Today Was a Good Day: a book review

We all want to have a good day, but we also have our share of bad ones. Those days where we don’t get done what we set out to do, we feel like we are spinning our wheels. when we feel anxious and stressed out and don’t navigate our relationships well. We feel low energy and give up when we see no path forward. But what if there was a way to have a good day or at least make the most of the ones we have? in How to Have a Good Day, executive coach and management consultant Caroline Webb draws on the insights of behavioral science to give us seven-building blocks for a good day. These include priorities, productivity, relationships, thinking, influence, resilience, energy. These building blocks are the components of what people describe as a good day.

HaveaGoodDayIn her introduction, Webb probes the components that make up ‘a good day.’ This gives shape to the rest of her book (the seven building blocks described above). Webb draws on “rigorous scientific evidence from psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience.” Her purpose is to “translate all that science into step-by-step techniques for imporving your day-to-day life (5). She does this by presenting research, giving practical advice and sharing stories. Her focus throughout the book is on the business world. So are her examples. However a broad application of these principles can be made to other aspects of life.

Each section of this book is one of the building blocks of a good day. Part one is about setting priorities and being intentional in work and life. Part two discusses productivity. This is the longest section of the book and Webb covers the importance of ‘single tasking,’ planning deliberate down time, overcoming overload and beating procrastination. Part three discusses how to manage relationships well. Part four probes how to be more creative, wise and intelligent at work. Part five explores how to influence and maximize impact on others. Part six describes what resilience looks like in the face of setbacks, hard times and annoyances. Part seven puts the pieces together, and describes how to approach live with energy and enthusiasm. A postscript includes three appendixes with suggestions for how to have a good meeting, how to be good at email and how to reinvigorate your routine.

The whole book is helpful. I especially liked the productivity section and the relationships  and influence sections. Chapter four, on single tasking explodes the myth of multi-tasking. Webb argues convincingly that though multi-tasking makes your day more interesting, actually reduces productivity (72). While some people (a tiny single digit percentage of people) are ‘supertaskers’ able to process multiple tasks at the same time, the vast majority of us work slower when our attention is divided among too many things. Webb points out the irony that “the people who are most confident of their ablity to multitask, are in fact the worst at it” (73).  So Webb offers practical suggestions for ‘batching tasks and zoning your days. In the relationship and influence sections, Webb offers a number of practical suggestions for handling difficult people and motivating others through positive communication.

This is one of those business self-help books. But don’t let that turn you off. Because Webb roots her practical suggestions in research, there is substance to her message. This isn’t fluffy. It also isn’t super technical (she explains her terms and a glossary also gives working definitions of psychological terms. Her seven domains are more comprehensive and inclusive than your ‘seven habits’type books. The twenty one chapters each offer several suggestions for habits, though some of these stack on top of each other (i.e. chapter five’s discussion of deliberate downtime and mindful practices is reinforced in the section on resilience).

I give this book four stars and think that this is a helpful for leader, managers, executives, or really anyone that wants more good days. Of course each section of the book can delve deeper than Webb in fact does (she includes suggestions for further reading). but I have no real complaints. This is a great book. Having finished it, my day is already better and there is a lot worth practicing here.

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

What’s Your Story: a book review

What do you think about when you think of youth ministry? Pre-fab curriculum? Programs? Silly Games? Youth pastors who ‘really care,’ play guitar and have a soul patch?  I am several years removed from the youth ministry world but still am invested in how to nurture the faith of teens and young adults. The perennial problem has been that when youth graduate from youth group, they graduate from church. Thankfully this is not the case with everyone, but it happens far too often.

Brandon McKoy offers a fresh approach which will change the way many are doing youth ministry. Youth Ministry From the Outside In draws together insights from practical theology and Social Constructionism. In fact, youth ministry guru Chap Clark writes the Forward and social theorist Kenneth Gergen writes an Afterward. In between, McKoy takes on a journey from  the way youth ministry  is–with its focus on individuals–to a fuller, richer picture which encompasses the insights of narrative therapy and linguistics. McKoy utilizes  social constructionism to posit that we (and our youth) are interconnected beings whose story is shaped by environments, traditions, family systems, etc. He sees the job of the youth minister is to help students to narrate their own story, get them to ‘thicken’ their own story through asking perceptive questions and exploring the themes, and by helping students locate their own story in the biblical story. Youth grow in their faith and relationship with God when they are able to locate their lives within Jesus’ own story.

