Restoring Health: Body, Mind and Spirit (review)

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RH - HirdRestoring Health: Body, Mind and Spirit by Ed Hird

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Restoring Health: Body, Mind and Spirit, Rev. Ed Hird takes us through the Bible book of Titus. Using that three-chapter book (a total of just 46 verses) as his outline, he addresses a wide range of issues, from the worker’s need for physical health and fitness to decrying the introduction of New-age elements, like labyrinth prayer, into the modern church.

The Island of Crete, where Titus pastored, was an island of pirates. Hird delves into pirate history, practice, and folklore to show us the type of people that were in Titus’s congregation. Alongside that exposé he shows us how we in the modern North American evangelical church have many of the same pirate tendencies. Hird then interprets Paul’s instructions to Titus for us, giving pastors, teachers, and lay people much food for thought on how to recognize and deal with the rebellious, deceitful, immoral, and idolatrous pirate behavior that has and is creeping into personal lives and churches.

Hird speaks openly of his own experiences. The book is written in a warm, chatty style with Hird often sharing personal and family anecdotes along with his experiences as a working pastor, and the fruit of his research.

However, I do feel that some of his stories and illustrations take the reader on tangents that aren’t vitally connected to his message and in that way blunt the book’s focus. Also, the Table of Contents lists the verses from Titus as headings, but doesn’t list the modern issues Hird addresses as he expands on those verses. The book would be more helpful as a reference if the modern issues addressed, such as the need for exercise, principles of giving, yoga within the church etc. etc. were also listed in the Table of Contents or an index.

All in all, though, this is an interesting commentary that gathers its material from sources as varied as Hird’s visit to Crete to the writings of many including John Calvin, John Stott, William Barclay, C.S. Lewis, even Poor Richard’s Almanac. Above all it is based firmly on the Bible. The book is thoroughly footnoted and includes a bibliography for those who would like to do further study. It would make a fine addition to the library of any minister or Bible teacher.

I received Restoring Health: Body, Mind and Spirit as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Twenty-One Candles (review)

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Twenty-One Candles: Stories for ChristmasTwenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas by Mike Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mike Mason (Canadian author of The Mystery of Marriage, Champagne for the Soul and the Blue Umbrella fantasy series for kids) has a personal tradition of writing a Christmas story every year. This book is 21 of those stories, collected into a “wonder-full” volume of tales, as different from each other as each Christmas we live is one-of-a-kind. Some stories are short, others long, some playful, others serious, some fairy-tale-like, others as real as photographs. What binds them all together, though is the way each reflects some facet of the deepest meaning of the season.

From the one with the earliest date, 1981’s “Christmas Rocks”—in which the narrator and his friend, weary of the commercialism of a Winnipeg mall, drive to Gimli to choose a unique water-lucent rock for each person on their list—to 2014’s “In the stillness of the Night”—set in Hope BC with a local tourist attraction, the Othello Tunnels, playing a major role—these tales are recognizably Canadian, yet have a universal, parable quality to them that sets them beyond time and place.

The two that touch me most deeply are “Born with Wings”—about a sick baby expected to live just hours, born on Christmas day. Any parent who has lost a baby to miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death will relate to this poignant, tastefully told tale and its Christmas message.

The other favorite is the 1984 tale that closes the collection, “Bound for Glory.” Its tame yet mysterious beginning:

“A light rain was falling as I set off across the platform. … It was Christmas Eve, close to midnight, and the station was unusually busy, though not with the bustle of a daylight rush hour but with the trance-like commotion of darkness…” Kindle Location 2939.

soon reveals a carload of citizens fleeing for the border, among them a couple with a newborn baby. Enter soldiers with guns, making threats and culling group by group from the coach. Of course there is a surprise at the destination.

Stories in this book have been read at the Vancouver Pacific Theatre’s annual Christmas Presence programs. Now that they are available to all, they’re sure to add their special light to the Christmases of many more individuals and groups. I, frankly, love this book. It’s the kind of volume I feel like buying as a gift for friends and family members because I just know they would love one or another story in it.

My one gripe with the Kindle version of the book is that there is no table of contents. Actually there is a Table of Contents, but it’s not listed under the “Go to…” options in mine. I found it when I paged onward from the cover.

