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.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Gather Around the Amish Table~

Gather around the Amish Table: Treasured Recipes and Stories from Plain Communities

"Gather Around the Amish Table" would be a fabulous gift for anybody who is fascinated by the simple life of the Amish. 

This is a softcover cookbook, filled with full-color photography and engaging personal stories, and every page highlights the good food that can be found in Amish kitchens. 
When you work hard and tend the land well, your reward is the bounty of the seasons. Judging from these recipes, Amish cooks know how to use that bounty, making their meals both nourishing and enjoyable.  

There are recipes for any day of the year and almost any skill level, because the contributors ranged from young Amish girls to their kitchen-wise grandmothers. 

As with any cookbook, you'll likely never make some of these dishes (you'd have to butcher your own hog to get the ingredients!) but if you're a fan of the Amish life, then you'll find the more obscure recipes interesting all the same. 

And there is plenty for the average cook to work with, such as cauliflower bacon salad, "Party Potatoes," "Broccoli Bonanza," "Best-Ever Meatloaf," "Lisa's Lasagna," and various delectable brownies and cookies and pies and granola bars and puddings.  There are muffins and breads for breakfast, one-dish dinners, lots of noodle recipes, and many desserts. 

So next time you need a present for your favorite Amish-wanna-be, consider this cookbook. 

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

Friday, September 11, 2015

"The Atheist who Didn't Exist."

  The Atheist Who Didn't Exist 

"The Atheist Who Didn't Exist," by Andy Bannister. Bannister is the Canadian Director for RZIM, which is Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. A book by one of Ravi's associates is a book for me. 

I've often heard my father-in-law refer to God as the "Man Upstairs." I've also done it myself. Its can be an affectionate colloquialism for God, or, as Andy Bannister points out, it can be linguistic laziness and theological ineptitude. Banner points out that according to 2,000 years of thoughtful Christian tradition, built upon several more thousand years of Hebrew scholarship, God is no "man upstairs." He is instead the ground of all being, the One who creates and sustains all things, the reason than anything exists. To argue about God is, perhaps, to tacitly admit that He exists, and that He demands your attention. 

RZIM is a ministry with a focus on apologetics- the rational, logical, personally relevant defense of the faith. Ravi teaches that behind every question stands a questioner, to be treated with respect and never dismissed or ridiculed with insult. 

Today, we have a movement (New Atheism?) with a few leaders suggesting that skepticism is the ideal way of life. Atheism is well-dressed these days, polished and educated and urbane. We need coherent thinkers and civil voices to present the alternative- the message of Christ. RZIM has provided quite a few such people. 

As you try to wrap your head around the arguments presented in this book, keep a few facts of Christian history in mind. The Gospels, especially when investigated, stand up as eyewitness accounts. Eleven of the twelve apostles were sentenced to death for their faith, and not one sold themselves out to save their own flesh. 

I recommend this book with the disclaimer that I like what RZIM is all about, and that includes Mr. Bannister's work. I thank Kregel Publications for providing me with a review copy. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Encountering Truth

Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday

 As I read "Encountering Truth," I kept trying to decide how to describe Pope Francis' words. The closest I can come is to say that his homilies read like a conversation with a very devout neighbor, somebody who talks about God and life with both feet planted firmly on the ground. 

He makes his theology immediate- the Gospel demands action. The Christ was flesh and blood, and so is his Church. Doctrine and practice move through life hand in hand. Truth is more than pretty ideas, and grace is not a hollow word. 

Pope Francis is preaching a faith in which the presence of God is expected in the everyday. Prayer, confession, justice, tribulation, renewal, moralism, courage, wisdom, peace... he addresses all of these aspects of life, and  grounds them in his understanding of being human in this world. 

Here are some of his thoughts. 

"Hope changes our attitude; we are ourselves, but we are not ourselves; we are ourselves, seeking the other side, anchored in the other side." 

"The power of man is prayer, and the prayer of a humble man is God's weakness. The Lord is weak only in this: he is weak in the face of the prayers of his people." 

"There (in the hands of God) we are safe. It is the greatest safety, because it is the safety of our Father who loves us." 

My best endorsement would be to say that when the cares of life narrow our eyes and reduce our view of God, this book will help wake us up again, and open our eyes to see him more clearly.

