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.