Christmas on a Stick: a kids’ book review

The Christmas Stick by Tim J. Myers (illustrated by Necdet Yilmaz) is a ‘Christmas’ story,  but it isn’t a peculiarly ‘Christian’ story. Any child and family that enjoys this season will be able to latch onto the books central themes. It is a tale which illustrates the joy of giving and the power of imagination. Here is a synopsis (spoiler alert):

Synopsis:

There once was a spoiled young prince who opened his many magnificent presents one Christmas without an ounce of gratitude. He is not one bit grateful and is complaining when his grandmother limps in and gives him a stick. The stick is as long as he is tall and sturdy, but is just a stick. So the prince puts the stick in the corner and plays with his other toys until they break or bore him. 

Then one day a visiting cousin picks up the stick and pretends it is a broadsword. From that moment on the prince takes up the stick and wields it imaginatively as a sword, a lance, a flag pole, q shepherd’s crook, a paddle, a club, a bow, a trumpet, a snake, etc. He swung from it between the battlements and beat off ogres.

Somehow the stick changed him. When the next Christmas rolled around, the price opened presents with sincere gratitude. He  also gave presents to his parents for the first time. And he gives his grandmother a stick as long as she is tall and sturdy.  It had a wrist loop on one end and a metal tip on the other. The perfect gift for a hobbling old woman so she can get around better. 

This is a simple story that all three of my kids enjoyed. It speaks of the power of giving, gratitude and imagination. Kind of a fun little picture book. They liked words and pictures. My daughter’s one objection is that the stick the prince gives to his grandmother, is not pictured as long as his grandmother is tall, as the words suggest. But generally the illustrations complimented the words well.  The limping grandmother, may have given up her cane to her spoiled grandson. This is never spelled out in the story, but  certainly the arc of the story suggests it (this will be lost on most children but says something about ‘self sacrificial giving).

This is a short picture book. I give it four stars and recommend it as an edition to your kid’s Christmas book collection.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher for the purposes of this review.

Suicide Prevention: a book review

‘The World Health Organization has found that for every death due to war in the world, there are three deaths due to homivide and five due to suicide’ (27).  And 84 percent of clergy have been approached for help by a suicidal person at some point in their ministry( 183). Suicide is a significant problem and if you have not encountered it directly, you likely know people who have attempted suicide or loved ones who have died because of it. Personally, friends of friends, classmates and the children of people I care about have committed suicide. I wish that any of their deaths could be prevented.

Karen Mason, associate professor of counseling and psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,  wrote Preventing Suicide as a guide for pastors, chaplains and pastoral counselors.  While the book is titled ‘Preventing Suicide’ it does more than just give a few tips on how to help those with suicidal tendencies. This is a pastoral care manual which explores the  issue in all its complexity. Mason examines who commits suicide (and why), myths and misconceptions and the variety of theological positions on suicide and theoretical frameworks. She provides practical advise for counseling those in a suicidal crisis, those who have survived an attempt,  helpers and caregivers, the loved ones of those who have died from suicide and their churches.  While you cannot presume pastoral wisdom from reading one book (and Mason wouldn’t want you to), this is a fairly comprehensive resource which will be helpful for anyone who engages in pastoral care to the suicidal and their families.

Mason eschews approaches to suicide which compound the blame placed on the suicidal.  The causes of suicide are various, and suicidal persons often suffer depression deeply.  Trying to scare them away from suicide by threatening eternal damnation, as some Christian theologies posit, only compounds their sense of alienation. Often the hell that they feel and are trying to escape is more real and visceral than the one they are threatened with. Mason gives practical steps on how to empathize with the suicidal and validate the pain they feel, but she points ways to lead them from despondency to hope.  She  encourages attentiveness, taking threats seriously and dealing with them accordingly, and speaking the truth in love.

This is where clergy and pastoral counselors play a significant role. Discussing spiritual things, giving  people reasons for hope and coping strategies for navigating this life, even as we long for God to come in fullness is a bit of what Clergy do. Mason’s book helps pastors utilize the resources at their disposal to help people through a suicidal crisis (or to pick up the pieces of one). This is a significant pastoral care resource and would be valuable to any pastor’s library. I hope to never need some chapters but I am grateful for the skills and insights that Mason imparts. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

God Where Are You? a book review

In the face of mass tragedy and terror in a post 9/11 world, we wonder where God is. But this is not a new question. Significant figures throughout history have struggled to see where God’s hand was at work and what it means to trust him. These include the prophets and patriarchs.

