Thursday, March 31, 2016

Curious Faith~ by Logan Wolfram

A Curious Faith: Rediscovering a Good God with Childlike Wonder  

"We've been given a torch of faith to walk through a tunnel when we can't see where we're going, and thankfulness makes us brave along the way." ~Logan Wolfram

Curious. At first, it seems like an odd adjective to use to describe faith.

When I hear the word curious, I think of a child. A healthy child is constantly exploring, learning, and growing, and all their days are infused with curiosity. That's what makes them ask questions and try things they're unsure of. Their curiosity insists that there's more to the world than meets the eye. 

On second thought, maybe "Curious Faith" is exactly what we need. 

This book was written by a storyteller, that much is clear. Logan knows how to hold her life up to the Light and describe the colors that it carries. Whether she's telling us about the lowest lows (when a heart you love stops beating) or the sweetest gifts (when somebody finds hope again) there is passion in her words. 

Chapter by chapter Logan shares her journey of curious faith, reflecting on bravery and pain and risk and possibility. She speaks about the moments that have meant so much to her, when new understanding has come. She lives believing that God is up to so many things, and we should keep our eyes open for them. Her description of watching an eclipse cover the moon is particularly moving. It reminded me that the predicted, expected, "natural" phenomena of eclipses and thunderstorms and springtime still tell us much about the God who loves us. 

So.... a curious faith.  It involves a lot of wondering and watching, waiting and wanting and worshipping. It's a good thing.

I thank David C Cook for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Core Christianity~ by Michael Horton

Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story

Definitions matter. We need to know what a thing is, where it comes from, what to do with it, and what it might do to us. The more important a thing is, the more imperative it is that we define it correctly. 

When you think about it, the unity of the global Christian church depends on a bunch of shared definitions. A Trinitarian God, salvation through Christ, the coming of the Helper Holy Spirit, the arc of history towards a new creation.... these are all components of "Core Christianity" as we can find it in the Scriptures. 

Michael Horton has helped us all out by bringing together multiple definitions in one book, putting the core concepts in your hands so you can get them into your head. 

He begins by explaining why doctrine is a good word and not a bad one. Doctrine, he says, is born from drama. "God reveals what he is like, not in ivory towers of speculation, but down on the ground in real history. From the throbbing verbs and adverbs of the drama we are given stable nouns.... it is doctrine that tells us what the drama means for us." 

And then we're off, exploring the nature of God, the character of God, the origin of Scripture, the role of Scripture, the creation and the curse, covenants and their fulfillment, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. This book is a fine starting point and/or a handy reference, moving along carefully but quickly and always showing the centricity and supremacy of Christ. 

I'm glad I had the chance to add "Core Christianity" to my shelf. We need both kinds of book- the sweeping stories that look at the large curves of God's work in the world, and the precise statements of God-Is, God-Did, and Follow-Him. This book is the latter kind. 

Thank you Booklook for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Fear and Faith~ Trillia Newbell

Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves

Fear, Trillia explains, is the posture of one expecting harm. As fragile humans in a fallen world we can come to harm in many ways, and so we have many fears. The trouble is that fearfulness doesn't protect us. It drains us.

Sure, there's a "healthy fear." We know it as caution. Caution informs our carefully chosen actions, helping us to engage with the world and be safe too. The unwholesome fear drags us away from reality. It doesn't want us to form relationships, resolve issues, or grow in any way. 

Don't you recognize it, when it comes to get you? That state of panic when the imagination runs wild and you see everything that could go wrong in vivid detail? 

Trillia has written this book to toss out a life preserver of God's truth onto the waves of fear. 
She believes that knowing who God is, what God has done for us, and who we are according to God will set us free to live without the ravages of fear. That's the "faith" the title refers to. It's not faith-in-general. It's specific faith, learned one portion of the Word at a time. 

