How to Declutter Your Soul with 10 Simple Practices: a book review

I am not a mega-church guy. The churches I have been a part of have been small; however I am not a mega-hater either. I recognize big churches often have resources that smaller churches do not and are doing Kingdom work. I recognize my life’s call is different but I appreciate several mega-church pastors. One such pastor I respect is Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. He is a clear and effective communicator, a follower of Jesus and a pastor with nearly forty years of experience. I admit that I have a bias for smaller more organic models of church, but you have to respect that kind of faithful longevity in ministry!

Hybel’s new book Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul shares practical insights for having a lifestyle of freedom in Christ. These are insights that Hybel’s has learned personally and through his experience as a pastor: They include:

  • Replenishing your energy reserves.
  • Organizing your schedule to reflect who you want to become instead of what you need to get done.
  • Managing your finances
  • Refining your working world (doing what you were made to do!).
  • Making room for forgiveness.
  • Conquering your fears.
  • Deepening your friendships and relational circles.
  • Claiming God’s call on your life by finding a life verse to give you focus.
  • Welcoming new seasons into your life.
  • Leaving a godly legacy.

Many of the practices that Hybels suggests correspond to advice you would find in self-help books; yet this is not just a self-help book with a Christian veneer. Hybels wants people to experience all that God has for them in Christ. So when Hybels talks about organizing your life, he isn’t just talking about time management that will make you healthier, happier and more productive. He is hoping to help you become what you were meant to be a Christ follower (35). And when he shares about choosing a life verse he isn’t just giving us the Christian version of a personal vision statement. A life verse is a passage of scripture chosen to reflect God’s purpose for your life so that you can focus on what matters most. In each of these cases what Hybels is pressing us to pursue is something far deeper and richer than its secular equivalent.

Along the way Hybels dispenses lot of helpful tidbits. Regarding forgiveness, he gives detailed pastoral advice on how to let go of the small stuff (level one offenses), and work towards reconciliation and healing when there has been a real wrong done (level two offenses) or when there is profound damage done (level three offenses). He doesn’t offer easy answers (simple doesn’t always mean easy) but gives guidance which helps us to pursue wholeness and healing. Hybels helps us attend to the health of our relationships and deeping our connection with other believers. I personally found his discussion of organization and finances to be insightful because he takes the two most coveted commodities in our culture (time and money) and illustrates how managing these well helps you experience the deep joy and serve God better.

Anyone could read this book profitably but Christians will find it particularly useful. I underlined and dog marked several pages which I plan to return to personally, and also because I think that Hybels illustrates well about how to talk about issues with others. Hybels is gracious in what he says and how he says it and I think I can learn from that. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Tyndale so that I could share with you my honest review.

 

Holding Out Hope: a book review

Since Howard Gardner first popularized the theory of multiple intelligence, there has been a burgeoning publishing industry exploring different ways of knowing. Daniel Goleman’s landmark Emotional Intelligence (EQ) made the case for the importance interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence as a prerequisite for success in business and in life. Ray Johnston makes the case for developing our ‘Hope Quotient’ (HQ). Johnston is a speaker for Youth Specialties, the founder of Thrive Communications, Thriving Churches International, the Thrive Leadership Conference and the founding pastor of  Bayside Church in Sacramento, California. In The Hope Quotient  Johnston makes the case for the value of hope and describes the seven factors which raise your HQ These include:

  1. Recharging your batteries–investing in relationships and activities that enliven hope.
  2. Raising expectations–don’t settle!
  3. Refocusing on the future–you can’t strain ahead while looking back.
  4. Playing to your strengths–Be who you are.
  5. Refusing to go it alone–developing supportive relationships.
  6. Replacing burnout with balance–how margin and rest keeps you from losing all hope.
  7. playing great defense–avoiding the hope killers.

An accompanying online assessment (code comes with purchase of the book) identifies areas of strength and growth for becoming more hopeful people. In the final section of this book, Johnston discusses how to unleash a culture of hope in marriage and family, in our careers, in our church, our communities and our world.

This was a good book for me to read. It really underlies the importance of cultivating a hopeful outlook. Because Johnston is a pastor he points to a number of biblical stories which illustrate the factors and principles he describes. He does not engage in a sustained way with a particular biblical story, but people like Peter and Elijah (and others) make these factors vivid. Additionally Johnston shares lots of stories from his leadership and ministry contexts.

