Because You Can’t Underline on the Internet

The Beauty of Grace by Dawn Camp, ed. — A Book Review

Lovely, fragrant, fresh, inviting:  the adjectives that bubble into my mind for The Beauty of Grace are the same descriptive terms that I would use for the bouquet of flowers pictured on the cover.  Dawn Camp has found a way to slow down the internet in this garland of short stories and essays.  The contributors list reads like a who’s who of current Christian authors and bloggers, but the content is timeless because the themes of purpose and surrender, trust and worship, hope and encouragement have been plucked directly from the Word of God.

With rich imagery and personal examples lifted from the authors’ lives, there are words for everyone here:
words that will refresh you in the desert;
reasoning that will shove you off your comfy couch and into real life;
meditations that will toughen the soles of your feet for walking on broken ground;
reflections that will wrestle your inside-out gaze away from your own short-comings and refocus your eyes on the upside-down world of grace where Jesus works miracles from the ordinary.

The Beauty of Grace is a perfect gift for a bride, a new mum, or any sister who needs a blessing, and my under-lined and dog-eared copy has earned a place on my crowded night stand.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Company, in exchange for my unbiased review.


T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G.


You Have a Brain by Ben Carson, M.D. — A Book Review

Even if Ben Carson’s mother had foreknown her son’s future as a neurosurgeon, she could hardly have come up with a more fitting rhetorical question to challenge him throughout his childhood:  “Do you have a brain?”  Mrs. Carson never doubted the affirmative response to that question, and the resulting story is one that deserves to be told, as much for the re-telling of Dr. Carson’s remarkable life as for the revelation of Sonya Carson’s mothering style that anchored her two sons.

Ben Carson got off to a rough start.  When his father abandoned the family, they were left in poverty and instability, which resulted in severe educational deficiencies for Ben by the time he reached fifth grade.  Taking matters into her own hands, Mrs. Carson prayed for wisdom to resolve her son’s problems, and He who gives to mother’s liberally and without reproach guided her into a hands-on approach that launched Ben and his brother into academic success, but, more importantly, toward a commitment to life-long learning.

Dr. Carson writes for a teen audience, and ably demonstrates that the effective use of his brain could trump peer pressure (In his experience, P.E.E.R.S. were actually People Encouraging Errors, Rudeness, and Stupidity.); it could repel attacks of the fashion-ista; and it could put a harness on raging hormones.  By contrast, however, Carson found that his battle with an out-of-control temper required help from on high — but he did have to use his brain to recognize the urgency of his need.

Parenting four boys, my husband and I have told them, “Whatever you have in your hands, God will use.”  This truth has been borne out in the life of Ben Carson as he pursued multiple interests throughout his adolescence and found that each of them, whether art, music, science, or the military, contributed to his professional success and enjoyment of life.

The final chapters of You Have a Brain extract the practical principles that governed Ben Carson’s choices in life.  Using a memorable acronym, he urges readers to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G. while using their Talents, applying standards of Honesty and striving for Insight; to be Nice and to stay committed to the pursuit of Knowledge (particularly through many, many Books); then, to do the work necessary for In-depth Learning.  Above all, he affirms that there is a God at work behind the scenes who designed the human brain, longs for a relationship with individuals, and stands ready to provide wisdom to the seeking heart.  The Personal Talent Assessment provided in the appendix is a helpful tool for annual heart-searching and goal-setting, either independently or with the guidance of a parent or mentor.

My own thoughts while reading You Have a Brain veered between wistfulness and hope.  I distinctly recall making decisions as a student that were “the easy way out.”  I should have risked more.  However, I plan to put this book into the hands of my teen boys and to get in touch with my “inner-Sonya.”  It is absolutely urgent that my boys should be aware of the impact their magnificent brains can have on their own future success.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Zondervan through the BookLookBloggers program in exchange for my unbiased review.

