Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Coming Clean~ by Seth Haines

Coming Clean:  A Story of Faith

The publisher's description of this book says that it was written for everyone, whether or not they've had a drop to drink in their life. I'm on the "have not" side of that scale, and I agree. This was a worth-while read, because it's the story of one human being who decided that he was coming clean. He was going to face his fears, tell the truth, and see what was really driving his choices. 

The truth about yourself and where you are with God and others is hard to untangle on the best of days, and when Seth decided to come clean he was in a period of family crisis. He and his wife Amber were watching as one of their babies, Titus, barely clung to life. Seeing a cadre of medical professionals struggle to find the reason for your child's sickness would push anyone to the breaking point and when Seth felt himself getting close to breaking, he chose to become numb. Alcohol was effective for drowning and deadening, so alcohol was what he used. 

You might expect this to be a story of alcoholism and addiction, but it's not, not really. The gin was only the method of the madness, and it's the madness that needed to be healed. And Seth had to find the root of the madness, the beginning of the running and hiding and numbing. 

It's been said that every problem and question is actually a theological one. In plain speech: every human thing involves God and depends on what he's doing, what you think of him, and how you're relating to him. 

So, Coming Clean is Seth's story, with him going back into his memories as far as he can and asking: when did things change? How did a lie, a fear, a doubt, and a system of religion replace the whispers of the God he once felt all around him? It's his meditations on sobriety, on the valley of the shadow, on childhood faith, on the will of God, and on how we can lose and find everything that matters. 

Reading this material is ultimately a pleasure, because Seth uses words so very well. So does his wife Amber, if you've never heard of her. She has written a book full of grace and wisdom, titled "Wild in the Hollow" and published by Revell. 

If I've piqued your interest, I hope you'll consider reading both books by the Haines. 

I thank Zondervan for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Powerful Moments in the Presence of God~

Powerful Moments in the Presence of God

Every other page in this devotional is graced stunning photography! 
The images alone are a feast for the eyes and a moment of refreshment to a weary mind. Gorgeous mountain ranges, peaceful harbors lit by sunset light, a rainbow splitting a storm-washed sky, a tiny girl dancing on the beach with joy shining around her- Lorraine has captured so many moments of glory. 

And once you have been moved by the visuals, you have a brief devotional reading to absorb. Lorraine writes in an increasingly popular style, as if God is speaking directly to the reader.

She speaks of God's strength when we are fearful, or simplicity of heart in a complicated world, and always of love. God's love, and our love for each other. 

This would make a very sweet gift for somebody's birthday, or as a recuperation present for someone who'd been ill, or even just a "thinking of you" surprise.

I thank Chosen Publishers for my review copy. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

Review by Kirk Farrell

A highschool friend's father used to expound on the theory that there were two kinds of people: the Haves, and the Have-nots. This is certainly true of the Israeli people and of the Palestinian as well. Each has been both, past and present. 

David Shipler's book "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land" does much to explain the generational trauma, the strong hatreds, and the thread of hope that exists in the hearts of each people. Each group tends to radicalize, producing propaganda and wielding violence in a cycle that some fear will never be broken until one side is eliminated. There are people in the Middle East who have exactly this genocide in mind when they speak to their followers. 

But radicals are not the whole picture. We have to look close enough to find the moments of reconciliation. 

Every good book, and this is a good book, must leave the reader with some kind of hope in their heart. As terrible as the history of Jewish/Arabic interactions is, is cannot be read as a tragedy alone. There are accounts in these books of individuals from both "sides" working hand in hand to bring their land to peace and safety for everyone. The stories from the different hospitals stood out to me, where the ethnically diverse staff is blind to nationality and treats and heals anyone who comes in the doors. 

Maybe someday the Arabic phrase "Allah Akbar" will no longer strike fear or hint at terrorism. Maybe it will once again be a message of greeting, of hospitality, of praise and wonder. 

Thank you to the publisher for my review copy. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Abundant Life Devotional

Abundant Life in Jesus: Devotions for Every Day of the Year

Have you ever observed one of those families where the parents are able to command outward compliance from their kids, but they've clearly lost the children's hearts? Everyone says "Oh, what nice children you have. So well behaved!" and yet the child secretly doesn't trust the parent, and doesn't feel the parents love. So the kid performs, but they don't know if it really matters; they don't know if their parent really sees or cares. There are few things more painful to see. You know that the relationship should be so much more than it is, you know that this facade is cheating both parties. And you don't know how to slap them awake and convince them to change. 

A lot of times, we live that way towards God. Either we were raised religious, or we sincerely converted, but we learned how to behave. And so we do, enough to get by, enough that we've got "I'm Religious" tattooed on our forehead. We just don't really trust the heart of our God. We're not sure that he knows our heart. 

How do we get back where we need to be, alive in Christ, sure that we have God's heart?

That's what Nancy Guthrie was ultimately concerned about as she penned these devotions. There are 365 of them, and they run the gamut from comforting to provoking. Nancy has written them as if God were speaking directly to the reader. Sometimes I find this style awkward, but once I got past this, I was able to appreciate the "meat" of these reflections. 