Chapter by chapter she shows us treasures she has gleaned from the Word, and her enthusiasm whets our appetite for more. Fear of the future, fear of tragedy, fear of being judged and compared, fear of being ugly and unwanted, she brings all of these "unhealthy fears" into the strong light of the Word. 

Personal stories from women show us what the fight against fear looks like in real life, and they encouraged me. I really appreciated that Trillia doesn't pretend your fears won't come true if you're "faithful enough." She knows that they may. Some of her fears have. And yet.... God hasn't changed, and when a fear comes true and re-shapes reality, God meets her there. That's the hope she extends to all of her sisters. 

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

Finding God in the Ruins~ Matt Bays

Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain

Matt Bays describes such devastating ruins that you wonder how anybody could survive living in them, and then he describes such a strange and tender God who inhabits the ruins. A God who enters the horrible scenes, who draws near and stays near - and that's his tenderness- but who doesn't instantly end the pain for the suffering- and that's his strangeness. 

The phrase "Life sucks and then you die" may not be true, but it sure feels like it sometimes. And what good does it do us as Christians to pretend otherwise? What are we doing for God by acting like we can easily reconcile everything that's wrong with the promise of salvation and redemption? 

I believe in all the best words- GloryGoodnessMercyPeaceJoyHopeLoveRedemption. I've seen them come to life around me already, and I expect to see more of them the longer I live. But I've also seen things that suck. If I, as a well-cared-for young person, wonder how to put the pieces together, then what must somebody with a past of greater hurt and harm think? 

Who will bother to talk redemption with the people who live in the ruins? Matt Bays will. He knows what ruins look like, taste like, smell like. He also knows that if God IS, then he IS whether any human believes it or not. A God who knows his way around the ruins doesn't wait for a personalized invitation card before he drops by the human heart. God might come your way the same way tragedy did- unexpectedly, and altering all of life. 

On a personal note, I especially loved the way Matt spoke about his sister. I don't see how any reader could leave this book and not whisper a prayer for her in her fight with cancer. 

So. If you know that faith requires honesty if it's going to be more than a nice idea, and if you believe that hope is capable of staring hard at reality and still existing, then this is a book for you. 

I thank David C Cook and Litfuse Publicity for my review copy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Very Good Gospel~ Lisa Sharon Harper

The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right

"If the construction of human empire is our goal, we will become enemies of God's purposes on earth. If the flourishing of the image of God and all the relationships in creation is our goal, then we will become partners with God, exercising dominion that is in the likeness of God." ~Lisa Sharon Harper

This book is a like a stick of dynamite. Handle it with care or else it will explode, blowing away your preconceived notions and altering the landscape of your understanding. 

And hey, maybe that's a good thing sometimes.  

If you could go back to the beginning, what do you think you would have seen between God and the world? Imagine it- the formless and void now sculpted and filled, God himself resting in satisfaction, the newborn sunlight shining on First Man and Woman, and all creatures utterly at home in the earth.
The Hebrew word for this utter wholeness, intense health, and holy happiness is "shalom." 

That "shalom" is everything we're craving, individually and nationally. 

Lisa Sharon Harper understands that creation was steeped in shalom at the start, and she knows that our hearts long to return to that place. She believes that shalom can be brought back into the world when men and women commit to acting justly, with mercy and generosity. 

If that's the case, then we as people of faith have some marching orders. Evil must be exposed, corruption reformed, and all oppression ended. Human dignity must be championed. Debate of the crucial ideas must be civil, and must not be censored. We must seek out "good governance" and keep our government systems accountable.

It's tempting to think of this all as abstract thought, but it isn't. We read the news of missing shalom every day. Bloodshed and violence, violated victims, lies and deception, economic struggle- we sleep in a planet-sized broken home.

As Lisa addresses these concepts she points us to current events. There are plenty to choose from, when discussing the need for shalom. 

I came away from this book reminded that life is a gift, and we want to live well. And there's so many areas of need, so in whatever way we can let's make our life count. That will never look the same for two people in a row, but we can pursue the goodness of God while looking hard at reality and we can find a way to work for shalom. 

