How to Declutter Your Soul with 10 Simple Practices: a book review

I am not a mega-church guy. The churches I have been a part of have been small; however I am not a mega-hater either. I recognize big churches often have resources that smaller churches do not and are doing Kingdom work. I recognize my life’s call is different but I appreciate several mega-church pastors. One such pastor I respect is Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. He is a clear and effective communicator, a follower of Jesus and a pastor with nearly forty years of experience. I admit that I have a bias for smaller more organic models of church, but you have to respect that kind of faithful longevity in ministry!

Hybel’s new book Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul shares practical insights for having a lifestyle of freedom in Christ. These are insights that Hybel’s has learned personally and through his experience as a pastor: They include:

  • Replenishing your energy reserves.
  • Organizing your schedule to reflect who you want to become instead of what you need to get done.
  • Managing your finances
  • Refining your working world (doing what you were made to do!).
  • Making room for forgiveness.
  • Conquering your fears.
  • Deepening your friendships and relational circles.
  • Claiming God’s call on your life by finding a life verse to give you focus.
  • Welcoming new seasons into your life.
  • Leaving a godly legacy.

Many of the practices that Hybels suggests correspond to advice you would find in self-help books; yet this is not just a self-help book with a Christian veneer. Hybels wants people to experience all that God has for them in Christ. So when Hybels talks about organizing your life, he isn’t just talking about time management that will make you healthier, happier and more productive. He is hoping to help you become what you were meant to be a Christ follower (35). And when he shares about choosing a life verse he isn’t just giving us the Christian version of a personal vision statement. A life verse is a passage of scripture chosen to reflect God’s purpose for your life so that you can focus on what matters most. In each of these cases what Hybels is pressing us to pursue is something far deeper and richer than its secular equivalent.

Along the way Hybels dispenses lot of helpful tidbits. Regarding forgiveness, he gives detailed pastoral advice on how to let go of the small stuff (level one offenses), and work towards reconciliation and healing when there has been a real wrong done (level two offenses) or when there is profound damage done (level three offenses). He doesn’t offer easy answers (simple doesn’t always mean easy) but gives guidance which helps us to pursue wholeness and healing. Hybels helps us attend to the health of our relationships and deeping our connection with other believers. I personally found his discussion of organization and finances to be insightful because he takes the two most coveted commodities in our culture (time and money) and illustrates how managing these well helps you experience the deep joy and serve God better.

Anyone could read this book profitably but Christians will find it particularly useful. I underlined and dog marked several pages which I plan to return to personally, and also because I think that Hybels illustrates well about how to talk about issues with others. Hybels is gracious in what he says and how he says it and I think I can learn from that. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Tyndale so that I could share with you my honest review.


More Thoughts on ‘The Sacred Year': by Michael Yankoski

When Father Solomon first challenged Michael Yankoski to enter deeper in to spiritual practices he told Michael, “Spiritual practices are a way of mapping your own personal soulscape–helping you become more aquainted with who you are, who God is, and the people he’s placed you into this life alongside of” (13). This gave Michael a way of organizing practices into ‘depth with self,’ ‘depth with God’ and ‘depth with others’ as he explored spiritual practices during The Sacred Year.  In two previous blog posts, I reflected on my initial thoughts in coming to this book and my reactions to part one of the book (Depth with Self). In this post I want to reflect on part two, Depth with God and what I have heard in the text.

First let me say again how much I love Michael’s treatment of practices. This is not a ‘how to’ book which gives step by step instructions on how to do each discipline. This is Michael’s journey to somewhere deeper. Each of these practices enable Michael to inhabit a new dimension previously absent in his life. As such, these practices overlap and feed into one another. We saw this in part one where the practice of Selah (shutting up and paying attention) enabled Michael to attend to his life, to receive daily bread, live simply, explore creativity and number his days. The same is true in part two. We have a list of interrelated practices, each enabling the next and allowing Michael to press deeper into the spiritual life.

We begin with the practice of confession. Michael shares a childhood story of shoving all his dirty clothes and mess under his bed when he was told to clean his room. When a pungent ‘rotten meat’ smell emanated from his room, his mother took a broom handle and helped Michael scrape out all of the junk from under his bed until they found the culprit (126-7). This becomes a poignant analogy for confession–it is a way of getting rid of the awful smell in our life. As Michael enters deeper into confession he is also has to face up to his image of God. There are ways that Michael has felt that God loathes him (129) or at very least is deeply disappointed in how sinful and defective he is!. Underlying the practice of confession is a confidence in God’s great love for us. God does not loathe us, he longs to set us free and confession brings us into greater freedom. Michael’s experience of confession is so rich that he petitions his baptist church to let him build a confessional in their sanctuary (138). They don’t accept Mike’s offer, but the pastors of his church do make themselves available for confession during the season of Lent and are surprised at how many people sign up (139).