Nancy speaks of our God as the God who finds joy in doing good for his children. She says he has made himself knowable. She says he will share his happiness with us. She says he will redeem everything the enemy intends for evil. She brings her thoughts back to Christ, over and over, showing us that everything we want from God is in Christ, and everything we need for life on earth is in Christ. 

So that's a look at the contents of this book. Now for a word on the packaging. Tyndale has designed this book to look like a present without any need for wrapping paper. It's got one of those flexible leather-like covers stamped with flowers and birds and hearts. I can imagine this as a gift for a teen girl or for an elderly aunt.... any lady that you think would appreciate some feast-on-the-Word devotions. 

Thank you to the publisher for giving me a copy to review in exchange for my opinion.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Garden City by John Mark Comer

Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human.

I always enjoy trying a new book by an author I haven't read before. In this case, the book was "Garden City" by John Mark Comer. The subtitle caught my attention from the start: "Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human." Now that's an ambitious topic to tackle in 323 pages, but he did it. 

This book is a grand tour of the big question: Does what I do really matter? 
(There's a thousand sub-questions, but that's the main one.)

To get us to an answer, John Mark starts way back in Eden when man was first given work in a wild and vibrant garden. Adam and Eve's calling was to make culture and civilization out of a glorious wilderness. The earth was full of raw material, John argues, ready to be shaped and tended and stitched and hammered into everything that humanity needed. When you think of it that way, the essence of man's work has never really changed. We're still cultivating our way towards increased human flourishing, whether that cultivation comes by planting fields or repairing electrical lines or treating cancer or policing a city. 

And let's shoot straight here. Even the work that nobody wants to be stuck in, the part-time entry-level minimum-wage work matters. If you're waitstaff or a dishwasher or a janitor, you are cultivating the world to a good end, and we damn sure appreciate it when you do your part well. 

So, there is work to be done. We're invited/commanded/designed to do this work, and we're not slaves or robots or even mere laborers while do it. John Mark makes the case that when we do good work, we're partnering with God. That's ultimately how we decide what work is good: is it the sort of thing God does? Does this give order to the world? Does it take care of people? Does it help to provide others with a healthy, whole, happy life? 
This criteria is beautifully broad, and it reassures everyone from the salesclerk to the guidance counselor that they have a contribution to make. 

Now, because this is a book about the art of being human, work is only one side of the coin. Rest is the other. To show us a picture of rest, John Mark takes us to the mountain where the Ten Commandments came down. The Sabbath was given to Israel as a day of rest and worship. Now, before you get visions of mandatory pew-sitting and your best Sunday shoes, hold on a second. John wants to re-introduce you to the Sabbath, because it's likely you didn't get off on the right foot when you met before. This Sabbath is the satisfying end of the weekly cycle, and it can fall on whatever day you happen to have off. It's a time to tune into the rhythm God wrote for the world, to lay aside your striving and see that God is enough, you are enough, and you have enough. 

John Mark makes rest sound like the best act of rebellion we could possibly engage in. And it is rebellion, because it flies in the face of every "Egypt" that we face. Like the Israelites, we have to be rescued from our taskmasters. Our Pharaoh is the drive to gain more and spend more and "do better," and the Sabbath tells him he's a liar. The Sabbath says we have what we need, here together before God, and we can make this space to refresh ourselves and remember what is real. 

So obviously, this is quite a book. And it's one of those rare ones that aimed for thinkers, both girls and guys, young and older, so there's basically nobody you can't give it to. Heck, give it to somebody you know who isn't a Christian who's trying to find their life purpose. It may help them.

I thank BookLook Bloggers for providing me with a review copy, thanks to Zondervan Publishers.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Irresistible Community~

Irresistible Community

"The Irresistible Community- An Invitation to Life Together" uses several vivid images to convey its message, beginning with the image of people coming together at a table. We gather at a table for many reasons. We may be debating something, in deep disagreement with each other but ultimately committed to finding a unifying solution. We may be celebrating and laughing, delighted with each other's company and partaking of some good victuals. We may be mourning, dealing with life's hard times, leaning heavily on the trusted friends who are present with us. 

If we view a community as a group of people who come together at a table, then obviously it must be one multi-purpose table! As Bill examines the "Kitchen Table," the "Conference Table," the "Operating Table," and a few other tables, we learn ways we can serve those who have come to that particular table at this particular time. 

Which leads us to the second image, the towel image. Jesus used that lowly-yet-essential household item to clean his disciples feet, and in that act of humble love and care, he marked them as his friends and changed their hearts forever. We've been given "towels" too, Bill says. They've got our name on 'em, and we'd better bend down and use 'em. We've got to love our own towel (our life and ministry, whatever shape that takes) and not covet someone else's, and we certainly shouldn't shove our towel (proof of how hard we're working) in anyone's face. 

Which leads us to the last section, which puts it all together.  That last thing is truth, a rich and full-bodied understanding of God's ways, so that our ways will become more like His. This transforms tables into healing places and towel-skills into evidence of love. 

The whole book is extremely practical, exploring support and accountability and what it means to tell our stories and receive the stories of others. There's definitely something for each of us to learn here, either a whole new subject or a refresher course. 