In Part One McKoy describes the shift from the modernist emphasis on individualism (“You are Special”) to the social constructionist view of persons existing as a web or relationships.  This inter-connection explains why students take on different roles in their various relationships. For example. a student can be a growing thriving youth in church, but act ‘out of character’ while at school or at work. It isn’t just that they are just being hypocritical or duplicitous. The relationships that formed them may cause them to behave in certain ways in certain settings (because we are defined in relationship). McKoy suggests the way to address this is by getting students to tell their life stories which thicken their connection to the gospel.

This is fleshed out in Part Two. McKoy describes the significance of life stories and the events that shape our youth, particularly in early childhood and pre-adolescence., middle school and mid-adolescence, and middle adolescence. By getting youth to narrate their own life story, this promotes self understanding among youth and fosters organic spiritual growth.

In part three McKoy connects the life stories of our youth with the biblical story.  McKoy is concerned that we read the Bible mindful of our biases and assumptions, as well as the textual issues inherit in its pages. However he does argue for the authority of scripture because of the authority we invest in it as faith communities (163). Furthermore, he urges us to read the Bible as an ‘all-encompassing story’ and to focus on the person of Jesus as our hermenuetical key for understanding the whole of scripture.  McKoy wants youth to encounter a full-bodied version of the Biblical story and be able to make connections their to their own stories:

If students are not given thick descriptions of this [biblical] story, their personal stories(being shaped by the prevailing cultural story) will not be enriched by the alternate reality (God’s story) with which to frame the stories of the story of their lives.  Presenting the biblical story is not about providing explanations for events that the authors did not include or searching deep behind the meaning of the words, but about re-presenting the text in living detail (180).

Such a close reading text enables youth to imagine the realities of the Kingdom of God and helps them know Jesus because we know Him through knowing his story. And so a thick description of the biblical story and an emphasis on relationships enables students to  deepen their own story and grow in their faith.

Many Christians are suspicious of social construction theory and narrative approaches. Are these approaches ‘too postmodern?’ Are they too loose in their appeal to authority and truth? Is their emphasis on relationships harmful to our conception of the individual? McKoy anticipates many of these objections and attempts to answer them through out the book (often in a a text box labeled ‘the critic’s voice’).  I remain uncertain about aspects of social construction but find the way McKoy applies its insights helpful and suggestive. Certainly attention to how people are shaped by relationships, and the value of narrative approaches to understanding people and scripture offer important insights.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone active in ministry. This book is focused on youth ministry and is most appropriate for those who are active in that world; however the uniqueness of McKoy’s approach and the manner in which he explores the implications of social constructionism for ministry has a wider application.  Part two discusses the developmental stages which affect adolescents; yet the basic approach of focusing on relationships, retelling stories of people, capturing the story and moving youth to greater engagement with Jesus’ story is also applicable to just about anyone.  I re-read several sections of this book as  I thought about applications. You may not agree with every aspect of what you find here, but it is sufficently challenging. I give this book five stars:★★★★★

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

What Matters Most is Not the Title (but I like the title): a book review

What Matters Most: How We Got the Point but Missed the Person by Leonard Sweet

This is not a new book. It is a new title for a book that is eight years old. Waterbrook Multnomah has latched onto a marketing strategy for giving older books a new lease on life by re-releasing them with a brand new title. Titles are often the privilege of the publisher anyway, so certainly re-titling is their prerogative. Of the five re-titled books I have read from Waterbrook Press  I have read, at least three of them benefited from the re-christening. So does this one. Previously released as Out of the Question. . .Into the Mystery in 2004, the old title doesn’t seem to get at the heart of all this book is about (though does allude to an important aspect); What Matters Most” How We Got the Point but Missed the Person does a good job of summing up the major message of this book.

In What Matter Most, Len Sweet makes the claim that the truth of the gospel is not primarily propositional. Nor is Christian truth fundamentally addressed at moral behavior. What stands at the center of the gospel is the relationship we have with God through Jesus Christ. Certainly this is a claim common to evangelicals (with our ‘personal relationship’ language) but we have been prone to mess it up. Sweet puts our relationship with God, one another, people outside the faith, and creation in perspective as he challenges our tendency to run from relationships and want ‘faith’ on our own overly intellectualized and individualized terms.

Sweet organizes the book into eight parts. In part one, he talks about how our faith is relationship (versus intellectual assent). In part 2 he addresses our relationship with God by exploring the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Issac and what ‘God’s test’ in that context meant. He argues that when Abraham lays Isaac on the altar he passed the obedience test, but he failed the relational test (failing to ‘wrestle with God’ as Jacob later would). For this section, Sweet leans on Jewish Midrash for his exegesis and gives a fresh and interesting read to this troublesome passage. In part 3 he looks closer at God’s story recorded in scripture and how we ought to read scripture relationally. In parts 4-6, Sweet talks about our relationship with one another, those outside the faith and creation and he addresses how human sinfulness has caused us to mess up our relationship with each. In part 7 he discusses art and symbols in our relationship with God (and the church). And in his last section Sweet discusses our relationship with the ‘spiritual world’ entails our willingness to be open to mystery (remember the original title?).