And Pope Francis isn't telling us anything "new and exciting." He's not marketing something he's manufactured to get our attention. He's re-presenting the timeless message of God's invitation and God's redemption and God's victory, and in every age, that story compels us and converts us and changes our direction. 

I thank Image publishers for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my opinion.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Girl Meets Change...

Girl Meets Change: Truths to Carry You through Life's Transitions

Kristen Strong had me when she admitted that change she didn't orchestrate was about as welcome as chewing off her own right arm.
Um, absolutely. 
Is there a secret handshake for this club of change-averse people? Maybe I should come up with one. Heck, I even view the change of seasons with suspicion, until the new charms of nature woo me into Spring, or Summer, or Fall. 

And who hasn't experienced change, with a capital C?  
Somebody you care about goes away and your heart walks on out of your body and goes with them.
Something you depend on- steady employment or educational opportunities- shifts under your feet and you're left trying to decide on our next move. 
Life's fragility becomes intensely personal... there's an illness or a death, and you just want "the way things used to be," to be the way they are again.

Change doesn't look the same for any two people, but we likely feel the same when we meet it. Kristen compares change to her 6' 5" cousin. Despite the fact that he was a gentle giant, people stepped aside to clear his path. Change is that big guy... we want to hunker down in a corner and hope he doesn't see us. We're concerned just looking at him.

Today was one of those days. Recently, someone I love has been trying to make an important move in their life. Everything seemed to come together, and then it derailed again, with more stress added to the mix. I'm hurting just watching them. 

Kristen's book challenged me to believe: there is a God-for-me story, and a God-for-my-friend story. And that change that I want to fight off and run from and dig out from underneath as fast as I can? Well, that change is ON our way, not IN our way. 

So, how does the Gospel illuminate change, transition, and the unknown?  How do we keep moving when the wanted-change doesn't happen, and the change-we-didn't-choose is breathing in our ears? 

Kristen turns our faces towards the God who never runs short of grace or glory. 
She writes, "He loves me through all ancient and future time, so whatever circumstances are a part of my story are a part of his everlasting love for me too.... When I sit in times of change, I remember I also sit in his everlasting love." 

Somehow, Kristen managed to spread the truth of Scripture onto my heart with each page she penned. She's asking me to take a risk, to believe God in the changes. Yes, I desire the changes I think would be good for me. Yes, I dread the changes that cause me trouble and worry. 

I know there's the kind of change where wonderful things come into your life, and there's the kind of change that is synonymous with loss. Yet I have the same God at all times, the God who came for me and made me whole, and he has restoration in mind and not ruin. 

"Girl Meets Change" is TNT inside the cute cover. Join me and give a read, will you? 
I thank Revell Publishers for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why Holiness Matters~

Why Holiness Matters: We've Lost our Way--But We Can Find it Again

This book is a great way to start the holiness conversation, because it's centered around a couple of questions: what is holiness, and why does it matter? 

Ideally, we recognize that holiness is about waaaay more than following the modern Evangelical modes of approved behavior, but sometimes we forget, and we make holiness about us. 
Think about the way we categorize things- 
Gambling in Vegas? Unholy use of money. 
Donation to Billy Graham? Holy, of course. 
Various peculiar body piercings? Unholy! 
True Love Waits ring? Very holy. 

Why do we come to these conclusions? Are conservative choices automatically more holy than progressive ones? 
Does holiness accumulate like dust does, guaranteeing that older traditions have more of it? 
How do we steer toward holiness, if we don't know where it stems from?

Tyler Braun's book points us to this truth: holiness is the nature and ways of God himself. He is Holy, and he showed us his holiness on earth in his Son. So, if we're talking about personal holiness for you and I, then we're talking about drawing close to Christ. 

When we say that a person has the quality of holiness, we're (hopefully) speaking about the way they seem to reflect the heart of God. 
We're speaking about the way that grace upholds that person, and the way that they work that grace out in fidelity and self-giving. 

What does this "holiness-is-given-from-God-as-he-brings-you-near-to-him" approach mean for us, practically? 
It means that when we make choices, we're saying as much about God as we are about ourselves. 
That's how holiness comes into every arena. There's always something to say about God.