I thank Baker Books for providing me with a review copy.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Making it Home by Emily Wierenga

Making It Home

 Emily Wierenga captured our hearts with "Atlas Girl," her story of going out into unknown places searching for what really mattered. It was on that journey that she found her Abba God, who held her in His hands, whole and holy in His eyes. 

Now, she's back with another written offering. "Making it Home" is a series of powerful reflections on what means to truly be at home, to receive and give love, and to share your life with others. 

Emily shares small pieces of her days: conversations with her husband Trent, moments with her growing boys, experiences from her work as a writer. The stories are honest- she describes hard times when nothing goes smoothly and the rough edges of life rub everyone wrong. And they're beautiful stories- she tells us about the times when forgiveness is offered and hope is found and being together as a family is enough.  

She never takes the "I have arrived, and now I will instruct you" tone. Instead, she writes as a woman surprised, as if she's both startled and saved by the goodness of God. She writes  like tenderness and truth must be handled reverently, treasured up to fill you and then poured out on everyone you love.

I thank Baker books for providing me a copy "Making it Home" in exchange for a review.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Midnight Jesus, by Jamie Blaine.

Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace Collide

Reading "Midnight Jesus" is like a looking through a photo album. You encounter page after page of snapshots, each one filled with places and faces, and you're sitting there staring at them trying to figure them out, and behind each of them is a story. 

This is a book about life's hardest moments. It's a book about people, and how sometimes they fight to go on and sometimes they give up hope. 
It's a book about life's pain and perplexities, all seen through the eyes of Jamie Blaine. 

It all reads like a novel peopled with vivid characters. Even if you only meet them for only a moment or two, Jamie gives you a bit of their essence. 
He is great narrator. Somehow he managed to write down his experiences without making it an autobiography: "And then I did this, and this, and this..."
No, Jamie disappears into the background in the world he crafted for us- he's showing us around, but it's not all about him. Because he's not focusing on himself, his wry sense of humor really shines. I was laughing out loud at points, which felt wrong because I was reading accounts of late-night psychiatric crisis. But then, Jamie loves the Karl Barth quote "Laughter in the closest thing to the grace of God," so maybe my laughter was ok. 

I wasn't sure what this book was going to be when I requested it, and you may not be sure what it is now. 
It's not a self-help book, but Jamie does want you to know that you're never too far gone to be saved. It's not a counseling manual, but he believes that the most important part of helping anyone is being present and opening up to whatever they have to give. It's a not a coming-of-age book, but Jamie has a unique perspective on finding your place in the world. It's not a novel, but there's threads of redemption woven into each chapter. 

I'd just say it's a really good read. "Midnight Jesus" takes you places you don't want to go- self-harm, addiction, delusions, despair, depression, the rock bottom of the pit- but our guide is convinced that there is not one corner of the earth where kindness and reconciliation and another chance to live can't break in.  

I thank Thomas Nelson for my review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Get Your Story Straight~

Get Your Story Straight: A Guide to Learning and Living the Gospel

"Get Your Story Straight" is a surprisingly intense teen Bible study. It's arranged as a devotional, with 52 sections comprised of seven segments and grouped under three headings. The headings are "Getting the Story Straight," "My Life Mixed into the Story," and "The Story in Me Lived out with Others." 

These devotions are written for teens who are engaging in the world of high school and sports and friends and relationships and teachers and employers and increasing responsibilities. Kristen Hatton definitely wrote to reach kids where they are, but she certainly did not "write down" to them. 

Kristen leads teens to think about all the big themes- renewal and purpose and character and salvation and freedom and purity and truth and what it means to be a human who walks with God. And she continually draws the whole "Christian life" message back to its source- Christ. 

Kristen openly addresses the pit-trap of moralism, that place where your behavior is excellent and you don't act like a rebel, but inside you're not resting in the love of God and you're not confident of His transforming grace. Way too many parent/teen resources are totally satisfied with moralism. "If we can only get them in line, and their outsides are clean, then we'll be happy." Kristen wants kids to be alive in Christ, alive to the work of God, and actively engaged in it. 

That's what we need. And this book can be a mind-stretching, heart-strengthening, Jesus-proclaiming experience for those kids who will read it.

I thank Litfuse for providing me with this book in exchange for an opinion

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Brian Hardin's "Reframe."


Ok, I'll admit it: I put off reading this book for a month. It just sounded so prosaic- "Reframe your view of God." But then I started the first chapter, and I wondered why I'd waited so long. Brian Hardin isn't trying to correct our view of God, he's trying to captivate us with the loveliness of God and call us to the life that's found in God. 

He started with a revolutionary concept- you are the only one living your story. (Yeah, this may be obvious, but I bet you haven't considered this deeply in quite a while.) Your life is a gift. God gave it to you, and the way you spend it and share it and let circumstances shape you is your gift back to him. 

This book is strong encouragement to move through your days in the easy rhythm of "God made me, Christ keeps me, The Spirit is in me to do good." 

Along the way, Brian explores concepts such as change and the way we fear it, hunger and the way we crave love and truth and purpose, shalom and the whole and holy and happy world we are made for, and the way we can recognize the grace that God has poured out for us. 

I thank Nav Press and Tyndale Publisher's for providing me with a review copy.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sarah Bessey, "Out of Sorts"

Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith

When we find ourselves out of sorts, it's time to sort it out.

