The Christian Romance: a book review

I almost didn’t want to read this book. There are a lot of books about grace. Many of them are underwhelming. They pit law against grace and New Testament against Old. Some books are fluffy and lack substance.   Some books mistake grace for poor quality control (the results are almost always bad).   I decided to go ahead and review The Romance of Grace anyway because the author lives in my hometown and is a teaching pastor at a church I drive by often. Then a strange thing happened: I liked it.

The Romance of Grace by Jim McNeely III

Jim McNeely III explores the operations of Grace in a winsome and engaging manner. In his opening chapter he explores  two of Jesus’ parables. The  first is  of the man who for the joy of it, sells all he has to buy a field with a hidden treasure. The second parable likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a merchant who sells all has to buy a pearl of great price. These parables tell us something about how grace works. When we get grace, joy motivates us to give our life a way to enjoy the treasure God has for us.

McNeely explores the implications of grace for the Christian life and how God saved us because of his great love.  McNeely interprets the Fall as the moment when humankind divorced God’s moral goodness from  the aesthetic Good(Eve saw that the fruit which God said not to eat was good for eating).  The implication of this is that our desires are disordered and we end up calling good, things which are not good (or lesser goods). God’s extravagant love brings  both senses of good together again.

In each of the chapters of this book, McNeely explores a facet of grace. Does grace mean that we can do whatever we want because we have a get-out-of-hell free card? Not anymore than the fact that your spouse loves you means you can cheat on them (BTW don’t even think it!). But it isn’t that grace demands or coerce.s  It compels. Like the man who buys the field for ‘the joy of it,’ we act graciously and faithfully because we know the love of God in our depths and it wells up within us.  McNeely  also explores how grace relates to predestination, spiritual gifts and the church, worship and wonder. God woos us with his love and his grace touches every part of our lives.

McNeely is a good communicator and I loved his illustrations (many drawn from movies and pop-culture, a few from his family life and personal experience). So many books about grace are fluffy but I found McNeely substantive and insightful.  This is a good picture of grace and the love of God. I happily give this book 4 stars and think that you will find its description of the romance of grace compelling.

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Got to Get Yourself Connected: a book review

About ten years ago I read Randy Frazee’s The Connecting ChurchIt had a signifcant impact on me. While I typically don’t read mega-church pastors hoping to find deep community, Frazee had substance.  I found real theological depth and sociological insight. He challenged churches to be more attentive to solid biblical teaching, to commit to a particular place, and to share  life together.  While other church leaders were touting small groups as their complete answer to building community, Frazee kicked it up a notch.  This book challenged me and after reading it I found myself in thicker community, living in the inner-city sharing life with fellow believers and missionally trying to reach out to neighbors. Frazee’s book helped prepare me to make sacrificial commitments. It also helped me form my convictions about intergenerational ministry.

The Connecting Church 2.0: Beyond Small Groups to Authentic Community by Randy Frazee

This month  The Connecting Church 2.0, is released. Frazee revisits the topic of community and reflects further on how to implement his suggestions.

Parts one through three follow the original book (slightly expanded). Part 4 discusses  how to implement the vision. In part one Frazee tackles the problem of individualism by exhorted us to community around a common purpose.For Christians who seek to be biblical, the Bible provides us with the story of God’s plan of redemption brought to fruition in Christ and his call on our lives to be his ambassadors. Frazee challenges us to know the Bible story. [This of course dovetails nicely with recent work that Frazee has done (with fellow pastor and author Max Lucado) on The Story]. 

Frazee addresses the problem of isolation in part two. Because of urban planning, automobiles and the suburbs, more and more people live in isolation from their fellow neighbors. Middle class culture tends to prize self sufficiency and independence. The tragic outcome  is that we do not know our neighbors nor are we known.  Frazee exhorts us to buck the trends and connect to a common place. This means investing in your neighborhood, stopping by to see your neighbor, borrowing things (putting yourself in a place of need) and spending time in the front yard (being accessible).  He also has some proactive ideas for church small groups. He suggests not breaking people up by life-stage-affinity groups but geographically. That way a small group, in a given area of the city is able to be really community for one another and a missional presence of their neighborhood.

Frazee discusses the problem of consumerism in part three and challenges us to share common possessions. By this he means more than just sharing stuff. He is exhorting us to a lifestyle of interdependence, intergenerational life, shared responsibility and mutual sacrifice. In many ways, this section puts all of the above together and was one of the things that really excited me about the first edition of this book.

Part four is written for ministers and church leaders to help them process how to become a connecting-church. Frazee opens this section with a chapter discussing some lessons he’s learned in the past ten years. He then discusses spider or starfish organizations (referencing a popular business book)  to contrast centralized leadership in a church  versus decentralized, organic approaches to organization and ministry. Most churches are more like spiders (a head with legs and a complex web surrounding them). Starfish have their DNA written in every part of their being, at every level. Frazee suggests a hybrid model where the church provides organizational structure but frees up small groups to pursue community and mission more organically.  Ultimately he commends the starfish model as the goal but knows that our churches are not able to make the shift yet.

I liked this book a lot and consider it an essential resource for church leaders seeking to deepen their experience of community. At the very least, this book should be in every church library, if not in every pastor’s study.  I think that Frazee’s challenges are good ones. But I found that what I liked about this book most was what I had read in the earlier form. I really appreciated Frazee’s thoughtfulness about how this works out and the wisdom he’s learned, but for me the thing that captivated me most was the original vision: a community united around a common purpose, in a common place, sharing common possessions. That is what church should be.  Unfortunately that isn’t always what church is. I am grateful for Frazee’s prophetic challenge and hope that this new edition will help the church to be the church.

