Holding Out Hope: a book review

Since Howard Gardner first popularized the theory of multiple intelligence, there has been a burgeoning publishing industry exploring different ways of knowing. Daniel Goleman’s landmark Emotional Intelligence (EQ) made the case for the importance interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence as a prerequisite for success in business and in life. Ray Johnston makes the case for developing our ‘Hope Quotient’ (HQ). Johnston is a speaker for Youth Specialties, the founder of Thrive Communications, Thriving Churches International, the Thrive Leadership Conference and the founding pastor of  Bayside Church in Sacramento, California. In The Hope Quotient  Johnston makes the case for the value of hope and describes the seven factors which raise your HQ These include:

  1. Recharging your batteries–investing in relationships and activities that enliven hope.
  2. Raising expectations–don’t settle!
  3. Refocusing on the future–you can’t strain ahead while looking back.
  4. Playing to your strengths–Be who you are.
  5. Refusing to go it alone–developing supportive relationships.
  6. Replacing burnout with balance–how margin and rest keeps you from losing all hope.
  7. playing great defense–avoiding the hope killers.

An accompanying online assessment (code comes with purchase of the book) identifies areas of strength and growth for becoming more hopeful people. In the final section of this book, Johnston discusses how to unleash a culture of hope in marriage and family, in our careers, in our church, our communities and our world.

This was a good book for me to read. It really underlies the importance of cultivating a hopeful outlook. Because Johnston is a pastor he points to a number of biblical stories which illustrate the factors and principles he describes. He does not engage in a sustained way with a particular biblical story, but people like Peter and Elijah (and others) make these factors vivid. Additionally Johnston shares lots of stories from his leadership and ministry contexts.

While I was reading this book I had two big questions. First: what is the difference between hope and positive thinking? There are plenty of business and self books which repeat the truism of positivity. People who are confident and believe in the possibility of success are more likely to succeed. Some of the rhetoric in this book sounds similar but hope, and Christian hope in particular, is much more robust concept. Christian hope evokes the idea of redemption for those in Christ, the consummation of the Kingdom of God and the restoration of all things. I believe this and Johnston believes this too, but this only ever partially unpacked. I had hoped to hear a thicker concept of hope here.

My second question was a bit more practical: How do you avoid unhealthy people and is that even right? Johnston repeatedly asserts that critical and emotionally unhealthy people are ‘hope killers’ and suggests we limit our time with them (46-7).  Critical people are wounded people who need their hope enlivened. Sometimes they are significant people in your life. Avoiding them may be impractical (what if it is your spouse?). From a ministry and missional perspective I wonder if what we really ought to do is deepen our relational investment with these hurting and hopeless individuals. Still I take Johnston’s larger point about cultivating friendships and networks of support which keep us from becoming despondent ourselves. Johnston is wise to say that the critical crowd are not our ‘go-to-guys’ and that we need people who help cast vision, dream and spur us on to something bigger.

What is good about this book is the practical advice that Johnston gives for growing our hope, trusting deeper in God knowing the good things he has in store and casting vision for big things. I give this book a qualified four stars. I like what it says, I just wish it said more. But this could be read fruitfully and I think many will find it helpful.

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

Further Reflections on Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year.

A couple week ago I posted my initial thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s The Sacred YearSince that time I have read through part one of the book.  Michael discusses practices which helped him achieve ‘depth with self’ (parts two and three go on to discuss depth with God and others).  Michael begins with the self because his sacred journey stems from his existential angst and longing for something meaningful.  Michael feels the rub between his persona and role a conference speaker and public Christian witness and his anxious inner self. As he beings his journey into Spiritual practices, he is seeking something which propels him away from the plasticity and cheesiness of ‘American Christianity’ to something more substantive. So he begins by contemplating an apple.

I will discuss the apple in a moment but first allow me to theologically nerd out. I love that Michael chose to talk about ‘practices’ instead of disciplines. Writers on the spiritual life sometimes tend to use these words interchangeably but they are different.  To me, ‘discipline’ carries a private connotation whereas ‘practice’ evokes something communal and participatory.  I know that writers on Spiritual Disciplines like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster also speak about ‘corporate disciplines’ but I think disciplines, in general, signify a sort of ‘private practice.’ The language of practice is more open-ended and invitational.