While I was reading this book I had two big questions. First: what is the difference between hope and positive thinking? There are plenty of business and self books which repeat the truism of positivity. People who are confident and believe in the possibility of success are more likely to succeed. Some of the rhetoric in this book sounds similar but hope, and Christian hope in particular, is much more robust concept. Christian hope evokes the idea of redemption for those in Christ, the consummation of the Kingdom of God and the restoration of all things. I believe this and Johnston believes this too, but this only ever partially unpacked. I had hoped to hear a thicker concept of hope here.

My second question was a bit more practical: How do you avoid unhealthy people and is that even right? Johnston repeatedly asserts that critical and emotionally unhealthy people are ‘hope killers’ and suggests we limit our time with them (46-7).  Critical people are wounded people who need their hope enlivened. Sometimes they are significant people in your life. Avoiding them may be impractical (what if it is your spouse?). From a ministry and missional perspective I wonder if what we really ought to do is deepen our relational investment with these hurting and hopeless individuals. Still I take Johnston’s larger point about cultivating friendships and networks of support which keep us from becoming despondent ourselves. Johnston is wise to say that the critical crowd are not our ‘go-to-guys’ and that we need people who help cast vision, dream and spur us on to something bigger.

What is good about this book is the practical advice that Johnston gives for growing our hope, trusting deeper in God knowing the good things he has in store and casting vision for big things. I give this book a qualified four stars. I like what it says, I just wish it said more. But this could be read fruitfully and I think many will find it helpful.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from  the Book Look Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Monks, Moguls & Managers: a book review

There was a time when the church mined the business shelf for wisdom on managing ministries, leadership and growing your church. In some circles, this is still the rage. August Turak appears to be attempting to do the reverse. Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks recounts Turak’s experience of working alongside the monks at the Mepkin monastery. For seventeen years, what he has learned from the brothers’ example, and  that has  helped him be a better, more successful CEO.  Of course, the monks are not Turak’s only source of spiritual insight. He studied Zen Buddhism with some guy in West Virginia and apparently has watched the Devil wears Prada a lot.  His association with Mepkin came through a connection he made  the Self Knowledge Symposium (a group of college students he leads, where he shares  his spiritual insights).  He went for a weekend retreat after a student of his had been spending his time volunteering there. That began his long relationship with the monks.

So what is it exactly that Turak has learned from the monks? The content of this book is not significantly different from any other business self-help book. Turak attributes the monk’s success to: their commitment to quality, their commitment to community, their selfless service, loyalty, the opportunity their life together makes for personal transformation, integrity and their commitment to a higher purpose.  Because Turak is writing for the widest possible audience, his appropriation of the monk’s insights are applied far beyond their particular Christian, monastic commitment.  He wants to help business people translate monastic style commitment to their organizations.

What makes this book a fun read is Turak’s blend of monastery stories with stories of his own business success and challenges. His spiritual commitments (and personal commitments to running the SKS) has often meant that he has had to forgo  opportunities. However these commitments served to pave the way to the particular shape of his success.  Hearing his story is part of the fun and of course he makes you wish you knew a bunch of Trappist monks.  The Trappist’s Benedictine heritage ensures their commitment to the sacredness of work, as one component of the spiritual life.  So it seems natural that Turak can appropriate their insights and experience to the workplace.

I enjoyed this book but I am not sure what I will take from it.  Secularizing the insights from the monastery means reducing the spiritual insights and religious commitments of the monks into something useful for everyone. There is something good about this, but it is also part of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ lowest-common-denominator impulse. The monks have a vocation. So do business people. They can learn from each other, but their distinctive call is their greatest gift to the world.  I think Turak gets this, but when he talks about getting business’s to commit to their organization’s purpose, this will always be a different order of commitment to me than a Trappists commitment to God, community and prayer. The former may be worthwhile, but is temporal. the Godward life connects us to the Transcendent.  I would have difficulty committing to my current organization (in the business world) with the same tenacity that monks devote themselves to God. I don’t think I should, even while I agree that commitment to a common purpose will lead to greater corporate success (in general).

