God Wants to Talk to You: a ★★★★★ book review.

His sheep know his voice. John 10:4 tells us that; yet many of us struggle to discern God’s voice in the midst of daily life. Samuel Williamson, founding director of Beliefs of the Heart, has written a helpful guide to hearing God’s voice everywhere.Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere helps us cultivate our curiosity and attention to the ways in which God speaks to us.
Williamson begins with a story of hearing God’s voice when he was just a 9780825444241ten-year-old, newly minted atheist. When God didn’t strike down his girlfriend Diane for cussing, Williamson lost  his faith. So he started his own experiment with profanity and living like God wasn’t there. God simply said, “Sam, I’m real, and you don’t understand” (24). Williamson was brought back to faith.  While this experience is unique to him, Williamson believes we all have a capacity to hear God’s voice. He relates the various ways people hear God. In his second chapter Williamson argues that the point of God speaking is less about directions from on high (though He is still God) and more about conversation. God wants to connect and commune with us. Williamson uses the analogy of learning sailing from his dad and the casual conversations that would spring up organically as a result (35-36).

But Williamson is also an evangelical. He gives pride of place to the Bible. Williamson wants us to read our Bibles, but not as a maintenance manual or a rule book but as an opportunity to encounter the living God. We read to commune with the living God. So he offers scriptural meditation (focusing on the one book where God clearly spoke) as a way to train ourselves to hear God’s voice, “The best way to  become familar with God’s voice is to meditate on his Word, just as the best way to spot a counterfeit is to spend lots of time with the real thing” (61).

Along the way Williamson has lots of practical advice for listening prayer: how to recognize God, how to hear God’s voice for others,  hearing God’s voice in the silence, and detours of life, the place of emotions, etc. Williamson opens up about his own journey of God. He shares childhood stories of learning to hear God’s voice,  awkward words that God gave him for others (or about others),  and his process of discerning God’s call to leave a stable career with a software company to pursue full time ministry. He suggests brainstorming with God (journaling) and listening to ‘God’s questions’ in the Bible as ways to press into a deeper relationship with God.

What distinguishes Williamson’s book from some treatments of listening prayer is how down-to-earth he is. He shares stories and anecdotes with good humor (occasionally this is a bit distracting).  Two appendixes address the arguments against listening prayer by some conservative evangelicals and those ‘questionable and excessive practices.’ There are other good books on this theme (notably, Joyce Huggett’s Listening to God and Brad Jersak’s Can You Hear Me?, Dallas Willard’s Hearing God). Williamson own influences in writing include Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and Tim Keller (22). He makes a strong and helpful contribution to the topic of hearing God. The best thing I can say about a book on prayer is that it makes me want to pray. This book certainly makes want to do that.

Five stars. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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

The Power of Presence: a book review

Neil Anderson, author of Victory Over the Darkness and The Bondage Breaker has been a passionate advocate for the freedom we have in Christ. Past hurts, spiritual commitments and brokenness have held people in bondage. Anderson has pointed Christians to the real freedom available to those who are in Christ; however this hasn’t always been an easy road (his autobiography is called Rough Road to Freedom). I haven’t always agreed with Anderson (I think his description of bondage from ‘ritual abuse’ is inaccurate and unhelpful) but I respect the ways he has opened up a way for evangelicals to experience God’s healing for their past. His newest book The Power of Presence: A Love StoryThe Power of Presence: A Love Story tells a story of freedom and struggle.

9780857217318Anderson’s wife of 50 years, Joanne, is in the midst of the long decline of agitated dementia. Her illness has necessitated that she spend her days at an assisted living facility. Neil is with her during the days.Joanne at times feels isolated and alone, longing for Neil’s presence with her. The Power of Presence tells the story of how Neil has learned to love his wife in this stage of life. Anderson also uses his wife’s struggle as a metaphor for our own desperation for God’s Presence.

This is a short, six chapter book. Chapters one and two feel the most vulnerable. Anderson describes the absence of God’s presence and the times where He feels absent (having suspended his conscious blessing).  Chapter describes coming into God’s presence and praying in the Spirit with thanksgiving. Chapter four describes ministry in God’s presence. Chapters five and six describe resting and being fully in God’s presence.