Everyone’s History

30 Events that Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky:  A Book Review

I do not envy Alton Gansky the job of narrowing two thousand years of history down to the thirty most significant events.  In doing so, however, what he has created is an aerial view of history, a tool for harnessing the parade of names and dates, which should lead to a greater understanding of who and what the church has become since Jesus’ original disciples worked the post-ascension crick out their necks and became part of the movement that turned the world upside down.

There’s nothing dry or dusty about Gansky’s brand of history which is, largely, storytelling.  His major players are three-dimensional, whether piecing together the New Testament account of the first missionary to the Gentiles (“Paul’s life is the stuff of movies . . .”); the warped trajectory of a demented emperor (“A teenager with ultimate power and a controlling mother sounds like trouble from the start . . .Nero was a young man with hidden and unacceptable appetites.”); or the trials and tribulations of a brilliant scientist who would not bow to tradition (“Galileo, now an old man, was allowed to live out his days under house arrest.”).

A further strength of 30 Events . . . is that, without bogging down in detail, Gansky manages to re-enact the history and to provide the background that led to each event.  For example, he follows the rise of the Christian Right through the Baby Boomers and post-WWII social changes and on into the commercialism and secularization of the 60’s and 70’s before Jerry Falwell ever puts a toe on the stage.

Reading this book has stimulated my own questions about history and will affect my future reading of historical material.  I would recommend its use as a supplement to a homeschooling history curriculum.  Thirty chapters would provide nearly one a week for a high school student to read and summarize, or it would be ideal for a special read-aloud over lunch for elementary students.  An ambitious student could take on the book with a chapter a day for six weeks.  Adults will enjoy the opportunity to put flesh on the bones of history they already know (or lived through!), and to be introduced to pivotal events of which they were barely aware.

Best of all is the reminder that history unfolds day by day, and the church will continue to be shaped in our life time.  As the people of God respond to world events and the leading of the Holy Spirit, God is at work behind the scenes with the gentle reminder, “Surely I am coming quickly.”

Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Company, in exchange for my unbiased review.

Just One Thing: Rubble

Going through an old journal — from the days of four kids under the age of nine, I found an entry based on my reading of Nehemiah 4:10.

“The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot build the wall.”

“Wow,” I thought, scanning the entry.  “That must have been quite a day.” Living in the midst of diapers and flash cards, Hot Wheels and finger paint, dirty laundry and the flotsam and jetsam of meal preparation, I had read Nehemiah Chapter 4 with a kind of howling, mind-numbed sympathy, and had responded by turning the verse into my own lament-of-the-day.  “How can I sweep a floor that I can’t even find?”

Having raised the entire wall to half its height, the people of God had clearly demonstrated their fortitude for the task of rejuvenating their walled city.  Unfortunately, their relentless progress was ratcheting up the desperation level of their enemies.  Disenchanted with the results of taunting and name-calling, Sanballat and Tobiah were raising a brute squad in hopes of creating confusion among the ranks.  Consequently, some of the wall-building crew had to be pulled for security duty, leaving everyone feeling a little leery, a little more threatened, and a lot more overwhelmed by the rubble.

The most important difference between building and re-building is the rubble, and the truth is that most of what we do in this life falls into the category of re-building.  We have a tendency to handle our personal rubble in one of two ways:

  1. Work around it and hope no one else sees it.  A character in one of Anne LaMott’s novels expresses this hope:  “She wanted him to see her as someone with just a few pieces of colorful carry-on luggage instead of multiple body bags requiring special cargo fees and handling.”  Wouldn’t we all secretly like to be that effective at image management?
  2. Get used to the mess.  When the rubble of addiction, a crumbling relationship, or unstable financial foundations have become “normal,” life is exhausting before one toe is off the mattress in the morning.  Failing to see the rubble creates a dangerous environment — for working and for living.

Nehemiah and his crew persevered in spite of the rubble, and it appears that they managed to do that by going on the offensive (v. 13); by remembering the Lord (v. 14); and by staying focused on their core values (v. 14).  The resulting perseverance and holy ambition carried them through days of wearing a tool belt on one hip and a scabbard on the other.

