You Don’t Have to Close Your Eyes: a book review.

Prayer is like kissing, you don’t have to do it with your eyes closed.  Joking aside, part of prayer is cultivating an open, and attentive posture before God. This is in essence what Sherry Harney’s Praying With Eyes Wide Open is about: learning to attend to your environment, circumstances, and the voice of God. On a practical level, the biblical injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), means you have to learn to pray with eyes wide open, especially while operating an automobile or heavy machinery, but Harney has more to say. She describes how purposefully opening our eyes, ears and selves to God in prayer, brings new dimensions to our prayer lives.

9780801014703Sherry, with her husband Kevin,  lead Shoreline Community Church in Monterey California and cofounded Organic Outreach International (a network which resources churches and families for outreach). Sherry has coauthored books with her husband and written study guides for authors like Dallas Willard, Gary Thomas, John Ortberg, Ann Voskamp, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Christina Caine, and Mark Batterson.  She is a sought after speaker on prayer, spiritual formation, outreach, and leadership.

Praying with Eyes Wide Open isn’t just about open eyes. Harney advocates praying with eyes wide open, ears wide open, hearts wide open and lives wide open. These four open postures provide the framework for the book.

In section one, praying with eyes wide open, Harney commends open-eyed prayer, that allows us to attend to and see our environment (e.g. people, relationships, pain, beauty, and joy). Section two, praying with ears wide open, discusses cultivating our ability to hear the voice of God and the Spirit’s gentle leadings as we enter into conversation with Him. Section three, praying with hearts wide open, describes how trusting in God’s love for us frees us up, to be honest, and vulnerable in prayer. Harney also discusses in this section, how to engage in spiritual warfare and give your worries to God. Finally, section four, praying with lives wide open explores the rhythms of praying for and with others, for big things and small, and trusting that when we pray, stuff happens.

Each of the sixteen chapters ends with a suggested prayer practice to try for a week, meaning that the book is designed for those on a sixteen-week prayer journey (with a small group or personally). However the practices are simple enough to double up on if you would like to read through this in less time (I don’t have the attention span for reading a short book in sixteen weeks).

I am pretty bad at keeping my eyes closed in prayer anyway but Harney makes a good case for using open-eyed (or ear, heart, life) prayers to cultivate an attentiveness to what is really going on around us. I particularly appreciated her suggestions on praying with ears wide open, asking God good questions, and listening for answers (79-80).  But certainly, I can learn to cultivate openness and attention in each of four realms that Harney names. This book makes me hunger for more intimacy in my own prayer life (as any good prayer book should do).  I give this book four stars.

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

Treasure in ‘Dark’ Places: a book review

I grew up in the Christian Missionary Alliance and I love a good missionary biography. They tell the story of those on the field, giving all, and living sacrificially to share the good news about Jesus. They speak of trusting God and seeing the miraculous, alleviating suffering and seeing real transformation in people’s lives and in whole communities. So I picked up Leanna Cinquanta’s book, Treasures in Dark Places, with interest, looking to see the way God worked through her ministry to set people free, including some of the over 25, 000 girls abducted annually in the region of Northern India where she serves as a missionary.  Cinquanta founded TellAsia Ministries and through her influence, more than 10,000 churches have been planted in areas which are only 5% Christian. I was excited to here about her work there and the ways she trains up indigenous leaders to do the work of the gospel.

9780800798161And she does tell about some of that in her book. Treasure in Dark Places speaks of her call to missions, and her experience of the supernatural at home and abroad. She shares some stories from the mission field nd she tells of growing up and feeling the call towards missions, some of her experiences of God along the way (prophecy, miracles, etc).

However, I felt like this book was more about her than about the mission itself. I heard her story of her call, but the mission was vague on the details and I am fuzzy as to what she actually does to combat sex trafficking in Northern India. There are few disconnected stories.

I am a crypto-charismatic and I like hearing stories about the miraculous. However, I didn’t feel like I was offered much in the way of a compelling narrative here. The details are too sparse, and we hear dramatic encounters but not much on the hard work of ongoing relationships. On the plus side, Cinquata does refer to the people she encounters in India as God’s treasures whom she is working to liberate. This mitigates some of my discomfort with calling a region of dark-skinned people a spiritually dark place (though it still bugs me).

In the end, I just didn’t connect with this book but I am glad for the mission and the ways Cinquata has extended the welcome of God’s Kingdom in northern India. The book itself I give two stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Chosen Books in exchange for my honest review

A Renegade Monk and Protestantism’s First Lady: a book review

The tales of Martin Luther defacing a door and denouncing the Catholic Church’s captivity to Babylon are well known. The whole Protestant movement owes its origin to the way this cantankerous monk was gripped by the idea of saving grace. The story that many Christians don’t know, or know in far less detail, is that of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.

