Scary Close (review)

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Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True IntimacyScary Close: Dropping the Act and Acquiring a Taste for True Intimacy by Donald Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“These are snapshots of the year I spent learning to perform less, be myself more, and overcome a complicated fear of being known,” writes Donald Miller in the first chapter of Scary Close, his latest memoir (Kindle Location 173).

The learning includes listening to the input of trusted friends and counselors, making mistakes that almost cost him his relationship with Betsy, giving up control, finding compromises, and finally understanding and embracing the new relationship paradigm he is entering: “Applause is a quick fix. And love is an acquired taste” (K.L. 118).

The journey is easy to take, delivered as it is in Miller’s personable voice. Some of his stories are funny, some poignant, some instructive, some inspirational, and a couple even made me squirm in embarrassment. For this sometimes-bumbling man is nothing if not transparent.

Though God doesn’t play an out-front role in Miller’s story, He is there in its presuppositions and moral underpinnings. The one significant God-lesson that stuck with me Miller relates near the end of the book where he writes about how his whole life has been a search to fill a hole of longing and loneliness inside. When Jesus didn’t fill that hole early in his Christian life, Miller says he nearly abandoned his faith. But now, through reading the Bible he realizes that the incompleteness he is feeling will never be satisfied on earth—not even by the most compatible partner. He says:

“What differentiates true Christianity from the pulp many people buy into is that Jesus never offers that completion here on earth. He only asks us to trust him and follow him to the metaphorical wedding we will experience in heaven” (K.L.2281).

However, he sees his marriage as key in helping him endure that longing. Instead of expecting the lover to fill that hole: “… we will comfort each other in the longing and even love it for what it is, a promise that God will someday fulfill us” (K.L.2299).

I would recommend Scary Close to anyone who loves a good memoir—but especially to singles who have had many relationships but still never found the one. The man who says he was “… rescued from my fear and insecurity that made me so frighteningly poor at relationships, rescued from isolation and from fairy-tale illusions about what love really is” (K.L.2397) might just have some clues for you.

I received Scary Close as a gift from the publisher for writing a review.

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A Plague of Unicorns (review)

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A Plague of UnicornsA Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Cranford Abbey’s orchard of golden Hosannah apples are ravished annually by a herd of hungry unicorns, Abbot Aelian begins a search for a hero to best the beasts. Sadly that leads to nothing but an empty Abbey larder as hero after hero descends on the place with his retinue, only to fail.

Meanwhile eight-and-a-half-year-old James, son of the Duke of Callendar, lives in a castle 50 miles away with his mother, uncle, sister Alexandria and baby brother Bruce—his father having gone missing while on crusade. That means that James—who asks altogether too many questions, so many, in fact, that some avoid him—may become the duke sooner than expected. But he doesn’t yet have an education. So, shortly after his ninth birthday, he is trotted off to Cranston Abbey to learn languages, Bible illumination and all the other things one learns in an abbey.

Of course the unicorns arrive right on schedule and James, who is growing up and learning that questions not asked but pondered can produce a crop of their own answers, hatches a plan. Will he be another Abbey hero?

I loved the medieval monastic setting of this children’s chapter book by Jane Yolen.

The characters are delightful too, seen through the narrator’s and James’ points of view. I was especially pulled in by James and his misunderstanding of the adult reactions around him, like seeing his mother’s sending him away as proof that she no longer loved him.

The plot reads like an ancient folk tale complete with chapter titles that echo old books: “Chapter 1 – In which we are introduced to a short history of the Unicorn Plague,” “Chapter 7 – In which James finally gets to leave the castle,” etc. The black-and-white illustrations add to the book’s feeling of authenticity.

Yolen’s writing is perfect—simple yet profound:

“James went downstairs to the kitchen where Cook had a birthday cake all baked, and they shared it without questions, without answers. Because cake is like a stopper in a bottle. It keeps things corked up inside” – p. 93.

So why the four stars instead of five? Because despite all its good points, I missed a certain spiritual dimension that I have come to expect in books published by Zonderkidz. Oh, there is lots of religious content. We see the monks and James illuminating scripture, going for prayers, sprinkling holy water etc. but I didn’t pick up in James any sense of God or growth in his relationship with Him. The spiritual connection that there is, is between Sandy and the Unicorns:

“It was not the holy water on the ribbons nor the magic of the rowan boughs that called the unicorns in, but the song that Sandy sang.

