you will consider reading it. Even if poetry "isn't your thing," my hope is that you might be edified by it. It's available on both Kindle and in paperback (if you know me, you are aware of my preference). You can purchase it directly through the CreateSpace e-store or Amazon.

If you are looking for Christmas gifts for everyone you know, I would also be happy to recommend it. 😊

*At times, I will post some of my favorite poems at my new blog, jasonkanz.com

11 October 2017

Altruism, Neuroscience, and Christian Psychology

I was contacted by a magazine editor to offer thoughts on an article from the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago. I ended up writing a treatise. 

I will try to offer several thoughts, that I hope will be cogent.  The PNAS study is an interesting one. Neuroscience, as you no doubt know, has advanced considerably over the last several years. This seems especially true following the advent of functional neuroimaging, such as fMRI, which allows researchers to get a glimpse of what is happening in a functioning brain. This fMRI research has progressed from understanding motor functioning (e.g., finger tapping) to cognitive tasks (e.g., memory) and now to issues of relationship and morality. Researchers continually push the edge in terms of figuring out how to administer tasks inside the scanner  to try to understand what is going on in the brain. This emotion recognition paradigm is a fascinating one. It is unsurprising that the amygdala shows increased responsiveness in those who are altruistic; the amygdala is one of the brain structures most closely associated with emotional expression, but also emotional memory. So, from a neuropsychological perspective, these results confirm what one might predict. 

As a Christian neuropsychologist, the question of biological markers and altruism is an important one to consider. As you might imagine, for a non-theistic materialist, the assumption might be that the larger amygdala causes increased altruism, but what if the direction is reversed? What if those who exhibit consistently other-centered behaviors develop improved amygdala function? I shared with someone the other day that I believe Jesus, in his humanity, had the most exquisitely integrated brain of any person ever; there was no malfunction, there was no disintegration. His brain functioned the way all of our brains should function. But the New Testament also calls each of us to wholeness. I am particularly fond of John 13 to 17 where Jesus practically demonstrates other centered love and tells us to love one another like he loved us. Then in his prayer, he prayed that “they would be one as he and the Father were one.” Jesus was highly altruistic, the perfect picture of wholeness, and calls us to relational integration or what my friend Larry Crabb might call “relational holiness.” Neuroscientists are increasingly recognizing the brain as not just as the organ to make our bodies move and think, but that it is a relational organ. So when Jesus tells us to love one another like he loves, or when Paul tells us to put on the new self, we are being called into a life not only of greater other centeredness and greater love, but I would argue, deeper neurological integration. 

In terms of the reconciling power of God’s grace and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, God absolutely has the ability to change our hearts, but in so doing, he also equips us for greater neuropsychological health and wholeness. Unfortunately, it is all too common that Christians don’t live into that reality and we continue to live disintegrated.


I might also anticipate another question: why is it then that non-believers might be more altruistic, kind, charitable, etc. than non-believers. I would offer a couple of thoughts: first, those one time snapshots fail to account for one’s progressive sanctification. John Newton said once, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” God’s ongoing grace has a role in our sanctification, which I believe includes other-centeredness. The second observation I would offer is that God’s common grace allows remarkable may allow for compassion even amongst non-believers. The question that falls to us as believers, though, is what do I do with the gift that I have been given? Will I choose to live toward wholeness in Christ or not? 

10 October 2017

Book Review: Immeasurable

A good friend of mine has often spoken fondly of Skye Jethani, though until now, I have not taken the opportunity to read anything he has written. When I saw Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Moody, 2017) I decided to give it a go. Jethani does his readers a welcome service by providing a number of essays addressing the modern church, helping to reveal blind spots and suggesting ways forward. For example, he offered push back on the celebrity church culture, viewing church as transactional rather than relational, and, ironically, reading the latest Christian books.  I especially liked his chapter, Illumination, in which he explored the differences between preaching and teaching. Another friend and I have been talking about the differences between these two things recently and after reading this chapter, I am going to work hard to call what I do on Sunday mornings preaching rather than teaching. I am there to proclaim.

On the whole, this is a really good book full of welcome insight. The chapters vary considerably in length which tripped me up perhaps more than it should, but whether two pages or a dozen, each section contains something beneficial to ministers of the gospel.

09 October 2017

jasonkanz.com

I have opened up a new site over at jasonkanz.com  I plan to use that blog to share original creations, especially around the ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty.  Please consider following that blog if you are interested in my art, poetry, photoraphy, or essays.

Thank you.

04 October 2017

Poem: Rustling Leaves

So many rustling leaves
brittle and devoid of life.
They congregate in piles 
not long for the earth. 

Their burial clothes--
crimson, yellow, and burnt umber--
are beautiful
but retain no power for life. 

It is those leaves
who remain connected
to the Branch
in whom life dwells
and who, in return
breathe life into the world. 

30 September 2017

Poem: Pick the Flowers

In a world of LOLs and LMAOs
of baes and YOLOs,
we have not lost our vocabulary,
we have bastardized it.
Each of us
has rolling fields from which
we choose our words.
Though some fields
may be larger than others,
all contain verbal blossoms
ready to unfold in beauty
and bless.
Yet we choose weeds--
thorns and thistles--
who not only inhibit goodness
but actively corrupt it.
In a world
of so many weeds
pick the flowers.