I feel extra appreciation for authors who use words well, who seem to weigh them and taste them and then arrange them with care. Sarah Bessey is one of those authors. Whatever aspect of life she's talking about, she reveals its hidden glory, she shows us where God has touched it. 

The first chapters hooked me right in, because she dives into the metaphor of "sorting things out." We feel compelled to sort material possessions when a major change happens. We sort when somebody dies. We sort when we have to move. We sort when we want to pass along one of our treasures to somebody else. 

Sarah feels that it is much the same with faith. Sometimes a piece of our faith seems to die, and we're left sifting through the memories. Sometimes we have to move on, and we feel suddenly rootless. And all the time, we want to pass on the good of our faith, but the graces may be buried in the negatives. 

This book was born from Sarah's sorting, and as she "unpacks the boxes," you may see things that you recognize right there in her hands. As is must be with any storyteller, she speaks from her heart but the words echo in yours. 

Sarah tells us that she has always felt an ease in her communion with the Spirit. It didn't keep her from struggles, or fears, or terrible loss. But through it all, she has been known, and she knows it. This comes out in her writing. The Jesus that she is madly in love with is a living Jesus, a God-Incarnate whom she meets in the Gospel accounts and on the street and around her kitchen table. 

He's the One Eugene Peterson described, who could "say the big nouns: joy, glory, peace; and live the best verbs: love, forgive, save." 

And because of him, Sarah will not walk away from the people that he calls his body. She will not forget that he called us into a kingdom: a way of being fully human; of spending our moments well; of being present with people the in presence of Christ; a way of working towards what is good, especially when it's hard. 

If you read Out Of Sorts, you will come away with something valuable. I came away with an expanded vision of what Sarah calls "Eternal Living." When a Christian says "eternal life," the world hears "that disembodied forever existence that you think you're getting- if you're not on God's sin list." 
That cannot be what Jesus was referring to when he said that we had his life in us.

When Sarah hears those words, she hears something more like "Eternal Living"- doing life as if God was right there in it, as if it were all caught up in Christ- finding its grounding and glory in him. 

Treat yourself to this book. It's positive without being fake. It's serious without being despairing. It's full of truth without arrogance. It sounds kinda like a conversation between her, and you, and Jesus. 

I thank Howard Books for providing me with this review copy. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

St. Francis- my God, my all.

My God and My All: The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi 

Elizabeth Goudge brings her eloquence and reverence to a beloved topic- the life of St. Francis. There's something about this specific man, some spark that he had, that causes his life to keep burning in our memory several centuries after he died. St. Francis is claimed by broad groups of people from devout Catholics to modern environmentalists, his piety and peace in the natural world appeal to many. 

You may know him from his recorded prayers, or you may only know him from the garden statutes where he holds up the bird-bath, but it is likely that you know of him. 

This account of his life may be hard to read at times, because the pain Francis inflicted upon himself in pursuit of holiness rings harshly on today's ears. His desire to strip himself of everything but God led him to treat his own mind and body sternly, demanding service from himself and accepting so little in return.

If you would like a book where the language sings, and ushers you into contemplation, this may be it. If you would like a biography of a saint that takes us deeper into the glory and the grit, that shows you the Light in his soul and the soil on his feet, then this may be it. 

I thank Plough Publishing and Handlebar Publicity for providing me with this review copy.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lively Pieces for the Christian Year

52 Original Wisdom Stories: Short Lively Pieces for the Christian Year

The publisher's blurb refers to this devotional book as "unique and life affirming," and in this case the marketing team is exactly right. Sid and Rosie, an older couple participating in the daily adventures of life, will both enchant and encourage you as you encounter them in these little parables. 

Having read some of Penelope's other novels, I knew that she is capable of exploring wide, high, deep truths through simple "fictional characters." I hate to call them fiction, though, because she renders them so realistically. They're fully human, clumsy and flawed, and they want to live well, so they try hard to find the rhythm of kindness and joy. 

Sid is a Quaker, having come to this path later in life. For him, the idea that Jesus is the Way is of primary importance. No amount of religion can make a Way- and a Way is what we need to walk in. Sid is slow to speak, and sensitive, and provides a sounding board for Rosie. 

Rosie is a self-professed spiritual ragamuffin, having worked her way through many faiths and their teachings as an adult before she met Sid. She is curious, passionate, and ever open to new ways of thinking. Together, they're an encyclopedia of quotes and insights from God-chasers and Life-lovers the world over. 

And we readers get to snoop into their days, eavesdropping on their stimulating conversations and witnessing the satisfaction they find in being together on this good earth. From Rosie making bread to Sid quoting poetry, to interpersonal misunderstandings and the required forgiving, their shared moments are ordinary. Yet they've determined to look up the sunbeams to the Sun, and to recognize the glory that grows in the ground and falls from the sky and lights up each other's faces. 

They'd be good friends to have, Sid and Rosie, friends who don't pretend to have God in a box, who aren't stuffed with sureness about God's will, but who do believe that God has given a Way, and they put their small feet on it and walk. 

If you're looking for a little wisdom, and a few smiles, and some new thoughts to chew on, then try this as a devotional. I don't see how you'd regret it. 

