I Like To Ride My Bicycle, I Like to Ride My Bike: a book review

When I was a kid, I rode my bike everywhere. When the clouds part here in the Pacific Northwest and we have a brief respite from the lingering dark, I ride still.  But my kids do not.  My oldest is seven and has a bike of her own and no training wheels, but she doesn’t know how to ride. The biggest reason she doesn’t is because she hasn’t logged enough learning hours. I have a job with unpredictable hours and I am often at work when the sun shows herself.  My wife is home, but with two other kids in tow teaching her is hard. She usually leaves me the responsibility of teaching the kids anything where they may die (bike riding, swmimming, mountain climbing, sky diving, etc.).

Mike Howerton, lead pastor of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Wa. His new book, The Ride of Your Life: What I Learned about God, Love, and Adventure by Teaching My Son to Ride a Biketells the story of how he taught his son to ride a bike in five days and the lessons applicable to life. The five lessons from each of the daily twenty minute sessions are as follows:

  1. Day one: No Fear because my dad has me.
  2. Day two: Balance (the secret to balance is to keep pedaling).
  3. Day three: Steering–you avoid obstacles by looking ahead and where you look is where you” go.
  4. Day four: Braking–learning how to stop and how to slow down.
  5. Day five: starting from a standstill (getting back up after a fall).

Howerton uses the framework of these lessons with his son to talk about life. On day one, he holds the back of his son’s seat as he rides. He got him. In similar fashion, God has us (except he doesn’t actually let go like Howerton does).  On day two, Howerton draws a correlation between the way our weight shifts as we pedal uphill, with the imbalances of our everyday life. He advocates balance in every area but love. We don’t balance love with unlove, but we do balance everything else (i.e. work/life, selfishness/self care, action/patience, etc.).  Day three has us paying attention to  where we want to end up ( our ultimate destination) and what is in our way.  Wtih Howerton’s son, we learn the importance of slowing down on day four and on day five Howerton shares vulnerably about picking himself after facing difficult  personal circumstances.

Howerton is a pastor and these refelctions are rooted in our life with God. He shares practical insights into  the spiritual life.  I enjoyed this book and find it helpful. Learning to ride is an apt metaphor for learning the disciplines which will enable us to thrive in life. Beyond Howerton’s pastoral goals, I find this book helpful for giving me a framework to teach my daughter how to ride. For that I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: Thank you to Baker Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Formed by Community for God: a book review

The old joke about seminaries is that they are cemeteries.  I first heard this when I was discerning a call to vocational Christian ministry. “Why do yo want to go to cemetery?” My theological education was decidedly more lively than this crypt-ish descriptor. God used my time in seminary to shape me.  As I wrestled with doctrine, but I also pressed into prayer and community and came face to face with some of the ugly bits of my heart that still needed to change. God was gracious to give me friends and mentors who spoke into my life.  But the point of the ‘cemetery’ label is well taken: learning about God–theology, biblical history, exegesis, hermeneutics, discipleship–does not necessarily translate into ‘life with God.’  Sometimes theological centers of learning fail to form us spiritually.

Paul Petit is aware of this phenomenon. As the director of the spiritual formation programs for Dallas Theological Seminary has edited a volume which describes a ‘community approach to becoming like Christ.’ Most of the contributors to Foundations of Spiritual Formation are somehow connected with Dallas (either were students there or teach at the institution); however this is a multidisciplinary project and each author has unique insights.. Contributors turn around the notion of spiritual formation and examine in from various different angles.  The result is a holistic and comprehensive look at what Christian spiritual formation is.

Howard Hendricks writes the forward and argues for the necessity of small groups for spiritual nurture. Pettit’s introduction helps give a relational, holistic definition for ‘spiritual formation’ and urges us towards the practice of Spiritual disciplines as way to cooperate with the grace of God operating in our life (we don’t change our hearts, only God does that, but we can participate in the process). Pettit’s introduction is unpacked further in part one of the book. Jonathan Morrow describes a distinctively evangelical model of spiritual formation in chapter one (a model that is Christocentric and biblically-rooted). Richard Averbeck unfolds the formative nature of Christian worship and how spiritual disciplines help us ‘lift our sails’ so that God’s Spirit can move us closer to Him.  Gordon Johnston and Darrell Bock explore the nature of spiritual formation in the Old and New Testaments, respectively. In both instances they focus on the nature of community and how it lays a foundation of response for growth.

In part two, the contributors turn their gaze toward the practical elements of Spiritual formation. Klaus Issler focuses on the soul and the emotional life in Spiritual formation; Reid Kisling explores the importance of character development in spiritual formation; Bill Miller looks at the nature of love as a ‘lived-out action'; Andrew Siedel examines our identity in Christ and its implications for Christian leadership; George Hillman describes God’s unique call on us as individuals (in service to the wider Christian community); Gail Seidel helps us attend to God’s transforming work in our lives by narrating our own life stories; finally Harry Shields explores the importance of preaching in spiritual formation.