26 September 2017

Kindness, Not Controversy

Cease to do evil
learn to do good
seek justice
correct oppression.
Isaiah 1:16-17

The world is filled with so much hate,
     anger is not what makes us great.
We rant and rave, we disagree,
     forgetting God who sets us free.
We look for ways to criticize,
     echo chambers providing lies.
The New York Times or news from Fox,
     we all live in a slanted box.
Closing our mouths, opening ears,
     a great idea unrealized here.
But there is too much damnable pride,
     hubris abounds, humility's died.
God hides His eyes from those who oppress,
     religious words fail to impress.
Cease to do evil, learn to do right,
     seek after justice, for people denied.
Here's an idea: get off your phone,
     battling strangers in angry tones
will never amount to culture's improvement
     it only divides with negative movement.
Look to your neighbor, say "tell me your story,"
     seek understanding, all for God's glory.
You may disagree, you might even be right;
     but harming another, is not worth the fight.
Also consider, you could be wrong;
     your skewed perspective, false all along.
God honors those who live with mercy,
     pursue kindness and love, not controversy.

21 September 2017

Do you listen to the rain?

I awake with the rain.
Still dark, the rain is at play
I hear the drops landing gently
     upon the leaves.

There is a crispness to the sound
     like wind-rustled paper
and I immediately think, autumn.

Briefly, thunder grumbled
admonishing the rainfall to keep silent.
     "People are sleeping!"

I am grateful they persisted.


19 September 2017

Frosty September

Pale canvas sky
I wonder why
     I then remember.
Morning’s greeting
Colors meeting
     Frosty September.

Spirit prepared
With holy care
     To show masterpiece.
God paints the sun
I’m left undone
     Will beauty ever cease?

No. It will shine
Glory divine
     The radiance of Christ.
Creation’s poem
Life of shalom
     Not decay, but life.

18 September 2017

Empowering Grace

I try so hard
To follow God
     Hoping He’ll approve;
I fail and fail
Day after day
     Condemned by this proof.

“You are welcome.
You are my child.”
     Jesus says to me.
“You belong
No matter what.
     I’m your identity.

I choose to live
For God above
     Not to gain His praise,
I serve Him well
As oft I can
     Because He’s given me grace.

14 September 2017

Making Sense of the Syrophoenician Woman

The Gospel of Mark, chapter 7, tells the story of the Syrophoenician woman. I don't know about you, but every time I have read this story, it's almost like hitting an unexpected dip in the road. The kind that makes your car bottom out and you think to yourself, I hope I didn't break anything. Up until this point, Jesus is loving, serving, teaching, and healing. He's comforting the afflicted and confronting the Pharisees. Even a few chapters earlier, a conflict arises between Jesus and the religious leaders over the washing of hands and Jesus confronts them for putting tradition ahead of love. That makes sense. This is the Jesus we know and love.

But then comes the passage beginning at verse 24. He and the disciples go to a house, hoping not to be found. Too many people around all the time gets to be exhausting. But in verse 25, we learn that a woman finds Jesus and falls at his feet. It seems her daughter has an unclean spirit. She came to Jesus to beg him to cast the demon out. Perfect. This is just what Jesus came for! But then there's this little detail. "Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth" (v. 26). We think to ourselves, no big deal, Jesus can heal anyone he wishes.

So after she pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter, we come to verse 27 "Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

K-LUNK!

Wait what? Did Jesus just refuse a desperate woman because she was of the wrong birth? Did he just call her a dog, a mongrel?  What are we supposed with that?

Here's what I think. Jesus was always teaching his disciples; this time was no different. Taken at face value, Jesus' response was remarkably harsh. It doesn't fit his character. So how are we to take this? We could assume that he was being harsh, Pharisaical, and clinging to tradition...or he was using this woman as a living parable. I think it was the second.

Trying to put myself in the scene, I envision Jesus and his disciples heading to Tyre and Sidon, trying to find rest. The small band of brothers no doubt talking about the recent interactions with the Pharisees. Along comes this woman, full of faith, but of the wrong tradition. She asks Jesus to free her daughter from a demon.

Jesus looks first at the woman and then at his disciples. They've all be raised in this tradition. It flows through their bloodstreams. I suspect that for some of them at least, they looked upon this woman with disgust. Some probably physically distanced themselves from her. They were simply responding to their upbringing. So Jesus, seeing them, offers the response they're all thinking but not saying. "You're no Jew. Go away you dog." He kept watching the disciples. Judas subtly nods. Peter too.

But she persists; she is desperate but faithful. She will take whatever he may offer her. Now, he looks at her, tears welling in her eyes, and in his. "For saying this, you may go. I have healed your daughter." Faith, not tradition; heart, not behavior.

I wonder what shifted in the disciples. Jesus was using misdirection. He was leading them down one path, but then doubles back to his
main message. Faith, not tradition; heart, not behavior. Jesus not only told them parables, in this case, he showed them.

