Dancing in the Reflections (review)

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DancingDancing in the Reflections by Patricia Mussolum

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Dancing in the Reflections, Patricia Mussolum rejoices in the beauty of nature and the simple pleasures of home. Dancing is full of stories of God’s simple gifts to her—like an armful of lilacs when she was hankering for a small bouquet, or the assurance, through a deer, a fawn, and rabbit, that God loved her on a day she felt like a failure. Any of us who have collected such moments of our own will find ourselves saying “yes,” and “yes” again as we read this memoir.

Mussolum adds to the significance of her stories by finding spiritual lessons in them. Her knowledge of the Bible and love for it are obvious. Inevitably she casts thanks back to God for the ordinary “miracles” that once filled the box in her living room as a collection of notes, and now make up the contents of this book.

As I read her descriptive stories I felt like I was having a visit with a warm and upbeat friend. The short chapters would make this book a good choice for devotional or waiting-room reading.

Don’t be surprised, though, if Mussolum’s recollections get you to do more than just read. They may have you recalling God’s goodness in your life—and fattening a journal with your own danceable remembrances.

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Walking From East to West (review)

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Walking from East to West: God in the ShadowsWalking from East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak in our Saskatoon church (sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s) I have been fascinated by his message and manner. His memoir, Walking from East to West: God in the Shadows, shines a light on where he came from and how he became the popular evangelist, Christian apologist and humanitarian that he is today.

In chronological order he tells the story of his unhappy childhood in India, his conversion, his move (with his family) to Canada, and his blossoming into family life and ministry.

The God in the Shadows angle is Zacharias recognizing and pointing out how God has been present in his life (though often unseen and unrecognized till much later). In fact he sees evidences of this being the case even before his existence in his great-great-grandmother’s conversion to Christianity. This is powerfully brought home to him when he finds her grave site and sees that the verse on her marker is the very one that God used to call him back to life after his suicide attempt. Throughout the book he points out many other marvelous “coincidences” that bring him to the conclusion that God has been interested in and involved in his life all along the way.

He comes across as a humble, grateful man who is still amazed at what God has done in and through him—a Chennai Indian lad who, until his conversion, was a sports-loving, directionless school goof-off.

The writing style is not as intellectually taxing as some of his more philosophical books and though the odd time a professorial word or two slips in, mostly Walking… is an easy-to-read story.

As I usually do when I read inspiring biographies and memoirs, I marked passages for future retrieval. Here are some bits I highlighted from Walking From East to West:

“God has an appointment with each of us, and it is critical that every man and woman know this. He will stop our steps when it is not our time, and He will lead us when it is” – p. 168 (Kindle Edition).

“… if you have not learned to pay the smaller prices of following Christ in your daily life, you will not be prepared to pay the ultimate price in God’s calling” – p. 199.

“Yes, logic is linear, but its implications are radial” – p. 205.

“Through all of the visitations of life—successes or failures—it is not how well you are known or not known. It is not how big your organization is or isn’t. It is not even how many sermons one has preached or books one has written or millions of dollars one has accumulated. It is how well do you know Jesus?” – p. 224.

I would recommend this book to all who have been impacted by and continue to enjoy and be challenged by the speaking and writing of Ravi Zacharias.

Walking from East to West is part of my own Kindle collection.

Ravi Zacharias’s book and speaking resources (like podcasts and recordings of his regular and weekly radio broadcasts) are available at his ministry (RZM) site.

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Overload (review)

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Overload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of StressOverload: How to Unplug, Unwind and Free Yourself from the Pressure of Stress by Joyce Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overload by Joyce Meyer is a book on how to handle stress. In fifteen chapters, Meyer discusses:
– what stress is and what causes it;
– how putting God in charge of life eases stress;
– how to handle unavoidable stressful situations;
– how to control thoughts to minimize stress;
– advice about decision-making;
– how humor can ease stress;
– warnings against stress-producing activities like comparing ourselves with others, speaking negatively, and tolerating constant low-level dread. The book ends with several chapters of practical advice for how to deal with and eliminate stress from our lives.