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My Battle Against Hitler (review)

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My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third ReichMy Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich by Dietrich von Hildebrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German professor of philosophy in Munich, watched with dismay as Germany fell under the spell of Hitler and the Third Reich. In 1933, at age 43, he and his wife Gretchen left Germany to live in Vienna.

In exile he founded a weekly magazine (Der Christliche Standestaat—The Christian Corporative State) that, for five years (until the spring of 1938 when Hitler took over Austria and the von Hildebrands had to flee), was dedicated to unmasking the nationalism, militarism, collectivism, and anti-Semitism that combined to make up the ideology of National Socialism espoused and enforced by the Nazi party.

My Battle Against Hitler is Dietrich von Hildebrand’s story. The book is made up of two sections. The first part—von Hildebrand’s memoirs—contains selections from the 5000-page memoir he wrote in 1958 for the benefit of his second wife to help this much younger woman understand his life. This section is organized by year.

The second part is fragments of the essays he published in the Vienna magazine from 1933 to 1938.

The whole thing is stitched together by pieces written by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, translators of the memoirs and essays. The book begins with John Henry Crosby’s chapter “The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.” Throughout the book pieces written by the Crosby’s connect the dots between journal entries and put the essay fragments into context.

Von Hildebrand’s journals are interesting and colorful. They depict him as an inveterate people-watcher who tended to categorize those he met as black or white depending on how they viewed Bolshevism and National Socialism. Any whiff of sympathy to those movements colored his entire opinion of a person.

He was someone who also seemed readily star-struck with those in power that he admired. His account of meeting the Empress and Emperor Otto of Belgium in 1933 is typical of his reaction:

“The Empress made a very strong impression on me. There was something unbelievably elegant and aristocratic about her face, while her presence as a whole seemed to combine both strength and tenderness. She was immensely attractive. … Afterward I was able to meet Emperor Otto, who also made a very great impression on me. He was then still very young, about nineteen or twenty. …I was amazed how well informed he was about all the problems in Austria and how intelligently he spoke about them” – Kindle Location 1927 & 1934.

As a whole, his memoirs introduce us to the philosophers, thinkers, and politicians of the day with whom he rubbed shoulders in Vienna and other parts of Europe. They are infused with his philosophical idealism which is rooted in his Catholic / Christian worldview. And so he saw Bolshevism and National Socialism as players in the age-old drama that was far bigger than what was being enacted on the stage of Europe at that time:

“In reality, there have been only two fronts in the world for the past two thousand years; the front for Christ and the front against Christ. He is the cornerstone which separates all spirits” – Kindle Location 5012.

Though I found many of his essays hard to follow (he was a deep, philosophical thinker, quoting names of contemporaries as handles of philosophical movements with which I’m unfamiliar), his strong convictions and clear thinking is, as a whole, hard to resist. I couldn’t help but contrast his well-thought-out opposition to Nazism to our popular movements which, herd-like, seem to be fueled by little more than trending tweets and social medial ‘LIKE’s. Von Hildebrand would have been aghast.

In our time when dueling worldviews continue, von Hildbrand stands as a shining example of someone who knew his convictions, was a master at communicating them, and stuck by them no matter how popular opinion shifted. This book is a worthwhile read for his defense of the Jews alone. The journal entries and essays where he decries anti-Semitism could help bolster our own resistance to this movement that is again finding a voice on the streets and university campuses around us.

This book is a treasure for those interested in a close view of pre-World War II Vienna, the political atmosphere and movements of the time, and how one Christian thinker analyzed and evaluated the philosophies that underpinned those movements.

I received My Battle Against Hitler as an e-book download from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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NIV First-Century Study Bible (review)

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NIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian ContextNIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context by Kent Dobson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who writes a bit of biblical fiction, the overview description of the NIV First-Century Study Bible drew me in:

“Experience the Bible through Eastern eyes by exploring the cultural, religious and historical background of the Bible. This hardcover study Bible allows you to understand God’s Word in its original cultural context, bringing Scripture to life by providing fresh understanding to familiar passages, beloved stories, and all the Scripture in between.”

