Monday, February 29, 2016

Bearing Witness, from Plough Publishing.


Bearing Witness: Stories of Martyrdom and Costly Discipleship

 "Make sure to read your children plenty of martyr stories," some Christians say, "It will strengthen their faith." I know they're well intended, but accounts of people being torn from limb to limb did little except scare me as a child, and left me thinking that there was no way I could stay faithful amid such torment. 

I believe that martyr stories are important, because how we die matters. But a true martyr story isn't mostly about death.... it's about life, lived well in imitation of Christ, as we're all called to live. In a martyr story the believer's particular circumstances in life lead to a particular death, a death meted out by someone who hates or fears their Christ-centered life. That death is a witness to the believer's confidence that there is a deeper reality beyond what we see, and that Christ is the true ruler of all things, no matter how cruelly we humans run the world right now. 

That's what makes martyr stories worth reading. They remind us that we live in Him, and we die in Him, no matter the form that death takes. 

Plough Publishing is known for their fine books, and this is no exception. They have collected stories of martyrdom and "costly discipleship," accounts of men and women who chose to spend their life following Jesus' Way, period. These stories are arranged by their date in history, beginning with Stephen from the Book of Acts, through the Early Church to the Reformation, all the way up to the modern era. 

Because of the specific faith tradition that Plough Publishing was born from, many of the stories describe the persecution of Anabaptists, who are known for their non-violence and non-resistance. Some ugly cases against them originated here in the US, especially regarding pacifist Anabaptist men conscripted during the World Wars. 

I came out of this book with so much to think about. How could humans be so evil, to devise these methods of torture for each other? A partial answer is that the victim was no longer seen as a human being, worthy of respect and care even if we violently disagree with their religion or politics. And history will teach us that as soon as any group of people are determined to be sub-human, then we are all in danger. 

How did (do) whole governments decide to eliminate people based on something like their Christian religion? It seems like in most of these cases, it wasn't based on religion alone. It was because their religion and its demands made them dissent in ways the government did not appreciate. Their Christianity seemed treasonous, a thought that is hard to process here in the USA, where freedom of religion has long been valued. They were branded traitors in secular governments, and heretics in religious ones. 

It seems that there may never have been Christian persecution if Jesus was something that you could tack on to your identity- I'm a solid citizen, I agree with all the powers that be in their ethical, economic, and educational decisions, and a I'm a Christian, too. But Jesus doesn't add to your identity. He transforms it and renews it and conforms it to himself. And that means that his followers no longer fit into the structure of the world. And this is scary. 

But for us Americans today, it doesn't mean we're in danger. It means we have a chance to engage things, to speak truth, to open eyes and hearts through love. 

Let this book be a sobering encouragement for you. Life lived for Jesus matters. And living well will set you up to die well. For now, don't worry about the "how." Just walk the Way. 

Thank you Plough for my review copy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Steadfast Love~by Lauren Chandler

Steadfast Love: The Response of God to the Cries of Our Heart

If you take a peek at Psalm 107, you'll see some vivid images. There are dry and weary people trekking across a desert and never arriving at their destination. There are heavily chained prisoners, oppressed by grinding labor in a dungeon of darkness. There are those who are dying amid destroyed lives. There are a bunch of terrified sailors reeling across the deck of their ship in the middle of a wild storm. 

When I'd read this Psalm before, I fixated on these terrible circumstances, and I missed the whole point. 
The sailors are scared out of their skin, they're soaked with salt spray that's flung up from waves they can't  command. Yet... they cry to the Lord in their distress, and He brings them into safe haven. The prisoners groan and despair, yet when they call out for redemption they find it. The one at the gates of death asks for new life, and receives it from the hand of God. The desert wanderer asks for a good end to the journey, and he comes into the safe city of God. 

The point is that all of them find all they need when they seek it in Him. Mostly, what they find is steadfast love. That's what Lauren Chandler wants us to see, whether we have storm or calm outside the window, whether we're inside hospital walls or at our own homes. 

Psalm 107 is a particularly precious portion of Scripture for Lauren, and she moves through it slowly in these chapters, pausing often to reflect. She looks long and carefully at the metaphors- barren places and safe cities, powerful waves and sudden peace, chains and freedom, the taste of death and the rush of life. She tells us stories from her days to show us what she's learned, and she shares her reasons for confidence and hope. 
And I can't think of anybody who doesn't need this message. 

 I thank B&H Publishing for providing my review copy, in exchange for an honest opinion.   

Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Confessions of X" by Suzanne Wolfe

The Confessions of X

Deeply engrossing and terribly sad. That's what I would say about "The Confessions of X."

It's a pretty sure bet that if you've ever read anything about Christianity, you've encountered some words from Augustine. I had never known this, but apparently there was another woman in Augustine's life beyond his prayerful mother Monica. This woman is referenced in his work but never referred to by name, and one can only imagine who she was and what she must have meant to him.

This woman was lost in history, and Suzanne Wolfe decided to find her. In this novel she marries fact and imagination, giving us a story that show's Augustine's humanity and restores his beloved's identity.