What is the rubble that you are working around or trying to ignore?  Compare the effort of living in the ruins with the amount of exertion it would require to “clean it up.”  Which is a better expenditure of your days? Ask yourself if you really want to be climbing over this same mess ten years from now.

It was not by accident that the Israelite construction crew was organized by family and challenged to fight for their brothers, sons, daughters, wives and houses.  Who is stepping over your rubble with you?  Begin clearing the rubble for their sake, as much as for yours, and, above all, let the body of Christ fulfill its role of sober vigilance in caring for one another — by caring for you. Then, hear the words of Nehemiah:

“Remember the Lord, great and awesome . . .”

God is at work behind the scenes, and waits for the one who will admit her helplessness and need.  He wants to prove his strength on your behalf, (II Chronicles 16:9).

The prompt today at #WholeMama is Practice, and it occurs to me that much of what I do every day falls into two different approaches to that word:
1.  Keeping at it until I get it right, as in “practice makes perfect.”
2.  Routine duties that form the basis of my daily work, as with professionals who are said to have a “law practice.”

In both instances, I am dependent upon the God who is at work behind the scenes.  Sometimes clearing the rubble, sometimes working around it until God shows me the way, I want to make it my “practice” (in both senses of the word!) to “Remember the Lord, great and awesome.”





Five Thoughts from the Doorway

“Deep in our hearts, we know that the best things said come last,” said Alan Alda in his memoir entitled Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.  He’s right, of course.  We chat for hours of an evening, asking for and receiving updates on mutual friends, alternately bragging on and complaining about our kids; and then “linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart.  Doorways are where the truth is told.”

In The Revelation, the Apostle John is standing at the door on every level as he writes his “famous last words.”  He was not expecting ever to leave his prison island of Patmos.  He was the last of the surviving apostles, and in this recorded series of visions, he is being given a preview of last things, a glimpse through the doorway into “things which must shortly take place.”

I have spent the last five months reading through this final New Testament book, reading one chapter a week, revisiting it every day, sometimes in different versions.  To be honest, even though I lingered over the chapters, consulted cross-references, notes, and the odd commentary, I would not be eager to face a classroom full of middle school students, hungry for details about beasts and bowls and hard facts about the rapture, with nothing but my Bible and my study notes.  I found The Revelation to be “deep weeds”:   deeply disturbing, but, at the same time deeply satisfying.  At the risk of appearing to think (naively) that I have grasped the essence of the book or that any number of bullet points could adequately capture the Apostle John’s letter, I offer five thoughts gleaned from my five months of standing in the doorway with God’s servant John.

1.  The Revelation was written to people who knew their Old Testament a lot better than I do.  The symbols and imagery that John uses, the numbers that repeat and resonate are all flaming arrows whose trajectories connect the dots to prophecies recorded in Ezekiel, Daniel, and elsewhere.  The trick is that you have to recognize the arrow, hear its twang, in order to follow it.  In the 404 verses that comprise John’s final letter, there are 518 references to earlier Scripture — not quotes, but allusions.  He doesn’t say, “As it is written in Daniel’s prophecy about the male goat . . .” when he takes up his pen to write chapter thirteen, but his audience, raised on Hebrew scripture, would have recognized the source of the imagery.

2.  The Revelation was written by a pastor.  I had the advantage of teaching a Sunday school class on I, II, and III John during part of the time I was reading The Revelation, (which, now that I think of it, could have been called  “IV John.”)  I was surprised to find common elements, because in all the fervor of interpretation and application of Jesus’ message to the seven churches, it is easy to forget that he was writing a letter.  We also forget that the letter was intended for actual communities of believers that existed in a certain geographic, economic, and cultural context.  Far from a mere catalog of future events, John’s role is to interpret what is to come in light of today’s challenges, to throw in a dash of what has already been, and to help the flock know how to live in the present.  Eugene Peterson defines the church as a group of “persons who dare to live by the great invisibles of grace, who accept forgiveness, who believe promises, who pray.” The fact that some churches do these things more faithfully than others would have been front and center for John the pastor as he began penning Jesus’ messages to the seven churches.