I give this book 5 stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The Tracy Evans Story: a book review

Tracy Evans is a physician assistant who has served in Christian medical missions in 64 nations over the past 30 years. Currently she serves with iReachAfrica in Mozambique (for the last twelve years). She was a runaway teen who came to Christ while serving in the army. Her faith ruined her military career (because she loved everyone so much and tried to convert them). As a missionary she’s been through wars, famines and hostage situations. She’s lived and worked in communist and Muslim nations which were closed to the gospel. Again and again she has seen God provide and protect her, guide her through and to difficult circumstances, miraculously heal and work wonders among the people she’s served.

Outrageous Courage: What God Can Do with Raw Obedience and Radical Faith by Kris Vallotton & Jason Vallotton

Outrageous Courage tells Tracy’s story. The narrative is written in the first person by her friend and pastor Kris Vallotton and his son Jason Vallotton (also in ministry).  The contents of this book are compiled from interviews with Tracy. The story is very much her own, but the Vallottons wrote the actual text, checking to make sure they got the ‘tone right.’

Tracy Evans is a charismatic missionary sent from a charismatic church, so there is an emphasis in this book on supernatural experience; however she doesn’t overstate this. She’s seen God heal and raise the dead, but as a medical missionary she’s also walked with people through suffering and is well acquainted with death. The miracles are not really the point for her, but the God who works miracles. Through out her story she shares how God has guided her into various circumstances and has created opportunities for her to share the story of Jesus with unbelievers. I know very little about her sending organization or what she does on the mission field from day-to-day (stories like this tend to emphasize the extraordinary) but I loved hearing a story from someone who has learned to trust God in life and ministry.

Another part of the story I appreciated was how much Tracy subsists with the support of other Christians. She talks about significant friendships throughout these pages (which include the Vallottons), who have walked with her, prayed with her and supported her throughout her various missionary endeavours  She is not a lone-ranger on a solo adventure. While this book is her story there is a community of people which enable her to take a courageous stand in difficult circumstances.

The Vallottons share the story of Tracy because they want to inspire readers to take risks in following God courageously. I was challenged by parts of Tracy’s story and would commend the book to anyone who loves a good testimony or Missionary-adventure story (who doesn’t?).  This is a story describes a lived experience of walking with God (rather than abstract-theological reflection).

I am often skeptical about aspects of charismatic books. It isn’t that I don’t believe God does these things, but there is so much hype, pretense and counterfeit miracles that I tend to take a wait-and-see approach. Tracy’s experience is different from my own but I believe she has seen and experienced each of the events described in these pages.

That being said, I found this book a slow read. The conversational style meant that this book sort of meanders through. I prefer a more focused presentation. I also did not like the book cover. The shadowy Zulu and the giant purple sky broken by a red and orange sunset is very much in keeping with the charismatic aesthetic. But it makes it hard for me to take this seriously (it looks like a novel).    I give this book 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Chosen Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review

Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint.  His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck: a Graphic Novel by Jay Stoeckl

Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan.  Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a  glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor.  But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys.  He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.

Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave  the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck),  Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan,  and his receiving the stigmata and more.

Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being  just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.

The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor.  My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:

Francis (F): Brother Duck?  What if all living things were brother or sister to me?

Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!

F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.

BD (after a pause)What about alligators?  If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?

F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”

BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?

F: And the Lord God made them all!

BD: Hmmm.

I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night: a book review

Sometimes as people age we watch the fire in their eyes die long before their breath grows cold.  Women of faith falter as they spend the winter of their years alone. Men who were once pillars of their community become empty shells. Thankfully not every one ages in this way, dying before their time. Others find strength in faith and cling tenaciously to life continuing to give and grow.  Robert Atwell, the current Anglican archbishop of Stockport has written a book about the spirituality of aging  which promises to help us make the most out of the last quarter of our lives.

Soul Unfinished: Finding Happiness, Taking Risks & Trusting God as We Grow Older by Robert Atwell

Atwell begins Soul Unfinished with an invitation. In our day and age, we can generally expect to live longer than our parents and grand-parents. So when retirement rolls around, we can choose to not give up but keep on living. Atwell exhorts us to continue taking risks, share wisdom and to go deeper in our relationship with God.  Atwell then describes retirement age, life in later years, memories and the role of elders in nurturing corporate memory, the healing painful memories, forgiveness and reconciliation,  self discovery and becoming and finding happiness, joy and gratitude.

I am not from the demographic which Atwell is writing.  As I am still in my thirties  I hope I am not in the last quarter of my life! Therefore it is difficult for me to evaluate the content; however I have ministered to seniors and can see the wisdom and sensitivity with which he approaches the issues. Seniors need to be told that they  still have something valuable to offer, that their life is not over and that this is the time to deepen their faith relationship.  Nearing sixty himself, Atwell doesn’t write disinterested advice as retirement is just around the corner for him too.

I gleaned from Atwell insights into how to speak meaningfully to people at this stage in life; yet the people who will find this book most valuable are seniors and those nearing retirement.  I think this would make a great gift book for the well loved retiree in your life. At the time of this posting, the e-book of this book is $2.99 on Amazon.

Thanks to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.