I thank Penelope Wilcock and Monarch Publishing for gifting me this book in exchange for a review. 

Penelope says:
"My aim in writing is to make goodness attractive. I love simple human kindness and gentleness, and I am moved by human vulnerability. I am fascinated by the power that is within our grasp to lift one another up, to heal and strengthen and encourage each other - our power to bless.
In the novels I write, I think of the reader sitting down to enjoy a book, the door of their imagination open wide to allow the story in to influence and shape their spirit. I accept the responsibility that confers as a great privilege, and it is my intention that when you put down any book of mine at the end of reading it, you will feel hopeful, peaceful and comforted, more ready to look on your fellow human beings with compassion and see their point of view."

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It's Not What You Think It Is

It's Not What You Think: Why Christianity is About So Much More Than Going to Heaven When You Die
"It's Not What You Think" is a perfect title for a book like this. The "it" Jefferson speaks of is the Gospel, and a lot of people think they know what it is. And they think it hasn't got much to do with their strongest fears, deepest desires, and greatest hopes. 

The Gospel has been to reduced to a transaction between you and a guy named Jesus. Thanks (somehow) to his sacrificial death on a cross, you get into heaven when you die. But what if there's way more to the whole thing than a ticket to posthumous paradise? 
What if the Gospel and its God-touching-man narrative actually had to do with reality? 

What if the Gospel met our need, not for more religion, but for renewal? And what if it conferred a responsibility to us, a "burden of care" that we share with God Himself? 

If you're ready to think about the whole Christianity thing in a different, life-affirming way, then let Jefferson be your guide. Of course, he'd probably rather be considered a fellow traveler rather than a guide, a traveler whose insights provoke new thoughts and fresh conversations. 

For me, these were two of the foundational concepts- 

"The Kingdom's Not Where You Think." We aren't peddling pie-in-the-sky, enticing you to restrain yourself down here so you get a better reward up there. We're offering new eyes to see the work of God today, where you never recognized it before.

"People Are Not Who You Think." What if those new eyes suddenly showed you a glory in the people all around you, a weight and worth that re-invents them for you even if they never change. 

If you let this book do its job, your may begin seeing the sacred (the meeting place of God and man) each day. 
I thank Thomas Nelson for giving me this review copy. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Better Relationship Book....

Cupid Is a Procrastinator   

I read this book several moons ago now, and I hesitated to review it because I had loved it so much that I didn't think I could do it justice. In the inhospitable landscape of dating advice, we all might need Kate's words to reassure us. 

I needed her straight-talk, and her sense of humor, and her strong grip on both spirituality *and* reality. Particularly, I needed her bravery when she said that while singleness is certainly no curse, it's also hard. It's probably harder for a mature adult single person, rather than for a young adult, but still- you feel an absence. We belong to a species that was designed to be paired, and we feel separated when we're not. I look at couples, and families, and I want that belonging. I want to be a link in the chain of generations. Acknowledging this deeper hunger means being vulnerable, and that takes guts. Kate has them. 

And it takes another dose of guts to say "I'm going to own this longing, and not attempt to satisfy it with substitutes, and I'm going to live well in this tension and find goodness in this life of mine, whatever my relationship status." Kate has a suitcase of that kind of guts. 

Without platitudes, or sentimentality, or self-pity, or browbeating, Kate leads us to think about purpose and satisfaction and opportunity and gratitude and grace, all without sounding like a zillion other "Christian Dating Books." 

Really, this is much more a book about being a healthy, whole human being. But there's plenty of talk about Love and Relationships too- you won't feel cheated if you're one of those singles who compulsively reads relationship books. :-) 

Because this is a book about living life well, Kate invites us into her personal journey of growing closer to the heart of God. And, like the best of storytellers, her reflections and questions lead you to your own. 

I thank Harvest House Publishers for my review copy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Hardest thing To Do~

The Hardest Thing to Do (The Hawk and the Dove #4)

"The Hardest Thing to Do" is book four in a most wonderful series. I marvel at the way Penelope has imagined the whole world of St. Alcuin's Abbey, peopling it with fine, deeply human characters and plotting it with startling surprises and satisfying resolutions, and then giving us that world through her novels. 

If a monastic community in the 1300s sounds too far removed from your daily life to be remotely relatable, then think again. The men of St. Alcuin's are each distinct unto themselves (and they become more themselves as you meet them in each episode) but they are Everyman too. The essential struggles of being human- choosing and renouncing, becoming and accepting, receiving and losing, growing and remembering- are their struggles, and yours and mine too. 

The other thing I really enjoy about this series is their integrity, by which I mean that they have no pretense. They're not a story varnished with "Christianity" so that they can stay within the bounds of "Christian Fiction." Instead, they're the stories of men who've sworn to lay down their very lives for a Risen Christ. The brothers' preferences and attitudes, their time and energy, their animosity and comradeship, their doubts and prayers and work and calling- it finds its grounding in the Gospel. 

Because of this, and thanks to the sensitive heart of the author, the character's conversations and meditations (and most of their meditation is really wrestling with God!) show us what they're learning about life and the One who gives it. There's a lot for a thoughtful reader to think about, and it all belongs to the characters of the story. It's not an awkward sermonette from an author, who interrupts the story to deliver a Christian PSA. 
Because of this, if a non-religious friend thought the books sounded interesting, I'd loan them in a heartbeat. 