3.  Listening can be a spiritual act. 

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

The rhythm of this phrase thrums through the messages to the seven churches no matter what their circumstances or individual besetting sins.  Could selective hearing also be the root of my own failings?  According to Annie Dillard, the greatest theological question of all times is this:  “What in the Sam Hill is going on here anyway?”  If she is correct, I may find the answer to that momentous question by opening my ears to what the Spirit is saying — through the Word, in response to my prayers, in the whisper-voice of my circumstances.

4.  Worship is the ultimate goal when God reveals Himself to man.  Twice John is rebuked for falling at the feet of a heavenly being in worship (19:10; 22:9).  We, too, fall on our faces — easily and in the wrong direction.  My journey through the Revelation reminds me that Jesus is the beginning and the ending, not only because He says so, but because the book literally puts his magnificence on display for twenty-two chapters, from beginning to end.  When the letter is used as a reference book for our quibbling-matches about signs of the time and who’s right about the rapture, we become more of what we already are:  a distracted people.  Truly a hymnal in its own way, the Revelation reminds me that whenever I find my way into worship, I am joining with and adding to the praise that goes on continually in heavenly places.

5.  The God of Revelation invites.  The word is “come,” and the invitation goes out to all the thirsty.  Through desert times of the soul, there is an invitation to drink freely.  Here is comfort for the one who is tired of insincere offers; weary of eyes that scan the crowd in search of another, more interesting companion; fed up with promises made but not fulfilled.  Come to Him who comes, for He has said that He is “coming quickly.”


What are you reading in 2017?  Do you have insights from your reading, either in The Revelation or elsewhere, that you are willing to share?

Brighter, Better, and More Potent

The Things of Earth:  Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts by Joe Rigney — A Book Review

By nature, I have a war-time mentality.  I wish I could attribute it to a white-hot gospel fire in my bones, but it probably has more to do with seeing President Gerald Ford wearing a sweater and urging us to turn our thermostats back to sixty-two degrees when I was in elementary school.  I could easily justify feeding my family beans and rice, rice and beans so that we could give more to missions.  I would happily go on wearing my 1980’s-era black dress until Jesus comes and forego family vacations in favor of a bigger emergency fund in the bank.  Fortunately, I had the good sense to marry a man with a much more balanced view of life.  (Apparently, he missed President Ford’s speech.)  Thanks to his influence, we eat a wide variety of food, my shoulder pads don’t get stuck in the door, and we go to fun places and do fun things with our children.  However, even with nearly twenty-five years of his sensible voice in my ear, I really needed to read The Things of Earth.

Thoughtful Christians walk a tightrope when it comes to possessions, wealth, and all the good things that God has made.   If we fall off the tightrope on one side, we realize that we are, in the words of Tim Keller,  “making good things into ultimate things” by idolizing God’s gifts.  If we fall off the other side, we are subject to the alienating guilt or self-reproach of trying to define just exactly where the line is between “excessive” and “appropriate.”  Joe Rigney carefully lays a biblical foundation for his thesis, which is based in Christian hedonism, that knowing God makes his gifts “brighter and better and more potent.”  The truth that “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him”  is rooted deeply in God’s triune nature.  As a relational being, He has made all things in order to extend and to communicate his fullness and as an invitation into his own triune life.  Therefore, as creatures, we should not only view the whole creation as a revelation of God, but also rejoice in the wisdom of God’s provision for us in this world.

The richness of all this theological truth comprises the first four chapters of the book, and, quite honestly, is sufficient reason to read the book, even if Rigney had nowhere else to go with it.  However, he pushes into the hard territory of practical application.  Given all that we know about God, how do all his magnificent gifts fit into a God-centered life?  Are possessions, comforts, and wealth tools to be used for his glory, or are they obstacles to the radical Christian life?  What is the difference between strategic self-denial and the tragic loss of good gifts, and just exactly how does the demonstration of the fact that our treasure is in heaven and not on earth relate to the Great Commission?