I give this book four stars and think that if you like quasi-spiritual business books, you likely will love this one. I liked it. 😉

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

 

 

 

You Were Born For (Even) More: a book review

I had a sneaking suspicion that I would not like this book.  The front cover has a larger-than-life picture of the author in a handsome suit (setting himself up as the ‘expert’); the title, “You Were Born For More,” has that  self-help tone to it with a heavy ‘prosperity’ vibe.  A Oneness Pentecostal wrote the book forward, which put my inner theologian on high alert for evidence of a defective trinitarianism.

But call off the inquisition, I didn’t see heresy here.  Harry Jackson is rooted in Wesleyan/Holiness theology and he develops his theme with wit and grace.  He may have a mild prosperity theology, but he’s endorsed by a wide range of evangelical ministers: T.D. Jakes (the Oneness Pentecostal), Bill Johnson (charismatic), Jim Daly, Tim Lahaye,  Tony Evans (regular old evangelicals). I found very little to disagree with but I didn’t feel like Jackson explored the full story of  God’s blessing.

This book is written for those in the midst of life’s struggles. Jackson’s message is that no matter what circumstances you are facing, God has something better in store for you. And so he presents six steps to receiving God’s blessing:

  1. Have a humble and willing spirit
  2. Trust God and be someone He can trust
  3. Be an emissary of God’s love
  4. Endure in the face of adversity
  5. Remain faithful even in uncertain times
  6. Commit yourself to personal purity

These six steps are developed in six chapters.  There are several features of Jackson’s book that I appreciate.  He is vulnerable about his own struggles when he faced health concerns and financial hard times. This is not some Pollyanna approach.  Likewise he does attempt to root his theology in a classic Evangelical understanding of divine providence and grace (even reviewing the classic Calvinist and Arminian options).

My disagreement with this book is matter of tone. I actually believe that if you follow Jackson’s steps you will be blessed by God. I would  lean more towards God’s blessing being more about spiritual benefits than material benefits *though clearly God provides for our needs materially). I think Jackson would agree, though his example of buying a multi-million dollar church property as an example of God’s blessing, does lend itself to a more material interpretation.  However I do take issue with Jackson’s framing God’s blessing as his (or my) personal destiny.  Walking humbly with our God is more than a pathway to personal blessing. There is little here which calls us as Christians to take a prophetic stance against injustice and work to transform the culture through Kingdom work.  There is a personal dimension to Christian spirituality, but God’s blessing transforms cultures, impacts cities, renews the church, brings life and light to those in darkness.  I was born for even more than my bad self.

I give this book three stars.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

A Resource For Overcoming Temptation: a book review

We all struggle with temptation and fall victim to our bad choices. Arnie Cole of Back to the Bible and  journalist Michael Ross have teamed up to help us overcome our sin. Following up on their previous book, Unstuck, Cole and Ross  examine the anatomy of temptation and the areas we each struggle with.  As director of the Center for Biblical Engagement, Cole has conducted  surveys on more than 100,000 people on the areas of temptation and spiritual growth. In the pages of Tempted, Tested, True: A Proven Path to Overcoming Soul-Robbing Choices they share the findings of their research, share stories of co-strugglers and offer a biblical remedy for temptation.

Tempted, Tested, True: A Proven Path to Overcoming Temptation by Arnie Cole and Michael Ross

Cole and Ross market Tempted, Tested True as two books in one:

(1) A faith-building guide filled with practical solutions

(2) A personal and small-group workbook (19).

Each of the ten chapters concludes with the workbook section called  ‘a nudge’. The ‘nudges’ are loosely correlated to the chapter material so it is possible to do the workbook independent of reading. For the purposes of this review, I read the chapter material and skimmed the workbook. However I do plan to go back through the workbook exercises more in-depth because  they will be helpful to me (though the table of contents does not tell you the page numbers for the nudge sections)

What I liked best about this book was the tone. This is a book dealing with sin and temptation but it is also gracious. Cole and Ross are fellow strugglers and they open up about this along the way and profile a number of other people. In fact several other writers contributed to chapters of this book, including: Theresa Cox, David Barshinger, Pamela Ovwigho, Kelly Combs, Sue Cameron, Deidra Riggs and Michelle DeRusha.