If I've piqued your curiosity at all, do yourself the favor and get this series onto your shelf. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Gospel by J. D. Greear

Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary

There is no delicate way to say this, so I'll be frank: The Gospel is such incredible good news that sometimes it doesn't seem to have anything to do with daily life.

After all, isn't the Gospel our Big, Important Spiritual Truth, and everything else is just hit or miss attempts?

What could our days (full of washing dishes and stopping at traffic lights and reading to children and trying to plan family reunions and working overtime) possibly have to do with God-in-Flesh and a Cross-carried-for-us?

J. D. Greear agrees that there's a lot of Ordinary Life to live, but he thinks that every moment of our living is grounded in the Gospel that we've been given. Preaching the Gospel to ourselves throughout our days, he says, will reorient our minds, strengthen our hearts, nourish our spirits, and guide our hands.

It is this being "rooted and established" in God's love that we experience in the Gospel that teaches us what we need to know to live well. The chapter titles may clue you in: "The Gospel as Gift-Righteousness," "Changed by Sight," "Urgent Mission," "Expect Great Things," "But if Not..." and "Extravagant Generosity," just to name a few.

The Gospel is the only thing that can convince you of God's love, and it is the only thing that can grow the love of God in you.
It will show you God as the source of all the goodness, and teach you obedience to his good ways.
It will convince you of God's steady care and tenderness, and adversity will not destroy your hope.
And once you have received God's Gospel, and you know his kindness and his mercy, then you'll be able to give others what God-in-Christ has given you.

I thank B&H publishing for giving me this review copy. It was much appreciated.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Waiting on God~

Waiting on God

When you look around the natural world, you see that there is a rhythm to the way it moves. There is intense and purposeful activity: the verdant growth of spring, the chorusing of mating frogs, a wild snowstorm or powerful thunderstorm, deer running in a field. 

And then there are also periods of seeming inactivity: geese flocked together on a pond before they migrate, bears hibernating underground, the empty trees when all the leaves fall down, a dry creek in a drought. 

If you don't have the right eyes for looking, these moments will appear as wasted time instead of the holy pause that they are. You'll see unchanging dark instead of dawn on the horizon. You'll see unmelting snow instead of hearing stirring sap.

The natural world doesn't know to complain when the pace slows down, but I do. When things seem to stall, I get nervous. Waiting seems too much like doing nothing. After all, I shouldn't "wait" for a job/friend/community to come to me, I should go look for a it. Right? Perhaps right. But even when I'm doing my part, there will still be times of stillness, when all my efforts echo in the air. There will be times when the pieces don't fit, and my frustrated striving won't change that. 

"Waiting on God" by Wayne Stiles is a book for those times. It's a book to remind you that maybe you don't have to choke on that horrible word "wait." You're not being asked to doing nothing. You're not being told that this time means nothing. You aren't being sold a pie-in-the-sky destination. This waiting period, it's more of a bearing period. Bear this time, this tension, this want-unfulfilled and fear-unresolved. Bear it, and while you carry it inside you God is making space in you. And God wastes nothing. It all adds up to something. 

I thank Baker Books for providing me with this review copy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Accidental Saints

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

If I met somebody who had no time for pretense, who knew how to use strong language, who'd seen more garbage than they should have, and who was trying to make a difference in the crazy world, I'd hand them "Accidental Saints." 

Why would I choose this book for them? Because Nadia Bolz-Weber is a straight-talker who could never be accused of hiding in organized religion. Indeed, she has some words for those who use Christianity as an invitation to unreality: "We've lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of the place where those difficult realities are given meaning." 

In this book, she stretches her eyes wide (to her own discomfort) and looks hard at everything around her. She recounts some of the ways her life has collided with other lives, in births and deaths and sin and forgiveness. 

It's ugly reading at times, because that's how it is when you're capable of hurting people and being hurt. 
It's beautiful writing sometimes, because she finds Gospel-beauty alive and growing in this world. 

We often talk, in Evangelical circles, about helping our children to "find a faith that will survive" in this wicked, pernicious, tempting world. (Insert ironic eye roll.) After reading this book, I wonder if maybe it's more that we need to learn to survive our faith. After all, our faith is hung upon a Man who went down to the lowest and the darkest and the most ragged places, and so following him means we have to go there too. 

I'll close this book recommendation with one of my favorite quotes. Half-way through the book, Nadia ends a chapter by saying "... the holy things we need for healing and sustenance are almost always the same as the ordinary things right in front of us." 

I thank Convergent Books for giving me a review copy. "Accidental Saints" indeed. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis~

The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis: An Introduction

"The Surprising Imagination of C. S. Lewis" is a delightful and provocative read. As the authors acknowledge, imagination has been reduced to a very narrow definition, usually applied to creative children. In this book, they explore the works of C. S. Lewis to show us more of what human imagination is. 

As we read, we see that imagination.... 
Re-enchants the familiar. 
Show us bursts of glory in the "ordinary" world. 
Sends us on the genuine quest for truth. 
Teaches us justice, as we recognize a thing's value and give it due esteem. 
Takes us beneath the obvious surface of an issue, to the heart of the matter. 
Lets us see the world rightly, aligning the self with reality. 