Scholarly and richly researched, The Things of Earth is a challenging read, and will likely yield a few opportunities for the reader to delight in God through Rigney’s fresh descriptions and vocabulary.  Even so, this is no ivory tower project, because the thesis of the book has been hammered out in real life through the author’s own relationships and through some wrong turns he has made along the way.  And speaking of real life, why was the recipe for pumpkin crunch cake not given in the foot notes of chapter five?  Seriously.

Although I pushed through this book like a seeker, my plan now is to live with it over a period of time.  I want to ponder it as I hold my sweet grandson, or as I play Scattergories with my two youngest boys.  I plan to let its words echo behind the sound of the Pemaquid bell as it carols the approach of a nor-easter and to feel the gracious provision of God in the steam on my face rising from that perfect cup of morning tea.  For me, the things of earth might just be growing brighter, seen in the full light of Glory.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my unbiased review.

Just One Thing: Scorn

Sometimes fictional theologians utter such delightful truths that I have to remind myself as I am reading, “He’s not a real person.  He doesn’t exist outside this book.”

Jayber Crow is just such a man, stalwart resident and barber in Wendell Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky.  I love his thoughtful, meandering reflections on life and here is a favorite, copied into my journal a few years ago:

“Christ did not come to found an organized religion but instead to found an unorganized one.  He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple and into the fields and sheep pastures, road sides and river banks.”

This “un-templing” of religion is well on its way even before the time that Jesus’ feet hit the broken ground of Palestine, and if ever there was “unorganized” religion, we see it in Nehemiah 3, as God’s chosen people attempt to reconstitute a pile of rubble back into the walls of their holy city.

By the beginning of Chapter 4, their efforts had attracted the unwelcome attention of Sanballat and Tobiah, government officials of neighboring lands.  For political reasons, the last thing they wanted was to see Jerusalem get back on its feet again.  When tattling to King Artaxerxes failed to derail Nehemiah’s re-construction project, these 6th century B.C. forerunners of Statler and Waldorf began heckling the workers, playing to an appreciative audience of their own cronies.

First thing on their agenda?  Name-calling.  Take your pick:  in the King James and the NIV it’s “feeble”; the HCSB renders it “pathetic,” while The Message uses the more sympathetic term “miserable.”  Sanballat goes on to criticize their building materials and to bad-mouth their methods.  Not to be outdone, Tobiah chimes in with a taunt he must have recalled from his days in middle school:  “Why, if a fox climbed that wall, it would fall to pieces under his weight!”

Oh, how we hate to be scorned, mocked, and ridiculed.  Whether it’s our appearance, our intelligence, or our competence, we’ve all got tender spots that won’t . . . well, bear the weight of a fox, at least when it comes to being criticized.   The truth is that with middle school long behind us, maybe instead of finding Sanballat and Tobiah on the playground, we find them in the mirror.  Negative self-talk is a trap, a self-defeating ball and chain that slows down whatever building (or rebuilding) project God has assigned to you.

Nehemiah doesn’t waste any time pondering his critic’s clever banter.  He doesn’t look for positive reinforcement from his crew, and the fact that the project was finished in 52 days would indicate that he didn’t need “me-time” to help him fall back and regroup.

“Hear, O our God, for we are despised . . .”

Hear the discouragement in his voice as the anger toward his enemies pours out (verses 4 and 5) in a vindictive, imprecatory prayer.  He’s taking his discouragement to a place where it can be safely processed, throwing his worst self at the God of the universe, and waiting for justice to be done.

Then, on to verse 6:  “So, we built the wall . . .”
We kept at it.
We got the job done.
Has someone’s scorn or criticism stopped you in your tracks just when you thought you were making progress in your walk with Christ?  Are you guilty of being your own personal Sanballat and Tobiah, telling yourself that you’ll fail before you even get started?  Remember Nehemiah’s God, and keep on building.

If you’d like to leave a comment or a link to a post about your own wall-building stories, I’d love to read it.  This post is the tenth in a series based on the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: