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

hosea

Lessons of a Good God (Hosea)

Hosea was a bad husband who publically shamed his spouse and a bad dad who saddled his children with awful names. He did all this to make vivid the message he had for a bad people, with bad leaders practicing bad religion. The final decades of Israel were marked by violence as new leaders deposed previous dynasties. They put their trust in trans-national partnerships with Egypt and Assyria. And the people followed the gods of the nations. Their idolatry was adultery, they forsook YHWH and their covenant relationship with Him. They forgot that was God that brought them into the land and gave it to them as a gift. Their practice of false religion and fertility rites (9:1-6) would not stave off famine and exile. Times of economic prosperity had led them away from their  God (10:1-2).

Because of Israel’s idolatrous heart, they were under God’s judgment. They sowed to the wind and would reap the whirlwind (8:7). Israel would be swallowed up by the nations they trusted, carried off to Assyria (8:8-9).  Hosea hoped that his people would turn their hearts back to God but they didn’t. The result was that perverted justice and coming judgment:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
    reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
    for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
    and showers his righteousness on you.
 But you have planted wickedness,
    you have reaped evil,
    you have eaten the fruit of deception.
Because you have depended on your own strength
    and on your many warriors,
the roar of battle will rise against your people,
    so that all your fortresses will be devastated—
as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle,
    when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.
 So will it happen to you, Bethel,
    because your wickedness is great.
When that day dawns,
    the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (Hosea 10:12-15)

God’s judgment hangs like a cloud over the prophets’ writings. But judgment was never the final point. Revealing badness was always a secondary concern for the prophet. The primary prophetic task was to reveal knowledge of God (daath Elohim), His goodness, and turn the hearts of people back to Him. Using the analogy of marriage, Hosea reveals God’s heart—the love he had for his people.
Throughout his book, Hosea describes the Lord in heart language. When he speaks of the knowledge of God (cf. Hosea 6:6), he is describing the intimate sharing between He and his people (like the intimate knowing which marriage partners possess of one another). “The general sympathy which Hosea requires of man is solidarity, an emotional identification with God” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, New York: Harper & Colon, 1962, p60). So emotive language describes God with emotive language: “When Israel was a child  I loved him. .. (Hosea 11:1). Hear the yearning of God in this passage and the promise of restoration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.
 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
    he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
    his children will come trembling from the west. (Hosea 11:8-10)

It isn’t just a prophets purpose, it the Father’s longing for his people to return to Him. He loves and longs for his people. God loves his people and even though they spurned and rejected Him, and like an adulteress chased after other lovers, God longed for their return to Him.  So while Hosea 12-13, like much of the book, describes Israel’s sin and God’s judgement for their adultery it ends with the promise of future blessing.
 I will heal their waywardness
    and love them freely,
    for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
    he will send down his roots;
    his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
People will dwell again in his shade;
    they will flourish like the grain,
they will blossom like the vine—
    Israel’s fame will be like the wine of Lebanon.
Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
    I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a flourishing juniper;
    your fruitfulness comes from me.” (Hosea 14:4-8).
The wayward and rejected Israel is promised that God would  heal them, love them freely, That his anger toward them would cease, and he would renew his Covenant love and blessing.
When we consider our own context, Hosea has a lot to teach us. As a prophet of God he spoke God’s truth. He told his nation of their wandering heart, idolatry and their failure to follow God. And yet as God’s prophet he told the whole truth. Beyond their national apostasy stood a loving God, longing to restore his people who had good things in store for them. God who would not be angry forever and would restore, and renew covenant life with Him.
So whatever your read is of America’s social and political landscape—its decadence, the pandering to special interest and oligarchy, our tenuous relationships with other nation states, the winking at injustice when it suits our interests,  the hypocrisy of leadership, the need to drain the swamp, the subversion of Christian values, the lies of the media, the treatment of the vulnerable, and the violence or whatever other ways we’ve sown to the wind and reaped the whirlwind—God’s good news for us is this: He loves us with a faithful love and longs to turn hearts back to him. His anger doesn’t burn forever and he will restore those who turn to Him.
Who is wise? Let them realize these things.
    Who is discerning? Let them understand.
The ways of the Lord are right;
    the righteous walk in them,
    but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9)

The God Walker: a book review

What happens when a Christian publisher with charismatic, evangelical, Anglican roots embarks on a Catholic pilgrimage? Tony Collins (of Monarch Books and Lion Hudson) took a month and two days to walk from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to the west coast of Spain, the city of Santiago de Compostela.  The Camino de Santiago is four-hundred-and-ninety mile journey across the hills of Northern Spain. In Taking My God for a Walk, Collins recounts the journey—sharing his reflections on pilgrimage and the people and places he met along the way.

walkingThe book provides a chronology of Collins’s pilgrimage, each chapter, a journal entry of a days or two’s walk, recounting the sights, sensations and encounters. He relays the hardness of the path, his conversations with fellow pilgrims and the way made by walking. This is a travelogue describing Collins three-fold journey: a journey of cultural discovery of the sights, tastes and culture of Northern Spain, a historic journey into the politics and demographics of the region, and spiritual journey undertook to seek ‘sources of reverence'(17-18). He meets God on the pilgrim road and is profoundly impacted by this journey.