Overload is easy to understand and encouraging. If you’ve listened to or watched Meyer’s Enjoying Everyday Life show, you’ll recognize her no-nonsense, with-God-you-can-do-it tone coming through the written word.

I like how Meyer includes lots of examples from her life and concludes each chapter with a brief summary of the points made and an interesting fact about stress. Typical of all of her teaching, Meyer emphasizes the spiritual aspect of stress management.

If you’re at a place where life is too busy, overwhelming, and stressful to be enjoyed, give this book a read!

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

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Messy Grace – review

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Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing ConvictionMessy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction by Caleb Kaltenbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caleb Kaltenbach’s story of how he came to faith in Christ while being raised by two lesbian moms and a closet-gay dad is fascinating in its own right. The biblical teaching on homosexuality and the church that he weaves through the telling make this a must-read for 21st century Christians grappling with current cultural norms of sexual identity.

Though Kaltenbach never strays from supporting what the Bible says about homosexuality (he spends an entire chapter reviewing what both the Old and New Testaments say), neither does he minimize the difficulty of living by its culturally unpopular position. The word “messy” probably occurs more than any other adjective in the book. Again and again Kaltenbach reminds us that God’s dealings with all us flawed, sinful people is a messy business and a church’s grace-filled response to people within the LGBT community will be no different:

“Messiness is what happens when you try to live out God’s perfect grace as a flawed person in a flawed world” – Kindle Location 212.

The book is easy to read. Kaltenbach’s tone is one of a fellow traveler who is on the road to the same place as the reader. The narrative and teaching parts are interspersed in such a way as to maintain the story’s pace and keep our interest.

In my opinion, several aspects of Messy Grace make it an important book:

* Kaltenbach’s unique perspective of having grown up in and thus understanding of the LGBT community. His mom and her partner routinely took him to parties, marches, and Gay Pride parades. Both sets of parents were devastated when he “came out” as a Christian—an experience he likens to what LGBT folks experience when they come out to their families.

* Kaltenbach’s exemplary treatment of his parents. Even though he didn’t approve of their lifestyle, he never broke off his relationship with them, but instead loved and supported them through their ups and downs.

* The pastoral perspective Kaltenbach brings to the issue. As a pastor himself, he makes a passionate and compassionate case for the church to welcome, love, and care for members of the LGBT community. In this department he also challenges pastors and church leaders to think through their responses to twenty questions that pose difficult but relevant scenarios: E.g.:

“Would you allow a same-sex couple to attend your church?”

and

“If a man who had a sex change to be a women started attending your church, could that person attend your women’s ministry?”

and

“What is the plan for the student ministry staff and volunteers when a teenager comes out or expresses same-sex attraction?” – Kindle Location 2365-2390.

Messy Grace is moving and timely. Kaltenbach’s insistence on supporting the truth of Scripture while maintaining a loving attitude toward LGBT individuals is an example of how the church can break down walls of denial, isolationism, verbal abuse, hatred, and fear—even though the process is guaranteed to be messy.

I received Messy Grace as a gift from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Fit for Prayer (review)

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Fit for Prayer (Fit for Faith)Fit for Prayer by Kimberley Payne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Fit for Prayer—Learn How to Fit Prayer and Physical Activity Into Your Daily Routine, author and lifestyle coach Kimberley Payne promises to help us “… gain insight into how to incorporate prayer and fitness into your daily routine”- Fit for Prayer, p. 5.

The book is divided into three sections. Chapters 1-3 talk about exercising our bodies. Chapters 4-6 deal with prayer. Chapters 7-8 are a self-test and action stops to take to incorporate exercise and prayer into daily life.

Though in Chapters 1-3 Payne doesn’t describe specific exercises in detail, the fourteen exercise strategies she lists (in Chapter 2) would benefit a person following any exercise program. Her example of an exercise goal plan (Chapter 3) is clear and the blank goal page along with five exercise-related questions would help anyone get started exercising regularly.