So Michael contemplates an apple.  From the apple he seeks to learn attentiveness. The fruit of attentiveness is that  you attend to what’s in front of you. Michael learns this from the Psalms, The Psalms are often broken up by the word selah which is a sort of musical notation. Michael says his favorite translation  he’s heard for selah is “Shut up and pay attention!”(26). So he gets intimate with an apple and sees, feels and tastes what it has to offer. This selah attentiveness spills into self examination with the practice of the Daily Examen (chapter three), baking bread and learning about sustenance (chapter four), paying attention to the pull of materialism and practicing simplicity (chapter five), cultivating creativity (chapter six) and living life mindful of our own mortality (chapter seven).  These chapters layer on top of one another and reflect the ways Michael is growing. These are not unrelated disciplines but a web of practices which invite Michael to a deeper place.

I am challenged by the energy and commitment that Michael presses into depth with self.  He is led along the way by the insights of friends and wise guides (like Father Solomon in the monastery) and hiking companions which name his lack of self. He uses the Bible and Christian tradition as his source book and draws generously on some very thoughtful recent Christian writers. However most of what is said in part one of this book seems accessible to any spiritual seeker.  Michael has a strong faith commitment, but by starting with the self he is on common ground with other seekers.   I think that the next section, ‘Depth with God’ will delve deeper into the Christian tradition and understanding

I liked Michael’s previous book Under the Overpass and read it while I was working directly with the homeless.  I read it in one sitting cover to cover.  I could not do that with this book.  Reading this book invites you into personal reflection. I found myself re-reading sections,  chewing on the words. I am excited to see where Michael Yankoski’s sacred year takes me!

A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

Thus far I am highly impressed by the Kregel Exegetical Library. I  have reviewed Robert Chisholm’s commentary on Judges and Ruth and Allen Ross’s commentary on book one of the Psalms (Psalms 1-41). Both of those volumes combined exegetical depth with homiletic insight. These are commentaries which are sensitive to genre, literary style, and the historic setting of the text. They also are written by critically engaged confessional scholars and chock-full of insights. Now Allen Ross has returned with a second volume on the Psalms. A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) examines books two and three of the Psalms.

Because this is volume two of a proposed three volume treatment on the Psalms (Volume three planned for November 2014), this volume does not include the extensive and helpful introduction to the Psalms. Instead Ross jumps right into commenting on the text. Like the previous volume, Ross begins his commentary on each chapter with a fresh translation, notes on textual variants, a discussion of the composition and context, and an exegetical analysis. Then he provides a verse by verse commentary on the text. and concludes with  a brief section on the message and application of the text. This format allows Ross to dig deeply into the language, history and message of the Psalms while drawing out the implications for our life now.

This is a great follow up to Ross’s Volume One and makes me look eagerly ahead to the next installment. I recommend this book for scholars, students and pastors. Anyone who is interested in exploring in-depth the Psalms, will find Ross an insightful guide [Ross wrote my intro to Biblical Hebrew text, so I am grateful to the ways he has opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to me]. The strength of this commentary is in its attention to exegetical details. I give this commentary five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Academic for the purposes of my honest review.

Death Bed Evangelism: a book review

Evangelism has fallen on hard times. There are reasons for this. Good Christians do not want to come across as judgmental. There is a widespread reaction to ‘bad evangelism’ where non-Christians were beat over the head with insensitive witnessing attempts. This is particularly true of evangelism to the dying. Are people ever more vulnerable than in the hours and days they rage against the dying of light? Is it manipulative for Christ followers to hoist their ideas of God and salvation on a bedridden soul who can’t escape their pitch? On the other hand, Christians believe that our eternal destiny is bound up with our response to Jesus. If we don’t tell people about Jesus we’ve failed to love well and to hold out the hope of heaven for the dying. So many of us ‘bad evangelists’ vacillate between our discomfort with evangelistic methods and feelings of shame for our failure to ‘evangelize.’

Thankfully Melody Rossi does not advocate manipulative dehumanizing strategies. Nor does she make us feel guilty for not sharing our faith. In Sharing Christ with the Dying: Bringing Hope to Those Near the End of Life she discusses how to make the most of every opportunity to share the hope that is within us. This is no abstract exercise.  Having recovered from a near-fatal surgical error herself, she also has walked along side others suffering serious illness, the suffering and the dying. This includes a family friend and her parents (mother, father and step-mom) and discovering ways to share her faith in gentle ways. This book is full of insights from her own experience.

Rossi also has a lot of practical advice. Ministry to the dying is hard. She talks about the need for adequate support networks, reliance on the Holy Spirit, attentiveness and  the importance of helping people with their emergency information (i.e. Will, emergency info etc). Loving the dying is hard work, and those who are watching a parent, a child or a loved one dye will find Rossi’s words encouraging. She does not give us a formula for evangelism but shares how she shared with each of her parents the love of Christ in ways that were meaningful to them.

