Book Review – Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense – Francis Spufford

spuffordFaith is gut level stuff full of twists and turns, stories of wonder, valleys of frustration, holy relationships, and awkward fits and starts. Sometimes the best way to express faith is to speak to these realities but few seem to be allowed to express what is going on in the deepest levels of ourselves.

Somehow, in our modern context, faith that doesn’t have a chrome like luster to it isn’t considered faith at all. But I have always been drawn to writers, singer/songwriters, and artists that acknowledge that faith has a heart and soul component that has to be addressed if we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

But these kind of artists are hard to find. Sure, there are no shortage of devotional thoughts and email forwards that tug at our heartstrings. What I am talking about is not just found in our “chicken soup for the soul” moments but in our everyday midst of life moments. Frederick Buechner was that first one that I read that seem to infuse his writings with the absurdities of life, not for absurdities sake but because, if you haven’t figured out, absurdities are a fact of life, even for the Christian. Absurdities, but also pain, doubt, hope, frustration, soured relationships, grace, and love.

I say all of this to point out how refreshing it was to begin reading two books at the same time that express life and faith, not in the neatly packaged way of most Christian authors, but in what I seem to experience myself. First, I began reading Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic and couldn’t really believe that a book like this could actually be written in 2014. It is so gut level and raw that I would only reccomend it to certain people. His writing style is so pressed down that you wonder if he will ever come back up. Yet, his emotional case for Christianity is so compelling yet simple it is a wonder its message isn’t more wide spread. Just his HPtFtU (I will let you look it up) concept is worth the price of the book. Spufford’s writing is so profound because he touches on aspects of our lives that we all can identify. Have you ever felt guilt? Have you ever had a sense of God’s presence? Have you ever wondered how on earth things that are ruined can ever be made right? Have you ever thought Jesus might actually be saving you from something beyond Hell?

Readers weaned on Piper, Sproul, and Blackaby won’t get Spufford but if you need to be punched in the gut more than you need your intellect massaged or your religious app updated, Spufford will do the trick.

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A Cure For The Common Busy Life (Book Reviews)

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Kevin DeYoung begins his book, Crazy Busy: A “Mercifully) Short Book on a (Really) Big Problem, with the declaration that he is 17152690“not an expert” in living an unhurried life. As you read his book, you get the sense that he hasn’t really captured what he preaches, that he is in the process of figuring out what a life less busy really looks like. In comparison, Alan Fadling begins his book, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Ryhthym of Work and Rest, with the declaration that he is “a recovering speed addict.” By these two descriptions, the reader begins to understand that DeYoung is new to the topic while Fadling has wrestled with it for a while.

I am a sucker for lists and for some reason I decided to read the majority of the books on Christianity Today’s 2014 Book Award’s list. I could bore you with the details of how and when I choose the books from the list but by happenstance (though that could be questioned) I was reading both of these books at around the same time (I try to only read two books at a time). Yes, two books on living a life less busy at the same time. God, what are you telling me? Though there are few recurring vocabulary and ideas (acedia anyone?), the two books aren’t really that similar and that is a good thing.

DeYoung’s book is like discovering that your friend just got into kayaking but was a novice and hadn’t practiced enough to really demonstrate anything to you. He is really excited and eager to become an experienced kayaker but at this point he can only share important truths and practical steps for you, who might be interested in joining him. Fadling’s book is like discovering your uncle is a really good kayaker and has years of experience and knows what is really important. You are excited about the introduction and you share your friends enthusiasm but you are so grateful for your uncle’s experience, wisdom, and instructional care. In other words, DeYoung is on the right track in ending the trouble of busyness and wants to bring others along with him, but Fadling has been there and is doing many things right and his experience makes a world of difference.

16211574The authors do touch on a few things exclusive to their own work. DeYoung has a chapter on time and parenting. He talks about studies that have been done that demonstrate the harm to kids caused by second-hand stress from overworked and overscheduled parents. Yes, one gift we could give our kids is fewer things to do.

