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.