Jesus still surprises me. I read stories like this one that for years don't make any sense and then one day...clunk...the pieces fall into place. When you are reading and something is puzzling or doesn't seem to fit the narrative of the story or the character of God, it probably doesn't. Slow down and pay attention. Notice what is happening in the surrounding verses. This passage makes much more sense when set against the earlier story line in Mark 7.

God is good. All the time.

09 September 2017

A Virtuous Trio

We look for beauty
     on a five inch screen,
surfing the web
     for the next cool scene.

But if we open our eyes
     and look all around,
in creational beauty
     God's glory abounds.

We search for truth
     on Wikipedia's pages,
trusting what's current
     not the wisdom of ages. 

But if we open our Bibles
     and read God's holy word,
we'll find indelible ink
     where *true Truth's conferred. 

We seek after goodness
     in the public square,
pinning our hopes
     to politicians with flair.

But goodness resides
     in God's perfect law,
love one another
     and God above all. 

Ancient philosophers
     said these three transcend,
all time and space
     they will not end.

A virtuous trio
     truth, goodness, and beauty,
seen most fully 
     in blessed Trinity. 

*True truth was a concept put forward by Francis Schaeffer that what the Bible teaches is not just one among many truths, but truth that corresponds to reality.

08 September 2017

Band of Brothers

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.--Proverbs 17:17

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.--Proverbs 18:24

True friendship is a rare gift, especially among men. In a culture that promotes rugged individualism on the one hand, and allows people to have thousands of "friends" through social media on the other, we have lost our way regarding what friendship means. We read stories in the Bible about friendships between men and the closeness they have may seem surreal to us because they are so different from our everyday experience.

We may have buddies, but often we don't have brothers.

We may have men that we like doing stuff with, but often we don't have men whom we love deeply.

I am grateful that for me, at least, results have not been typical. I want to tell you about two of my friends.

Several years ago, our church held a men's ministry event where "accountability groups" were encouraged. If you've never heard of an accountability group, it is essentially when a group of men get together and confess their sins to one another and pray for one another, usually guided by a list of questions (e.g., did you look at porn this week? Have you managed your money well?). My friend Brad was moved and reached out to a bunch of guys about starting a group. Eric and I, even though we didn't attend the men's ministry event, were the only two that responded. We didn't even really have relationship beforehand, other than a time when I offended Brad. The three of us began meeting at 6:00 on Thursday mornings at Randy's Family restaurant.

We are an unlikely trio. Let me tell you why. Brad runs an office--several actually--that sells bearings and transmissions. He is a whiz at math, has great spatial skills, has administrative capabilities that most only long for, and is a neat freak (perhaps even obsessively so).  Eric is a locksmith by profession, but also has an eye for beauty that many people lack in today's culture. Whether from resin or wood, he is able to craft things that amaze. Eric is also driven and visionary. I am a neuropsychologist and pastor. I love words more than anything requiring spatial skills, something both Eric and Brad would be quick to tell you. I am also decidedly not a neat freak.

Brad likes bikes. Eric likes Dungeons and Dragons. I like books.

As I said, we are an unlikely trio, yet these two men are my brothers. The love I have for them runs deep.

When we began meeting, we used " the list." Each week we would walk through the questions. Some weeks, I would hope that we wouldn't get around to me because I didn't want to tell these guys what a mess I was am.  Week after week we persisted, bonds of friendship forming. Eventually, we put away the list. We didn't need it to guide our conversations any longer because we had developed enough trust in one another to discuss whatever was pressing. We began to understand what it meant to encourage, admonish, help, and love one another. We were willing to dig down with one another and to allow the others to dig beneath our false veneer we put up.

But don't get the wrong impression that deep friendship is always easy. It's not. Every one of us have said something stupid for which we have needed to apologize. Every one of us has been confronted and wounded by the others. We have repeatedly had to apologize and forgive. Every one of us has sinned against the others, often unknowingly.

It would be so easy to live on the surface, to talk about the weather, but never get down to what is beneath. It would be so easy to walk away when conflict arises. It would be so easy to live behind our masks and never let one another see our true selves, but then we would never be truly known and honestly, then we would never grow. My friend Larry says "true growth happens when you look bad in the presence of love." I have that with these men and I regularly thank God for them. In a society that says when things get tough you are totally within your rights to walk away, a brother who sticks close by when things get messy is an unbelievable blessing.

In John 17, perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, Jesus prays for his brothers. At the end of the prayer, Jesus tells the Father that his desire is that these men would love one another the way that He and the Father love one another and that we would be one in the way that the Trinity is one (verses 21-22). This is not love like the world defines love; it is a radical other-centeredness and commitment to one another's good. Jesus wasn't just praying that this might happen in heaven, but that we might manifest this in our relationships now. I am grateful for two brothers with whom I am able to strive for that goal.

Perhaps as you read this, you are thinking to yourself "yeah, that's unrealistic," but what if it's not? How do you stretch toward this end? First, pray. Ask God to help this type of relationship develop. Second, persist. As I said above, when things get hard, our sinful predisposition is to cut and run rather than persevere in love for one another. Third, patience. Change happens slowly. In our instant society, we need to become people who take the long view, who trust the process of growth and relational sanctification.