In addition to confession, Michael delves into the realm of listening prayer (chapter 9). Like Michael, I grew up in a context which advocated intercessory prayer. We were good at making our requests known to God, but seldom made time to listen to Him. By focusing on listening prayer, Michael cultivates attentiveness to God.  This has resonance to the practice of solitude (chapter 11) where  he learns to counter the world full of social media caw-caw-cawing and ADD by entering deeper into silence, stillness and solitude. He also learns to ‘attend’ through his practice of sabbath (chapter 12–in a lot of ways, this practice is selah writ large) and entering into the wilderness (chapter 13).

Perhaps these practices all invite Michael into a different ‘pace’ but this is seen most readily in his explorations of the practice of ‘Lectio Divina,’ and regular Eucharist (chapter 10) and the sauntering pace of pilgrimage (chapter 14). Rather than rushing through texts and scavenging for something meaningful, Michael takes up Eugene Peterson’s challenge to Eat This Book–to chew on the biblical text by reading slowly and devotionally. Regular celebration of the Eucharist invited Michael to meditate on Christ’s death by chewing, sipping and swallowing.  When he explores the idea of pilgrimage, Michael is as much challenged by the mode of travel as he is by his destination. It is fitting that his pilgrimage to Mission, BC from Vancouver to the monastery he’s visited throughout his sacred year enables him to enter into place and pay attention to things that he would not have seen otherwise. This leads to a chance encounter (divine appointment) with Virgil, a lonely fellow traveler (226-9).

The Sacred Year has me thinking about  the nature of sacred practice. Someone once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and experiencing different results. But how often do we do that? For example, my mom doesn’t know my children. When my grandfather was still alive, she would say to me over the phone, “I need to be there for my dad right now. When he passes away then I can visit you and your family.” My grandpa has been dead for a couple years now, my mom has yet to visit (though she has her reasons). If you want to grow personally, interpersonally and spiritually you need to act intentionally. You need to behave in away that counters your regular practice (i.e. buy a plane ticket and visit) Spiritual practices are a way of combating our status-quo responses.  By the way I share this story about my mom to my shame. I wish I had a closer relationship with her, but I also find it hard to reach out to her and connect.  Something has to change in our relationship. I feel primed  and challenged to explore part three of Michael’s book ‘Depth With Others.” 

Overrated: a book review

What if we are more committed to the idea of justice than we are to actually living justly? Are we overrated? Do we talk a good game but fail to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Pastor and activist Eugene Cho has written a book–a confession of sorts–which chronicles his struggle to live a life of world changing. In Overrated he challenges us to not just change the world, but allow ourselves to be changed in the process. This is a book written to encourage us in our pursuit of justice, and to encourage us to count the costs (17-8).

BookCover-3D Cho tells us how he came to care about issues of justice and his first steps into trying to live out his calling to care for those on the margins. He founded One Day’s Wages, an organization which seeks to alleviate extreme poverty by challenging people to give a day’s wages to the cause. Cho did not ask anyone to give up anything he wasn’t willing to give. When One Day’s Wages was founded, he gave up an entire year’s salary for the cause of justice. Some may find Cho’s emphasis on justice misplaced but he argues that living justly is an integral part of the life of discipleship. Justice may not describe discipleship in its entirety but it is impossible to conceive of the Kingdom of God without hoping and striving for the justice of all.

Most of Overrated describes Cho’s journey to deeper places and his challenge to us to tenaciously pursue a disciplined life. He discusses the challenge of living simply and prophetically within an upwardly-mobile culture of consumers (chapter three) and describes the challenges he faced in living out his calling when there is no formula or easy fixes (chapter four). When he first got the vision of planting a multi-ethnic church in Seattle it took longer than expected and he struggled to find other work to make ends meet. Cho warns seminarians, “Be careful, your degree in seminary will soon make you useless to society” (86). Cho knows. He was turned down by Taco Bell when he needed a job. For Cho pursuing his calling meant daily faithfulness and awaiting God’s timing and provision.