Of course, human use their imagination wrongly too. We can dream ourselves into delusion, and justify evil things. We can inflate things above their proper importance, and neglect what really matters. We can hide our flaws from our own eyes. 

I have a hard time categorizing this book. It's not academic. It's not straight-up theology. It's not a systematic study of C. S. Lewis' writing. It's a carefully written examination, with the keen eye of a meditation, that sometimes turns into a celebration, all about the imagination. 

I'm glad I read it. I've got a fellow C. S. fan in the house to share it with, too. 
I thank Handlebar Publicity for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Never Said~

Never Said 

I wanted to read this book because it was a sister-story. When you have a sister and you're growing up together, sometimes you feel like the two of you are really one person. You know your sister. You can read her face and her tone of voice, and you know when she needs you. You know when she's being her authentic self and when she's faking it. At the same time, you are two separate individuals, and so you can hide from each other. You can deceive each other. You can hurt alone. 

"Never Said" captures all of these sister dynamics. Shifting back and forth between Annie's rush of thoughts and Sarah's more careful narration, "Never Said" is a fast-moving read. Sixteen year-old Sarah is all twisted up inside, struggling with anxiety and an unfinished relationship while worried sick over her twin sister Annie. Annie was the beauty pageant winner, the outgoing show-stopper, the life of the party, the confident and commanding presence. Now, Sarah doesn't know what think. Annie has deliberately and methodically undone every aspect of her former self. 

This is a book about shame and renewal and identity and friendship and acceptance and family and cruelty and ignorance. It's how we hide and how we heal. 

I thank Blink YA Publishers for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my opinion.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Just Show Up~

Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking through Suffering Together

"Just Show Up" is both a practical guidebook and a personal revelation, co-written by two friends, Jill and Kara. At the time of the writing, Kara was fighting cancer, and Jill was part of her supportive (and beloved) community. Shortly before publication, Kara passed away, and Jill completed this book while loving on Kara's family and friends as they all grieved this loss. 

If you've read Kara's first book "The Hardest Peace," then you'll have already absorbed pieces of her story. That book was also written during her fight with cancer, and out of her pain and sickness she gifted readers with words of life, a glimpse into her family and their Big Love. She captured, in a few short chapters, why it is so good and so hard to be human. 

If you haven't read "Hardest Peace," then perhaps you grabbed this book because of the subtitle: the dance of walking through suffering together. Perhaps you're trying to navigate the rough waters of a terrible diagnosis in your family, and you need somebody who understands how you feel as you take care of somebody else. 

Jill and Kara are good guides to turn to. The first portion of this book is intensely practical. They begin by explaining that when it comes to blessing somebody in a hard situation, Just Show Up is the most important principle. If you don't take the risk of going to them, nothing beautiful can happen between you. 

They next suggest ways to show up and meet specific needs according to your abilities, at the right time and with no expectations. 

Then they address the need for the "helper" to have their own support system, and the need to be honest about how bad you'll feel even as a supposedly "unaffected" helper. You'll probably feel guilty thinking like this, but the thoughts will come: "This is so hard for me! They're the one who's suffering, and I feel so bad! Who do I turn to?" Jill and Kara make it clear: when you have somebody you're giving comfort to, and you need somebody to dump on. 

Together, Jill and Kara go to their vulnerable places in this book. Once they move past the more advice-based parts, they return to Kara's story, as seen by Jill and other friends who walked beside her. At the end, you know this truth unshakably: The God who is God-with-us made us to be with each other, and if you choose to be with someone in the hard, then you may never know how very much your choice means, because it does.

I thank David C Cook for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my thoughts. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fire and Ice~

Fire and Ice (Wild at Heart, #3)                                                            

Alright, so I broke down and read a full-length Mary Connealy novel.
And it was really funny.
"Fire and Ice" is almost pure comedy, with a note of complex family relationship and some troubles that need to be overcome by hope.

The early interactions between Gage and Bailey had me snorting with laughter. First they do this whole "You're stealing my land/No you're stealing MY land" routine- complete with gunfire and dynamite- and then they settle into a truce. They'll work together on this one certain problem, but they won't promise be happy about it.

From there, we see them getting rather attached to each other. They're stubborn mules, both of 'em. They deserve each other. And they're gonna need each other, because ranch life isn't simple. There's danger and deception and hysterical in-laws. And of course, there's cows in need of fresh grazing and mares having a hard time foaling.

Read this book if you want a Wild West comedy, the sort that would make a great film.
Thank you Bethany House Publishers for providing me with a copy in exchange for a review.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Happiness" by Randy Alcorn.


 Pastor Alcorn isn't content just to tell us to be happy. He insists on searching Scripture and showing us the Gospel-centered reasons for a happy life. 

And if you trust him for a few hundred pages, he'll convince you that there's a lot of happiness to be found, first in God Himself, then in the gifts He gives us, and in our response to God and His world. 