9781493406098In Katharina & MartinMichelle DeRusha unfolds the love story between the renegade Monk and Protestantism’s first lady. DeRusha previously authored 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  Here she hones in on the story of a marriage. Meticulously researched, she describes the story of Martin and Katharina’s love—the events leading up to their marriage, the reaction of friends and critics, their shared life and the circumstances of their deaths. DeRusha includes cultural background of the late Medieval ideas of marriage.

Katharina was an aristocratic nun who fled the cloistered life in the midst of the sixteenth century, Protestant awakening. Luther tried in vain to marry her off, but she was not happy with her would-be suitor. Eventually, he married her, himself, albeit partly for practical and political reasons (he had already written on the sacredness of married life and against celibacy). Luther’s primary reason for marrying was wanting to be obedient to what he felt was God’s call.

Luther was not attracted to Katharina at first and there was no spark of romance. Many of Luther’s friends (including his close friend Philip Melancthon) did not approve and actively opposed their union. Yet Luther grew to love his wife and value their partnership. Katharina discussed theology with Luther, managed the household and the family finances. Luther’s would come to speak of his wife with real affection and respect (even if still self-aggrandizing), “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it” (207). The two of them weathered crises together, including the grief of losing children.

This is popular level history at its best—a compelling read with enough footnotes for the reader to verify the substance. DeRusha relies on good research, referencing documentary evidence and scholarly research rather than opining on Luther and Katharina’s inner thoughts. I enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my church history shelf. As unique as their relationship was, DeRusha places Martin and Katharina within the late Medieval context.  Martin Luther was neither an arch-Complementarian or Katharina a proto-Egalitarian. Their marriage was countercultural in lots of ways (i.e. Katharina was intelligent, industrious and independent women, but in other ways traditional and deferring to her husband). I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone interested in church history, the Reformation era, or the history of Christian women.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books 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.

Dogma & Greg: a ★★★★★ book review

I was interested in reading Brian Matz’s Gregory of Nazianzus because Nazianzus is the Cappadocian father whose works I am least familiar with (though I don’t want to feign expertise on the other two). In seminary I had the opportunity to read Basil, and read  a number of Gregory of Nyssa’s. The only Gregory of Nazianzus I read was his five Theological Orations  which I read for pleasure on my own time. They were interesting—witty, theologically erudite, and well crafted. However, I am no scholar and felt like the best way for me to get a handle on Nazianzus is to find a wise guide.

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Brian Matz (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Saint Louis University) is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri associate professor of the history of Christianity. He wrote a dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus at Saint Louis University (of which this text is partially adapted).  In this book, Matz provides a biographical sketch of Gregory (chapter one) before examining the importance of purification as a central theological motif for this Cappadocian (chapter two). Chapters three through six explore the theme of purification in four of Gregory’s orations (Oration 2, 45, 40, and 14). As part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, series eds.), this book has a particular eye for Nazianzus’s use of Scripture.

Matz argues convincingly that purification is the key to understanding. Chapter two of this volume,  provides a broad overview of Gregory’s preaching of purification (or spiritual healing). Matz illustrates Gregory’s terminology and his understanding of the practice and process of purification (i.e. self discipline, ascetical practices, cleansing the senses, acts of mercy, contrition, fasting, celebrating holy festivals, desire to know God, the purifying fire of difficult circumstance, baptism, the Eucharist and piety). He then describes the benefits of the purification of the soul: knowledge and contemplation of God, divinization, becoming a recipient of heaven, undermining evildoers and the devil, escape from the torments of judgement, esteem in the community, etc. Finally, Matz examines the role that pastors, the Spirit, and Christ play in leading a soul through the purification process in Gregory’s thought.

Matz’s discussion of the four orations illustrates how Gregory works out this theme pastorally (oration 2), in contemplation (oration 45), in his understanding of baptism (oration 40), and in care for the poor and vulnerable (oration 14). Most these orations are available to the general reader free online (or for a nominal fee on Kindle as part of Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection). Oration 14 can be found as part of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Select Orations (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Not having access to the latter volume, I read the other orations in Schaff (in my case, through my Bible software program).

I really enjoyed this book and thought Matz did a wonderful job of walking the reader through Gregory’s exegesis. Nazianzus was less fanciful than Nyssa in terms of allegory, but made great use of the Canon (particularly found of the Psalms and Matthew, but drawing on a good swath of the biblical material). Like his Cappadocian counterparts, Nazianzus is Christological and Christocentric in his interpretation.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone interested in a short, attainable introduction to Gregory. ★★★★★

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

Killing Field Christian: a book review

Intended For Evil tells the story of Radha Manickam, an ethnically Indian, Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-1979)  and aftermath before emigrating to the US. Journalist and journalism professor, Les Sillars relays Radha’s story and provides historical and political context.

intendedforevil-sc.inddIn 1973, Nixon ordered carpet bombs on Cambodia, turning the small South Asian nation into the most bombed country in the world (bombed 2.7 million times. A civil war with the Khmer Rouge had been going on since 1970. The US bombings led to greater destabilization of the country. The Khmer Rouge took the reigns of government in 1975 and their paranoid, four-year Cultural Revolution re-mix of the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people.