So after walking us through chapters titled Innocence, Shame, and Love, Tyler takes us to the out-working of holiness, in Community and Artistry, and Mission. 

This book's only 176 pages, but it's got big concepts to think about. And it's worth reading more than once.

I thank Moody Press Newsroom for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Thursday, September 3, 2015



Perhaps you've heard of Ann Voskamp's "One Thousand Gifts." Her book challenged us all to find the ordinary glory, and to name each glimpse of it that we see in our days.

When I read Eileen Spinelli's "Thankful," I thought to myself that it was "One Thousand Gifts" for children. Both Ann's and Eileen's books have the same heart-beat, and both women have a way with words.

Sure, this is a book of simple, rhyming sentences. But listen to some of them...
"The artist is thankful for color and light.
The clown for her costume, silly and bright.
The doctor is thankful when patients get well.
The traveler, for a cozy hotel."

Don't the rhymes just dance right off of your tongue? And Eileen comes up with some unexpected gifts- everything from comfortable shoes for a waitress to a mayor who's thankful for every vote.

And the illustrations! This is Archie Preston's first published book, and it's fabulous. There's a wry, comic note to many of them that both little people and big people will appreciate. His work reminds me of Arthur Howard's illustrations in the well-known "Mr. Putter and Tabby" series.

So, again, "Thankful" is a treat. It reminds us that practicing gratitude is ultimately celebration, celebration of God's good care and recognition of all the gifts we have.  I'm thankful for my copy, provided free in exchange for an honest opinion from Booklook Bloggers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Staying is the New Going


"Staying is the New Going"  asks this question- where does your life happen? 
Where do you sleep at night, where do you hang out, where do you eat your dinner and go to church and go to work and walk your dog? Why did you choose this place, and why do you stay? 

Do you even intend to stay? 
   What if you decided that you would stay, and stay well?  

   What if we could reveal the hidden power of staying? What if we could stay in a way that's so compelling that staying would be the new going? 
Alan Brigg's thinks that we can. He's tried it. He's gone from a mover-and-shaker out to see the world to a man growing roots, trying to faithfully inhabit his corner of God's earth. 

Barring the necessary moves to meet your work and family needs, Alan challenges you to hold your ground in one place for a while. He casts a vision of Christians who move into any "ordinary" place and get busy right there with the people of that area. 

This book explores several aspects of what it takes to encourage a "staying culture."  Some of these points really got my attention.

First, we'd need to begin recognizing God's glory and good opportunities in our own zip code. Ministry and mission happen right here, Alan argues. God is at work and you can join in, on a dirt road or in a city block. 

Second, we'd need to understand this place we're trying to serve and flourish in. As Stephen King said, "A place is yours when you know where all the roads go."  So, go explore. What's the culture? What's the lingo? How do the people here roll? Where do you fit in seamlessly and where do you struggle to find a toehold? What do you enjoy about this patch of the map, and what drives you crazy? 

Third, watch your mindset. As you explore, be a pilgrim, Alan suggests, not a tourist. To simplify the definitions, a pilgrim moves with an eye for Christ's presence in all places, and accepts the hard things as well as the lovely ones as part of the journey. A tourist might eagerly find all the best spots in town, but by nature they can't stay long or get deeply involved.

Fourth, you need to neighbor. No, you didn't choose them. No, you don't live anything like they do. No, you don't know them yet. 
But if you're going to stay and stay well, you're gonna have to meet the neighbors.  

"You know your neighbors are beginning to trust you when they begin to inconvenience you."  
This is a statement that is so true, yet I'd never thought of it this way before. 
If somebody is a stranger to me, do I call them to ask for help during the dinner hour? 
No. I don't. 
But if I ever did, if I took that risk, they might become a friend. 
And actually, I've seen this happen. 
Maybe you have too. 
Maybe you've been really blessed by the people around you, and maybe you've blessed them back. 

If so, you know what Alan is talking about. If it's never happened yet, keep the faith. It can happen. 

"Staying is the New Going" would be a really great book to read along with Hugh Halter's "Flesh." Both of them revolve around the same thing- Jesus does his awesome work through common men in common places. 
(And perhaps you'll find that no place and no person is common, if you borrow God's eyes to look with.)

I thank Tyndale and NavPress for my review copy.