This is my favorite Sweet book I’ve read. There is so much here that provokes a whole life response. I am certainly on board with the centrality o Jesus and found that this book made me hunger for a deeper relationship with Him. As always Sweet has questions for ‘further contemplation’ and discussion (as well as ‘bonus online content’ which I have not looked at).  In other books, I feel like Sweet tries too hard to be culturally relevant, but I didn’t feel that with this book. This is Sweet at this best: engaging, historically astute, challenging and winsome in his presentation of Christian truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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

How to Get(Stay) Married Forever: a book review

Are you married? Would you like to be married? Still looking for ‘the One’?

In Love, Sex, and Happily Ever After: Preparing for a Marriage that goes the Distance (previously titled Going All the Way), Craig Groeschel discusses how you can you can make love last forever . Groeschel’s first point is that ‘the One’ you are looking for is not a romantic interest but Jesus (see what he did there?). Your spouse would be your ‘number two’ He then goes on to discuss the dynamics and the personal commitments which will nurture a good marriage.

This is the third book by Craig Groeschel I’ve read (I’ve also read Weird and Chazown). In the previous two books, I liked a lot of what he had to say but found his hook a little gimmicky. In this book, Groeschel is much more straightforward in his presentation and says some great things; however I seem to be a little out of Craig Groeschel’s target audience. This is a book for those preparing for marriage. Actually, a good chunk of the book is for people who are still in the dating scene but maybe  thinking about marriage at some point. As someone who is happily married for 10 years, I found this book offered less constructive material for my own relationship (only the last few chapters).

But no matter, it was a fun read and Groeschel has good things to say. I am occasionally asked by single friends if I could recommend a good book on dating  and I think this could be a helpful book for college age singles.  There is a lot of practical advice here about making sure you keep Jesus central, developing a solid friendship as the foundation for marriage,  keeping sexually pure, why cohabitation is a bad idea, how to break up with the wrong person, how in Christ starting over and being healed from past mistakes is possible, keeping your relationship with Jesus and keeping your (future) spouse a priority. Groeschel is a good communicator and he does a great job of encouraging singles to live lives  that are holy, healthy and pleasing to God.

When he does get down to discussing married life, he offers what I would call a soft complementarianism. He believes that husbands were created to be the leader of the home (he bases this on the created order. Men were created first because they are hardwired to be the initiator of things. Just so you know, this is bad exegesis). While he overstates his case for male leadership a little, he is careful to put this in the context of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21) and certainly men need to be encouraged to take responsibility for their relationships rather than passively stand by.  Likewise he has some good advice to wives (or would be wives) to deal with insecurities in their hearts, but much of his discussion of wives is how to submit to their husbands leadership. As an egalitarian, I disagree with how Groeschel is parsing biblical data here, but he makes some constructive points.

One of the best chapters of the book is called Habits of the Heart where Craig discusses the sort of godly habits which will nurture a godly marriage. These include:

  • dealing with your past
  • growing with good people (accountability and mentoring and severing of unhealthy friendships)
  • learning to listen well
  • guarding your own heart
  • facing and resolving conflict well
  • being financially responsible
  • investing in your relationship with God

I think that each of these habits are important for maintaining vitality and health in my marriage (though I need to grow in a few of these).  But what makes this book an enjoyable read is not Groeschel’s good advice, but his humility and good humor. Groeschel is funny and is vulnerable enough to share about past mistakes he’s made. So even though I am the wrong person to read this book, I still liked it.

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

 

Not Another Marriage Book!!!: a book review

If there is a genre of books which rivals the self help section of your local bookstore, it is maybe the relationship section. Personally I know of a rash of recent Christian books which dispense relational and marital advice. So when you are shopping for a marriage book you are really looking for what sets a particular book apart from the others, more ordinary marriage books. What set this book apart for me was not its snappy title, No Ordinary Marriage: Together for God’s Glory; rather it was endorsements from Kevin Vanhoozer (theologian and hermeneutical rock star) and Alice Cooper (actual rock star). Sorry Ed Young, Craig Groschel, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller and whoever else is writing marriage books these days, but you just don’t have much street cred until rock stars start endorsing your books.  Maybe Kevin DeYoung can sit down with Brian “Head” Welch and get an endorsment for his new parenting book, Children of the Korn (I know of no such project but we can dream can’t we?).