Fadling has a chapter on suffering as a means to forced slowness. I had never thought about suffering in this way but looking back on my own life, I realized the truth in such an insight. So much of living an unhurried life is learning to trust God. It is the same with suffering, when I have suffered, I have also had to trust God the most.

So, the tendency for some readers would be to choose one book over the other depending on your preferences, reading capacity, and familiarity with the topic. I would suggest that instead you read both. DeYoung for an introduction, and Fadling for a more fleshed out approach. You will be glad you did.

 

Book Review: Humilitas: The Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership – John Dickson

One year into his (reign? tenure? service?), Pope Francis has easily become one of the most popular figures in the world of religion and outside of religion. The guy is everywhere – cover of magazines, on 60 Minutes, all over the web. Despite what you might hear from one of these articles or pieces on Francis, his popularity is not due to his presence on Twitter or his embracing of modernity but largely due to one thing – humility.pope_apartment.jpg.size.xxlarge.promo

From the first day on the job as Pope, Francis has expressed humility. He dismissed the lavish luxuries of the Papal residency for what amounts to a hotel room. During Holy Week, instead of ceremoniously washing the feet of his subjected Cardinals, as many before him had done, Francis washed the feet of inmates in prison. There are many photos of him kissing disease ridden or unpleasant individuals. He has demonstrated a truth that few would ever consider – leadership and influence is possible through humility. Where did Francis learn this truth? From the person who introduced the world to the power of humility – Jesus Christ.

John Dickson, in his book Humilitas, accurately and effectively makes the historical point that before Jesus the idea of humility (“being made low”) was something to be avoided and not honored. The Jesus revolution brought about a people and a mindset that sought out humility and saw it as a way to not only emulate their Master but as a way to a better life, a more rewarding and loving life.humilitas

Dickson’s main focus, though, is to present humility as a key trait to effective leadership. He frequently mentions Level 5 leaders made famous by Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. These leaders, as Collins mentions, and Dickson emphasizes, have a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” He makes the point that humility is persuasive and can be very influential on followers. The idea being that brash, attention grabbing, and egotistical leaders may force their will and way on others but only humble leaders create followers and have deep influence.

Dickson’s book came out in  2011, well before Pope Francis became Pope in 2013. But I can think of no better poster child for the power of humility, as expressed by Dickson. I am sure that Dickson would agree. What is so surprising about the virtues of humility is how much they make sense as a way of life. Jesus showed us the common sense aspect of humility and now Pope Francis and others, are putting it into action. Lets hope that this brings about a rise in humility for our time.

Book Review: Greater Expectations: Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age – Claire Diaz-Ortiz

framesIn Greater Expectations: Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age , Claire Diaz-Ortiz discusses a particular problem and one that constantly tempts me. Diaz-Ortiz laments the time and soul sucking nature of constant information and social media. She honestly admits that her responsible and vocational intentions often fly out the window due to the appeal of one more tweet to read or one more video to watch or one more comment to write. She wisely realized that if she didn’t develop a plan to intentionally bring prayer, personal enrichment, exercise and planning to her day, the technology tidal wave would take over and she would be at its mercy. So she developed the PRESENT method, which stands for Prayer – Read – Express – Schedule – Exercise – Nurture – Track.

Being a person who loves a plan to follow, I dove into the PRESENT tasks with gusto. Here are some of my observations:

– The express component has already paid dividends. This is where you write in a journal or send an encouraging note

– Diaz-Ortiz is clearly working out of a work from home, freelancer environment that may not apply to many people’s working existence

– Scheduling before I even step foot into work has given me direction and focus

– Diaz-Ortiz seems to want to emphasize doing these things before turning on any electronic device. So obviously, the preferred time would be in the morning. If you were to take her suggested allotment for each section it would take you around 85 minutes to complete. Who has that kind of time during the morning routine?

– Here is how I organized my PRESENT plan :

    – Prayer – 10 minutes (usually over a cup of tea)

– Read – 15 minutes (I have been reading books on the Spiritual Life. I don’t read the Bible  because I usually listen to scripture while I run.)