James wondered, Is it magic? An incantation? A wizard’s spell?

… The stallion pointed his horn at Sandy’s chest but did not thrust forward. Nor did Sandy pierce him with the spear. Instead, hero and unicorn gave twin sighs and sank down together at the foot of the tree, the unicorn’s head resting in Sandy’s lap” – p. 176, 177.

And so the book’s spiritual message, subtle though it is, seems more like animism than Christianity—something which, as I said, surprised me in a book published by Zonderkidz.

I would still recommend this imaginative, gentle tale, with parents and caregivers using the portrayed spirituality as something to discuss with young readers.

I received A Plague of Unicorns as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Ishbane Conspiracy (review)

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The Ishbane ConspiracyThe Ishbane Conspiracy by Angela Alcorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Sometimes the best way to see a thing is to look at its opposite,” says Randy Alcorn, quoting A.W. Tozer in his “Note to Readers.” The opposite is something of which we get large chunks in The Ishbane Conspiracy—a novel by Alcorn and his daughters Angela and Karina.

In the story (which was first released in 2001) we follow teenage characters Jillian, Brittany, Rob, and Ian for a year. Jillian’s younger brother Daniel and her mother Diane Fletcher also play main parts in the story. The opposite view comes via letters between demon character Ishbane and his understudy Foulgrin.

The letters give us an inside-out commentary on all that’s happening in the teens’ lives. These foul spirits gloat over successes like getting the “vermin” to consult the ouija board and tarot cards, ignore their parents, and get wasted on drugs and alcohol. But they wring their hands in dismay when the kids clean up their lives, pray, and witness to their friends about Jesus and His power to change them.

During the year, these kids face the gamut of modern teen temptation. They deal with the lure of the occult, drugs, alcohol and the partying lifestyle, the fallout of being bullied and teased, eating disorders, premarital sex, pregnancy, peer pressure, the communication chasm between teens and their parents, and more.

I gave this book four stars (not five) because I did find the characters somewhat one-dimensional, the plot contrived, and some of the demonic diatribes long and preachy. But I would still say The Ishbane Conspiracy is a worthwhile read.

Here are some choice demonic bits I highlighted:

“Keep their eyes closed to the spiritual realm. How? Simply by keeping them busy orbiting around themselves” – Kindle Location 1711.

“The humans’ minds are tainted because they have such vested interests in disbelief. If they don’t have a creator, that means they don’t have a Judge. How convenient” – KL 2393.

“She doesn’t understand prayer isn’t preparation for battle, it is the battle” – KL 5397.

Though The Ishbane Conspiracy is no Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis) I would say it does have the potential to impact modern youth. Novelist James Scott Bell says, in his endorsement of the book: “I would love to see The Ishbane Conspiracy in the hands of every high school and college student in America” – KL 17.

This tale did get me thinking too and asking what in my life would make an Ishbane or a Foulgrin groan—or cheer?

I received The Ishbane Conspiracy as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Storm (review)

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Storm: Hearing Jesus for the Times We Live InStorm: Hearing Jesus for the Times We Live In by Jim Cymbala

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jim Cymbala, who experienced Hurricane Sandy in 2012, likens it to the storm he expects will soon hit the evangelical church of North America. In Storm he gives advice to pastors and lay people about how to get ready so that the light of faith won’t be snuffed out like the city lights of Lower Manhattan were in Sandy’s wake.

“I believe followers of Jesus in America are on the cusp of something horrible. I, and many others, see the early warning signs all around” – Jim Cymbala, Storm, Kindle Location 148.

Three areas that cause him to be concerned about the American church are:

    1] The church isn’t as big or popular as it thinks it is.
    2] Personal transformation is rare.
    3] Biblical literacy is declining.

To remedy this he addresses lacks and needs in a variety of areas:
* The failure of modern models of church planting and growth (he calls them “fads and trends”).

* The need for prayer, both personal and corporate intercessory prayer.

“… the deepest secrets of prayer are only learned by spending time with God” – K.L. 805.

“Think about the people we love and worry about but rarely pray for” – K.L. 2641.

* Godly, exemplary leadership.

“… the quality of spiritual leadership can only be measured by how it looks in the Lord’s sight” – K.L. 1096.

* The need for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our churches and ministries.