Brad, Eric, and I are far from perfect, but we are committed to loving one another over the long haul.

31 August 2017

I'm looking for a book about...

People often ask if I have recommendations for books about certain topics. I started putting together a list and came up with 50. Each of these books is relatively easy to understand and hits on important topics.  I have included a number of topics. What did I miss?

  1. Addiction--Grace in Addiction, John Zahl
  2. Adoption--Adopted for Life, Russell Moore
  3. Anxiety--Running Scared, Ed Welch
  4. Apologetics: Content--Christian Apologetics, Doug Groothuis 
  5. Apologetics: Method--Tactics, Greg Koukl
  6. Beauty--Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, ND Wilson
  7. Bible--ESV Legacy Bible
  8. Biography--Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
  9. Calvinism--Chosen by God, RC Sproul
  10. Character--The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith
  11. Compassion--Generous Justice, Tim Keller
  12. Counsel (providing)--Soul Talk, Larry Crabb
  13. Creationism--More than a Theory, Hugh Ross
  14. Creativity--World Enough and Time, Christian McEwen 
  15. Decision Making--Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung
  16. Depression--Christians Get Depressed Too, David Murray
  17. Discipleship--Conformed to His Image, Ken Boa
  18. Emotions--Cry of the Soul, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman
  19. Fasting--Hunger for God, John Piper
  20. Gender--Fully Alive, Larry Crabb
  21. Gentleness--The Allure of Gentleness, Dallas Willard 
  22. Gospel--The Gospel, Ray Ortlund
  23. Grace--Extravagant Grace, Barbara Duguid
  24. Holiness--Holiness by Grace, Bryan Chapell
  25. Holy Spirit--Jesus Continued..., JD Greear 
  26. Interpreting the Bible--Dig Deeper, Niles Benyon
  27. Islam--Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi 
  28. Leadership--Heart of a Servant Leader, Jack Miller
  29. Marriage--What Did You Expect?--Paul Tripp
  30. Masculinity--Men of Courage, Larry Crabb
  31. Mental Health--Grace for the Afflicted, Matthew Stanford
  32. Neuroscience--Anatomy of the Soul, Curt Thompson
  33. Other-Centeredness--A Different Kind of Happiness, Larry Crabb
  34. Parenting--Give the Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
  35. Pastoring--The Pastor's Justification, Jared Wilson
  36. Poetry--The Jubilee, John Blase
  37. Prayer--Whole Prayer, Walter Wangerin
  38. Psalms--A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson
  39. Preaching--Preaching, Tim Keller
  40. Relationships--Everybody's Normal Until You Get to Know Them--John Ortberg
  41. Relativism--Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Midair--Frank Turek and Greg Koukl
  42. Revelation--Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson
  43. Sexual Abuse--Rid of my Disgrace, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
  44. Shame--Shame, Interrupted, Ed Welch
  45. Sin--Why Sin Matters, Mark McMinn
  46. Spirituality--True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer
  47. Suffering--A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser
  48. Trinity--Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves
  49. Union with Christ--Union with Christ, Rankin Wilbourne
  50. Worldview--Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey

21 August 2017

Superball

My mind is a superball
     incessantly 
          unpredictably bouncing
seemingly unable to remain at rest.

Superballs are fun
     though they aren't good for much else.

Like a toddler at play
     I move
          I move
rarely slowing for rest. 

The Father says,
     "come touch my knee." 

I resist. 
     Again..."come touch my knee." 

I do so, reluctantly, 
     but my mind still bounces around the room. 

"Look at me, son." 
     I turn to look at Him, 
     but like the superball,
     my eyes bounce away after a short second. 

"Look at me." 
     I try again to hold His gaze,
     a few seconds longer this time. 

He remains patient and tender.
     I draw an uneven breath and, holding it, look.

There is stillness in His eyes
     and love in His smile.

I relax.

How long before I bounce away again? 

18 August 2017

Book Review: The Christian Book of Mystical Verse

A.W. Tozer is a compelling writer, whose books have deeply affected Christians for decades, so I was glad to see The Christian Book of Mystical Verse: A Collection of Poems, Hymns, and Prayers for devotional reading (Moody, 1963). However, it would be unfair to say that this Tozer's book as much as it is a book of his influences. He wrote a 4 page introduction, but the remainder of the book is poetic verse collected under several headings: adoration of the godhead, devotional meditations on the cross, penitential reflections on our sins, rejoicing in forgiveness and justification, yearning for purity of heart, aspirations after God, delighting in God's presence, the rapture of divine love, the rest of faith, the spiritual warfare, victory through praise, the prayer of quiet, the bliss of communion, joyous anticipation of Christ's return, and immortality and the world to come. I found some familiar favorites, such as Isaac Watts, but also some people I was not familiar with, perhaps most notably Frederick William Faber (1814-1863).

All in all, this is a welcome collection. Poets have a way of lifting our eyes higher than simple prose and that goal is certainly accomplished in this book. More Christians would benefit from reading poetry and poetic prayers, such as in the excellent Valley of Vision. This collection by Tozer is a most welcome addition.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Moody Publishers. I was not required to share a positive review. These impressions are my own. 