Kidding aside, I think Tim Savage has written a decent book which helps Christians press into the meaning and sanctity of marriage. Drawing generously on patristic, reformers and puritan sources, Savage frames marriage theologically before turning toward practical questions. The book is divided into three parts:

In part one, he casts a vision of the meaning of marriage. Men and Women are joint image bearers of God are reflecting his glory as they love one another with self-sacrificing ‘cruciform’ love. In part two he addresses the particular words Paul addresses to women and men in Ephesians 5 and reflects on what it means to be ‘one flesh.’ Part three is where Savage addresses variously: sex, the way churches nurture marriages and family, learning to be realistic and gracious with one another and the gift of singleness.  I think part three is the least cohesive and feels more like a ‘catch all’ section of other things that Savage thinks he better say, but he does offer helpful practical and pastoral advice. Part one, which frames marriage theologically and talks about God’s intent for marriage,  is easily my favorite part of the book.

As a biblical egalitarian I did not agree with Savage’s exegesis of Genesis 3 or Ephesians 5 (Savage is a biblical complementarian). I don’t really feel like I have to, to  appreciate much of what he says here to women and men, as he addresses both and talks about how both husbands and wives should  love each other with cruciform (Christlike) love.  He posits that the particular word to women is to ‘submit’ to her husband (be subordinate to him) while the word to husbands is to love  their wives (Ephesians 5:22,25).  Certainly he is right to talk about how women ‘ought to submit’ to their husband but he is wrong to say that this is ‘the particular word’ to wives expressed in Eph. 5:22.  The verb translated ‘submit’ is not in that verse in the original Greek but is borrowed from the previous verse which says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The passage itself puts the wives’ submission in the context of mutual submission (of which the husbands love is also an expression).  I think you can certainly hold a complementarian view of gender roles from this passage, but you ought to at least signal the context of mutuality (which Savage does not do in his exegesis of Ephesians). My problem with his exegesis of Genesis 3, is that he interprets God’s curse on the man and woman as enshrining gender differences. Maybe, but there should at least be an acknowledgement that the curse represents a world gone wrong.

These small exegetical differences aside I probably agree with 90% of this book. Savage’s account of humanity’s creation acknowledges male and female as joint image bearers and he argues strongly that marriage done right should point beyond itself to our Triune Creator. I couldn’t agree more and found there was lots worth reflecting on (particularly as I near 10 years of marriage to a wonderful, godly woman).  There may be better books on marriage out there (there are certainly worse ones) but this book can be the start of a fruitful dialogue with your spouse. Those with a more pragmatic bent may find this book challenging as Savage tends to talk about theology and ideals more abstractly, though he does point to a few concrete examples.  I tend to think a lot of the more ‘practical books’ are fluffy but there might be a happy medium between those books and this one. Let me know if found it.

I received this book from Crossway Books in exchange for this fair and balanced review.

Lust but not Least (an examination of a deadly sin)

Lust is defined as a disordered sexual desire. Certainly desire and attraction, properly ordered is not sin but our culture has gotten this out of whack. You might say Lust is sexual desire, for its own sake, divorced from relationship, a love of sex because of how it makes you feel.

And Lust is certainly everywhere in our culture. We use it to sell cars, web domains, beer and margarine. It is celebrated in movies, television and song. Little boys look at lingerie catalogues and National Geographic (Jane Goodall=Hot). Sex shops and strip clubs spring up in sleepy little communities and there is an ever-growing list of celebrities whose marriages end in some kind of sexual scandal.

It is certainly as prevalent as any of the other sins, but those caught in the clutches of Lust feel particularly isolated. It is easier to admit to gluttony, greed or envy than it is to admit that you are a Lust-monger. Personally I could abstractly tell you that I struggle with Lust (and the rest of the deadly sins) but I am reluctant to share the exact shape this struggle takes in my own life (I do have people I do talk to about this, just not the entire world wide web). What is it about this sin that isolates us in a sense of shame?

The strange flip-side is that we tell ourselves that our Lust doesn’t hurt anyone else. We say, “I’m only looking, I haven’t done anything.” But as we have seen with the other sins, internal thoughts and habits of mind will manifest themselves in our everyday lives. When we entertain private lustful thoughts, we withdraw from the hard word of relationship; when we objectify others this manifests itself in injustice towards them. One of the places where the damage of Lust is most evident is pornography, so I want to take a moment to explore that. Of course this isn’t the only place that Lust is damaging our society, but it’s worth looking at. The problem that is, not pornography. Pornography is just bad, don’t look at it.