I appreciate this book for the way that Anderson shares the vulnerable and difficult journey it has been for him to internalize these lessons. There are poignant lessons that Anderson is learning in his wintering years. I give this four stars.

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

 

 

Another Turn in the Labyrinth

I  walked a labyrinth in Ashland, Oregon today. Trinity Episcopal Church has a 42-foot-Chartes style labyrinth in the midst of their sacred garden near downtown-a quiet meditative space in the midst of breweries and boutiques,coffee shops and New Age bookstores.

I don’t think there is anything special about labyrinths. They provide a path for people to prayer walk if they don’t want to actually go anywhere while they are prayer walking (but in). But at different times I’ve found them helpful for clarifying my inner landscape.

For example, a decade ago I walked a labyrinth while on retreat. It was after a season of intense Christian service. I was preparing to attend (un)seminary.  As I walked, I was struck by how at times I seemed close to the center but had to keep walking a ways before I got anywhere close. Conversely, I noted that as the path winded to the outer rim, I was actually nearer to the Center than I was before. This was a vivid picture for me of pursuing God, feeling both distant and drawn in. 


Today as I stepped into the labyrinth, I was struck by how circuitous the route was, not unlike my own path as I’ve sought to live in the center of God’s will. I graduated from seminary six years ago, found a denomination we felt was a good fit, but I had no ministry job on the horizon. I took a job at the local hardware store and waited. When I finally found a pastor job. It took me from Washington to Florida. I thought I was closing in on the center, but it turned out to be a bad fit. Twists, delays and doubling back again.

I’ve kept walking, still pursuing the Kingdom of God, community, hospitality and justice. We’ve traversed the country again, looking for a place to belong. this time in Southern Oregon  (Ashland/Medford area). Still walking near the outer rim, hoping to close in on the center. What’s next? Church planting? Bivocational ministry? Or something else? The way is made by walking, but one day soon I will rest with Christ my center. I will lay aside my fears and hopes for the life and mission He’s calling me.

Change You Can Damn Well Believe in: a book review

Tom Sine is something of a senior statesman for Christianity and social change. He first published The Mustard Seed Conspiracy in the early 80s as a trumpet blast call to radical discipleship. In the late 90s he wrote Mustard Seed vs. McWorld to explore the power of the small, incremental change of the Kingdom of God. His new book, Live Like You Give a Damn!  hones in on the concept of social change in today’s world and the role younger generations can play in effecting change.

9781498206259The title of the book takes a nod to a ‘Eat like you give a damn!’ t-shirt worn by the wait staff of Portage Bay Cafe. Sine ate with his wife there after attending a recent conference of social innovators. He saw the shirt and blurted out, “That’s it! I need to join these social innovators and start living like I give a damn” (20). The entire book is a tool for looking at your world and neighborhood, dreaming and enacting new possibilities by joining the ‘changemaking celebration.’

The book begins by examining some global issues we face and some of the ways individuals, churches and organizations are already enacting social change. Sine identifies two steams of social innovation: the social entrepreneurial stream which involves creating businesses with societal and environmental impact, and the community empowerment stream which aims at increasing the capacities of neighborhoods for sustainability, resilience and mutual care. The exploration of these streams is interactive. There are ‘conversation’ and ‘dreaming-and-scheming’ sections built into each chapter.

Sine is a futurist who is committed to a lifestyle of radical discipleship in the way of Jesus. The change making celebration he is inviting us to includes living generously and simply, caring for the environment, and confronting systemic injustice. There is a lot to chew on in this volume and lots of exciting examples of what people are doing. However, this book has the occasional  distracting editorial lapse. For example, “Alberta, in Canada, is one of the first cities in North America to invite the Abundant Community Initiative to be field-tested as a way to create connected and empowered communities in the city of Alberta” (106). Alberta is a province and the city that Sine means to point us to is Edmonton. This is the equivalent of a Canadian author referring to the great city of Texas when he means Austin.