12 August 2017

A trio of poems from MISA

A Murder of Crows

As night descended
the birds intended
     to raise some havoc.
A murder of crows
their angry shouts grow
     a rageful black flock.

Dark from head to toe
all who see them know
     not to mess with them.
They control the streets
all who see, retreat
     lest they stand condemned.

Grouped voices murmur
crows planning murder
     opposing the peace.
They rule the night
when they take flight
     dark anarchy seized. 

Relative Silence

I sit in silence
listening for God
     but silence is a relative term.

The refrigerator hums
     birds chirp
          once in a while. 

My stomach asks,
     "When's breakfast?" 

I think I hear people moving,
     but perhaps not...

Watercolor Morn

Watercolor morn
I step out my door
     and gaze to the West.

Cool gray sky,
     wet on wet
stands in stark contrast
     to the ragged treeline
          nearly black.

Our minds are trained to fill in missing pieces
     --interpretively--
          blue skies
               green trees
but the Artist's palate 
     contains more color.

As the sun ascends in the East
     and the earth genuflects in reverence,
new brush strokes are added 
     to nature's scene.

Green blue and Indian yellow
     edges mystically softened.

Soon contrasting shapes and colors and edges
     amorophous scene becomes beauty
     bearing the signature of the Creator. 

05 August 2017

Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Reader

A good friend of mine, a self-described "book philanderer," has asked me several times if I would be willing to put together a list to help people become better readers, or perhaps just readers. As I began to think about sharing my thoughts and ideas, I realized it would be a good idea to do some research on reading trends. In 2014, the Atlantic published an article "The Decline of the American Book Lover" by Jordan Weismann that presented some fascinating information.

  • Over three decades, the number of Americans who did not read any books in the previous year nearly tripled from 8% to 23%. Nearly one in four people read zero books. 
  • However, over one in four Americans (28%) read at least 11 books over the year, which is an admirable number. This was still a decline from 1978, when 42% hit that number. 
  • Although the mean number of books read per year was 12, the median number was just 5. Mean and median are two ways of expressing average and in this case, median is likely a better representation of "average" because the distribution is skewed. A fuller discussion of statistics is beyond the scope of this blog post, however.
Certainly one of the reasons for this downward trend would be the penetrance of the Internet. People increasingly do their "reading" on the web, though at face value, we are taking in fewer books. Recently, prolific author Philip Yancey wrote an article, Reading Wars, lamenting the decline in "deep reading" in his own life. He shares how he used to read three books per week, but in the age of the Internet, he finds himself becoming distracted after a paragraph or two, confirming what Nicholas Carr described in his excellent book The Shallows.

Yet reading has many benefits; here are a few. It provides mental stimulation, which may be important for brain health. It serves as a stress reducer, which is also good for one's cognitive and emotional well being. Recent research suggests that reading may help you develop empathy and the ability to better understand another's perspective. It improves your vocabulary.

Personally, reading has been one of my deepest pleasures. There are few things I enjoy more than reading a good book. I love to put books in other people's hands too, even when I suspect they are internally rolling their eyes thinking, "Not another book. I haven't read the first five you gave me." If you want to become a better reader, you might want to consider Yancey's suggestions in the article above. He is certainly more well read than I am. Nevertheless, here are some things that I find beneficial when it comes to reading habits.

