Pray, Write, Grow – review

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Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing TogetherPray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together by Ed Cyzewski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Each year I choose a word or phrase as a focus for the twelve months ahead. My word for 2015 is “pray.” So when I saw the title of Ed Cyzewski’s latest book, I knew I wanted it.

Cyzewski’s premise is that prayer and writing are similar in many ways. In the first six chapters he shows how they both:
– Require space in our lives. We may need to jettison something else to fit them in.

“I’ve found it immensely helpful to set timers for both prayer and writing” – Ed Cyzewski, Pray, Write, Grow, Kindle Location 283.

– Benefit from our undivided attention.

“Our prayer and writing will be most effective when we tune in to both ourselves and other people” – K.L. 370.

– Help us find healing from painful experiences and aid us in helping others.

“We don’t just heal by articulating past pain when we pray. We can also heal by writing about our pain, our fears, and our struggles. As my prayer and writing work together, I have often transitioned from prayer to writing as I’ve faced the anxiety of my past” – K.L.

– Have a physical component and grow stronger through exercise and a regimen.

“… this whole book is all about simple steps we can take to improve our spiritual, physical, and mental states as we seek to pray and write” – K.L. 740.

– Guide us toward our life’s purpose.

“If we want to share something meaningful and healing with others, we have to spend time up on the mountain” – K.L. 894.

– Need a great deal of faith.

“Living by faith shouldn’t feel safe. It should feel a bit wild and reckless” – K.L.922.

The seventh chapter is lists of prompts, resources, and links under the headings “Writing Quick Start” and “Prayer Quick Start.”

Cyzewski’s voice is encouraging. When he gives advice and suggestions he does it with a subtle, not commanding tone. He shares transparently about how prayer gave him insight into the childhood roots of his fear and anger. He tells about his struggles with worry when he quit his job to freelance full time. The awareness he gains through prayer and journaling opens his eyes to his passions, which then become his writing topics.

My two top takeaways from this book are:
1. An introduction to the Examen prayer practice (developed by Ignatius Loyola) that Cyzewski uses, explains, and recommends. His experience of how this daily discipline fosters spiritual intimacy with Christ in him whets the reader’s appetite to try it for him/herself.
2. The picture Cyzewski paints of an integrated writing life. In it prayer and writing intertwine to braid a trellis that aids growth in both areas.

I think this would be a great book for Christians writing in any genre to read.

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe (review)

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Miracle at the Higher Grounds CafeMiracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe by Max Lucado

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After Chelsea Chambers discovers that her NFL husband Sawyer has been cheating on her, inheriting the family café and coffee shop in San Antonia is the perfect out. She, with 12-year-old Hancock and six-year-old Emily move into the upper floor of the Victorian house above the Higher Grounds Café, determined to put new life into the family’s 40+-year-old establishment.

But just after she opens, a letter from the IRS arrives demanding back taxes. When she contacts Sawyer about releasing funds for this, she discovers he has spent all her nest egg on his own money problems. Is her dream of running her own business doomed before it ever gets underway?

Chelsea’s dilemma alerts heaven’s minions and soon Samuel, her clumsy but loveable guardian angel is up to his neck in her daily affairs.

Fantasy intersects reality in Max Lucado’s novel Miracle at the Higher Grounds Café—a book that addresses issues of family, prayer, forgiveness and second chances. It’s an easy read and Lucado’s signature deftness with words makes it a fun read as well:

“ ‘ Who’s that?’ said the young magician who had turned his smartphone into an IMAX screen. The image stretched as far as the east is from the west: Sawyer Chambers in the arms of another woman. A redheaded beauty. A triple threat—younger, thinner, and prettier” – Kindle Location 289.

Discussion questions at the end help us hone in on the timeless truths this story delivers with subtlety and grace. Readers of all ages will enjoy this inspirational, ends-well tale.

I received Miracle at the Higher Grounds Cafe as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Miracle on Voodoo Mountain (review)

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Miracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman's Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of HaitiMiracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman’s Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of Haiti by Megan Boudreaux

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a few mission trips to Haiti, 24-year-old Megan Boudreaux was happily settled in her marketing job for a hospital in Louisiana. Then she began having unsettling dreams. Always they featured the tamarind tree that sat on top of Bellevue Mountain near Gressier, Haiti.

Several months later, with these dreams continuing, Megan began to wonder if there was a message in them. She mentioned them to her boss and his response: “If you think God is calling you to Haiti, you absolutely need to go,” set her on a path she had never imagined or designed for herself.

Miracle on Voodoo Mountain is the story of Megan’s move to Haiti and takes us from 2011 and the humble beginnings of a feeding program, to the present Respire Haiti—a school, medical clinic, café, and various community and sports outreaches that have touched the lives of hundreds. She has also started her own family by adopting several youngsters and in January 2013 she married Josh Anderson. A section of photographs brings the characters and events in this book to life.

Boudreaux’s is an amazing tale of danger (in which she does things like report a corrupt orphanage operation and confront voodoo priests), miracles (she begins speaking the language with no history of learning it), compassion (she tirelessly advocates for Haitian children, especially the restaveks—child slaves), and hard hard work.

Megan’s story impressed on me the importance and power of prayer and the incredible things that God can do through people who are implicitly obedient to Him. This is a faith-building story, full of compassion and hope. I’d highly recommend it to readers of all ages.

I received Miracle on Voodoo Mountain as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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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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