I thank Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Tiger's Cage~ by Linda J. White

The Tiger's Cage

As her fifth suspense novel, "The Tiger's Cage" is exactly what I've come to expect from Linda J. White. Fans know her books as white-knuckle fiction, and there's a reason for that. Each book revolves around an FBI Agent who is working on a complex and dangerous case at the same time as a personal crisis unfolds in their lives. In her earlier books she put her characters through the proverbial wringer- and dragged the reader along!- but this is the most intense story yet. 

"The Tiger's Cage" is the story of a father and son- Tom and Kenny Donovan. Tom is an FBI Special Agent poised to take down a drug kingpin, and Kenny is teenager who adores his never-back-down Dad. Their life is good. Not perfect, of course- Tom's wife wants more communication from him, and Kenny does too, and the work of law enforcement takes its toll on a whole family. Essentially, though, everything is fine. Until a January night when it isn't anymore. 

What happens when a son is harmed to send a message to a father? 

For Tom, the stakes couldn't be higher. The brave man he tries to be doesn't back down in the face of evil, and the threat against his child is an evil he never saw coming. 

The most satisfying part of Linda's books is the way she combines layers of clues, scenes of FBI action, and sudden plot twists while steadily building realistic characters. She writes her Agents as competent investigators and dedicated enforcers of the law, and also as flesh and blood humans with fears and families. Those last two dynamics come strongly into play in Tiger's Cage. For Tom this isn't just a case anymore- its about saving his son, rescuing the future of his family and redeeming the greatest wound in his past. 

But don't get me wrong- relationships and redemption come as part and parcel of the mystery, and they don't slow the trajectory of the case down one bit. No, this book builds steadily to a taut-wire ending scene that still draws me in even on a re-read. 

In "The Tiger's Cage," we see what a few good men will do when they're faced with injustice. 
It makes for some fine reading. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

God's Crime Scene~ J. Warner Wallace

God's Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe

We have a universe of stunning complexity. We have a planet Earth uniquely fit for life. Life is dependent on the extensive information found in DNA. DNA tells the story of the past, shapes the present and points to the future. Human beings experience consciousness, and individual humans eventually wonder: What force is responsible for all of this? Where did it all come from? 

Think of it as a crime scene, urges J. Warner Wallace. There's a pivotal question in a crime scene investigation: Was this situation caused by something inside this room, or did something outside of this room intrude and act? Are all the answers right here, hidden in plain sight, or are we processing a trail of evidence that will identify an external suspect? 

He applies this logic to the chosen case, leading us to ask: Is the force behind the 'crime scene' of our universe natural, unguided processes, or was there an involvement from outside the 'room' of time/space/matter? And what would the nature of such an involvement be?" 

Chapter by chapter we look for the evidence of "an inside job" or "outside intrusion" in all of those areas: the origin of the universe, earth's ability to support us, the genetic code that powers life, and the experience of consciousness and its attendant questions of free will and morality. As in any carefully crafted case, expert witnesses testify, represented here by quotes and excerpts of their work. These witnesses include cosmologists, physicists, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, theologians, and ethicists. 

"God's Crime Scene" is packed with information without being overwhelming. A whole library of books couldn't exhaust all of these issues, yet this single volume is a great orientation. Many charts and graphics help us grasp the arguments and a running "Suspect Profile" at the end of each chapter shows the evidence building up. Yes, J. Warner Wallace wants you to learn, but he also wants you to enjoy the process. 

In the introduction he quotes a former field training officer who loved to get involved in a good pursuit. The FTO would look over to the rookie in the passenger seat and say "Saddle up, partner!" He passes the same advice along to us- Saddle up! Following this evidence is a wild ride. 

I'm happy to add this book to my shelf next to his first book, "Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels." Two or more re-reads would be required to get a handle on the material here, so I'm far from done with "God's Crime Scene."