  1. Read. Okay, you may be thinking "well, duh...", but you have to start somewhere. If you don't pick up a book with the intention to read, you never will. You may be someone who says, "I sure wish I were a reader," but then you never open a book. Research demonstrates that there is a difference between online reading and reading books and I would encourage you to develop the habit of reading books at least some of the time.
  2. Spend time with books. This suggestion may seem a little weird to you, and perhaps it is objectively strange. I haven't decided. My basement has been converted to a library which contains a few thousand books. Often, at the end of a day, I will spend time with my books, not necessarily reading, but looking at them. At times, I spend enough time doing this that I suspect my family is worried where I have gone. Sometimes, when I am looking at them, a title will trigger my interest and I will pick it up and read it. Most people don't have a library in their basements, but they do have them in their communities. You can go in and wander the stacks...for free. Or go to the bookstore--used or new, or the thrift store. They all have books and sometimes unusual people. 
  3. Read what interests you. My daughter prefers fiction; I prefer nonfiction, especially theology. Most of the time, I read what I enjoy. When I finish a book, I often will saunter through my library and grab a few titles that pique my interest. I will read the first few pages of each until I decide upon one of them and then reshelve the rest for later. I also reread books, sometimes many times. 
  4. Don't be afraid to abandon a book. Too often, we get embarrassed when we fail to complete things. Who are you trying to please? If you don't want to read the book, don't read the book, even if you've already finished 100 pages. 
  5. On the flip side, don't be afraid to revisit a book that you have previously abandoned. It took me three times before I finally connected with NT Wright's How God Became King. The first two, I would read a chapter or two, but just couldn't continue. Eventually, I gave a third attempt and really enjoyed it. I have several partly finished books on my shelves in the basement. Someday I will finish them. Or maybe I won't. And that's okay. 
  6. Read in free moments. Every one of us is given 24 hours in a day. We presumably sleep at night. Many of us have jobs, significant others, children, and other responsibilities. However, even with all of those things, there are certainly times when you are not tied up. Carry a book with you and read when you walk to and from your office. Read when you're waiting for a friend. Read while cooking dinner. Before smart phones, people read in the bathroom. You still can and it would be much less expensive to drop a book in the toilet than an i-Phone. 
  7. Read in longer blocks. I don't watch a whole lot of TV anymore. Interestingly, it doesn't really hold my attention long, though I can read for hours. If the majority of your free moments are spent in front of the television, on the Internet, playing games, or exercising, you will have less time for reading. I am not suggesting these activities are bad; indeed, they can be beneficial (e.g., exercise). The point is that each of us must decide what is most important to do with our time. If you want to become a reader, it may just be that you will spend less time watching sports. 
  8. Ask other people what they are reading. My interest often increases when friends tell me what they are reading and learning. In your reading, you may also discover that the authors mention books that influenced them. I have found the recommendations from those "friends" quite beneficial as well. Ask for suggestions from friends.
  9. Take notes. When I read, I read with pen. Even if I have no intention of underlining, I nearly always have a Pilot G2 Ultra Fine in hand. For me, it is a part of my reading process. There is significant benefit to underlining what strikes you, writing questions and thoughts in the margins, and marking up your books. For me personally, a pen is preferable to a highlighter. In fact, I buy a lot of used books and if I find one with a significant amount of highlighted text, I am unlikely to buy it, though that may be a personal preference. Similarly, it can be beneficial to write down meaningful quotes for future reference or to share them with others. Associated with this, sites like Goodreads allow you to track progress, take notes, and find out what others are up to.  
  10. Practice. I have often had people say, "I wish I read as much as you." Don't make me (or anyone else for that matter) your standard for accomplishment. It can be beneficial to set a goal (e.g., twelve books a year, five books a year), but I wonder if it may be discouraging when comparing your reading habits to another. But here's the thing: as you begin to develop that habit of reading, you will develop rhythms and efficiency you didn't have when you began. In the same way most people don't just wake up one day and say "I'm going to run a marathon this afternoon," reading habits also require training and practice. If it is something you want to grow in, and you commit yourself to it, you will become a better reader. 
Personally, I would like to see the declining trends above reversed, but I also understand that not everyone enjoys reading, is able to read, or has a desire to become a reader. That is totally fine, do what you love. But if you want to become a better reader, perhaps these tips may be of use. 

Boanerges

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a vilate of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.--Luke 9:51-56

I was struck by this passage this morning. Jesus and his disciples are not received in a Samaritan village and James and John, the "Sons of Thunder," offered to call fire down. They wanted to seem some action.  Imagine this scene.

Weary from a long day on a hot, dusty road, Jesus and his disciples entered the village as the sky was growing dusky. A band of rag-tag men, unfamiliar to the townsfolk, aroused suspicion. Jesus asked his disciples to inquire if there might be a place for them to rest for the night. At each door, they faced hard stares and firm nos. Some of the disciples were disappointed, some anxious, and some angry. All of the were tired. James and John were once again riding the waves of their feelings. With fire in their eyes, they asked their teacher, "Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah? Do you want us to call down fire like that?" 

Jesus turned and caught both of their eyes. Looking back and forth between them with a mix of conviction and compassion, he rebuked them. "Guys, you are going to face disappointments and even downright attack if you follow me, but mine is not the way of retaliation, but the way of love. If you want to be my disciples, you must move beyond your desire for retribution and power and instead begin to practice compassion and peace." 

Something shifted in John that day. He had always been sure that the Messiah would be a man of might, come to set things right by his power, but it was dawning on him that perhaps his understanding of power was all mixed up. What if ultimate power resided not in destruction but in love? As he continued to learn to live the Jesus way, he embraced love as the way to live. 

When we pay attention, the stories in the Bible show us that people change because of Jesus. If we listen to him, we can change too, from angry, retributive victims, to loving, peaceful servants.


02 August 2017

Book Review: His Last Words

I told someone recently that I am grateful for the whole Bible, but I could spend a long time eating only at the table of John 13 to 17, what is sometimes referred to as the upper room discourse. In these five chapters, we are granted an intimate glimpse of Jesus and his disciples just prior to his crucifixion. I find myself asking of this section, "what did Jesus believe it was important enough to tell his disciples? Who was Jesus in those final hours?" Thankfully, the story moves slowly enough that we can envision some of those details.

In light of my fascination with these five chapters, I was glad to see a book that focused upon them. Kim Erickson's His Last Words: What Jesus Taught and Prayed in His Final Hours (Moody, 2017). Erickson prepared the book as a seven-week study rather than typical prose. This approach allows the reader to enter the story with Jesus and the disciples. She invites her readers to consider the story that is being told and to continually ask, "what does this tell me about God?" After we think about what the story says, she provides brief narratives granting insight into the story and into her own life, enriching the experience.