It is refreshing reading an Evangelism book which is not manipulative but also dispenses practical advice on how to love well. If you have loved ones suffering and are unsure how to share your faith, Rossi is a good guide. But she will not give you a formula on how to bring your loved ones to faith. In each case she learned how to respond to what God was doing and tailored her evangelism. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year: not a book review (just initial thoughts).

Michael Yankoski is a friend I knew from Regent College, He has a new book coming out in September. He was nice enough to send me a review copy and I intend to review it here. But this is not a review. I am not far enough along to write one yet. These are my initial reflections.

I wouldn’t say I was ever really ‘close’ to Michael. We spent a semester or two in the same community group at Regent, Micah 6:8, a prayer support group themed around the area of social justice. It wasn’t long before I realized how smart, thoughtful and charismatic he was. Michael is tall, he has better hair than me (not hard) and an infectious smile. I remember an early conversation where I subtly tried to inform him of my significant role in the (Regent) community. Actually. it was a bald attempt to make myself seem important. Michael was gracious and thanked me for ‘my work.’ This was before I realized that Michael was a published author whom I had read appreciatively. Of course I wondered later why I was so insecure that I felt I needed to prove myself to a virtual stranger. I can probably even dig up a prayer journal entry on that conversation, though I’d be surprised if Michael even remembered it.

I don’t think I really ever felt ‘jealous’ of Michael, perhaps just a little over-awed. I had numerous conversations  with my wife about how impressive Michael and Danae  are (Michael’s über talented and delightful wife).  But when I opened up the Sacred Year and read I discovered that in the years that I knew Michael he had  undergone an existential crisis. In his introduction he tells the story of meeting up with a fellow Regent student for coffee. This student expresses the same sort of admiration for Mike that I felt. As he confesses this to Michael, Michael reveals his existential crisis and the journey it set him on (xii). The rest of the book reveals the journey. The first chapter shares Michael’s ‘jadedness’ after travelling around to Christian conferences and events to share his experiences from his first book, Under the Overpass. One over-the-top Christian conference causes him to question whether he was “just another pawn in the brightly lit song-and-dance called ‘American Christianity'”(7).

This leads him to make a week-long-retreat to the local Benedictine abbey near Vancouver. There a spiritual director, Father Solomon, challenges Michael to a year long exploration of spiritual practices. At first Michael balked at a spirituality of trying harder, as if that could earn salvation. The wizened old monk  replied:

The God that called you into existence ex nihilo–out of nothing–is the same God who holds your existence this moment and every moment. Were he to withdraw his hand, you would vanish without memory. All things would. No you can’t make Godlove you.  You can’t make God like you. But nor do you need to; he already does. Never forget that is why he made you–because he wants you to exist. And not just exist. He wants you to live life in all its fullness.(13).

This sets Michael on a journey of exploring spiritual practices which deepen his daily walk with God.

From the outset, this book intrigues me. I have read more than my fair share of books on Spiritual Disciplines. But in lots of ways, my spirituality is still more informational than ‘formational.’ What excites me about this book is that Michael makes a real attempt to live this out. He doesn’t present himself as a Christian super-saint but as someone seeking to shore up what is lacking in his own faith. I am reading this book with interest, because this has been my struggle as well.  I too have have had my run-in with the shallowness of ‘American Christianity’ and have sought something deeper and more life-giving. I also am reading this book as someone who knows the author (a little) and so feels invested in his journey. I am predisposed to like this book because I think Michael is reaching for a deeper place than he did in Under the Overpass (which is still a great book!). I am eager to see the places Michael’s journey with spiritual practices takes him.

There’s a Slow Church a Comin': a book review

Across the cover of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus is an endorsement from Scot McKnight advocating a slow read of this book. Weeks before I picked up the book I plowed through a ‘Slow Church sampler’ which included the introduction and a chapter from the book. This project excited me, but when the book came I was slow to work through it, finding myself lingering on pages. I concur with McKnight, this is worth a slow read. Chris Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and John Pattison, editor of CONSPIRE magazine are steeped in the idea of slow church. Both men are part of faith communities that seek to live out the Kingdom of God in particular contexts. Taking a nod from the Slow Food movement, Smith and Pattison eschew the McDonaldization of church. Where churches have often taken cues from a culture emphasizing ‘efficency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results)  and control’ (13-4), Smith and Pattison call us back to a recovery of a more organic, local and holistic way of embodying God’s mission in the world.