I really enjoyed reading this book. (Frankly, if a book called "Happiness" wasn't a pleasure to read, wouldn't that be a major problem right there?) Randy clearly studied his subject, because this book was peppered with quotes from philosophers and scientists and preachers and artists and songwriters, all of them engaging with "happiness." 

I agree with him that for Christians, happiness has become one of those unspiritual concepts. We don't want to seem like we're obsessed with personal satisfaction or self-gratification, so we shun happiness in favor of a joyful holiness. And joyful holiness is wonderful, but Randy argues that we've devalued the concept of simple, easily recognized human happiness to our own detriment. 

For Randy, happiness (along with joy and gratitude and contentedness and peace, etc. etc.) rounds out the wholesome life. 

In this book, Randy devotes many pages to studying the most precise meanings of various words in Scripture. There's a reason for this. Often our translation of a word can give it a whole new meaning, sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring. There are a lot of really strong happy words in Scripture, and maybe you've never realized that before. If it's become easy to skim over phrases like "blessed," and "rejoicing," then spend some time with these sections, being startled by the bold, brave, bright happiness that God is fond of evoking. 

All in all, this is a really comprehensive look at happiness: how we can have more of it now, why we can be assured of it for all eternity, and why we should celebrate the fact that we want happiness to begin with.

Also, as you're sitting there holding a thick book with "Happiness" emblazoned on the cover, you may have somebody come up and ask you what you're reading. Won't it knock their socks off when you tell them?  Now that's a way to start a Christ-conversation, with happiness.  

I thank Tyndale Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my opinion.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Homemade Kitchen~

The Homemade Kitchen: Recipes for Cooking with Pleasure

The chief cook and bottle washer at my house had an accident this spring, and they were off their feet for eight weeks. That's means I got a crash course in cooking. And I found out that I enjoyed it. My first triumph was a chicken dish, from a recipe provided by a Mayonnaise company. Don't judge. 

Because I was learning at the height of garden season, all sorts of fresh produce was available for experimenting. Oven-roasted eggplants, Feta cheese and basil pesto, cornmeal crusted vegetable pizza, stuffed summer squash, various pasta salads- we tried it all. 

And I found that even amid the hurry of doctor's appointments and the general worry of the situation, cooking calmed me down. I liked working with the food. I enjoyed (most of the time) eating what I made. I wanted to keep it up once it was no longer my main responsibility. 

So, now I read cookbooks for fun. And "The Homemade Kitchen" is my latest choice. The author, Alana Chernila, seems like a really cool lady, and we both live in New England, so we share the same basic growing seasons and access to local ingredients. 

As you read this book, you may feel like Alana is a really good cook who wants to talk about her garden and hear about your latest kitchen adventure. I appreciate that. Some cookbooks leave you feeling like you're in the presence of a master chef, somebody very skilled and very intimidating. 

As I read her book, I didn't feel like Alana knows any secret tricks. I felt like she knows her kitchen. She knows her ingredients. She knows her family and what they want to eat. She knows her own hands and her own mind. She's got her preferred methods, and she hopes that you practice and find your own.
That, I can do. 

"The Homemade Kitchen" really is quite affirming. Alana's celebration of her kitchen can help ground you as you consider how to work in yours, and her level-headed assessment of current eating trends can help you articulate your own philosophy of food.  

As for the recipes... they're great inspirations and jumping-off points. Did you know that your own jam can really be easy to make, and you only have to make one jar at a time if that's all you need? Did you know you can make a jar of pickled vegetables with a simple brine and some spices? Have you ever craved warm cinnamon bread, or a steak-cucumber-mint salad? Now you will, once you read her recipes.

I think I want to order her first book, "The Homemade Pantry" to go with my copy of "The Homemade Kitchen." I think we need more food-people saying "You can do this, and here's a way to get started." It's a message that encourages us to heat up the oven, plant a garden, buy some fresh ingredients, sort through our pantry, and lay the plates out on the table. 

I thank BloggingforBooks for providing me with a review copy, in exchange for my opinion. Now, I've gotta go put my fresh cooked tomato sauce in a jar, and I might grab a cranberrry-walnut-cinnamon roll while I'm up. Cooking at home- who would have thought it could be so much fun? 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Last Chance Hero

Last Chance Hero (A Place to Call Home, #4)

Last Chance Hero is a fine finale for this series. It starts with a plot worthy of a Hallmark movie. She's a young doctor trying to set up a practice in a small town; he's a former NFL player come home to coach his high school team. They meet, and they seem really good together, but she hates football, and it's the center of his life. 

Now, that sounds pretty cute. But don't be fooled: just like the previous three "At Home in Last Chance" books, the story gains depth as it progresses.

Andy isn't just a fun-loving football-obsessed guy, and Jess isn't just the new-blood fighting the established order. They've both got choices to make as they confront the past and look forward to the future, and they have to decide how they'll contribute to their community, both individually and together.

Final assessment? If you've begun this series, then you've gotta take one final trip to New Mexico by reading Last Chance Hero. Andy and Jess have a good story on their own, and it's enhanced by the cameos of Ray and Lanie, Sarah and Steven, Chris and Kaityn and Grandma Elizabeth. When I read the scene of the festival, I felt like I was right there, saying "Hi" to old friends and catching up with their lives.

Such is the power of a good book. 

I thank Revell for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.