In the how-to-pray section (Chapters 4-6) Payne follows the chapter that defines prayer and its benefits (Chapter 4) with a chapter on what prayer consists of using P.A.T.H. as an acronym (praise, admit, thank, and help – Chapter 5). The last chapter in the section (6) describes how to set prayer goals.

The final section of the book, a multi-page True and False self-test (Chapter 7), is followed by “Action Plan,” (Chapter 8). That plan contains ordinary prayer strategies (like “Keep a prayer journal of answered prayers”) and strategies that combine prayer with exercise (like “Pray while walking” – p. 33).

Though short (only 36 pages of content) in Fit for Prayer Payne manages to deliver a practical and inspirational manual designed to motivate readers to cultivate physical and spiritual health simultaneously.

This is another book that would be useful for women’s groups and individuals. I expect I will be consulting my copy again in the soon-upon-us resolution making time of the year.

I received Fit for Prayer as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review. Visit Kimberley Payne’s website to check out other lifestyle materials she has authored and is offering as books, e-courses, and free programs.

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Flex Your Spirit (review)

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Flex Your Spirit (Fit for Faith)Flex Your Spirit by Kimberley Payne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Flex Your Spirit—Discover a New Way to Express Yourself with God Through Journal Writing and Stretching, author and lifestyle coach Kimberley Payne promises to “…unite physical and spiritual health to help you lose weight and develop a deeper relationship with God” – Flex Your Spirit, p. 5.

She explains how this can happen in three sections of the book. Chapters 1-3 deal with physical stretching. Chapter 1 (“Stretch Your Body”) answers the question what are stretching exercises, lists their benefits, and explains how they differ from warm-ups. Chapter 2 (“Stretching Strategies that Work”) describes how to get the most out of stretch exercises (though it doesn’t give details on specific exercises). Chapter 3 (“Stretching Goal Planning”) lists five questions to ask ourselves as we set exercise goals.

In the second section (Chapters 4-6) Payne talks about spiritual journaling, something she suggests will benefit us spiritually in the same way physical stretches help our body. In Chapter 4 (“Stretch Your Spirit”) she describes what journaling is and how it equates to stretches. Chapter 5 (“Journal Writing Strategies that Work”) and Chapter 6 (“Journal Writing Goal Planning”) list journaling tips and suggest journaling goals.

The third section (Chapter 7-8) is a review of all that we’ve learned (Ch. 7 – “Test Your Knowledge”) and (Ch. 8) an “Action Plan” of how to actually fit regular stretches and journaling into our lifestyle.

This book is short—only 24 pages of content. But in that small amount of space Payne manages to say plenty. Her writing is always easy to understand. With efficient simplicity she dispenses information, encouragement, and inspiration. The examples and worksheets she includes show us how to move forward with the “Flex Your Spirit” program.

This little booklet would be an excellent manual for women’s groups, whose goal it is to develop more than just a toned body. It would also be a great addition to any personal library, and a fine companion to that list of New Year’s Resolutions we re-construct yearly.

I received Flex Your Spirit as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review. Visit Kimberley Payne’s website to see other lifestyle materials Kimberley has authored and is offering as books, e-courses, and free programs.

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If (review)

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If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God's What If PossibilitiesIf: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God’s What If Possibilities by Mark Batterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his newest book If, author Mark Batterson uses Romans 8 and the powerful little word “if” to challenge readers to live the Christian life with more obedience, faith, and abandonment.

Section headings “If only,” “As if,” “What if?” and “No ifs ands or buts” focus on four sides of the idea. In the “If only” section Batterson challenges us to live without regrets. In the “As if” part, the gauntlet is to live as if the unseen and invisible were true. The “What if?” parts are about dreams coming true, about the bigger-than-we-expected results of giving ourselves to God and the working of the Holy Spirit. In the “No ifs, ands or buts” Batterson gives us his bottom line—the things about which he feels there are no ifs, ands, or buts, and challenges us to name and live by our own.

