America’s Childhood Sex Industry: a book review.

Children are vulnerable and need our care and protection. As such, there are few crimes more heinous than the victimization and abuse of children who are trafficked. Alisa Jordheim has written a harrowing exposé on the Childhood sex industry. She explores the issues around victimization, what makes certain children vulnerable (i.e. past sexual abuse, parents in prostitution, addiction issues) and the ways young people are lured into the industry (‘loverboy syndrome,’ familial trafficking, survival sex, gang initiation and kidnapping) and kept there. It is ugly.

Made-in-the-USA-Alisa-Jordheim Made in the USA: The Sex Trafficking of American’s Children doesn’t just describe the problem, Jordhem has enlisted a team of writers who tell the story of victims.  Lindsey Nunn, K.D. Roche, Luke Robert Miller, Stephanie Patterson and Philipa Booyens relay, in first person narratives the story of the victims. Each chapter closes with the victim reflecting, in their own words, on their experience. If there is a ‘silver lining’ to these accounts, it is that each of the victims has escaped or lived through their exploitation and has begun the process of healing.

But this a heart-rending book. In it we meet Tiana, a young lady so abused and used by her pimp that she remains loyal to him even after years of abuse; Kate, a nine-year old girl forced into pornography and prostitution by her uncle; Rich a homeless teen struggling with his sexuality and addiction who falls into prostitution;  Karen, a preteen groomed for the sex trade by a childhood friend; and Deidre, a developmentally delayed youth who is abducted and sexually assaulted.

Some of the details of each of their stories are so horrific they are difficult to believe. How can someone be so evil that they willfully and systematically destroy the life of a child?!  But of course these are not isolated tales and prostitution rings and pornographers routinely prey on the innocent. Jordheim exposes this evil, to raise awareness and to move us into action. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Preaching for Listeners Instead of Readers: a book review

Preaching is an oral act. It involves climbing into a pulpit (or at least standing before a congregation) and declaring God’s Word. Strangely though, sermon preparation has become increasingly a literary act. Since the dawn of the printing press and proliferation of print media, our reading of texts (and the Bible) have become increasingly private and individualized. This has had an effect on how sermons are crafted and delivered. In many churches, sermons are read and performed and do not deviate one iota from the script. Sermons are theologically precise, but often stilted in their delivery.

Dave McCellan urges the recovery of ancient homiletic practices. This would mean preparing sermons with the oral patterns of listeners in mind (rather than a literary outline which appeals to readers). In Preaching By Ear:  Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, McCellan draws on the insights of ancient authors like Augustine,  Aristotle and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and the contemporary historian, theologian and cultural critic Walter Ong (1912-2003). It is McCellan’s conviction that recovering oral patterns for preaching will transform us as preaches, and as churches and that preaching in this way is more responsive to the Word–reading it and proclaiming it in the way it was intended to be read and proclaimed.

In part one, McClellan begins with a focus on preparing the preacher. Chapter one relates an anecdote about McClellan preaching a manuscripted sermon in the ‘Big Church’ (he was a youth pastor speaking to the main congregation).  His friend’s feedback to him was that his sermon was good but didn’t ring authentic. It sounded stilted. He concludes that extemporaneous sermons allow for the greatest amount of authenticity and vulnerability in the speaker. He then grounds his argument for extemporaneous preaching in ancient writings. From Augustine (chapter two), McClellan argues that we should be ‘theologians’ who sit under the Word. He encourages us to deepen our understanding of passages and how they relate to others and what they say to us. McClellan uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explore the proper ethos in communication–speaking with personal character in an authentic voice (chapter three). In chapter four, Quintillian provides the most profound lessons about oral communication and preaching. McClellan says that this ancient rhetorician calls us preachers to moral character formation. He also has a method for improving our rhetoric (ccuriosity constant oral reading and writing, and casual debates with fellow preachers and small groups.

In part two, McClellan makes the theological case for the primacy of the spoken word in proclamation and walks us through how to prepare and deliver an extemporaneous sermon. It is in this section that McClellan delves into the work of Walter Ong, Ong’s thesis in his classic Orality and Literacy was that with the dawn of the printing press, fruitful practices of oral culture fell by the wayside. He identified nine characteristics of oral speech: imprecise, redundant, tradition driven, quotidian, acquainted with suffering. participatory, united in purpose, and comfortable with stories (91-96).  In contrast, literary approaches are precise, follow a logical sequence but are not reliant on the same devices for capturing and communicating shared memory. McClellan than delineates the implications for preparing an extemporaneous preaching.  One of the most profound insights on how oral preparation, invites communal preparation and allows for conversation which feed into and reinforce discipleship (129).

My push back would be that my preaching teacher manuscripted everything in his preaching preparation but in the preaching act was as free to move off script and take a new direction, often depart from his page to connect with the congregation or respond to the winds of the Spirit. He also wrote his manuscript with the spoken word in mind (short phrases, redundancy, internal summary). I think many preachers are sensitive to the dynamics that McClellan describes, even if their approach is more literary than what he commends.

McClellan’s approach is most fruitful for practitioners of expository sermons. He advocates listening to the text, learning to place it, inhabiting it and preparing a storied outline to share its truths. Topical preachers will find this sort of preparation difficult. I personally lean in a more expository and extemporaneous direction (though I still preach topically and from a manuscript when I feel it’s warranted). I am still processing how to best use McClellan’s insights in my own preaching but he does validate some of my own homiletic practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Thank you to Weaver Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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. ★★★★★