The Hairy Choose Balloons : a kids’ book review

I’m a fan of John Ortberg. I’ve listened to his sermons on the Menlo Park Church podcast and read several of his books. He is called, with affection, Dallas-for-Dummies for his ability to translate the writings of his late mentor Dallas Willard into the language of the people. Your Magnificent Chooser is a short children’s book designed to help kids understand how to make good choices.

978-1-4964-1742-8This is not a children’s story but a poem designed to teach kids. He explores the things we choose, what bad choices look like, and how God wants us to choose for ourselves. Illustrations by Robert Dunn personify (or creaturefy?) our Choosers as a furry balloon following us everywhere and into every situation. We learn, “a Chooser is a thing/ That is not just for you,/ Because everyone else/ Has their own Chooser too” (17). Ortberg helps children use their Choosers to love others, use  Chooser often and use it to make good choices (just like Jesus would).

Three of my kids are at an age where they appreciate this book (ages 6, 7.5, and nine). We’ve had several discussions since I first read it, on our Choosers and the importance of choosing wisely. They enjoyed it and got them talking. That strikes me as a good book.

I’ve tried to instill in my own kids the importance of good choices. I let them choose things (and sometimes suffer the consequences of poor choices) because I want them to learn to choose and choose wisely. Ultimately, I want them to choose Jesus. We talk often about what good choices are and the options available to them. Ortberg’s book provides a means to deepen and extend the conversation, towards the mundane and the sacred.

This book didn’t grab me the way some of our picture books do, but the kids really liked it.  As a parent concerned that our kids learn to make good choices, a book like this provides language to help kids think about, visualize and understand what good choices are. Therefore, I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Tyndale Books in exchange for my honest review.

Go Write the Book of Love: a personal journal review

Keeping a journal helps us reflect on our personal experience and understanding. Taking time to contemplate the nature and practice of love in our own lives, impacts how we interact with our loved ones.  Love Never Fails by Hilda St. Clair, is a new journal which combines the beauty of calligraphy and mixed-media artwork and inspirational quotes, with interactive writing exercises.

love-never-failsI am smitten by St. Clair’s journal (I reviewed her journal All Shall Be Well previously). This is beautiful. The left-hand pages have a full-color piece of art with an inspirational quote.  The quotations are mostly drawn from the Christian tradition. The exercises on the right-hand pages offer a good variety of activities. St. Clair has us: draw, color, list things, put stuff in boxes, interpret, plan and act on our reflections. Some of these exercises are conceptual—focusing on how we would describe love or depict it. Other entries evoke gratitude, causing us to reflect on where we’ve received love from others. Other exercises require action, asking us to love those we know need it. I found using this journal is a lot like going on a spiritual retreat, and this wouldn’t be a bad resource to accompany you on one.

You won’t learn to love someone from reading a book. You may gain some insights but real love, like prayer, involves sacrifice, presence, and cultivated relationship. Books dispense advice and increase our relational and conceptual awareness, but he who thinks he knows does not yet know as he ought. A Journal like this helps bridge gap. It draws away from mere knowledge toward introspection and self-understanding.  St Clair’s artwork, quotes, and exercises help us step out, to love in tangible ways with Love as our center.

The publisher’s website has a flip-book with some sample pages to give you a sense of what to expect here. I would recommend this both for personal use, or to give away to a loved-one.  It is fantastic.  I give it five stars.

Note: I received this Journal from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.
joel-prophet

Joel: An Introduction

The book of Joel is an enigma, smothered in mystery, wrapped in a tortilla and served to someone, somewhere. Maybe not a tortilla, but some sort of flatbread. Maybe no wrapping at all.

Its superscription identifies the book’s contents as, “The word of the LORD that came to Joel son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). However, it does not give us any historical indicators or points of reference. Joel’s name is a combination of the Divine names YHWH and Elohim, his father’s name means ‘youth of El.’ This is loaded with symbolism for ‘a prophet of the LORD.’ But at least in the superscription, we are given no indication if Joel prophesied to the Northern or Southern Kingdom (later references in the book and mentions of the temple indicate Judah).

This lack of historical indicators and the vagueness of the prophet’s origin make it difficult to know when this book was written. Scholarly opinion ranges from the early monarchy to the post-exilic period. An early date points to references to the temple (Joel 1:9, 13,14,16; 3:18). A late date points to the fact that there are no references to any monarchs, north or south. The early part of the book describes a locust plague  (1:1-2:27), the latter part of the book (2:28-3:21) is apocalyptic with a post-exilic flavor. So some critical scholarship questions the overall unity of the book. I don’t have a firm opinion on the date of Joel either way. I do think there are strong thematic links between the first and second halves of the book. The whole enchilada is meant to be read together regardless of the different tastes of its ingredients (thus, wrapped in a tortilla).