Bianchi is the founder and prior of the ecumenical monastic, Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II).  He is a perceptive spiritual writer ( I have previously read and highly recommend his Echoes of the Word). In God Where Are You? Practical Answers to Spiritual QuestionsEncho explores several Old Testament saints. His treatment of each of these patriarchs and prophets yield fruitful insights into the spiritual life:

  • Abraham was called to go to the land that God would show him. Abraham’s faith in God in going is a model for us. Especially because Abraham is given a promise that will not be fulfilled in his lifetime (i.e. possession of the land, become a great nation, etc.). Even in his reception of a promised offspring, Isaac, he models for us a spirit of relinquishment of all he holds dear. So the father of our faith (and the Jewish faith) faces circumstances and ordeals that make faith in God difficult.
  • Jacob was the deceiver who cheated his brother out of his brother out of his birthright and inheritance. Despite his scoundrel nature, he was a child of promise.  Two events changed Jacobs life forever. The first was his dream of a ladder from heaven to earth while he was on lam. The second happened when he returns home many years later and wrestles with God at the ford of Jabbok. The second event was the culmination of a lifetime of struggling with God, but it is through the struggling that Jacob (and we) discover that a new life is possible.
  • Moses is a man who saw God’s glory and is physically transformed by the time he spends with God on the mountain. He is privileged  to hear God–YHWH, I AM Who I AM–and he is commissioned to lead God’s people out of slavery to the promised land. He is commssioned by God, but also struggles with God, interceding for the people when they stand under His judgment. IT is through Moses’ struggle with God, he learns to think of others as better than himself. He leads the Israelites to the cusp of the promised land, though he himself would not enter.
  • Elijah fearful and depressed longing to die, meets God in the silence on Mount Horeb.
  • Isaiah‘s call underscores how our encounters with God call us to be obedient servants of His word.

Ultimately these ancient encounters reveal that life with God has never been easy but that God has revealed himself to us in the midst of his people (129) and in the person of Jesus Christ and in those who live in him (133). In Jesus we find we are not just on our search for God, but God is searching for us.

Bianchi’s prose is simple and unadorned, but he speaks deep things. He is well read in Jewish and Christian spirituality and synthesizes their wisdom. I didn’t agree with his interpretation at ever turn. But I was challenged and think his reputation as a Christian writer is justified (Rowan Williams writes the forward and calls Bianchi one of the most significant Christian voices in Europe). Currently, I would give this book four stars, but I already want to read it again, so it may grow on me. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of this review.

Singh a Song of Praise to Our God: a book review

I review a lot of new books on this blog. I have discovered  a lot of new authors with poignant insights into the Christian faith. I have been challenged and stretched by many of them., but I seldom have the privilege of dipping back into an old favorite. The Wisdom of the Sadhu complies the teachings of Sadhu Sundar Singh, the most famous convert to Christianity in early twentieth century India.

Singh converted to Christianity in his early teens (after the death of his mother and an evening of desperate prayers). At the age of sixteen he left the comforts of home to live a life of a Sadhu–an Indian religious ascetic that renounces the comforts of this life. He was a believer in Christ and a committed Christian; however, he rejected the cultural accruments of Christianity-in-a-Western-guise (as it was often presented by missionaries to the Indian people like in the Presbyterian school of his youth). He was a mystic who lived a life committed to Jesus, albeit with an Indian flair.

Wisdom of the Sadhu compiles the teachings of this Jesus follower. In part one, scenes, we hear Singh’s own story. In part two, conversations, we hear his answers to spiritual questions from seekers.  In both sections, we read stories and parables that make vivid Singh’s (and our) spiritual quest.

The Q & A format of Singh’s ‘conversations’ may strike Western, tin ears as a sort of catechesis. And it is, but these stories and conversations are also Christianity in an Indian idiom.  Even  Singh’s favorite title for Jesus–Master–mimics his native Sikhism.  This is gospel contextualization at its best.

Singh lived a life more disciplined and simple than most of us have the courage to lead. The back cover of this book compares him to Saint Francis and this is an apt description. He left the comforts and status of his family to follow Christ.  Because of this, he is a prophetic witness of what it means to follow Jesus. This book is chock-full of insights on the spiritual life and the human condition.

I read this book for the first time about eleven years ago. At the time I was seeking ways to press into my faith in profound and risky ways. Singh was a prophetic voice for me and called me to deepen my commitment to Christ, simplicity and prayer. More than a decade hence, I find these words no less beautiful, poignant and challenging. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Diversity as Missio Dei: a book review

Leroy Barber is my friend and mentor. I trust his voice when it comes to urban ministry and community. So when I saw that his new book was out, Red Brown Yellow Black White Who’s more Precious in God’s Sight?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministryI was eager to read it. I knew it would be a game changer.

 But it was much more than that. Red Brown Yellow Black White (RBYBW) is a summons for those of us who ‘say’ we care about reconciliation and justice to quit playing a it; it calls us to get on with working for real change in how we minister across the racial divide. In these pages, Barber opens up about his sometimes painful journey in the urban ministry world, how discrimination from fellow leaders and boards, locked him and fellow minorities out of key leadership positions. Because Barber is such a great relational leader, he sets his story alongside friends and co-conspirators.

In RBYRW, Barber grounds missions in the Missio Dei–the mission of God (God’s larger purpose for his people and his world and the end He is leading us toward).  But the history of missions, at different points, bears little resemblance to the Missio Dei.  Often white Europeans blended their efforts to spread the gospel with imperialism, colonialism and paternalism. Missionaries came to new cultures to minister, but seldom included indigenous leadership in their mission. Fast forward to the modern era and you find that missions organizations and missionary boards are still predominantly white.