Each of these essays are instructive and helpful for laying out a full-orbed vision of spiritual formation. I appreciated both the depth and the breadth of these essays. The authors delve deeply into the biblical foundations for community and spiritual formation. They also navigate theology, insights from contemporary psychology, and leadership literature. The multi-disciplinary approach models a ‘community approach to Spiritual formation’ even as the authors give pride of place to the concept of community in our formation. This means the authors (under Petitt’s editoral direction) practice what they preach.

The essays are fairly cohesive but the authors do not necessarily agree on every point. Howard Hendricks forward relativizes the importance of preaching in favor of small groups, whereas Harry Shields gives it a place of privilege. Yet the distinctions between each chapter also rounds out the picture of spiritual formation presented here. I recommend this book for seminary students and ministers hoping to grow spirutually and lead others in transformative encounters. This is a great resource. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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Roll Up Your Sleeves: a book review

Following Jesus involves getting your hands dirty. So argues David Nowell, author of Dirty Faith: Bringing the Love of Christ to the Least of These. Nowell is the president of Hope Unlimited For Children, a Christian ministry which ministers to ‘sex-trafficked children, street kids and child prisoners in Brazil.  Nowell’s book is brimming with heart breaking stories of ministry on the margins. But this book is also full of hope. Nowell and Hope Unlimited have been able to help kids transition from the hard life of the street to a place of security. They have also brought these kids to freedom in Christ.

Dirty Faith is about our willingness to enter into the suffering of those who society throws away. Nowell’s ministry context takes him to the streets of Brazil and he shares the stories of the kids he’s ministered to there–his successes and his failures. He makes the case that Christians have the responsibility to stand against injustice and minister to those who are hurting (i.e. the ‘widowed and the orphaned’ see James 1:27).  This doesn’t mean he isn’t passionate about proclaiming the gospel. Nowell advocates concern for both the physical and spiritual well being of the kid’s in his care. He also urges a thoughtful approach to ministry which is mindful of systemic problems  and ongoing behaviors that aggravate the person’s suffering.

I haven’t interacted with specific passages from the book in this review.  I don’t think that Nowell says much new about injustice or our responsibility; however I think he is thoughtful in his approach. One standard critique of missions-type-books is their  focus on global issues, sometimes obscure issues and ministry opportunities here.  Nowell speaks from his ministry context, but nowhere does he expect his readers to have the same calling and experience as him. This is a book meant to motivate and move us into action on behalf of the marginalized in this country or abroad. It is meant as a way of lighting a fire underneath us and moving us to action. This is good stuff.  I give this book 3½ stars.

Notice of material connection, I received this book free from  Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus Comes to Somewhere America: a book review

This isn’t the first time I have read a book by Matt Mikalatos. A few years ago, I read The Night of the Living Dead Christian, Mikalatos’s take on the monster novel genre. He humorously used werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, androids and zombies to talk about human sinfulness and our need for spiritual transformation (and its possibility). His first novel, (My) Imaginary Jesus, explored some of the false images of Jesus we Christians present. Mikalatos cast himself as a character in both novels. 

The First Time We Saw Him is not really fiction, but a series of fictionalized retellings of the gospel story with commentary from Mikalatos. Jesus’ life and parables are retold in modern idiom and set in a contemporary American setting. The ‘prodigal son’ goes to Hollywood. The ‘Good Samaritan’ finds a beat up, left for dread truck driver somewhere along the I-5 corridor. Many of the stories about Jesus are not tethered to a particular geographical locale in these narratives. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus lived somewhere near Portland (where Mikalatos lives). Though his death-by-lynching (the closest modern equivalent) may suggest somewhere south east of there. 

Mikalatos is not a character in these stories, though he does share some of his own story of discovering Jesus as he tells his tales. Beginning with Mary’s annunciation (Miryam) and ending with Jesus’ (Joshua’s) post resurrection appearances and ascension, Mikalatos highlights some favorite stories from Jesus life and teaching.  The beauty of this book is it helps us hear Jesus through passages we’ve stopped listening to because we are pretty sure we already know what they mean. Mikalatos helps pull the scales back from our eyes so we see how remarkable Jesus is. 

Certainly Mikalatos is not the first author to revamp the Jesus story. Beyond Jesus Christ Superstar, there are also some thoughtful books which retell the Jesus story. Notably, Clarence Jordon’s Cotton Patch New Testament  casts Jesus as a poor white boy from Valdosta, GA.  Joseph Grizone’s series of novels revolve around Joshua (a modern day Jesus).  Mikalatos’s own efforts do not attain to the level of ‘great literature’ but it is well written and will give you a new window of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion/lynching scene is gruesome and heart-rending. The post resurrection account retains the magic.