This lack of specific historical indicators serves us well as contemporary readers. When we read of the ecological crisis brought on by an army of locust and the ravages of war, we can enter into Joel’s metaphor. We can identify in our own personal and corporate lives, ‘the years the locust have eaten’ (Joel 2:25). When we read its apocalyptic promise of renewal, restoration, vindication, and God’s spirit poured on all flesh, we are filled with the hope of God’s work in our own contexts. As Christians, we read Joel’s promises through the lens of Jesus—the Word-made-flesh who inaugurated the coming of God’s kingdom, and Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2), but we press forward toward the day when God’s kingdom comes in fullness and his justice reigns on the earth.

So as we look at Joel, pay attention to the ways in which the crises of Ancient Israel mirror our own economic and ecological context. These three short chapters have something to teach us.


References

Fuhr, Jr., Richard Alan & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2016.

Garrett, Duane A. Hosea, Joel. Vol. 19A. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Stuart, Douglas. Hosea–Jonah. Vol. 31. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Wholeness Through Coloring: a book review

I have been known to steal crayons from my kids when we go out to eat so I could draw and color too, but I don’t totally get the adult coloring craze. If I am going to sit down with a crayon in hand, I want to create something new—sketching, drawing, creating. I don’t want to color inside the lines, or outside. In my world, there are no lines. 

words-of-healingBut Words of Healing: A Coloring Book to Comfort and Inspire is a fantastic coloring book. Like other Paraclete Press coloring books, the right-hand page has a pattern and design with a Capital letter, the left-hand page has a word that begins with that letter, and a Bible verse. So on one page, you read the word Deliver with Psalm 91:14, “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name,” on the corresponding page, is a calligraphic “D” with a leafy pattern behind it.  Coloring the letter provides space to meditate on the word and passage, and to pray. A full-color Lectio Divina. 

This is great when you consider the coloring book’s theme, healing. The words and verses speak of God’s kindness, healing, renewal, hope, light, freedom, grace, good news and more. In the Christian sense, healing means being made whole. It is always God’s work.

When we are in need of healing—when we are broken or wounded, in pain or suffering from a chronic illness—we do not have the mental space for study, hard work or creative endeavor. Spiritual practices that are too demanding will not be helpful because we do not have the mental capacity for them. Coloring in a book like this is a way of quiet way of being in God’s presence, to allow Him to work. 

As someone who has been privileged to walk alongside people in pain, and provide pastoral care and home visits,  I appreciate a resource like this. It provides people an easy way to connect with God when they don’t have the psychological wherewithal for reading, theology or heroic spiritual disciplines. I may not be an avid colorer, but I can commend this book for the simple way it enables us to be available to God when we feel broken, tired, hurt and like we have nothing left to give. This is the sort of resource that is nice to hand off to someone who is going through hard times. I give it five stars. 

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review. 

Making All Lives Matter: a book review

Wayne Gordon, and John Perkins cofounded the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). For decades they have been prophetic voices to the evangelical community, helping us tackle the problems of racism and economic injustice. In their new book, Gordon and Perkins answer the question Do All Lives Matter? SPOILER ALERT: their answer is yes; however they also showcase why the slogan All Lives Matter is a tone deaf response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Simply Stated: All lives can’t matter until black lives matter. . .True, all lives matter, but we have to wake up to the reality that our country remains divided over issues related to race. We have to own up to the fact that African Americans and other ethnic minorities in our country are mistreated far more often than most of us care to admit” (22).

all-livesGordon & Perkins discuss the Black Lives matter movement and their protest of the recent rash of African Americans killed at the hands of police (Chapter one) They advocate ‘listening to the stories of others and our own(chapter two).’ Perkins shares  his own journey and struggle against racism and injustice in the deep South. They review America’s troublesome history of racism (chapter three) and the ways the struggles and experience of minorities is invisible to mainstream, white America (chapter four). In chapter five Gordon relates how he and his church community (Lawndale Community Church) in inner-city Chicago entered into the pain of the African Community after the police officer was acquitted in the Eric Gardner case. Chapter six discusses a Christian response to the Black Lives Matter movement and chapter seven gives a snap shot of how Lawndale has responded the problem of violence in their community. In chapter eight Gordon and Perkins provide practical suggestions for learning about injustice and working for social change. Chapter nine discusses the importance of hope in the face of structural evil and the problems that beset at-risk communities like Lawndale. Senator Dick Durbin wrote the forward and Richard Mouw writes the afterword.