But Cho urges tenacity in our pursuit of justice (chapter 5) and a self examination which asks “why am I doing this?” (chapter 6). He also exhorts us to life-long learning where we have more depth than our soundbites suggest. In a social media world, we need more depth than 140 characters allows (chapter 7) We need expertise and we need to live out the sort of lives we are calling others to (chapter 8).  One area of self examination that Cho suggests, is to audit our efforts at justice (chapter nine). Are we doing justice, justly? When we send shoes to the two-third’s world are we alleviating the problem of global inequity or are we assuaging our consciences and failing to combat the bigger systemic problems?

What Cho has discovered is that behind our call to change the world, we are also called to change ourselves. God is at work in the world and we are commissioned to work for his purposes (the restoration of all things) but there is soul work to be done in ourselves. By sharing pieces of his own journey Cho challenges us to examine our own lives and learn from his steps (and missteps). I appreciate Cho’s humility, grace and humor as he presses into some serious issues. We all know people who cast more shadow than light. I for one, have been (still am) one of those people. I am grateful for Cho’s challenge to do the hard internal work while remaining committed to real-life-justice. There is no either/or approach. There is no ‘heart religion’ or ‘social justice.’ Real justice flows through those who have counted the cost, examined themselves and have continually sought to love their world well. Changing the world is possible, but we need to change ourselves first.

Of course justice is a journey and we are all at different places. Cho wisely puts his chapter on doing justice, justly late in the book. Steve Corbitt wrote When Helping Hurts and Bob Lupton wrote Toxic Charity to help us think through how we give to the poor and marginalized. Unfortunately it is possible to use either of these books as an excuse for inaction (if helping can hurt, I better not give until I know more, etc). By placing this concern within a narrative of a lived-out commitment to justice, Cho shows how the concern to give intelligently and strategically is a stage of growth along the way. For some of us, we may need to give badly and generously before we give generously and well. Some of us need to hear the biblical imperative for caring for those on the margins (which Cho explores in chapter two) before we can answer the ‘how we give’ question.

I first became aware of Cho’s work through his blog. Some mutual friends shared his posts on Facebook and I discovered a passionate advocate for racial and economic justice. I have been challenged and spurred on by Cho for several years now and am excited to see his first book come to print. I highly recommend it for world changers and couch surfers a like. Wherever you are on your journey, this will spur you on to greater justice. Five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received an advanced review copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

When Memories Come to Life: a book review

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? We The ephemeral imprint of an old soul long past from the physical realm holds us in its grasp as we contemplate a world beyond our physical life. But what if we are haunted by someone who is still alive and staying at your house?

In Jason Derr‘s novella The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole we meet Toole, an octogenarian (at least?) great-great aunt who comes for a visit the Hammer family for ‘a spell and a few days.’ She settles in and won’t leave, much to the dismay of the entire clan. But she grew up in the area and her sojourn with the Hammers is an occasion for reminiscence of days gone by–of her youthful love affair with her late husband Zach, of the farm, of family history and her sense of obligation. On one jaunt into the woods with her great great nephew John David, she visits her old house and there summons the ghost of her younger self. Martha Toole the younger accompanies John David and Martha the elder back to the Hammer Household. Now instead of one unwanted house guest, the Hammer’s are saddled with two.

Martha the younger is temperamentally different from her older self. While the aged Martha is set in her ways and suspicious of contemporary culture, the young Martha is more generous and accepting of the world around her, even as she speaks wistfully of a world where neighbors cared for one another and watched out for the other’s well being. The difference between the two Martha’s becomes more pronounced. In a climatic moment the elder Martha declares (spoiler alert):

Oh darlin’ boy this is not a time-travel story. It’s a ghost story, a remembrances story. A bt of my youth came undone on the land and followed you home – grieving all the things I grieve, celebrating all the things I celebrate. That ghost I reckon, remembers and cherishes every moment. But she ain’t I and I ain’t she. (location 594)

This is a tale which conjures up nostalgia for days of yore. But more than that, it is just a fun read. This is a ghost story but not one that strikes terror. The characters in this book accept the reality of Martha Toole’s ghost and gradually accept her place in their residence (particularly since the young Martha cooks and cleans). I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars.

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

Timmy Time in First Samuel: a book review

One of my favorite books of the Old Testament is Samuel. Samuel tells the story of Israel’s movement from the time of the judges to a monarchy (first Saul and then the Davidic monarchy). Far from being an apologetic for David, the author of Samuel reveals Israel’s greatest king to be a man with feet of clay. My love of the book of Samuel was perhaps birthed by Sunday School tales of David when I was a ruddy wee lad; however seminary allowed me to dig deeper in the text. I never had a formal class on Samuel but the professor who taught me biblical Hebrew and Exegesis had a Ph.D. from Cambridge where he wrote a dissertation on Samuel. The stories of Samuel, Saul and David were full of illustrative material and he drew on this book a lot. These pages taught me how to read the Bible well and I am grateful for it.