I am grateful for this book. Any author who helps her readers to gain a greater appreciation and an accurate understanding of the upper room is a gift in my book.

I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts presented here are my own. 

26 July 2017

Anniversary Poem # 3

Seven thousand, three hundred five
days since we said "yes" for life
we stood before God
and all who looked on
committing to be man and wife.

Anniversary Poem # 2

Summer morning's joy:
warm embrace and radiant
she is heaven's queen. 

Anniversary Poem #1

Twenty years ago, I married my bride. Not one day have I questioned that choice. In celebration, I have written a few poems to her that I will share throughout the day. Here is the first.

Nineteen years and one,
     we've only just begun.
Eighteen years and two,
     since we said "I do."
Seventeen years and three,
     since you married me.
Sixteen years and four,
     You I still I adore.
Fifteen years and five,
     our love remains alive.
Fourteen years and six,
     our bond is firmly fixed.
Thirteen years and seven,
     God's love has been our leaven.
Twelve years and eight,
     since that magical date.
Eleven years and nine,
     since you said "you're mine."
Ten years and ten,
     I'd do it all over again.
Nine years and eleven,
     life with you is heaven.
Eight years and twelve,
     with you I gladly dwell.
Seven years and thirteen,
     your'e my regal queen.
Six years and fourteen,
     on one another we lean.
Five years and fifteen,
     we've lived in this godly scene.
Four years and sixteen,
     with us nothing comes between.
Three years and seventeen,
     it's astounding where we've been.
Two years and eighteen,
     we've kept our marriage bed serene.
One year and nineteen,
     such bliss unforeseen.
Zero years and twenty,
     we've had love aplenty.

21 July 2017

Growing in Christlikeness--a book list.

A few days ago, I texted my friend Mark--a fellow bibliophile--and I said to him, "Today's mental gymnastics have to do with coming up with a list of books [outside of the Bible] that would help one grow in Christlikeness. If you had 12 books, say one per month, what would you include? Thinking about it, I would want enough breadth to cover a variety of topics, but enough depth to promote growth."

Mark was the first to construct his list, which he sent with the clarification that these are in no particular order:

1) Inside Out--Larry Crabb
2) Ragamuffin Gospel--Brennan Manning
3) Abba's Child--Brennan Manning
4) Sacred Romance--Brent Curtis and John Eldridge
5) Transforming Grace--Jerry Bridges
6) The Last Addiction--Sharon Hersh
7) Brokenness--Nancy Leigh DeMoss
8) So, You Want to be Like Christ?--Chuck Swindoll
9) Descending into Greatness--Bill Hybels
10) The Life You Always Wanted--John Ortberg
11) Knowing God--JI Packer
12) Disciplines of a Godly Man--Kent Hughes

He must have also had some conversation at home, because his insightful wife Peggy added three more:
1) Soul Talk--Larry Crabb
2) Crucial Conversations--Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
3) Emotionally Healthy Spirituality--Pete Scazzero

I've read half of these books and they are an excellent list. In fact, Ortberg's book is one of my favorites.

After realizing Mark decided to actually put a list together, I realized that I probably needed to as well. I looked through my Goodreads profile where I have logged over 600 books since late 2011.

Here was my list, also in no particular order.

1) Confessions--St Augustine
2) Renovation of the Heart--Dallas Willard
3) Conformed to His Image--Ken Boa
4) Soul Keeping--John Ortberg
5) A Different Kind of Happiness--Larry Crabb
6) Life Together--Dietrich Bonhoeffer
7) A Long Obedience in the Same Direction--Eugene Peterson
8) True Spirituality--Francis Schaeffer
9) A Loving Life--Paul Miller
10) Practice Resurrection--Eugene Peterson
11) Abba's Child--Brennan Manning
12) The Letters of John Newton

I was a bit surprised about how little we overlapped; indeed, only one book.

Readers, I am curious what you would include? What did Mark, Peggy, and I miss?


18 July 2017

Book Review: Spiritual Maturity

I first encountered J. Oswald Sanders when a good friend of mine recommended the book Enjoying Intimacy with God. It seemed to have a rather profound effect upon him. I read it as well, and was able to see where the effect came from. When I encountered the three book series from Moody by Sanders--including Spiritual Maturity, Spiritual Discipleship, and Spiritual Leadership--I was eager to jump in. 

The first one that I ordered was Spiritual Maturity: Practices of Spiritual Growth for Every Believer, which was first published in 1962. The book is divided into 21 chapters, with seven each devoted to maturity in The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

Each of the chapters is deeply biblical and also makes use of spiritual wisdom from individuals throughout the history of the church. As an aspiring poet, I particularly enjoyed his inclusion of both his own rhymes as well as those of others, such as George Hebert. 

Although they were all excellent, two chapters in particular stood out as exceptional. Chapter 6, entitled "the moral antipathy of God" dealt quite effectively with the pervasive issue of pride. Also chapter 11, "Christ's ideal of character" examined the blessed life through the eyes of the beatitudes. Chapter 11 contained one of the sentences that may be amongst the most glorious sentences outside of the Bible I've read: "Many Christians bring unnecessary opprobrium upon themselves and the cause of Christ by their aggressive tactlessness" (Page 138). 