* A clear, Christ-centered gospel message.

* Clarity on the difference between the Old and New Testament Covenants.

“Old Testament passages are only properly used when they ultimately point us to Jesus and the New Covenant” – K.L. 3006.

* How to live in anticipation of Christ’s return.

First person stories of people from his church whose lives illustrate the point he has just made follow chapters of teaching.

The book’s ideas are logical and the points well supported with Scripture. Cymbala speaks from a wealth of pastoral experience which gives his voice and message credibility,  passion, and urgency.

There is nothing new here, really, just a plea to get back to basics, made urgent because of how quickly events are changing the political and social landscape in America and the world. For those who have lost fervor or gotten bogged down in esoterical theology, this easy-to-read book is an invitation back to Bible essentials.

I received Storm as a gift from the publisher via BookLook Bloggers for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Holy Land Key (review)

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The Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God's People in IsraelThe Holy Land Key: Unlocking End-Times Prophecy Through the Lives of God’s People in Israel by Ray Bentley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Holy Land Key Ray Bentley ties history, current events, phenomena in the skies, and Israel’s feasts and festivals with prophecy to develop a holistic view of Israel’s place in history past, present, and future. The ideas he puts forward have developed over decades of trips to Israel and relationships with individuals living there, both Jews and Gentiles.

I appreciated the principles of interpreting Scripture and history that Bentley presents.

He suggests that to hasten end-time events with “… God’s glory being poured out for the final and greatest harvest the world has ever seen…” we need to adhere to God’s order: “…. for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16-17). In other words, more than ever Christians need to reach out in love to the Jewish people (Kindle Location 666).

He maintains that to understand and interpret prophecy, it’s important to recognize the patterns in scripture. One pattern that he identifies is “first natural, then spiritual” as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10:11 (K.L. 1687).

A principle of interpreting prophetic passages that flows out of this is similar: “… look first for the natural meaning of the scripture and then for a spiritual meaning” (K.L. 1725).

He gives a lot of significance to signs in the heavens, drawing permission from Genesis 1:14, which says about the lights God created: “… let them be for signs and seasons.” His explanation of how, in the past, blood moons have correlated with dramatic developments in Israel is fascinating. The fact that two more blood moons are expected to occur in 2015 to join the two that happened in 2014 will have me watching developments in Israel more closely than ever. However, his linking of the signs of the zodiac with Israel’s feasts seemed a bit far-fetched to me.

All in, I appreciated Bentley’s ideas on how to interpret prophetic passages through the Jewish mindset. His love for the Jews is outspoken, but balanced by personal friendships with non-Jewish Christians in the Middle East. His explanation of the history of these people groups with their claims to the same small bit of land in a conflict that is more intense than ever helped me better understand current affairs in Israel and the Middle East.

I received The Holy Land Key as a gift from the publisher through Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Borrowed Gardens – new poetry anthology

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It’s here at last–the project that’s been in the works for over a year! And just in time for Christmas too.

Borrowed Gardens - poetry anthologyBorrowed Gardens

Authors: Bertoia, Jeannine; Fisher, Tracie; McNulty, Del; Nesdoly, Violet

Publisher: SparrowSong Press (printed by First Choice Books), December, 2014, Paperback, 128 pages

ISBN: 978-1-77084-501-5

About the Book (cover text)

“A collection of poems to touch hearts. They are personal—time and circumstance snapped through the lenses of four women. In their word photos memories abound, family is honoured, love is voiced. Together they speak to a mosaic of people and places, in lands far and near, to times lived and yet to live.”

About the Writers (cover text)

“The pieces represented in this collection are the work of four Vancouver Lower Mainland women. Jeannine Bertoia and Tracie Fisher met in the Fine Arts Department of Kwantlen Polytechnic University. They began to share their poetry in 2005. They were joined in 2006 by freelance writer and poet Del McNulty and finally by author and poet Violet Nesdoly in 2007. The group meets regularly to support and further each other’s creative endeavours.”

A personal note:

I’m so proud of this book—the joint effort of all four of us.

The cover is a painting by Jeannine: “Spring Garden.”

Del conceived the cover design with its stylish bookmark flaps.

The title is taken from one of Tracie’s poems and reflects the theme of gardens, plants, and flowers—one of the subjects that runs through the book. (Other topics that keep recurring are home, family, nature and travel.)