Pattison and Smith have set the table for a feast! They present a three-course meal. In the first course they give us the terroir–the taste of place (chapter one), They advocate ‘stability’ and commitment to a particular place for the long haul (chapter two) and urge us to be ‘patient’ by placing the mission of the church within the larger story of God’s coming kingdom (chapter three). They name this first course ‘Ethics’ and by this they do not mean a list of rules but a set of commitments which help us navigate the world of church and mission (slowly).  The second course they call ‘Ecology.’ Here they help us counter our tendencies towards dualism and fragmentation by advocating wholeness (chapter four). They urge us to a deeper appreciation for work and vocation (chapter five) and the counter-cultural practice of Sabbath keeping, including its implications for life sharing and economic leveling (chapter seven). This ‘ecology’ reveals a different way of living in place. Smith and Pattison give us a vision for holistic mission which honors the work of the people, and God’s provision. The final course is called ‘Economy.’ At the head of this section is a chapter on abundance (chapter eight) which exhorts us to trust in the resources we have in Christ. This is explicated in the following chapters: chapter nine shows us how to have gratitude for God’s provision (including asset-mapping our neighborhoods); chapter ten encourages us to a robust practice of hospitality; chapter eleven calls us to the deep, messy experience of life sharing through dinner conversation. This vision encompasses both the messiness of community and the eucharistic sharing of church.

These are rich an and suggestive reflections. My summary does not do justice to how graciously Smith and Pattison have laid this out. Here is a book that challenges what many of us have found wanting in our American church experience, but this in not bitter bashing of  the mega church complex. It is instead provides the positive case for the church as a faithful and prophetic community which challenges the status quo. This would be a perfect book to read and discuss with an elder’s board or church staff. But it isn’t a heady leadership book. Church small groups and individuals would also benefit from it and will find their lives and theology challenged. This is a book that calls us to deepen our faith practices and our commitment to one another. Buy it and read it slowly. Then read it again. Five Stars★★★★★

So good!

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

Christmas in July?: a book review

When Christmas rolls around Jolly Old St. Nick is ubiquitous. Malls and movies, storybooks and songs feature a rotund ‘Claus with rosy cheeks. In our home, we do not pass on the Santa legend as fact to our children. Sadly, our kids have concluded that Santa goes to other people’s house but not ours. We don’t have a chimney. But Santa is no mere legend. His historic genesis is  found in a very real saint of the Christian church: Nicholas of Myra, the Wonder Worker. Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Saint Francis and Brother Duck (link to my review) returns with a new graphic novel telling St. Nicholas’s story. As with Francis’s friend the duck, Nicholas has his own animal companion. Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra tells the events of Nicholas’s life through the eyes of a mouse. His name is Cicero and he is a self-proclaimed philosopher and lover of Socrates and Plato. He is out of step with Nicholas’s faith, though he is often conscripted by Nicholas as an accomplice in clandestine acts of charity.

This was a fun read and a great way for people of all ages to explore the real Saint Nicholas. Cicero makes numerous comments throughout the comic which poke at Nicholas’s later association with Christmas (i.e. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gifting toys to all the children, etc). Nicholas always tells his rodent companion that he has an over-active imagination. Still Stoeckl plays with the legend. At the end of the book, we do not read of Nicholas’s death in the mid-340’s. Instead he and Cicero travel ‘North.’ This isn’t a book bent on destroying kid’s belief in Santa Claus. If anything Stoeckl gives strong hints at the Yuletide connection.

The stories and legends of the real St. Nicholas are recorded here with the skeptical Cicero’s commentary. We read of Nicholas paying the three dowries for a poor family so that the daughter’s would not be sold off as slaves. We also read of Nicholas bringing bread  and coins to the poor of Myra, his confrontation with Arius and the paganism of his day, and his miracles. The mystified mouse  doesn’t always know what to make of Nick, but he is won over by the saint’s care for the poor, his unwavering commitment to Christ and his deep humility.

Little is known of the ‘real’ St. Nicholas. Stoeckl  is retelling some of the early storieswe have about the saint. Some of the miracle stories sound more like legend than historical fact (i.e. Nicholas resting his coat on a sun beam). Other stories include Nicholas calming the sea, healing others, multiplying barrels of grain, and destroying a pagan temple through prayer. However Stoeckl does feel it necessary to explain how Nicholas could be present at the council of Nicea (325) to refute Arius, though his name does not appear on the historic list of bishops at that council (Nicholas confronts Arius with words and not with a slap or punch as is sometimes claimed).

This is Stoeckl’s second ‘saint’ graphic novel, and therefore invites comparison with the first. I think Saint Francis and Brother Duck is funnier and a little deeper. Stoeckl is steeped in the Franciscan tradition (he is a secular Franciscan) and we know much more about Francis than we do about Nicholas. But there are parts of this story I found really touching. I liked it and I love the comic book format for making the life of the saints come to life.  This was an enjoyable read which I am sharing with my kids. I give this four stars: ★★★★

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