Roll Up Your Sleeves: a book review

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

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

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

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

Jesus Comes to Somewhere America: a book review

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

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

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

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

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

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


Essentially, This is Great Resource: a book review.

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

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

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

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

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From Reaction to Reception: a book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”