If you want a thoughtful treatment of the "Was-God-Involved" question from an author who is utterly respectful of others viewpoints, look no further. 

I have to thank David C Cook publishers for sharing a review copy with me in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Seated with Christ~ by Heather Holleman

Seated with Christ: Living Freely in a Culture of Comparison

As I read Heather Holleman's book, I could tell that there was a love affair going on between her and language. She's one of those authors who writes as if the opportunity to communicate is a sacred thing, and she wants to use her every word well. You can tell that her heart beats faster when she finds a way to express stunning truth in a sentence, and her delight comes through the pages and quickens the reader's heart too. 

Heather's is the kind of writing that makes me want to treasure the gift of language for myself, and to use words with the honor and care they deserve. 

"Seated with Christ" is one of those books that will stamp itself on your soul, because the truth it tells is vital for living well. 

Where am I? I'm struggling, fighting with the stuff inside my head and outside my door. 
I'm scrapping, trying to get ahold of something good, afraid that I'm losing out to somebody else who seemed to start off closer to the prize. I'm scraping, chasing and wanting, trying to get by, worried that my grasping hands will come up empty and knowing that "grasping" is not a healthy way to live. 

Where am I according to God? I'm seated with Christ, resting with confidence in the place he provided, circled around his table with many others who are all looking at his face. I can act with the same confidence that I rest with, because no matter what happens I belong at his table. I'll never need to earn a better seat, and I'll never lose the one I've got. 

Heather is so right when she suggests that her reader probably has a mental list of tables they've never sat at. Some of these metaphorical "tables" are far more important than others, but in every case it hurts not to be offered a seat. That will never happen with Jesus. He has made a place for us, and when we recognize that we belong there so many things can change. 

Heather has three key words to describe seated living: Adoration, Access, and Abiding. She has an excellent chapter on each of these concepts. 

If you're hungry for a place to belong, if you wish you could live more freely, if you long to be unfettered by fears and shame, if you're conscious of "all the places you never sat" and you wish you had a seat with Christ, then please do read this book. Because you already have a seat. And Heather will help you find it. 

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Answering Jihad- a better way forward by Nabeel Qureshi

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward

Nabeel Qureshi was born into a loving, patriotic American Ahmadi Muslim family, and was a devout American Muslim until he reached college age. As a young adult his pursuit of truth led him, in the end, to Jesus Christ. Now he articulates the gospel through writing and speaking, letting his background inform his apologetics. Clearly, Nabeel is uniquely positioned to contribute to America's dialogue about Islam. 

Turn on any talk show, start discussing current events at a family party, or listen to a debate between the 2016 Presidential candidates, and you will end up hearing about terrorism and Islam, one way or the other. Depending on your level of information, you'll be cringing at some of the opinions you hear. 

There will be fear that Muslims are a danger to their non-Muslim neighbors. There will be speculations about whether Islam promotes violence. There will be questions about the history of Islam. There will be theological speculations about the God of Islam and the God of Christianity.  It will be overwhelming, and you'll be left wishing that there was a better way forward, through all of this. 

That's probably why Nabeel chose "A better way forward" as his subtitle. 

This book has three sections, and each one answers six of the most common questions that Nabeel receives about Islam and jihad. The first section is on the origins of jihad, the section is on jihad around the world today, and the third is about jihad in Judeo-Christian context. 

This book is a slight 170 pages, so Nabeel moves quickly through each topic, but his reflections provide a great starting point. As always, he formulates his case carefully as he draws his conclusions, and seasons his words with the salt of a Christian conscience. Nabeel presents a lot to think about: the relationship between Islamic reformation and Islamic radicalization, the nature of sharia and its role in a Muslim's life, the fact of violence in Old Testament history and the fact of violence in Islamic history, the Muslim's view of Jesus in their apocalyptic literature, and the way Christ teaches us to treat our fellow humans- be they Muslim or anything else. 