As a Booklook blogger, I got a reviewer’s copy of the e-book version of this Bible. This is a review of that edition’s Bible study features, not the NIV text.

The list of features is long and impressive. I’ve checked them out and this is what I found:

This Bible’s notes (commentary study notes and translator’s footnotes) and articles do indeed focus on describing and explaining the Middle Eastern location, history, and customs of the Bible’s writers and setting.

Textual articles consist of pieces longer than study notes and supplement each book. They cover a variety topics that go from delving into the history of part of the text (like “The Oral Law”—an article on the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:7), to explaining the customs and ethics of the day (like “Joshua and the Ethics of War”), to telling about recent archeological discoveries that support the biblical record (like “Hezekiah’s Water Tunnels”), and more. These were interesting and informative.

There are word studies. I found these short, skimpy and disappointing in that the Strong’s Concordance number was not included.

Day in the Life articles explain the lifestyle and customs of Bible peoples. Some sample topics are: “Desert Shepherds,” “Slaves,” “Widows.” Because these pieces attempt to describe and explain customs spanning the Bible’s hundreds of years, they are quite general and don’t get into subtle changes that may have occurred over hundreds of years, e.g. between the patriarchs and the time of the exile or the Old and New Testaments.

There are many In-text Charts and Models. These were not all equally accessible on my e-book version. I’m not sure how they would display on different e-readers, but know that on my keyboard Kindle, many of them are too tiny to read. When they’re set up as pure text (e.g. “Ancient Texts Relating to the Old Testament”) they view just fine. However when they’re set up as graphics, text boxes or charts (e.g. “Old Testament Chronology”) the static text size, skewed spacing, and sometimes grayed graphics made them pretty well useless.

Further Study Helps include a Table of Weights and Measures, Endnotes, Bibliography, Topical Index to Articles, Glossary, Concordance, and Zondervan’s Full-Colour Maps (14). As with the charts and models, some of these things were not legible on my e-reader (like the tables and maps). I liked the Glossary, that explains Bible words and concepts, and the linked Concordance, where Scripture references are accessed by clicking on a link.

All in all, this Bible’s study features make it a great choice for anyone interested in learning more about the cultural and social setting of the Bible. For those getting it as an e-book, there is an article in the fore-matter on how to navigate this edition. Though my e-reader was unable to access all the Bible’s features, accessibility and usability no doubt vary with the type of e-reader or tablet.

Even without access to the full menu of features, the NIV First-Century Study Bible e-book version is a wonderful resource—a wealth of information, stored in one light reader, and available at one’s fingertips.

I received the e-book version of the NIV First-Century Study Bible as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Consider the Sunflowers (review)

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Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs

Secrets and Lies (review)

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Secrets and Lies - Janet SketchleySecrets and Lies: A Redemption’s Edge Novel by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Carol Daniels has moved with her 16-year-old son Paul from Calgary to Toronto at the beginning of Secrets and Lies, Janet Sketchley’s second book in the Redemption Edge Series. It wasn’t a move of choice but of necessity, to get away from the terrifying lowlife associates that had begun threatening her in her western home—characters that were seemingly connected to her brother (the convicted killer Harry Silver from Heaven’s Prey – Redemption’s Edge 1).

Her hopes of hiding from the thugs are dashed when disturbing anonymous phone calls start again. Not only is the voice in the calls creepy but the threats are terrifying and the character behind them far too aware of her whereabouts and movements for comfort. His demand is for money that her brother has apparently salted away. The detective on the case suggests Carol will eventually have to get in touch with the brother she despises and has disowned.

Those calls aren’t her only worry. There’s Paul too—a good kid but too much like Skip, his egotistical musician father. At least Paul’s not into drugs—the most loathsome of substances that killed her other son, Keith. And she’s determined to keep him safe from the present danger and from following in the footsteps of his musical father.

When nightmares awaken her or worries about her son or the spooky calls keep her from sleep, she makes mint tea and phones the oldies station to talk to the DJ, Joey. He always has a sympathetic ear and a repertoire of Billy Joel tunes to serenade her out of any mood. It turns out that Joey, in person, is just as nice as on-air—and then she discovers he too is hiding secrets.

