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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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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Despite Doubt (review)

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Despite Doubt: Embracing a Confident FaithDespite Doubt: Embracing a Confident Faith by Michael Wittmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his book Despite Doubt: Embracing A Confident Faith, Michael E. Wittmer sets out to counter the popular myth that faith is stepping blindly into the unknown. Real faith, he says, is based more on what we know than what we don’t. He makes his argument about faith and doubt within the realm of believing in the Bible and the tenets of the Christian faith.

Wittmer tackles this challenge in a two-pronged way, dividing the book into two parts. In Part One—“Belief In God”—he analyzes skepticism and shows how a belief in the existence of God is not only credible but that it is virtually impossible to live consistently as if no God existed. Some of the titles of chapters in this section give us a sense of his range of topics: “God,” “Jesus,” “Bible,” “Belief,” “Disciplines,” and “Faith.”

Part Two—“Following God”—deals with the nitty gritty of living out one’s faith. In chapters such as “Trust,” “Faithfulness,” “Promise,” “Call,” “Assurance,” and more, he deals with issues like how do we know we’re hearing from God? What sets us apart as people of faith? How can we have assurance of Salvation? Who are heroes of faith?

Wittmer says much that is practical and applicable to everyday life. Here are some of his useful insights that I underlined:

From the chapter “Unbelief” (Part 1):

“We must always be at least a little suspicious of doubt, for while not all doubt is sin, all doubt does come from sinners. Sinners have an ax to grind. We are not morally neutral. We have a vested interest in disproving Jesus, for if He is Lord, then we can’t be” – p. 86, 87.

“If we plan to continue our rebellion, we’ll need to conceal our sin beneath a thick smoke screen of intellectual problems” – p. 89.

From the chapter “Trust” (Part 2):

“Every act of willing obedience comes down to trust” – p. 109.

From the chapter “Jump”:

“Faith starts from assurance and proceeds to risk. … Counterfeit faith starts from uncertainty and leaps for assurance” – p. 115.

From the chapter “Fruit”:

“Faith means to commit to what we know and what we know for sure is what God has revealed in Scripture” p. 145.

Though I did enjoy the book, at the deepest level it left me unstirred somehow. Perhaps that’s because it downplayed the possibility of hearing from God personally and glossed over the Holy Spirit-empowered lifestyle pictured in the early church of the New Testament. Rather, Wittmer seems content with a towing-the-line, status quo faith that plods on dutifully following the Bible but lacks the warmth of personal friendship with God:

“Comfort can easily become an idol that we pursue above God, but a comfortable, middle-class existence is not necessarily an indication of sin. It may simply mean we’re prudent. Paul never commanded Christians to take radical risks for God … Rather than focus on how much we’re risking for God, we should concentrate on God’s promises and commands” – pp. 169,170.

Despite my reservations, I would say Despite Doubt is a worthwhile read. It would be a valuable addition to the library of apologists, pastors, teachers, and anyone dealing with seekers, especially if they’re of a philosophical bent. A study guide with three questions per chapter is included at the end of the book, making Despite Doubt a good choice for study groups.

I received Despite Doubt as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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This Is Your Captain Speaking (review)

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This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & LifeThis Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life by Gavin MacLeod

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My life has taken one incredible turn after another. I’ve gotten to do what I wanted to do, I’ve been a captain! I’ve traveled the world. … I’ve been given this incredible gift of a life, and now I want to use it to give back… ” – Gavin MacLeod in the Preface to This Is Your Captain Speaking.

This Is Your Captain Speaking is the autobiography through which TV and film star Gavin MacLeod (along with writer Mark Dagostino) seeks to accomplish his Preface wish.

The story of Allan George See (later Gavin MacLeod) begins on February 28, 1931 in Pleasantville, New York. MacLeod tells his story in first person, chronologically. We go with him to hopeful script readings early in his career, meet his fellow cast members on the show that first put his name in lights as Murray in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” meet the whose-who of the 60s, 70s and 80s through his role as captain in “The Love Boat” TV series while also cheering his personal triumphs and cringing at his mistakes. Three sets of photographs give us visuals of his colorful life.

MacLeod’s writing style is warm and chatty, his memories sharp and detailed. He is very positive throughout (if you’re reading this to find dirt on showbiz celebrities, you won’t find much). As someone who is familiar only with MacLeod’s work on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I was interested to discover he had had multiple successes and a long and brilliant career. The book is full of names and pictures of actors and others celebrities. I’m afraid most of the name-dropping was lost on me, though, Hollywood illiterate that I am. However, despite the many sections that were about encounters with stars of whom I had no knowledge and little interest, I enjoyed the sense of positivity and gratitude that pervaded the book.

I was especially intrigued that MacLeod viewed his role of Jonathan Sperry in the movie “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” as the crowning achievement of his life. Sperry is a character through whom MacLeod was able to talk about and explain his late-found Christian faith. Of that role he says: “Only after I had gained that notoriety, only after I had gained a certain amount of respect, only after I had traveled the world and met people of all stripes, from all walks of life, only after I had taken this long fantastic voyage of a life did God put me in the role of Jonathan Sperry–because he knew that now, after all of that, people would listen to what the Captain had to say” p. 251.

I received This Is Your Captain Speaking as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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