The tale is told in her voice, as she looks back on her life, and that sharpens the telling. Augustine and this woman knew a love that was willing to choose their union against all advice, and she gave love that was willing to sever their union for the sake of the beloved.

We know her ending before we even begin: Augustine and she do not grow old together.
As our narrator says, when they were young they loved, and they pretended that the future- when there would have to be a choice-wasn't coming. And then it came. At 30, Augustine was not yet applying his mind and pen to Christian doctrines, but his brilliance was already marked by the powers that ruled his world. A man like him could rise high in the court, but not with an "unsuitable" concubine as a bride.

Her decision will make you pause. Is it possible to measure the rightness of her choice at all? Think- if Augustine had happily thumbed his nose at ambition and opportunity, and had lived a life of marital love and personal obscurity, then he and she and their children may have lived and died unknown and done both well. But the church would have been missing a strong influence, and who knows what that would have cost the world?

So read this book, if you care about fascinating women who ought to be known, or carefully crafted historical fiction or the flesh and blood that lived out church history. Read it for the vivid descriptions of emotions and environments. Read it for a chance to meet a woman who was created by her author to be a fitting match for the passion and wit of "Saint Augustine."

I thank Booklook for my review copy, provided in exchange for an honest opinion.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Open Road Summer~ Emery Lord

Open Road Summer

Yes, this is a YA book. It's about best friends and growing up, and the setting is a summer road-trip. It deals with some hard issues, grounding them in a rollicking tale that I didn't want to put down. I would have adored this book at 14, and I greatly adored it now.

Our heroine, Reagan, is one tough-talking gal. She appreciates the artificial height provided by a good pair of heels and she'll stare down anybody who sasses her or gives trouble to a friend. Reagan knows her way in and out of loud parties, bad relationships, the police station, and some therapy. 
She may be "New Reagan" these days, but "Old Reagan" still hijacks her brain sometimes. 

I loved her "voice" as our narrator. She's hard nosed and hot headed, and yet her brutal honesty won't let her hide from any truth for long. She's exactly what her friend Dee needs this summer. Becoming a country music star before she even graduated gave Dee a world of opportunities, and it opened her up to the media wolves. Dee is the perfect complement to Reagan- she's almost unfailingly sweet with an old-fashioned sense of style and a desire to be a good role model. 

Enter a drummed-up scandal against Dee's tween-friendly reputation, and a publicity stunt to fix it in the form of Matt Finch, a fellow young musician whose star rose just as fast as Dee's. 

Honestly, this is a fine read. It's an edge-of-your-seat YA romance that says something important to young girls about finding their own strength and it retains a delightful innocence and positivity. 

I have to commend Emery Lord. She's told a delicious tale without just the right touches of restraint, making her romance both sweet and strong. 

Final Note: Other reviewers commented on Reagan's particular bent for judging every other female she meets. I have some thoughts on that- first, the author did not intend the reader to approve of that behavior- it's merely another (unpleasant) facet of Reagan's character. Indeed, we readers can see that Reagan is probably a little insecure. And if she were a real person, I'm guessing she'd grow out of it for one good reason- she knew when she was being unfair and unkind. As long as you're honest enough to see your flaw, you have a chance at correcting it. Reagan's only 17, and while her Open Road Summer finds her on the road to maturity, she doesn't have to arrive before we can love her. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Roots and Sky~ by Christie Purifoy

Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons

This is one of those books that starts off slow, beginning with Christie Purifoy's family buying an old brick farmhouse. It's a house with stories whispering out of all the hallways and staircases, begging the new inhabitants to imagine who has lived there before. It's a house with scratched glass windowpanes, and the scratches made rainbows when the moonlight touches them. 
It's a house to make a home in, a place where the Purifoy's could look to the future. 

Christie spins all the threads of her story together around this place, which is named Maplehurst after the trees that rise all around it. So this book has roots, yes. But it does have wings too, because Christie's reflections fly far beyond the scope of relocation and house restoration. 

If God comes to us at all, then he must meet us where our feet are, on a particular piece of ground. That may be our own lovingly chosen yard, or it may be a strange street corner, but it's a particular place none the less. And because we're there and He's there, then it's worth looking hard and seeing as much as we can. That's what Christie does. She reaches out to life with a reverent hand and she recognizes that the part she plays is a contribution to the greater artwork. That's a message that every one of us needs to absorb into our skin. This matters, your work matters, it does add up. Let the circumstances be good, bad or indifferent, God hasn't run short of grace or glory. 

And, mercy, can Christie write. I had to slow down and read passages again just to appreciate the way she phrased them. 

I thank Revell Publishers for providing me with this review copy. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Life-Giving Home~ by Sally Clarkson

The Lifegiving Home: Creating a Place of Belonging and Becoming 

"The Life-Giving Home" will definitely be a contender for my Best Books of 2016 list. It is inspiring in the fullest sense of the definition: it urges, encourages, galvanizes, sparks and impassions the reader.