Batterson explores these facets of “if” through a slice-and-dice of Romans 8 and stories (taken from history, his early life, and his experiences as a pastor of the multi-campus National Community Church of Washington DC). Each of If’s 30 chapters begins with a verse or part of a verse from Romans 8 and he also draws our attention to the prominent themes and “if” phrases of this chapter.

The writing is lively with a chummy tone that lends itself to cliché and trendy expressions. In other words, it doesn’t read like a textbook or theology tome.

The exegetical feature does make the book feel a bit rabbit-trailish as far as idea flow is concerned. Perhaps that was by design, for Batterson says in the Introduction: “If is not a systematic theology … If is not a commentary; it’s more of an impressionist painting … a landscape of faith, hope and love with right brain brush strokes” – Kindle Location (KL) 246.

I enjoyed the stories and illustration though numerous times here too I found myself puzzling over exactly how the story I was reading related to the idea or principle being discussed.

Batterson excels, though, at inventing catchy phrases and sayings. My ebook is full of highlighted passages. Here are a few:

“God has blessings for us in categories we don’t even know exist” – KL 2798.

“Our destiny has far less to do with what we do than who we become” – KL 3292.

“For better or for worse, your deepest held beliefs will define who you become” – KL 4142.

“Convictions are lessons learned from experiences we’d never want to go through again, but we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world” – KL 4161.

Full of energy, enthusiasm, faith, and challenge, If is recommended for Christians in the 20-40 crowd—or those finding themselves at a life crossroad or stuck in a backwater.

I received an ebook version of If as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Openness Unhindered – review

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Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristOpenness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across Openness Unhindered’s author Rosaria Butterfield on a video where she told her story of coming to Christ out of a lesbian lifestyle. I loved the fact that my favorite book, the Bible, was instrumental in her conversion. Openness Unhindered testifies to how she has continued to engage with it at a deep and thoughtful level.

In the book, the second one she has authored about her faith since she left her old life around 1999, she alludes briefly to her conversion story. Then she goes on to talk about how she has wrestled with her past and come to a place of equilibrium as a home school mother and pastor’s wife. Passages like the following tug at the heart:

“I am and always will be Rahab—a woman with a past. So, what does a person like me do with such a past? I have not forgotten. Body memories know my name. Details intrude into my world unpredictably, like when I am kneading the communion bread or homsechooling my children. I take each ancient token to the cross, for prayer, for more repentance, for thanksgiving that God is always right about matters of sin and repentance” – Kindle Location (KL) 631.

She stresses the importance of her new identity in Christ and of repentance. Even the title of the chapter on repentance testifies to how foundational it is to her: “Repentance: The Threshold to God and the Answer to Shame, Temptation and Sin.”

In chapters titled “Sexual Orientation—Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake” and “Self-representation—What Does it Mean to be Gay?” she unpacks the history of the gay rights movement and explains how “gay” has become a term of identity. In fact, she argues, gay doesn’t even belong, as an adjective, together with Christian. She says:

Gay is a word that carries stigma because of God’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality. … Because the Bible is clear on the point that homosexual practice is a sin, and because gay is a synonym for the implied desire for or practice of homosexuality, the stigma of this term is an act of God’s love, because God uses it to convict his children of their brokenness” –KL 2111.

Another powerful chapter is the one on Christian community. Here Butterfield describes how their family’s hospitality toward neighbors and church members became a closely woven safety net for all involved.

This was a great read! Though I did find the theological chapters a bit of a slog (Butterfield was a university professor in her former life and in plumbing these challenging topics comes across somewhat professorial), for the most part I enjoyed the book and learned a lot. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“When we are owned by God, we are ruined for the world. And this marring of us for the world is one of the birthmarks of conversion” – KL 595.

“Temptation comes in many forms, but it is always personal, uncannily tailor-made for our individual moral weakness, and it takes aim at God’s character, seeking to ransack our faith” – KL 1343.

“Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” – Sam Allbery quoted on KL 2320.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is trying to understand where homosexual practice fits within the Christian life and the church. Openness Unhindered is a part of my own Kindle collection.

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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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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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