Also in 1973 Radha trusted Jesus savior and Lord through a conversation with a pastor Nou Thay at an English class at Maratha Church, a Phnom Penh church planted by American missionaries. Radha’s faith grew, and he participated in evangelistic efforts  and worshipped at the church, though his faith was not always reflected in his life.

When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were governed by  both Communist ideology and Cambodian nationalism. Pol Pot was opposed to Western ideology, ideas and aid (except for what his government accepted from Russia). Westerners and those educated by the west were executed or re-educated. The Khmer also expected Cambodians to have a total commitment to the state, which they  vigorously enforced. The hope was to reshape Cambodians into a new Socialist people. Cambodians lived in fear because as the government became more and more paranoid about subversive elements, more and more people were killed.

Radha kept his faith and his relationship with Western missionaries quiet. More than once he tried to commit suicide but he felt God had a plan for his life. He didn’t invite martyrdom by living his faith openly. Outwardly he complied to whatever demands the Khmer put on him, making certain he never fell behind in his labor (and so give soldiers a chance to punish him). Several times his life was in peril. The Khmer control was total and they even arranged marriages for the Cambodian people. It is only after his marriage to Samen he discovered she was a third-generation Cambodian Christian.

Pol Pot’s government fell to Veitnam in 1979. He and the Khmer Rouge escaped to the jungles of Thailand. The terror was alleviated though danger and bad conditions persisted. Vietnam set up a client government which continued to engage in warfare with the Khmer Rouge through the next decade. Radha and Samen  emigrated to the US. They made their first trip back to Cambodia in 1989 after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc (the dissolution of Soviet support, made Cambodia more stable and open). Today he and his wife work to bring the gospel to Cambodians in Cambodia and North America.

Radha has an amazing story and  Les Sillars tells it in an engaging way. I give this book four stars and recommend it for anyone who likes a good biography.

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

Transform Your City by Putting on Christian Conferences: a book review.

Mac Pier is the founder and CEO of the New York City Leadership Center. In that capacity he also helped found the inaugural Movement Day conference in New York City (in cooperation with Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City and the Concerts of Prayer Greater New York). The conference was a gathering of missional leaders in New York, to cast vison and strategize together which later helped the Evangelical community have a tangible effect on the city.

In A Disruptive Gospel, Pier  shares his passion for disrupting cities and transforpier_disruptivegospel_wSpine.inddming them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He tells the story of his ministry in New York City, the formation of the first Movement Day and how the fruit of that endeavor led to an impact on the city through service with organizations like  Cityserve New York. Pier also shares the story of Movement Day Dallas and how it led to initiatives welcoming Millennials into the church and greater racial reconciliation among the churches. After discussing these American cities he examines similar movements around the globe  (places like Manila, Mumbai, Chennai, Dubai, Singapore, Port-au-Prince, Pretoria and Kigali, London, Gothenburg and Berlin).

Several convictions guide Pier’s work and analysis. First, following Rodney Stark and Wayne Meeks, he believes cities are strategic centers for mission and the proliferation of the gospel(43-44). Second, the thinking behind the inter-church gatherings like Movement Day stem from a convictions that “the vibrancy of the gospel in any city is proportionate to the depth of relationship and visible unity between [Christian] leaders in that same city”(53). Third, Pier operates on the premise that whenever there is a new move of God, anywhere, God raises up leaders to lead that movement.

This book suffers from the range of cities which Pier  attempts to cover—thirteen  different cities. The book is only 236 pages, so Pier, by necessity,  speaks in broad generalities.  I learned about some cool gatherings around the world of missional leaders, and Pier boils each chapter to a couple of pages of “what [each] story teaches us.” But the overall effect is pretty vague. There is not much here in the way of practical strategy.

I  also have questions about Pier’s premise that mission and ministry begins with the leaders and influencers, instead of the marginalized, the little and the least. Leadership is valuable, but you can gather Christian and marketplace leaders and still fail to intersect the needs of the poor. When I read here about how New York city leaders endeavored to respond to the needs of Port-Au-Prince through organizations like World Vision (170), I think of the reality on the ground and how well meaning Americans and large organizations often fail to meet the tangible needs of Haitians. (To be fair, Haitian church leaders were also included in their vision casting, and I personally support World Vision for their thoughtful approach to mission and relief work). Pier’s approach feels too top down to me. Perhaps this is effective and they are making a real impact, but the sparse details makes me skeptical.

However, I do appreciate the focus on cities and there are initiatives, city-wide actions and missional ventures that are worth getting excited about. I just didn’t feel like I got enough of the details. I give this book two-and-a-half stars. ★★½

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