Pornography: A Case Study of the Damage of Lust in Our Culture

According to familysafemedia.com, every second $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornographic material and 372 internet users are typing adult search terms into internet search engines. Seventy percent of American men age 18-34 view pornography once a month. The internet provides few limits to accessing sexually explicit material and little accountability. 25% of all internet searches are related to pornography. In early 2008, Dennis Lohrmann observed that internet searches for “college girl,” “women” or “mature” returned over a billion results on Google. Whereas previous generations have had pornography, its access was limited and society shunned it. With the internet, television and movies, sexually explicit images are universally available. While it is clear that men use pornography much more than women, the use of porn by women has been steadily growing (28% of all people who admit to a ‘sexual addiction’ are women).

The ubiquity of pornography extends into the church. According to one estimate, “sixty-four percent of Christian men struggle with sexual addition or sexual compulsion including, but not limited to, the use of pornography, compulsive masturbation, or other secret sexual activity.” 1 out of 6 Christian married men, use pornography to masturbate and in the year 2000, 33% of clergy have visited a sexually explicit website (I have also read statistics which suggest that use of pornography is greater among Christian’s who subscribe to traditional complementarian beliefs). This is a major problem, particularly when you consider how pornography rewires brains, creates unrealistic expectations and isolates pornography users from relationships and community. There is an interesting blog post exploring this dynamic over at the Good Man Project.

And that is just what porn does to ‘the user.’ The real problem is what porn does to ‘the used.’ Pornography is not victimless. Many of the women of porn have been forced against their will to have sex on film. Even those in porn who say they are not victims bear the scars of the repeated psychological impact of being wanted only for their body and not for their person-hood. When women (and men) are objectified in this way, and a major segment of society habitually takes pleasure in their abuse, we have a cycle of oppression. And ‘the users’ do not restrict their ‘using’ to pornography but it shifts in their attitudes to women (and men) poison all their relationships.

Other Ways Lust is a Problem

Lust drives the sex industry. Why do men pick up prostitutes (and this is overwhelmingly men)? I once heard Michelle Miller of REED (Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity),s a non-profit working with sex-trade workers, once say to a congregation gathered for Sunday worship, “The men who are picking up prostitutes on the downtown Eastside [Vancouver] have baby seats in their backseat and Jesus fish on their bumper.” Evangelicals wax eloquent about family values but Lust has born its strange fruit in our midst (for the record, my only bumper sticker says “Reading is Sexy”). Certainly someone doesn’t just walk out of a Bible study one day and decide to go buy some sex; rather this stems from long cultivated habits of mind.

Freedom from Lust

The good news is that freedom from Lust’s control on your life is possible. This is not freedom from desire, desire is good when properly ordered. We can be free from the wrong expression of desire. There are thousands of ministries, counselors, books, internet filters available for sex addicts to get the help they need. If this is an area of major struggle, reach out for help. If the statistics above tell you anything, they tell you that you are not alone in this struggle. There is a ton of resources out there and I commend them to you.

But I want to commend something more fundamental to the struggle over lust: Relationship.

I once heard someone say, “Relational problems are best worked out in relationship.” Lust is preeminently a relational problem. And so if you want to experience victory and freedom then you need to cultivate good friendships. You need a network of support and care with people who know you and love you, and who you know and love. You need to have a relationship with your spouse or significant other where you are expressing love for them and not just using them. You need to cultivate a friendship with God, where you lay your soul bare before him and share your life with him. We need to move beyond our propensity to ‘use’ and learn how to appropriately give and receive love.

Of course relationships are not easy and to say the answer lies in cultivating healthy, satisfying relationships is not a quick fix. But you only conquer Lust when you get beyond the quick fixes. What is required is commitment, intentionality and vulnerability.
In the end, this is what it means to put on the virtue of Chastity. Rebecca DeYoung says:

Chastity is a positive project, a project of becoming a person with an outlook that allows one to selflessly appreciate good and attractive things–most especially bodies and the pleasures they afford–by keeping those goods ordered to the good of the whole person and his or her vocation to love. Chastity’s fundamental question is not, “How far should I go on a date without crossing some invisible line of ‘sin’?” but rather, “How can my life–my thoughts, my choices, my emotional responses, my conversation, and my behavior–make me a person who is best prepared to give and receive love in relationship with others?” Chastity preserves and protects and paves the way for wholeness in all our relationships, all of the time. To channel and control our sexual desires is to empower ourselves to love. (Glittering Vices, 178)

So what are the things that keep you from real relationship? What are some ways you can reign in the Lust of your flesh and pursue Love more?

May the Lord Jesus free us from the clutches of Lust and set us free to Love him and others