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.