Gordon and Perkins are trusted voices for me and I appreciate the way they take an honest look at the issues facing minorities in our country, particularly the Black community.They are unafraid to speak to the way public policy and the justice system (i.e. police departments, stop-and-frisk policies and the court system) have been detrimental and harmful to African Americans. That isn’t to say they don’t have a category for personal responsibility (racism isn’t to blame for every problem) and they are quick to point out that many police officers are good and responsive to urban communities. This book isn’t out to demonize anyone but to help those of us who are white and privileged make space in our hearts for empathy towards minorities in our country for the things they are made to suffer.

It is often the progressives and the political left that is most responsive to issues of race. White evangelicals value diversity but we don’t always do the hard work required for real reconciliation with the Black community. Gordon and Perkins have been doing this work for decades, investing in lives and communities, creating community partnerships and providing opportunities for economic development and systemic change. They are not armchair liberals. They are believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ who believe that it calls them to uphold the dignity of all people and to stand against injustice. This book makes vivid our troublesome historic and current national racial tension and challenges Christians to stand up for our African American neighbors. All lives matter, because Black lives matter. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James: a book review

Tim Keller is a pastor, popular author and a sought-after conference speaker. Even those of us on the egalitarian, non-Reformed end of the evangelical spectrum appreciate Keller’s graciousness, intelligence, and humility. He is kind of like our Calvinist, complementarian man-crush. Sam Allberry  is an editor at the Gospel Coalition, a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) an author, and the founding editor of Living Out (a ministry for those struggling with same-sex attraction). Keller and Allberry have teamed up for a 90 day devotional on John 14-17, Romans and the book of James. Their  walk through these passages were first published in Explore Quarterly, a journal published by the Good Book Company.

kellberryThe daily entries walk through a passage of scripture by breaking it up into a verse or two mini-sections, asking probing questions, and providing brief explanatory notes. Each day closes with suggestions on how to apply the passage, and often suggestions for what to pray in response. There is a blank, lined page for notes and prayers for each entry. These studies are designed to be done with an open Bible beside your devotional, so you can reference the words on the Page.

Carl Laferton, Good Book Company Editorial Director, writes a helpful introduction (seems like a series introduction as he makes no reference to the actual passages discussed in this volume). He suggests that as you read the passage for each day you note a highlight (the truth from God which strikes you most) the query (questions about what you are reading) and the change (ways God’s spirit is prompting you to change) (8). At the close of each study Laferton suggests writing a one sentence summary of how God spoke to you each day and a short prayer about what you have seen. This format is not reflected in the notes of Keller and Allberry’s daily entries; nevertheless it seems like a fruitful way to approach God’s word expectantly.

Because Keller and Allberry elected to write questions and notes for each verse or two mini-section, there isn’t a heuristic framework for the type of questions they ask. For example, many Bible Study methods use some version of Observation, Interpretation, Application. Mostly they ask the observational questions (questions about what it says in the text) and interpretive questions (questions about what you think the passage means) for every couple verse section, saving the application questions for the whole passage.

This is a 90 day journey and I have had this in possession for about a week. I haven’t been able to more than skim through it; however I read enough to get a sense of the entries for the purposes of this review. I will focus mostly on entries from Romans in my comments bellow.

The authors of this volume are both theologically conservative and this is reflected in their approach to passages and particular notes. That is to be expected, we all bring our own theological lens to scripture, but they do attend to what they read in each passage. So for example, in their discussion of Romans 1:26-32 they give a brief explanation of how homosexuality is viewed as a sin in the passage, “homosexuality is described as ‘against nature’ (para phusin).” But they are also careful to not turn it into a super sin as some conservative interpreters might, “But notice it comes after Paul has identified the root of all sin: worshiping something other than God. And it comes before a long list of other sins, including envy and gossiping. Active homosexuality is no more or less sinful than these—all come from worshiping the created, rather than the Creator” (104). This is perhaps a controversial passage to highlight (the only verses in this study which would address anything about homosexuality and the LGBTQ lifestyle) but it gives you a sense of how they attempt to follow the contours of the biblical text and are constrained by it.  Romans 9-11 give a classic Reformed understanding of election, predestination, God’s foreknowledge and the future of Israel (175-192), though not in a heavy-handed way.