– Express – 10 minutes (I have written notes to family members, worked on these reviews, or gone through spiritual exercises in one of the books I am reading)

– Schedule – 15 minutes (I use Donald Miller’s Productivity Plan to map out my day)

– Exercise – 20-30 minutes (I run or lift weights or both)

– Nurture – 20 minutes (During my lunch break, I will read a non-fiction book or magazine)

– Track (I haven’t been doing this much as it is simply a review on how your PRESENT plan is going)

As I consider what needs to be part of my devotional life – prayer, reflection, study, and silence – this plan helps make this possible. Again, all of this is designed to be done with our devices turned off. It has been enriching to me, though challenging, to focus on truly meaningful things as my day begins instead of gorging myself on the latest news, sports, and social media firestorms. Diaz-Ortiz maps out a solid path to take back our own personal growth. Though plans are often too involved to truly be followed, any intentional person could take some of Diaz-Ortiz’ ideas and bring benefit to their personal and spiritual life.

Book Review: The Hyperlinked Life: Live With Wisdom In An Age of Information Overload – David Kinnaman and Jun Young

barnaDigital addiction, in my opinion, is kind of like what smoking must have been in the early 20th century – completely ubiquitous with little thought to its harmful effects. Seventy years ago, the death causing aspects of smoking were fairly plain to see yet few people seemed to make much effort to remove its sway on society. Similarly, the harmful effects of digital addiction are noticeable yet little has been done to rearrange our priorities when it comes to technology.
I have been concerned by technology, and its negative influence for some time. I am concerned, not because I am afraid of it or a Luddite that sees it as the beginning of the end of civilization. I am concerned because I know its negative power in my own life. Physically, I suffer from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that has already been operated on once. Socially, my ever-present need to be “in the know” and aware of what’s relevant has me clinging to my devices for the IV drip of information and entertainment; all the while, distracting myself from the present and persistent needs of those who are right in front of me and the God who may be speaking to me.
The hyperlinked life, as David Kinnaman and Jun Young call it, is a like a train that we are on that we may not need to get off of entirely but we do need a different way of riding. Christians need to develop, according to the authors, a theology of technology. Just as Christians have an approach and particular practices concerning daily matters such as sex, work, and family, they also need to think intentionally about their use of technology.
I appreciate the Barna Group and their consistent assessment of trends and movements. So much of the Christian world is hopelessly behind the curve when it comes to the latest trends but Barna, now led by Kinnaman, are one of the few organizations that speak to issues that are relevant to the now. The Hyperlinked Life, though short and lacking thoroughness and deep scholarship, is a key book in getting Christians to assess their personal use of technology.

Book Review: Freedom of Simplicity – Richard Foster

fosterRichard Foster’s book Freedom of Simplicity was written more than 30 years ago. For a book that discusses money, materialism, and possessions, there is not much that needs to be updated.

What strikes me is that so much of what he touches on in this book – moderation, simplicity, and generosity – has not become mainstream 30 years later. Why haven’t Christians embraced a more simple existence? Why is materialism as rampant in the church as it is outside the church? Foster’s words remain timely.

Foster always manages to keep three elements in play when he writes – the biblical, the historical, and the practical. Every book I have ever read by him keeps this same pattern. It is strange to hear occasional critics of Foster describe him as operating outside of Biblical emphasis ; these people must not have read any of his books. In this one, he spends entire chapters on the Old Testament view of money and simplicity as well as the New Testament.

Additionally, I probably know more church history from reading Foster books than just about anything else . This book is full of examples of the Christian church’s effective approaches to money and possessions.

Finally, Foster shares practical steps to removing what is unneeded in our lives and ways to approach a life that is not wanting but is full of what truly matters – God and his kingdom.

Book Review: – Invitation to Solitude and Silence – Ruth Haley Barton

silence One disturbing trend I have found in my long study of Spiritual Formation and discipleship is how quickly these ideas can be reduced to a listing of spiritual disciplines or a discussion on spirituality that seems very foreign and inaccessible.