I was interested in this book because the pastor of the church I am attending, recently came back from the Camino and came back with fascinating stories about her journey (which made their way into many sermon illustrations). Collins walked the same path. He weaves his theological musings with descriptions of towns and countryside, and particular interest in the friends forged along the way. 

I enjoyed reading about Collins reflections on life and faith, his embarrassment (early on) of the impropriety of having a traveling companion called his ‘girlfriend,’ the ways he braved boredom and bed bugs as he sought out the gifts of the journey. I enjoyed the book without necessarily finding it a compelling read. I found I could only read it in fits and starts. I don’t think this Collins fault. He is a good writer, witty, observant,insightful. But pilgrimage unfolds circumspectly. He walks the way of St. James and meets God in the walking and at the culmination of his journey. I give this book three and a half stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review. Monarch Books is an imprint of Lion Hudson and is distributed by Kregel in the United States.

Stretch Your Attention: a book review

I am a distracted man and I live among a distracted people. Our electronic devices buzz and chirp. Our online worlds provide portholes to cat pictures, news (real or fake), click-bait quizzes and a nearly endless supply of slideshows on what celebrities wear (or whatever else they do). We work and care for our families. Duty calls and we plod through it all, but feel pulled away by every-little-thing. Is it any wonder we have little sense of God’s presence in our lives? Laura Davis Werezak has written Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God to help us cultivate a greater awareness of God (and everything else). This is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the spiritual practices Werezak has found helpful. She invites us to incorporate these stretches into our own life and faith.

attendlargeWhat does attend mean?  Attend means to be present (as in ‘attending class’). It can also mean ‘to serve’ and ‘to wait’ (59).  The word literally means “to stretch toward”(2).  So these stretches are designed to help us as readers attend well to the condition of our soul and  to the relationships of those around us, as we stretch toward God.

These forty stretches are organized under four headings taken from Isaiah 30:15, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” So it’s organized as follows: I. Returning, II. Rest, III. Quietness,  and IV. Trust. This provides the flow for the stretches which Werezak describes: We return (or turn) our attention to God by learning to pay attention to life; we rest in the Lord, learning to enjoy His presence; we cultivate our ability to hear him the quietness and risk discovering what it means to trust in the Lord in our actions. Werezak begins by describing the practice of opening a window (physically and spiritually) and allowing  fresh air to blow in and ends with a call to plant a seed of peace through the work of justice.  Between these two practices there is not a sequence but a series of interconnected stretches which aim at helping us to attend well.

One of the things I really enjoy about this book is the scope of the practices which Werezak describes. These practices are spiritual (e.g. ways of prayer and mediation), relational (e.g. writing notes, playing with a child, reconnecting with a friend, listening to others), sensate (lighting candles, watching sunsets and sunrises, breathing, writing down five-sense experiences), and mundane (e.g. making your bed, setting tables). She reveals how we can develop our attention to God in all of life (even if it means unplugging from something for a while).

I always have two questions I ask whenever I read a book on spiritual practices. First: is this book just another Christianized version of a self-help book?  Certainly there is overlap being what Werezak calls attentiveness and the concept of mindfulness borrowed from Buddhism and slapped on the cover of every pop-psychology, business and personal growth book. Indeed I think if you practice many of these stretches, you’d be more mindful, aware, more present, and more appreciative of what you have in life. Making your bed, setting the table, cleaning, cutting an onion à la Robert Farrar Capon and watching a sunrise will help you become aware and intentional. Also, Werezak’s stretches are helpful for getting us pay attention to our relationships.However this isn’t just a self-help book because ultimately her hope is that we stretch our attention to God and his place in our lives.

Second: Is there an ecclesiology here? Books on spiritual practices often lack corporate dimensions. Even influential books like Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines lack a developed ecclesiology. And yet our experience of God is fundamentally shaped through our participation in church. Werezak  focuses her stretches on the personal dimension, emphasizing embodying our attention to God; however she does connect her experience to the wider Body of Christ.  She shares about finding a home in Anglican liturgy and delving deep into Christian tradition. She draws insights from mystics and the weird old prayers of the Book of Common Prayer.  She connects her personal  attempts to pay attention to God with the corporate practices of confession, praying written prayers, saying a creed out loud, listening to some else read the Bible for you, etc.). She sees deep connections between her experience, the church and the world and she connections her practices to the church’s Sacraments (44-45, 65, 80). But the strength of this book is how rooted these stretches are in Werezak’s own experience. These stretches are practices which have nourished her and her  own relationship to God.

Because this book features 40 stretches, this is an excellent devotional reader for Lent (coming up March 1), or as something substantive to read if your church is embarking on one of those forty-day extravaganzas. Certainly this book can be read by yourself (as I did) but books on spiritual practice are often more fruitful and fun if read with a friend. There is enough meat here for some good discussion and it is more fun to do stretches and work-out with a friend. Or with a small group. This book is a worthwhile read. I give this book four stars.


Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

In the interest of full disclosure, Laura is a friend of mine. We attended the same Christian grad school, had class together, were once neighbors on the University of British Columbia campus and  we were, together with our spouses, in the same justice-themed-small group. These days we catch up occasionally via Facebook. I know Laura to be a smart, reflective woman with a vibrant faith which comes through beautifully in her prose.