I thank Booklook Blog Program and Zondervan for providing me with a review copy. I will be passing it on to a family member. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

"Rooted" by Banning Liebscher

Rooted: The Hidden Places Where God Develops You

"The only way (God) can build this root system of abiding connection is by taking us though a process that asks again and again "Do you trust me?" Every time we say, "I trust you," our root system grows. That's how we thrive as he prepares us to bear lasting fruit." ~Banning Liebscher

For me, this quote was the heart of the book "Rooted." The image of roots, stretching out underground, hidden from all eyes, feeding and anchoring the luxurious upper growth, is a fine one to help us think about the Christian life. We need those roots, often developed in secret, before we can have the visible foliage and desirable fruit. 

This book is Banning's meditations on getting roots. He believes that our roots grow best in three "soils," the soil of intimacy, the soil of service, and the soil of community. This means that our relationships matter, and our work matters. To state the obvious- what we do and how we do it shapes our souls.  

Banning will do a better job explaining his key concepts and lessons than I will, so let's say this- if you're interested in some accessible thoughts about how a life-vision develops and grows, then try this book. You'll pick up some wisdom, and be reminded that inner growth is what fuels all great actions, and that every risk you take to love somebody and live faithfully is worth it. 

I thank Waterbrook Multnomah for providing my review copy. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"Cries from the Cross" Erwin Lutzer

Cries from the Cross: A Journey into the Heart of Jesus

If you've ever tuned in to a "preachin' radio station," then you've probably heard the distinctive voice of Erwin Lutzer though the airwaves.  

He's plain-spoken, and old-fashioned, and he has a deep reverence for the words in those sixty-six canonical books. Mostly, he wants people to look at Jesus and see the love in the Savior's face. 

This book, Cries from the Cross, looks at the last words Jesus spoke before his death. As the weight of our sin crushed him completely, what words did his parched lips form?  With what little breath he had left, whom did he address? What did the Lord say to the crowd that stood beside the cross? What did he say to the men being executed alongside him? What did he say to his mother, and to his beloved disciple John? What did he say to his Father? 

And what do these words tell us about our Savior? What can we glean about his love for us, that love which sent him to the cross? What can we learn about his perfect holiness and justice, and his utter mercy and his full provision of forgiveness? 

With Erwin Lutzer as our teacher, we revel in the freedom that comes when we know our sin is paid for in full. And we are reminded that we have a message to give the world- Christ, crucified and risen, and all that this means for each man and woman. 

I thank Moody Press for my review copy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Kara Tippetts, "And it was Beautiful."

If you treasured Kara Tippetts' blog posts, then this is your chance to own a collection of them bound in book form. Kara continued to add to her blog, aptly titled "Mundane Faithfulness," as often as she could while fighting Stage IV cancer. Her words dripped with grace and radiated love.

Kara found the wellspring of Life in her Savior, and she continually described the Living Water that He gave her. She let us all know Who the source of true life is.

Having satisfied her soul on the love of God, she deeply, madly, fully loved her family and friends. Her writing will inspire you to look closely at your own people, to reach out and touch them and enjoy them as gifts from your Heavenly Father.

Because these essays were blog posts, they are about a page in length. Each one will find a place in your heart. Some will laser you right open, and leave you saying "It isn't just me struggling with this. And God is here for me, too." And some will soothe like a balm, as this woman's final earthly words remind you of all the lasting truths.

Obviously, these reflections are born out of Kara's particular story. That's one thing that she made clear in her writing. Nobody can have any story other than their own. The particulars of dates and circumstances will change for each reader, but "hard" comes into every life. Kara wrote to the hard times, always trying to point to the one sweet thing that stays the same- Jesus.

And when she talks about His mercy and His grace, she means that she's seen those things, real and raw and present in the grit and mess and awkwardness. She ate and drank grace and mercy, and she shares the feast with her readers. You go away feeling nourished.

I thank David C Cook Publishers for providing me this review copy through Litfuse.