I like the lifestyle Sine is calling us to. I think this book is most helpful in dreaming possibilities but of less practical use. This is a compelling invitation to join the ‘changemaking celebration and live like we give a damn. I give this three-and-a-half stars and recommend it for dreamers and schemers and those who are wondering how to best impact their world.

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

 

 

The Mind of Terror: a book review

Tass Saaada was a terrorist. He was a sniper for Yasir Arafat’s  Fattah organization. Since those days he converted to Christianity, and founded a non-profit, Hope for Ismael, that works to bring reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, and now spends a bunch of the year ministering to children in the Middle East. He wrote Mind of Terror (with Dean Merrill) to describe what motivates terrorists, and how we ought to respond to it.

978-1-4964-1394-9Part one describes the terrorist mindset, and the root causes of terrorism This includes an examination of honor and shame in Mid-Eastern cultures and reasons why they hate the west. Saada says that among the reasons people become a terrorist include  the violent loss of loved ones,  the firm belief that another person’s faith is corrupt, disgust at Western society’s decadence, a desire for the return of your homeland, discrimination and maltreatment, and the US backing of modern Israel state. The reasons for terror are a mix of ideological commitments and personal experiences.

Part two surveys an evaluates the various responses Westerners make to terrorism in our world: worry, fighting back, naive political solutions, or just chalking it up to end times prophecy.  Against these Saada points us, in part three, to the Jesus way. He explores God’s plan for Isaac AND Ishmael, explores the mind of peace, and discusses how we can neutralize terrorism and share the love of Jesus with our Muslim neighbors. The closing chapters profile Christians who are working among Muslims.There are some really helpful things here about questioning our personal assumptions and being gracious to our Muslim neighbors.

Increasingly, our lives are lived between acts of terror: New York, Boston, Paris, Orlando, Nice. So much of the rhetoric discusses how we can combat the terrorists: stamp out ISIS,  destroy their networks, mete out revenge. Saada brings the perspective and insight of  one who has been involved with terrorism in the past. He understands the root causes and the futility of some  of our responses. Yet he has been transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and desires the same for those in his heritage. This book is neither a fear mongering book or Pollyanna. Terror is real and it destroys lives. But the solution to it is not politics, or war or benign neglect. It is the robust love of Jesus. This is a good book if you would like to understand more of the roots of terrorism and what a Christian response looks like. I give it four star.

Note: I received this book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.

Rescuing the Bible from Them Catholics?: a book review

Erwin Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Church, one of Evangelicalism’s storied congregations, and has been for some thirty-six years. He is a featured speaker on three Christian radio programs and the author of many Christian books.  In Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation, Lutzer applies his craft and skill as a Bible teacher and author to exploring the importance of the Protestant Reformation for Western History and the Church and  its ongoing lessons it  us as we seek to live faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ today.

9780801017131Lutzer  begins by describing the the moral corruption and theological issues facing the Catholic Church in the centuries leading up to the Reformation and early attempts to bring about reform (i.e. John Wycliffe and John Hus). He then devotes nine chapters to describing Luther and the rise of Lutheranism before exploring other Reformers. He apportions a chapter each  to Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Calvin and Calvinism. His final chapter poses the question, ‘Is the Reformation Over?” and explores aspects of the Reformers message that Lutzer feels are ripe for recovery.

The first thing to note about Rescuing the Gospel is that it a beautiful book Colored pictures adorn the pages. Paintings, maps and artifacts illustrate the material. On a whole, this book is aesthetically pleasing. It is also well written. Lutzer is a gifted teacher and he tells a good story. His prose is warm and engaging. He doesn’t delve into the complexities of Luther’s pyschological character, but focuses on Luther’s contribution to Reformation and the main events of the period. This is a popular level history and Lutzer does a good job of describing events and setting them in context.

Nevertheless, Rescuing the Gospel has several limitations. First it is limited by Lutzer’s source material. Lutzer, does have a smattering of sources from recent decades (notably, James Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer, 2003), but for the most part, his sources are at least thirty years old. Much of the material is drawn from Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (1950) and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952).These are good books, but dated. As such, Lutzer does not demonstrate any engagement with contemporary historical scholarship of the period he is describing. This is a popular lever history, so of course Lutzer doesn’t have to be the consummate scholar of the era, but I wished he demonstrated more awareness of current discussions.