I don't see how you could spend time with the words of Sally and Sarah and not long for what they describe. They give us a glimpse of a home culture that is founded on the ideals of  "belonging" and "becoming," and it is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, life just feels like a grind. The world is fallen, and meanness and manipulation plague our families. We need clear voices speaking into the mess and saying "Not a one of us is perfect, but we don't need perfection to have a good life. As a family, you belong to each other and those relationships are your true treasures. Guard them, and work through any struggle that's harming them. And you belong to God, meaning that you have a Father, Helper, and Savior. You'll find what you need in him. You can do this!"

"The Lifegiving Home" is a pleasure to read. It gives me hope. You could open this book randomly to any page, and find something to refresh your spirit. It might be a discussion of how essential the sense of wonder is, or it might be ideas for stocking the pantry just in time for Autumn. It might be a meditation on how much loving words really matter, or it might be a reminder to look at your world with careful eyes.

This is one of those rare family books that isn't problem focused. We don't get pages of negative statistics, instead we get suggestions for ways to be together and enjoy each other. We don't get a task list for A+ homemaking, instead we're encouraged to follow the rhythms that make our home comfortable for our people. 

Sally and Sarah both look to the heart of God and see the tender way he relates to his children, and then they look at their homes and ask "How that we have that welcoming tenderness here?"
Never condemning and ever encouraging, they ask us to imagine how we could imbue our days with more of God's goodness.

How can we grow closer to our people and know them better, show them we care, and help them develop those roots and wings that they will need? How can we celebrate the best days and mourn the disheartening losses and affirm the work that God is doing through it all?

As Amy Carmichael once wrote, you don't get to save a soul and then pitchfork it into heaven. The believer has to live on earth and hopefully bring a little heaven down in the process. Both Sarah and Sally have keen eyes for the holy in the ordinary. They believe that something as earthly as delicious food contributes to the heavenly goals of friendship and community. They know that something as mundane as a sick day can remind the cared-for patient how much they're loved.

They also know that in Jesus, life often seems to work backwards. Being open to having honest (and therefore sometimes unpleasant) conversations now will make our relationships stronger in the end. A peaceful home doesn't come from bending others to your will, it comes from hearts captivated by a common vision. There are times to correct and many times to simply stay and love in silence.

This is a excellent book. I'm very grateful to Tyndale for providing me a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Little Felted Dogs by Saori Yamazaki


Needle felting has taken the crafting world by storm, and if you Google it, you'll see why. With some raw wool, a special felting needle (and some significant skill) you can create animals that look ready to get up and run around.

When I first started looking at them, I saw some listings on Etsy for needle felted animals that cost $100+ dollars. Now I understand why- because needle felting involves risk to life and limb.

Just kidding. Sort of. It sounds like you do have to be careful with the "very sharp" felting needle if you want to avoid bloodshed, but with a bit of caution your crafting shouldn't be dangerous. It's the detail that commands those prices, because the end result of needle felting can be fantastically whimsical or startlingly realistic. It captivates the imagination.

In this book, the end result is exactly what the title tells us: Little Felted Dogs. Super cute ones, everything from Bulldogs to Shelties.

Saori teaches us the basic techniques down for felting the bodies- with or without a pipe cleaner frame- the long outer fur, the eyes, ears and paws. Her drawings show us the proportions of each dog, and once you have these basics down pat you could easily make any other kind of critter. If you're still a beginner, there's twenty-four puppies to pick from. You could make a whole litter!

So, if I ever decide to try needle felting, this book will be a fine guide.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Redeeming Pleasure~

Redeeming Pleasure: How the Pursuit of Pleasure Mirrors Our Hunger for God 

This is an interesting book, with contents accurately described by its title, "Redeeming Pleasure." 

If this world was made by God, and if it's as full of pleasurable things as we all know it is, then what does that mean for us humans trying to "live God's way?" 

At some point, we will wonder "How do I navigate my life without either A: taking advantage of others and harming myself in pursuit of various gratifications, or B: shunning enjoyment and fearing desires?" 

Well, no single volume can fully answer such a question, but this book can certainly spark a conversation. 

What is pleasure? Does God take pleasure in this world, and if so, in what? Can we take pleasure in what delights him?How do you categorize the kinds of pleasure? Is a pleasure of the mind, such as the satisfaction of learning a new thing, really that different from a pleasure rooted in the body, such as the taste of our favorite food and drink?

Obviously, God made humans to find pleasure in a variety of things, in a variety of ways. There's the satisfaction of getting work done well even if it was difficult, and the simple enjoyment of your favorite music or reading material. There's the delight of spending time with your favorite people, with different nuances to that depending on the nature of your relationships. 

Some pleasures are clearly good, intrinsically right and made to be enjoyed fully- the breath of fresh air and the beautiful view from the top of a hiking trail, for example. And there are other pleasures that often seem more suspect- the pleasure found in various controlled substances, for example.

Jeremy talks about all these concepts and more, and how could a book about pleasure and God not be engaging?  But if you need to hear one quote to convince you to try this book here it is: "When we experience God without pleasure, it's like holding a snakeskin and convincing yourself you are holding the snake itself." 

In this book, Jeremy tries to wrestle with the real live snake-the point where holiness and desire meet- and he encourages us to join him.
I thank Worthy Publishing for my review copy.