Barber is an African American leader called to urban mission who launched his own non-profit and has led national and international missions organizations (he is currently the global executive director of Word Made Flesh). His heart burns for more diversity in mission and he has led ministries (like Mission Year) and counseled others to be more thoughtful about how to promote diversity in their organizations. Barber doesn’t  tells stories of not-for-profit organizations which have labored to change the culture and are working to promote diversity. While reconciliation is a difficult journey, real diversity is possible. And when it happens, we reveal the Kingdom of God to the watching world.

For us white Evangelicals, this means we share power! Barber observes how even justice-minded, white evangelicals fail to include African Americans in decision making,  and fundraising. He also relays several stories from the field, where leaders of color were deemed unqualified by short-term, white teams even though they had years of experience and understanding that these teams lacked.  Unfortunately these racial attitudes can still poison the well of real diversity in mission. Leaders of color bring different histories and gifts to the realm of mission and leadership. We are impoverished in our missional attempts when we fail to make space at the table and include people of color. For when we do, they can help shape our mission to the wider community in beautiful ways.

RBYBW is challenging for me. I love and respect Leroy and am grateful for the ways he has invested in my growth (and countless others). I am captivated by his vision of diversity in mission. And yet this book highlights how much work is still to be done. I have recently become pastor at a mostly white church that does care about racial justice and reconciliation. We are making an impact on our city but I still have a lot to learn about doing mission well. Barber highlights the racial  and socio-economic dimensions of urban mission for me and helps me pay attention to the dynamics. This book is a goldmine!

I highly recommend this book. Anyone interested in the mission of God (which should include Christians everywhere) will gain insight on how to engage in mission in ways that are sensitive to race and culture.  For white evangelicals (like me), we can be ‘color blind’ in a way that demeans the challenges that people of color face. We can also fail to value the gifts that people of color bring to our organizations and leadership.  I give this book five stars and think that this book should be required reading for pastors, non-profit directors and missionaries. ★★★★★

Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Baker Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

On to the Land of Promise: Part 1

For three years I searched for a pastoral call to no avail. One of those years I was unemployed. Two years I worked at a hardware store–good honest work, but not the work I was made for. I had thought that my time at Regent College had prepared me for ministry. I have one of the best theological educations but God had other lessons for me to learn.

I have recently accepted a call to a church in Safety Harbor, Florida. And I eagerly await what God has in this next step of my journey. The past few weeks were a whirlwind. I wrapped up my hardware store job, packed up my belongings and family and went to the land that God has shown me.  My days in Blaine were wilderness years for me. I wrestled with self-doubt. I wondered did, “I really hear God’s call on my life?” “Am I really called to vocational ministry?”  I applied to churches, but didn’t  really find a place that ‘felt’ right.

And then I found this church and felt led to apply. They were prayerful and asked perceptive questions. When I learned more about what they were doing and their heart for the city, I became more and more enamored with them. And after a process of mutual discernment I accepted a call. The call was affirmed by a congregational vote and here I am.

I  am sad to leave good, supportive friends behind but am excited about all God has for us as we seek to follow Him in Florida. I know there are giants in the land, and issues we will need to face as a family. As a pastoral leader, I know I will need to build trust and lay a lot of ground for a good transition. But I don’t officially start for a few more days.  Mostly our time in Florida has been spent getting settled. I wanted to reflect on what God taught me in the waylaid in Blaine years:

  1. Wherever God places you, there you are–the power of place. When we got to Blaine, I had my feelers out at a couple of churches and had garnered some interest. I regarded Blaine as a temporary stop, on my way to the next-big-thing. Little did I know that I would spend over three years in that community. I didn’t leave until I made my peace with the place. I planted fruit trees. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city where I have carried you into exile.”  It was only when I really enetered into that place and took a stake in the community that God released me for what’s next.
  2. Standing still in a world of hurry–the patience of a saint.  We live in a high speed society.  We drive fast and hate waiting in line. We want everything to happen for us right on time (or right before that). At least I do. I had to learn in my bones that my timing was not God’s timing.  I wanted good things, but God had better plans for our lives. These three years were not just a pause button on my future, it was God’s plan for our lives.
  3. Good things come to those who wait (on God): the practice of prayer.  The wilderness is a place of prayer. These past few years have been angsty and difficult. I have wondered if my education (which I’m still paying for) and vocational goals was a personal miscalculation. So I wrestled with God these years and prayed a lot. One major thing changed in me. I let go of  anxiety and the necessity to ‘prove myself.’ I learned to trust God with the outcome as I continued pursue his call on my life. It took these three whole years for me to learn to trust God and not rely on my gifts, talents and resources.

Sacred time and space. I am grateful for these years of waiting. I also was blessed to have a supportive church and friends who walked alongside me. And now the next big thing: Milk and honey here we come.