The notes are not detailed. There are no footnotes or suggestions for further reading to delve deeply into the passage. Keller and Allberry give a non-technical, lay-person friendly interpretation of the passage, but if you do each daily study right, you, the reader, are doing all the heavy lifting, accessing biblical truth for yourself rather than depending on them for interpretation. Because they walk through whole books of the Bible, or sections of books in the case of John 14-17, this is much more detailed than those daily-thoughts-on-a-verse devotionals they sell at the supermarket.

Yet, because this work is not scholarly, there are the occasional lapses common to popular preachers. When they are discussing Romans 8:15-17 they write, “Abba means ‘Daddy,'” I know how well this preaches (I’ve preached it myself), but the best linguistic evidence would just translate Abba as father or dad without the informal, familiar feel of daddy. Nothing serious but not always careful speech. I also think breaking up passages into small daily chunks, can obscure the rhetorical structure and the flow of an argument. I think a bird’s-eye-view is so important for grasping an epistle’s meaning (especially a theologically sophisticated one like Romans). Keller and Allberry clearly have a road map they are following through each biblical book, but like your GPS they only reveal where to turn next. They don’t give you a large overview of the terrain, trajectory and destination of each book.  A good orienting essay introducing the books covered would help tremendously.

I love the Bible. The upper room discourses & Jesus’ high priestly prayer, the book of Romans and James, contain some of my go-to passages. If you are looking for a devotional or guided study to discover these sections of scripture, this is a good choice. It would be  impossible to read through this in 90 days and not grow in your understanding of these books and their meaning. And reading this devotional, as intended, will help you hear the voice of God in the text. Keller and Allberry are good guides, by no means perfect, but this would be helpful alongside other resources which help you to engage the Bible. I give this three-and-a-half stars.

I received this book via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

Dying to Be Right: a book review

Efrem Smith was a sought after voice in the denomination I’ve served as pastor in (Evangelical Covenant Church). He planted Sanctuary, a multicultural/multiethnic church in Minnesota. Later he was a conference superintendent for the Pacific Southwest. These days he’s the teaching pastor at Bayside Midtown Church in Sacramento, California,  and the president of World Impact, an urban-missions program which trains the urban poor in mission and helps them to launch indigenous church plants. He is also the author of several books

efremsoftlySmith’s new book, Killing Us Softly describes what it means to die to ourselves and live for God’s kingdom. How are we killed? God kills us (our egos and selfish desires) softly with his steadfast love and grace. In his introduction Smith opens up about his own experience of this sort of spiritual death, “I am allowing God to do surgery on my soul—to kill me, certainly, but to do it softly, lovingly—so that I might die to the upside-down world we find ourselves in, and be empowered to live as a right-side-up child of God. I am living in the messiness of God removing things in me that are not of him so that I might reflect him more each day” (xiv).

The first chapter of the book describe our upside-down-ness of our bizarro world. Things in our culture are not the way God intended because of the reality of sin. Smith observes that sin is both an individual and systemic reality (8). We live the upside-down life of idolatry—”our hearts and worship turned away from God toward other things” (10) The result is fragmentation. We are broken in our relationships to others (i.e. racism, tribalism, sexism) and our institutions are also broken (government systems, schools, economic systems, corporations, etc).

In the chapters that follow, Smith describes the church as the right-side-up remnant(chapter 2);  Christ as  the ‘right side up way, truth and life'(chapter 3); what in us needs to die to set our hearts right (chapter 4); the paradox of Christian maturity (or what it means to have a child like faith, chapter 5); how we advance God’s kingdom through love (chapter six) and what it means to join in God’s mission to set the world right side up (chapter seven).

In this short book Smith gives us a broad overview of the life of discipleship—what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. He discusses the upside-down-ness of our world, and because he includes a category for systemic sin, he is able to speak directly to fallen institutions and systemic problems (like the incarceration and wrongly death of black people at the hands of police, and deaths of police officers). He challenges Christians to share the love of Jesus with the world, and  to see justice as part of our mission to welcome the kingdom and set the world to rights.

Smith tells stories from ministry, initiatives he’s been a part of to love neighbors and restore communities. He offers an inspiring and pastoral vision of what it means to join our life with Christ and become part of his mission. It is compelling.  I also appreciate that Smith places ‘dying to yourself’ motif under the rubric of God’s gracious work in us. This helps me understand it as something healthier and more fruitful than mere self-loathing. It is about submitting to God’s work in our heart. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review