1 Samuel For You is the third commentary in the ‘For You’ series from the Good Book Company. It is the second commentary I’ve read from Tim Chester, pastor at the Crowded House in Sheffield, UK. So far this is my favorite of the lot. This may be because of my peculiar love of Samuel, but I think Chester delivers the goods here! This is a commentary which is sensitive to the historical and literary context, places Samuel in a canonical/theological frame and presents the narrative in an accessible and winsome way. This is what you want from a popular level commentary. I was pleased that in a number of places Chester picks up on the Hebrew wordplay (i.e. sa’al ‘ask’ in Hanna’s prayer in 1:20 is similar to the name Saul whom God will give to those who ask for a king; Eli collapsing under his own weight as the Glory (weight) departs from Israel in chapter 4; The wine–nebel–runs out of Nabal when he hears of the disaster his wife prevented in 25:37; etc.) These examples reveal some of the literary sophistication in Samuel. Chester does not delve exhaustively into every example of Hebrew wordplay, but often popular level commentaries do not explore it at all. So well done here!

Chester understands the genre of Samuel as ‘preached history.’  This is a historical treatment but it is also exhortative. Chester’s comments come in two parts for each passage. The first part looks closely at the text. The second part builds a bridge between the passage and the wider canonical context. Thus he draws the link between the historical David, and the ‘Son of David.’ The former was a christ–‘an annointed one.’ One of David’s descendants is the Christ–Jesus our Messiah. Chester does a good job of drawing connections in the text. If you do not spend much time in the Old Testament this commentary will help you enter into the Hebrew Bible a little deeper. This is not an exhaustive commentary (not every verse or passage is covered), but it does represent a cogent and helpful approach to this book of the Bible. I highly recommend this for personal or group study. I give it five stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from the Good Book Company via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

The world’s most oppressed people are mostly female. I’m not making this up. Kate Marshall Storm and Michele Rickett tell us that women and children make up:

  • 80% of the world’s refugees.
  • 70% of the poorest of the poor.
  • 2/3 of the world’s illiterate.
  • 4 million annual victims of human traffickers
  • 80 percent of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. (15)

Because women and girls are oppressed, focusing on bringing justice to them in their situation improves the lot of  us all. Societies which champion justice for women and girls are more just societies than those who don’t. In Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage Strom and Rickett share hopeful but heartbreaking and harrowing stories of women around the world. The newly updated edition (the book was originally published in 2009) is expanded and includes a discussion guide for each of the five parts: I. Physical Life, II. Educational Life, III. Sexual Protection for Life, IV.  Freedom in Life, and V. Spiritual Life.  These broad headings represent the issues that women and girls face in the two-thirds world.  Each section tells stories of particular places and women,  The discussion guide explores the stories, relevant Bible passages and provides suggestions for taking action.

Issues of global injustice are a big deal but we often like to leave things abstract. The statistics which I quoted above come from the introduction of this book. We hear statistics like these and we don’t know what to make of them. What could we possibly do? That or our eyes glaze over from one more statistic.  One of the best things about Forgotten Girls is that Strom and  Rickett lift these issues from the realm of abstraction and explores real women’s stories.  We don’t just hear about ‘gendercide’ and gender inequity in regards to malnutrition, We hear about Beti’s abandonment and enslavement in Indonesia, and the abject poverty of Sonam and Pema in Tibet.  We explore gender disparities in education through Mai Lin’s story as an AIDS orphan in China and Preethi’s experience in India (as an ‘untouchable’). We hear stories of girls breaking free from the sex trade, injustice and experiencing new life in Christ. There are seventeen places profiled and each tells stories of real-life struggles that women face across the nations. Thankfully these are stories of hope so we hear how these women and girls have found help and new life!

One thing I really appreciate about the study guide are the practical steps for action and prayer as we seek to combat injustice. This is a short book which will enlarge your heart for God’s justice to come. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.  This is perfect for those wishing to understand the injustices women face across the globe. As the father of two young girls I am saddened and angered by those who would exploit the vulnerability of children, but this book made me grateful for the good work being done in the name of Christ. It also showed me ways to be a part of it! Great stuff.

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


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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.