There is still a sense of Jesus being lost in translation.  The gospel accounts make allusions to God’s larger story. Placing Jesus in somewhere-in-America removes his particular character and life. This is where Mikalatos  own comments and encouragement to explore the Jesus story yourself remain important. I give this book four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

 

Essentially, This is Great Resource: a book review.

 I have a confession: I have a standing bias against any book which has the word ‘essential’ in the title.  I have several ‘essential’ books on my shelf, but I always think, “Essential? Really? I don’t know how I have made it this far in life without cracking open The Essential Schopenhauer or referencing often my copy of Lawrence Quirk’s essential biography of Joan Crawford.”  Of course I am using the term essential narrowly. What authors (and publishers) have in mind is a distillation of the ideas, elements and basic characteristics of their subject. Even this doesn’t put me at ease because I always wonder what is being left out of such ‘essential’ descriptions and compilations. 

My standing bias aside, I picked up Robbie Castleman’s New Testament Essentials because I have read her work appreciatively before (even reviewing a couple of her books here). Castleman is professor of biblical studies and theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Her previous works include a go-to-resource for parents wishing to shepherd their children through Sunday morning worship and pass on the essential aspects of the Christian faith (the book is aptly titled, Parenting in the Pew). Last year she released Story-Shaped Worship which delved deeply into the overarching biblical story and Christian history to help worship planners and liturgists enrich their Sunday services. Both books are on my essential reading list. 

New Testament Essentials: Father, Son, Spirit and Kingdom is part of a series from IVP which includes Greg Ogden’s Leadership Essentials, Discipleship Essentials and The Essential Commandment, Daniel Myers’s Witness Essentials and Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Essentials.  I own three of the other volumes but have yet to work through any of them ( I’m still trying to figure out if that’s really essential). So Castleman is my introduction to the series.

I have really enjoyed the twelve studies which she presents.  In each of the studies she is sensitive to the operation of the Trinity, the outworking of the gospel in the church and the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. The studies are organized into three sections. Part one examines the ‘revelation of God in Jesus Christ’ and focuses on Bible passages which explore Jesus, life, teaching, death, resurrection and the implications for us would-be-followers. Part two focuses on the ‘indwelling of God by the Holy Spirit in the church.’ These studies (study 6-8) explore how the Spirit’s presence binds believers to one another in counter-cultural ways. Part three examines the ‘present and coming Kingdom of God.’  This final section reflects on how citizens of Christs kingdom ought to love and serve one another and how our faithful witness to Christ is galvanized by our sure faith and hope of his return when creation and humanity is restored. 

Continue reading

From Reaction to Reception: a book review

At the heart of who we are is a longing for connection and relationship. This longing is thwarted through our woundedness but it doesn’t go away. One of the joys of coming to Christ is being brought into relationship with the Trinity–Father, Son and Spirit. We are invited into the primal relationship! Our spiritual maturation involves us learning what it means to give and receive love, the way this God-in-relationship does.

Richard Plass is the president and Jim Cofield is the the co-director of  Crosspoint Ministry in Jeffersonville, Indiana. There they invest in the spiritual formation of leaders and in matters of soul care. Their approach  to spiritual formation is biblical rooted, psychologically sensitive and historically informed. Their new book, The Relational Soul: Moving From the False Self to Deep Connection,  explores the relationality at the core of our being, how unhealthy attachments cause us to act out from the false self and how our relationship with Christ enables us to move towards greater relational health and wholeness.

While there are no formal ‘parts’ to this book, there is a natural division with a brief interlude between chapters one to six and chapters seven to ten. In the first section (chapters one through six), Plass and Cofield make the case that relationships and our longing for meaningful connection are central to how we learn to navigate our world.  Our ability to form attachment in our families of origin (chapter two) and our emotional memories (chapter three) determine how we respond to the world around us. To the extent that we are wounded, and we are all wounded, we react out of our False Self (chapter four). The False Self keeps us from real relationship because it motivated out of a sense of self-protection. This cycle is broken in our life by the operation of grace as we enter into relationship with the Triune God–the God in relationship! (chapter five). It is through our relationship with God that we learn that relationship with God enables us to move from our ‘reactive False Self’ to the ‘Receptive True Self.’

While these first chapters lay the ground work for the movement of spiritual formation, the last four chapters focus on the practical aspects of spiritual formation and accompanying disciplines. Chapter seven examines the necessity of self understanding in the spiritual life, chapter eight the importance of community; chapter nine explores the core spiritual disciplines for engaging with God (i.e. solitude, silence, contemplative reading of Scripture, and contemplative prayer). The end goal is chapter ten: transformation–dying to the (false) self and being raised with Christ, being fully enabled to give and receive love.