I did the layout and typeset the book’s contents.

Here to whet your appetite are some of my favourite lines from my fellow poets:

From Jeannine’s prose poem “Stories”

 

“…Huddled on a grey rock, a yellow towel on our laps we told each other stories, yours a stream of laughter, mine told over and over until we became the story. I felt the child under my skin and her face a reflection of my mother and daughter…”  – p. 35

 

From Del’s poem “The Going”

You will go
it will be so tomorrow
where harvest sun
flames the path no longer narrow
we will part then
as light simmers on leaf and limb…”

– p. 66 – this poem won the 2010 Surrey International Writers Conference Poetry Award.

And from Tracie’s title poem “Borrowed gardens”

I wander in borrowed gardens
on pollen-painted legs
trail my hands
through rivers of rosemary
rows of lavender
my fingers retain
lingering aromas…”

– p. 112.

Borrowed Gardens is available from the individual authors.

Price: $12 Cdn. + postage (I will post exact price to mail within Canada & to the U.S. shortly)

Order from me by email (Please put “Borrowed Gardens Order” in the subject line)

Payment by personal cheque or money order.

An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare (review)

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An Insider's Guide to Spiritual Warfare: 20 Battle Tested Strategies from Behind Enemy LinesAn Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare: 20 Battle Tested Strategies from Behind Enemy Lines by Kristine McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When, one day, a man asked Kristine McGuire, “What is spiritual warfare?” she was surprised. McGuire, who describes herself as aware of spiritual things since childhood, had never realized people might not be attuned to the spiritual dimension and unaware of the battles taking place in that realm. Her difficulty in coming up with a good answer for her questioner challenged her to study spiritual warfare. An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare is the result.

The book consists of five sections that contain a total of thirty chapters. Within them she discusses spiritual warfare from many angles. These include defining what it is (Chapter 1 of Part 1 “Life in the Spiritual War Zone”); examining the “Weapons of War” (Part 2, subjects include “The Belt of Truth,” “The Breastplate of Righteousness” etc); naming “Common Battlefields” (Part 3, topics include “Suffering,” “Worry and Fear,” and “Lust”); exposing the enemy’s tools in “When Supernatural Meets Natural” (Part 4, topics of pagan culture, familiar spirits, ghosts and more); and, finally, challenging us: “Take Back Your Ground” (Part 5, subjects include overcoming war-weariness and praying the Bible).

Sprinkled as text boxes within the chapters are the 30 Battle-tested Strategies promised in the subtitle.

Example: “Strategy Point #1: As God’s adopted child, you have the right to call out ‘Abba Father!’” – p. 26.

At the back of every chapter is a “Your turn to Reflect” segment—five questions that invite the reader to interact with and apply what they have just read. Some chapters also tag on a relevant Scripture passage and a “Take Action” section.

The book ends with a bibliography of sources for supplementary reading and a topical index.

I found the book logical in idea development and easy to understand. McGuire’s voice is passionate and compassionate as she speaks out of conviction and personal experience. Here, for example in the chapter “The Subtle Influence of a Pagan Culture,” she talks about how even Christian culture has, through avoidance, begun to accept the occult:

“Although some Christian apologists and teachers have been warning the Church of the influence of mysticism and the occult in the Church for years, such warnings have often fallen on deaf ears. Many say there is no such thing as paranormal activity, witchcraft, divination or spirit communication, often placing all occult activities into the category of fanciful tales or outright trickery.

“This is how occultism is gaining, and has gained, a foothold in many Christian lives. We have a community of believers with limited knowledge of the Bible. They have questions. When they do go to their pastors seeking answers, or with stories of paranormal experiences, they are rebuffed” – p. 159.

Section four, where McGuire tells stories about her own involvement in the occult helps us see the pathway in and out of occultic deception. Her voice of experience in these matters sets this book apart from other books about spiritual warfare.

At this time when paranormal subjects are getting lots of book, internet, and TV attention, we really need the kind of testimony and teaching that McGuire gives in her book. It is an excellent resource for Christians old and new. For the experienced believer it is a good review of spiritual warfare basics. For the new Christian it is for a clear explanation of what spiritual warfare is, and how and why we need to be involved. For all it is a challenge to holy living in every part of life.

I received An Insider’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare as a gift from the publisher, Chosen Books, for the purpose of writing a review.

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