One final thought. Though I typically prefer hardbacks, the construction of this little volume is exceptional. There are two color pages throughout, bright clean paper, and a sturdy cover. 

I suspect this book I will revisit, and certainly chapters 6 and 11. I also think that for most believers, it would be a worthwhile resource as well. 


I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers in exchange for my review. I was not required to give a positive review. The opinions presented here on my own.

15 July 2017

Books & Crannies

In my favorite fictional book series, the Wingfeather Saga, there is a character who is very much my kindred spirit--Oskar N. Reteep. Oskar is a bumbling, balding, overweight lover of books. Indeed, his slogan is "appreciator of the strange, neat, and / or yummy." He is the owner of Books and Crannies, a bookstore in Glipwood Township, a store which contains many strange and usual things.

In updating my library with new shelves and a new layout (I think we are now at 24 shelves in a 20 x 24 room), my children and I have been excitedly pondering how we could add some storybook charisma. Together, we have brainstormed many ideas about what to include, but we are drawn most Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Aerwiar. We faced the question how to incorporate bits from each of these tales and yesterday, I settled on Books and Crannies.

Because Reteep is a bookstore owner and an "appreciator of the strange, neat, and/or tasty," Books & Crannies seems to be the perfect setting for collecting the unusual. Also, because Reteep is willing to look far and wide in search of the interesting, it would not be surprising that he might have obtained things from other lands. Also, we know from ND Wilson's contribution to the Wingfeather Tales, Andrew Peterson is not opposed to story crossover. However, if you are new to Wingfeather, start with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

And so my library is on the way. Books are re-shelved, though I need to make sure they are in proper order. There are many things I yet want to do, but for now, its a start. Some additions will be small, but nonetheless fun. Others will involve a Herculean search--I continue to look for a hardcover edition of Pembrick's Creaturepedia.

Here are a few updated pictures.

Of course, I made a sign for Books and Crannies--it is just missing a Zouzab. 

We still have a sitting area. 

I also have a sitting area.
The shelf on the right of the chair is commentaries
and Bible dictionaries.

The fiction section, which once seemed so full, has room to grow.

I tried to get most of the non-fiction in one shot. 

This is just for decoration--books from Middle Earth, Narnia, Aerwiar, and Hogwarts

Notice the "publisher marks" 

I love The Annieriad. 

Those familiar with these stories will recognize the titles. 

Sitting on the carpet

Laying on the floor

More shelves on the sitting side. 

14 July 2017

A Kingdom Prayer

O Lord,
Redeemer and Sustainer,
I commend this day to you.
You are higher than the heavens
yet, by your Spirit, you dwell
with me and in me.

You are glorious above all created things.
Turn my eyes from all that gleams and glitters
to your throne
where true satisfaction is found.

Let me live today in the truth
of your indwelling Spirit,
an ambassador of your kingdom
wherever my feet land.

Sustain me today.
Give me what is needful for worshiping you fully,
but not so much that my eyes turn from you.

The world you created is beautiful
but has been tainted by sin;
keep me from desiring counterfeit treasures
that promise satisfaction
but provide nothing.

When evil surrounds me,
hold me fast and usher me away
back into the safety of your embrace.

Forgive me when I fail you.
May your mercy be an ever flowing stream,
washing out my self-inflicted wounds
and teach me to live
with abundant patience, grace, mercy, and forgiveness
toward those who have sinned against me.

Everything belongs to you.
May everything I do and say and think and feel
bring glory to you.

02 July 2017

marred

Brokenness, sin, and suffering
fill the world
     and my heart.
I look around
     and see sin's scars
     harming God's image bearers
     masterpieces marred
sharp edged debris
     remnants of creation's disintegration
     slice deeply
     coupled with self-inflicted
     wanton sin
breaking beauty.

The blood of Christ
     ...alone
can heal the injuries of the suffering
     and the self-inflicted
     wounds of sin
      restoring once again to wholeness
      his beauty planted within.

Poems and Prayers

Poems and prayers breathe the same air. They leave the oppressive smog of a closed mind and ascend into the rarefied air of the heavens. Each value words, sometimes even when they are inexpressible, which happens so often in prayer. But even in those times when we are mute, struck dumb by circumstance, we have the Word himself, by his Spirit, who intercedes for us. It seems we try to live life using the Bible as an instruction manual rather than a picture God's larger story.

Father, expand my senses
so that I might experience more of you.
Expand my mind
that I might know more of you,
expand my hear that I might love you more,
expand my awareness
that I might see your providence in all things.

Consider the Birds

I awake once again, 
the sounds of birds  
greeting the morning.  

For them, every day  
is the Lord's day.  
They make no distinction  
between Sunday  
and any other day,  
worshipping continuously.  

I expect birds will be in heaven,  
but here on earth,  
they teach us about  
the presence of God.  

If we attend to them,  
they instruct us in worship.  
Robins and sparrows  
teach us songs of joyous praise.  
Doves sing lament psalms.  

What would life be like 
If Christians took their cues 
From the birds? 

-July 2017