Then someone like Ruth Haley Barton comes along and Spiritual Formation moves away from what normally gets presented. In its place is a life with Jesus that seems absolutely necessary for a truly Christian life. The practice of solitude and silence may be foreign to many people, but Barton explains why it is essential to her life and to every serious Christian.

I don’t know how she does it but her writing is always accessible, down to earth, and doable. She explains through personal experience and quality research, why solitude and silence are so needed. When you read this book, you are left with a glimpse into an inviting world of closeness with God. Solitude and silence may be awkward at first but Barton shows the reader why that awkwardness is worth it in the end.

If your exposure to Christian Spiritual Formation has left you feeling dry or guilty, give this book a try. You will be grateful you did.

Book Review: Deeper Experiences Of Famous Christians – James G. Lawson

famous christians 1The Power of God.

This was the phrase that was repeating in my head after I finished Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians by James G. Lawson. The author used this phrase over and over to describe great and miraculous things that happened through the work of well-known and slightly well-known Christians.

It has been several months since I have read this book but several of the bios featured in the book still come to mind – namely George Whitfield, Dwight Moody, and Charles Finney. Lawson definitely places a glossy sheen on many of these stories and his accounts of their lives gets pretty close to legend on a few occasions. But, I don’t think his myth making tendencies distract from the principles and lessons to be learned from each bio.

Beyond biography, many of these stories are about spiritual movements and how they came about. Again, these movements come down to the power of God breaking forth in a particular time and place. May this inspire our prayer for our particular time and place.

Lord, may your power come to us today.

Book Review: The Story of the Other Wise Man – Henry Van Dyke

Perhapartabans nothing is more mysterious in scripture than the story of the Magi who come to visit baby Jesus. Who were these people and where did they come from? Why make such a long journey? Couldn’t they have just been satisfied with the knowledge that they had received from the stars?

In The Story of the Other Wise Man, Henry Van Dyke attempts to answer these questions. With scholarship and style he makes a fascinating fictional case for what the wise men were up to. In Artaban, the “other wise man,” you have a true pilgrim whose pure heart and devotion to his calling is most admirable.

Apparently, Van Dyke’s short story is more than 100 years old and is a classic Christian writing. It has also inspired a feature film starring Martin Sheen. I had never heard of it until this past year. My only qualm with this story is that so much is spent at the beginning with the explanation for why the journey would be beneficial that the actual journey and subsequent results seem rushed. Still, Artaban’s life and service to others raises powerful questions about one’s response to Christ. I like wrestling with these questions because Christmas stories don’t have to be summed up by a Christmas card sentimentality.

Book Review: A Testament of Devotion — Thomas R. Kelly

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I didn’t know what to expect when I first opened Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion. I knew the book was listed among the best in Christian spirituality but I didn’t know anything about the book.

I didn’t know that Kelly was a Quaker and that the essays within the book were taken from talks that he gave. I didn’t know how much my favorite Christian writer, Dallas Willard, was influenced by Kelly.

I also didn’t know that I would need to read it more than once to fully appreciate it. The first time I read it, I was underwhelmed and slightly disappointed in the overtly Quaker teaching. I mean, I am a Baptist, and any talk of the light within makes me think of Shirley MacLaine and “woowoo” New Age stuff. But then I read it a second time and appreciated it so much more. I began to take in some of the rich passages that were inspiring and convicting. For example, he mentions that “complete obedience” is our goal not “amazing revelations.” I particularly liked his discussion of having the “simplicity of the trusting child.”  And Kelly’s explanation of the “Holy Now” was excellent.

Finally, I really appreciated his moment to moment approach to the spiritual life. Highly influenced by Brother Lawrence‘s The Practice of the Presence of God, Kelly detailed the experience of connection with God in the midst of everyday life. This is a very good point and one that gets completely ignored in Evangelical circles who never seem to take the spiritual life beyond morning BIble study and prayer.

I don’t know if I would recommend this book to a young believer but for a seasoned disciple looking for a challenge to live “the other half,” this book would be much better than 90 percent of what is coming out of Christian bookstores.