Second, this book is limited in its scope. It is a book about the Reformation, but it restricts itself to the Protestant Reformation of continental, Northern Europe. This makes it really WASPy. The Roman Catholic Church had their own reformation (or Counter Reformation) which addressed which responded to some of the abuses of power, scandals and problems in the Catholic church and their own spiritual movements (i.e. Carmelites, Jesuits, etc). These are treated only incidentally or not at all. But Catholics aren’t the only ones short shrifted. The story of the Reformation in the British Isles is told in all of three pages (178-180). That’s a page and a half for Scotland and a page and a half for Anglicanism and the Puritans (sorry Baptists). This means Henry VIII’s Brexit from the European Union (of Roman Catholicism) is barely mentioned.

Third, this book is limited by its author’s  generosity with other theological perspectives. Lutzer is generous when it comes to his descriptions of Luther and the Reformers, always careful to set their foibles with in their own historical contexts. For example, Lutzer condemns Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks as despicable and ‘anti-Christian,’ but states they rested on his commitment to ‘right doctrine’ rather than a desire for ‘pure blood’ (116) and he asserts that Luther would have opposed Hitler if he lived in the days of Nazi Germany (a curious piece of what if history) (117). Also he describes Calvin’s participation in Servetus’s execution, as a minor role, and he emphasizes Calvin was a creature of his time (167-168).

However, Lutzer is not quite so generous with the Catholic Church. His chapter on Luther’s 95 theses, Luther’s initial ‘protest’ against indulgences, describes the role indulgences played in Catholicism and the role it still plays in contemporary Catholicism (24-26). So from the outset we know his purpose is showcase the continuing error of Catholicism. Lutzer’s final chapter is devoted to describes the great divide between Catholic and Evangelical theology and the way ecumenism waters down the gospel. He is critical of ecumenical statements like the Evangelical and Catholics Together document (1994) or the Lutheran-Catholic Concord (1999) compromises a robust understanding of Justification ‘by faith alone’ (188-189). He spends several pages railing against Catholic dogma and practice including things like Mariology, transubstantiation, indulgences,  veneration of the saints,  and superstitions  (192-198).  This is much more sophisticated and evenhanded in its critique than a Chick tract would be, but it does paint a grim picture of the state of Roman Catholicism today.

I am not  Roman Catholic and I did find myself nodding along with several of Lutzer’s critiques. Theology matters and we ought to be able to discuss these issues openly and honestly in dialogue with our Catholic sisters and brothers. However :Lutzer’s broad-brush of ecumenism makes it sound like the  evangelical signers and endorsers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together cared little for right doctrine and good theology. Does J.I. Packer have a watered down understanding of  Justification by Faith Alone? Does Thomas Oden? Richard Mouw? How about Os Guiness? These are scholars with passion, intelligence and good theology. These are men of fervent (evangelical) faith. They have not given way to error because in a joint-statement with Catholics they chose to emphasize our shared heritage with the Church Universal. Lutzer is passionate about right doctrine but is doggeredly determined to fight the old fundamentalist fight against other branches of the Christian faith. Catholicism is but one error that he thinks evangelicals ought to combat:

Martin Luther had to rescue the gospel from the distortions of Catholicism; in some sense, our task is more difficult than his. We must rescue the gospel from Catholicism along with a host of other movements, such as fraudulent, so-called evangelicals whose entire television (or internet) programs are dedicated to “health and wealth” theology with special “breakthroughs” promised to those who send them money. We have to rescue it from theological liberals who deny the supernatural character of the Christian faith. We have to rescue it from false religions that compete for the allegiance of men and women.(200)

I share with him his concern for truth, but his lack of generosity signals a troubling tone. I can’t really endorse this book, though I can’t say wholly disliked it either. Lutzer does highlight the Reformation’s legacy and draw attention to issues that matter. I give this two stars.

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