Their gracious look at temptation eschews easy answers and quick-fix solutions. The  contributors have each pursued personal holiness, sometimes at personal cost.  They have all experienced forgiveness and freedom but they also know how their sin has hurt the ones they loved. Some also have had to set up boundaries to protect themselves from other people’s sin (i.e. Kelly’s Story in chapter six, shares how her mother’s addiction and manipulation made it impossible to remain in relationship with her).  Despite the difficulties faced, Ross and Cole and company hold out the possibility of freedom in Christ.

This book is thoughtfully put together. The research basis for this book means that Cole and Ross do not simply spout off what they think women or men struggle with. Instead they speak empirically of what men and women have really struggled with and they guard from oversimplifying issues.  Their objectivity makes this a useful book for Christians of different theological persuasions.

However I found this book limited in a couple of respects. Cole and Ross speak to where people feel tempted and to issues that besiege  Christians. Yet a full-bodied treatment of sin has to go beyond the realm of felt-temptation. The biggest sins are not always lust, anger or addictions, there are sins of omission as well. One of the biggest sins in our churches is our failure to care about the world around us by reaching out with tangible love. To put it another way, James 1:27 says, “True religion is to care for widows and orphans and to keep yourself from corruption.” Tempted, Tested, True does a great job of helping us keep ourselves from corruption, but says little to encourage us towards active care of widows and orphans. To do the one without the other, is still sin.

On a related note, this book focuses on individual,  personal sins but does not explore the complementary theme of social, and institutional evils.  Following Jesus calls us to stand against injustice and oppression. This is what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious leaders in his own day. Remember how the Pharisees had their own personal code of holy living but ‘devoured widows houses’? (Mark 12:40).  Let me clear, I think personal sins should not be glossed over and we need to pursue personal holiness. However our discussion of sin should  be cognizant of social sin as well.

It is not that a book has to say everything.  I think this book does a great job of articulating its theme. I just feel that you could put into practice the principles in this book and still fall short of all that God intends for your life.  The way of  Jesus is more radical than a personal means of transformation and behavior modification. Jesus is alive and that changes everything.  That being said I think that this book can and should be read for benefit.  Understanding the nature of temptation and how to stand up under it is a noteworthy goal.

I think this book is a good aid for personal study or discussion. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Thinking Virtues: a book review

As a Christian, I care about growing in character, but beyond character formation, it is also imperative that we give space for our intellectual formation. Philip Dow, author of the new book from IVP academic, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation, argues that. “Our intellectual character influences our lives just as moral character does,  and with at least as much force. The only difference is that intellectual character is concerned not with  our actions as much as the thinking habits we are developing as we seek to use knowledge (22).”

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Formation by Philip Dow

In this thought-provoking book, Dow explores the habits which contribute to our mental formation, discusses the fruits of  good thinking habits and offers suggestions for how we can become people of intellectual character. In the appendices Dow shares how intellectual virtue is taught in an educational context (especially at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya where Dow is superintendent). The intended audience for this book is educators and parents, but I think it has significant things to say to all of us.  As a parent I want to teach my kids to think well, but I also want to think well myself!  Dow’s advice will help us as parents and teachers pass on good thinking habits and it will help the rest of us attend to our own mental formation.

In part one of Virtuous Minds, Dow describes the seven habits of the virtuous mind. These include:

  • Intellectual Courage– honest thinking which is willing to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of truth. 
  • Intellectual Carefulness coming to judicious conclusion, attending to details and not taking short cuts.
  • Intellectual Tenacity-a commitment to stretching yourself mentally in striving through mental difficulties.
  • Intellectual Fair-Mindedness- a willingness to give a fair-hearing to other views and competing hypotheses.
  • Intellectual Curiosity- A commitment to lifelong-learning in the service of noble aims (i.e. some curiosity will kill cats, but curiosity which is not motivated out of self-interest can lead to important discoveries and new insights).
  • Intellectual Honesty- Committing to the truth both as an end and as a means (not cutting corners, cheating, engaging in falsehoods).
  • Intellectual Humility- Taking on the status of ‘lifelong-learner’ rather than ‘expert’  and being humble enough to receive correction in your thinking.