This is a phenomenal book full of rich insights on our fallen tendencies to protect ourselves from hurt, and thus cut ourselves off from true relationship. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to set us free to love and be loved. When we enter into the life and freedom that Christ brings, we enter into relationship with the Triune God and that changes everything. I really loved Plass and Cofield’s description of the process and their insights on how we are formed spiritually.

The concepts in this book are not ‘new’ to me. I have had my own struggles against the false self and had to wrestle through ways in which I was relationally ‘shut down.’  My false self is buoyant and independent and holds others at bay. It took some loving and committed friends and mentors to help me confront the relational patterns which were keeping me from growing in my friendship with God and others. I can say experientially that the movements which Plass and Cofield describe are true. They also describe the journey I still need to take as I still strive toward greater wholeness and transformation.

I highly recommend this book but I read it all wrong. I read it by myself and didn’t discuss it with anyone. I think this book is ideal to read together with others (i.e. in a small group, with a partner or with a mentor/discipler). This is a book that will spur on conversation and mutual self-exploration. This is a book which will help people move away from unhealthy patterns of relating toward deep relationship. The next time I read this book, I will not do it alone. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Even More Thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s ‘The Sacred Year’

The third and final section of Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year explores ‘Depth with Others.’ The first two parts of the book explore ‘Depth with Self’ and ‘Depth with God.’  These sections are good (track the links back here, here and here to hear some of my thoughts on them). However, many books on spiritual practice do not move past personal transformation and devotional practice to a transformed community. Yankoski devotes himself to a series of practices which help him live life with and for others.

It begins with gratitude. Yankoski wanted to grow in grace and he sets out to thank people who have had a significant impact on his life. But sometimes people don’t hear verbal declarations of thanksgiving and emails are a click away from being forgotten forever. So Michael recovers the time-honored and ancient practice of writing thank you notes (which he re-christens as gratigraphs). He shares of several of these gratigraphs he writes which are met with an emotional response by the recipients. There were people literally in tears. In an age where snail mail is rare, letters and notes show special care and intentionality. What Michael discovered is that it connected him with others in new and rich ways.

Yankoski also discovers others ways of being ‘deep with others.’ There is the holy inefficiency of protest (chapter sixteen), the dedicated pursuit of justice (chapter seventeen), the interdependence of living in intentional community (chapter eighteen), and active care for others (chapter nineteen). These practices interpenetrate one another and build on some of the other practices which  Yankoski has shared about (i.e. Selah, the daily examen, solitude, listening prayer, etc.).  Michael Yankoski’s sacred year was a pregnant space where a new way of being was birthed and cultivated in him.

During his year, Michael had carried a hazelnut in his pocket to remind him of his spiritual quest. The hazelnut alludes to one of the divine revelations of Julian  of Norwich. God had shown her a hazelnut as a picture of His love. The hazelnut is made, loved and sustained by God. It became a powerful picture for Julian (and her readers!) of entrusting oneself wholly to God. So during Michael’s year he keeps a hazelnut in his pocket to remind himself of his spiritual quest to deepen his spiritual life. At the end of the year, the hazelnut is forgotten in a pair of jeans which goes through the wash. Michael finds it a few days later and discovers it had sprouted.

This book comprises a year in the life of Michael Yankoski. Unlike other ‘year long spiritual quest books’ the chapters do not follow a strict chronology ( like A Year of Living Biblically, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, A Year of Living Like Jesus, or Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor). The practices Michael tries to build in his life overlap and undergird each other. There is a story arc to the book. At the beginning of his year, Yankoski is disillusioned with the circus-like-atmosphere of American Christianity and his own. At the end of his sacred year he finds himself at an ‘entirely different place entirely’ (327).  But the other difference between other ‘year long quest books’ is Michael ends his year with no intention of ceasing to practice. A year of intentional exploration has given way to a lifetime commitment to living deeply (329).

As I have ruminated on Michael’s year, I too have hungered to enter deeper into spiritual practice and I have thought about what that would look like for me. Yet this book is much more a memoir than a spiritual manual.  I am encouraged by Michael to explore deep places, to give loving attention to myself, to the Spirit’s presence and to our sacred, broken world, but the exact shape of my quest is different as I am different. I found in these pages a hospitable place to explore various practices. At some points I take Michael’s direct challenge to enter into something (like writing gratigraphs). At other points I need to adjust his discoveries to my context (an overworked and tired father of three). This is the sort of book that invites personal exploration and would be a great book to read alongside other friends (think book clubs and small groups). Really great stuff!