Sketchley’s skill at merging the believeable and homey details of a modern single mom’s life with criminal threats and shadowy danger makes her main character relatable and in a situation that seems real and plausible. More than once I found myself gripping my e-reader muttering: Don’t answer the stupid phone … don’t trust him … don’t go with him!

But the story is more than a well-plotted tale of romantic suspense. For in it Sketchley wades through all kinds of waters: a mother’s attempts to control her son, a son’s attempts to find his own way while not hurting his mom, trust: how we earn it and find courage to place it, forgiveness: God’s for us and ours for each other, and more.

In the faith department I appreciated the way Sketchley’s Christian characters don’t have all the answers but wrestle with their beliefs like we all do. Several characters have a strong faith and through them we hear good reasons why God is worth putting our faith in even if it seems He’s let us down in the past.

This second book in the Redemption ‘s Edge series is gentler than Heaven’s Prey but with moments just as nailbitingly tense. Sketchley’s sense of timing and ability to lull us with sweet ordinariness, only to fling us in the next page into the arms of cold, unscrupulous evil, makes this a must-read for lovers of Christian suspense. Believable, complex characters and a keen eye for telling details make Sketchley’s writing a pleasure to read for anyone. And there are bonus treats. For the music savvy, this book is a sentimental stroll down memory lane. For the reader with the munchies, all those good smells coming from the Sticky Fingers café and Carol’s own kitchen are enough to drive a person to brownies—with mint tea, of course.

A set of discussion questions at the end of the book makes this a perfect choice for book clubs.

Readers who can’t get enough fiction delivered with doses of tension and danger will want to keep an eye on Sketchley’s lengthening list of books. No Safe Place, Redemption’s Edge 3 is due out in 2015.

This excellent read launches TODAY, November 5th, 2014. Check it out.

Spend a sentimental afternoon with this Secrets and Lies oldies playlist.

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The Daughter of Highland Hall (review)

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The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel (Edwardian Brides)The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel by Carrie Turansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is April of 1912 and Katherine Ramsey has come to London to do the “season.” Under the sponsorship of her aunt, Lady Louisa Gatewood—her own parents have both died—it is her goal to come out as a debutante, enjoy a flurry of balls, teas, parties, and other social events, in the process find a sufficiently well-heeled man and arrange, to the satisfaction of all, a suitable marriage.

Of course things don’t turn out quite that cut-and-dried in Carrie Turansky’s The Daughter of Highland Hall. Kate’s own guardian, second-cousin Lord William Ramsey is betrothed to a commoner (Julia Fowler) the governess of his children by a previous marriage. Soon Jon Fowler, Julia’s brother and a medical student, complicates things by proving an attractive distraction for Kate. William’s own careless-living brother David gets in the papers, causing society’s tongues to wag.

In the shadow of the scandal, the ever-critical and nagging Aunt Louisa and her young charge find themselves ignored and on the outs. This gives Kate more time to spend with Jon, who gets her involved in volunteering at a London East End hospital and attending lectures sponsored by the Salvation Army. Thus Kate’s eyes are opened to issues far bigger than whether her calendar is full, what dress she should wear, and how to style her hair.

Turansky is good at delving into the minutiae of the English social season, describing the clothes, food, etiquette, and small talk.

I never felt a heart connection to any of the characters, though. They were likeable enough but felt a little wooden and stock to me—the good ones too good and the bad thoroughly bad.

The writing was adequate though did seem to bog down in parts with excessive author description and explanation versus telling action.

However, I felt Turansky did a good job of exploring issues of social class and custom, showing how the rich were preoccupied with superficial concerns while the poor suffered in need and squalor. By bringing the Salvation Army and the London Missionary Society into the plot, she showed how Christian organizations were beginning to tackle social justice issues at home and abroad. She also did a good job of connecting such movements to the wellspring of a personal faith.

This Edwardian tale reminded me of a Jane Austen story of English manners meeting the upstairs / downstairs life of Downton Abbey, but delivered from an outspokenly Christian point of view.

I received The Daughter of Highland Hall as a gift from the publisher Multnomah Books through Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Star rating based on the Goodreads scale:

***** – It was amazing

**** – I really liked it

*** – I liked it

** – It was okay

* – I did not like it