Part two explores the fruits of intellectual character formation.  Good thinking habits help you know more and think better. But lest we relegate the benefits of intellectual formation to the cognitive sphere,  learning to think carefully and well about God, the world, your neighbor, current events, social issues, etc., actually enables us to love God and others better. Of course the ‘benefits’ are not the thing itself, and intellectual formation is simply a dogged quest for ‘the truth.’ The benefits come from our commitment to learning and knowing truth.

In part three Dow has an eye for what this looks like in practice. In one chapter he gives suggestions of how we can grow in our intellectual character. In the next, he gives suggestions for parents and educators on how to pass on formational thinking habits.  His personal suggestions come in the form of ‘steps’ toward forming an action plan to develop a virtuous mind. His suggestions for educators and parents come in the form of guiding principles which will aid in passing this information on to others (especially youth and children).

Dow never makes intellectual formation an all-inclusive pursuit. Of course we want to attend to people’s spiritual health, moral formation, social skills, etc. But our intellectual habits will impact these  other areas as well. Dow demonstrates that our intellectual formation (or malformation) does impact other spheres as well.  I found myself underlining a lot in this book.

I especially liked how Dow uses the concept of virtue. In moral philosophy, virtue and character formation happens through habitual practice.  We become virtuous by consistently and habitually engaging in virtuous acts. In this book, Dow names the habits which make us into good thinkers. When I consider each of his seven habits of  ‘intellectually formed thinkers,’ I can see examples of where I think well. I also see where I can grow as a thinker.

The appendices do a phenomenal job of exploring and demonstrating the concept of intellectual character formation within an educational setting. However  part three of the book seems rather basic and I wished it was filled in a little more. I found myself wishing for a more indepth treatment of how this looks (or may look) in practice.  I do not

. I think that that teachers, educators, and Christian Education directors will make good use of this book. Parents will also find this helpful.  I found this book personally edifying and instructive and give it four stars.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Are You Gonna Risk it Sparky?: a book review

The old Beatle song begins,” You say you want a revolution, Well you know, we all want to change the world.” It is true right? We see destruction, brokenness, tension, extreme poverty, racism, sexism, and a whole list of isms that  hurt humanity. And we dream of  making an impact on our world.  The problem is that most of us do not get around to doing much of anything. We settle into our routines and do what is comfortable. We may take small risks but the revolution we want has not failed. It has been left untried.

Spark: Transform Your World, One Small Risk at a Time by Jason Jaggard

Jason Jaggard is the CEO and founder of Spark Good. He and his organization are dedicated to helping people reach their creative potential. Jaggard organizes “Spark Groups’–groups of ten to fifteen people who meet weekly together for five week. Each member of a Spark Group commits to taking one risk per week which is immediate (something you can do in a week), controllable (within your power to do), challenging (out of your comfort zone) and positive (something that makes your life or your world better).  In Spark he shares the risks he’s taken and the stories of other risk-takers that have gone on to do something beautiful.

So what is a Spark? “A Spark is a choice. A small risk”(12). Anything worth having requires risk. In fact, Jaggard contends that 100 percent of the things you want are outside your comfort zone (29). If you think about my own life, that  rings true. Everything in my life that matters came through personal risk. Jaggard wants to show us the road map to a more meaningful life and to help us make the world a better place.

This book is life-coachy, and is aimed at helping people achieve their God-given potential.  Yet Jaggard writes as a Christian and so critiques human potential. We shouldn’t do everything we can (that would be sin). We should accept our limitations and unique shape (that is how God designed us). Ultimately a life of significance, according to Jaggard, isn’t just doing what we want with our lives. A truly meaningful life is a life lived in cooperation with God and participating in his mission in the world (he illustrates this with a NASCAR analogy which I have chosen to forgive him for). I also liked the idea of his “Spark Groups” because they show the power of groups to do something that matters. Jaggard shares stories of groups that risked together that did something that mattered.

On a personal note, this book provided a fitting word for me. I am in a frustrating season of  life where I feel like vocationally I’m not doing what I was meant to do.  Jaggard’s advice inspires me to respond to the jerks in life (that which pulls at me) to spark something new, something good, something beautiful. I don’t have a Spark Group around me to participate in, but I have a church and I have friends and I promise to put these pages to practice and take a few risks in the weeks ahead.

So you may take a risk and read this book. For what it’s worth, I give it ★★★★☆

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me a copy of Spark in exchange for my honest review.