Archive for September, 2015

Back several months ago my car was totaled. The road was icy. The temperature was cold. The driver was inexperienced. The hill was steep. And the bend in the road fairly sharp. All this combined equals a destroyed rear-end of a car.

The rear-end is worth more than $3000 in damage repair. The car still drives like a champ. It's a seven year old car with over 100,000 miles. It runs well. It's the cosmetic aspect of it that is the problem: aesthetically it is about as unsightly as it can be. It is a perpetual embarrassment. The problem is that I have no choice but to drive it because I simply cannot afford another car right now.

I drive down a certain road every day to get to work and every day I drive past people walking to work, people waiting on rides to get to work, or people with cars that look like piles of garbage. It must be embarrassing to the folks who make up that huddled mass of humanity. Yet every day I see them. Every day they are there, sacrificing themselves to the sunrise and sunset rhythms of this world. Every day they are getting at it.

Recently there have been other reasons to be embarrassed here on earth and only this morning I asked myself why I feel that way. A car is a means to an end. A car doesn't have to be aesthetically pleasing in order to accomplish its purpose of getting me to and from here and there. It does not have to make me the envy of anyone or make me envy anyone. So I have to ask myself, why am I embarrassed about it?

Why do I care?

Envy. I think that may have something to do with embarrassment. Yes. I'm sure of it. This embarrassment, or the situation that causes embarrassment, is rooting out, by the grace of God, those insipid desires to have and to hold things–or to struggle against embarrassment. Maybe the embarrassment we 'suffer' is due to an inflated opinion of ourselves or an inflated opinion of what we think we are are owed or deserve. Embarrassment is the polar opposite of gratitude. So putting all this together I can conclude that embarrassment stems from active envy instead of active empathy or active gratitude. I get so used to thinking about myself and my own situation that I am blind to others.

Or I see them too much which might be even worse.

I'm embarrassed because I think I deserve better or more. There's a point where Jesus is telling me this is true–except that better is not more or shinier. Better is less. Better is an understanding of those for whom his own heart aches and those with whom he dined: the poor, the weak, the outcast. At some point, I have to realize that I am the poor, the weak, and the outcast.

Jesus–this Son of Man who had no place to lay his head–wouldn't be embarrassed to ride in my car.

Jesus too was poor and outcast–and I'm sure his car wasn't the best. Maybe being like him in this small way is the cost of my discipleship.

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GraceI received an email from the author of this book asking me if I would review the book. In the interest of full-disclosure, the author provided me with a gift copy of the book for my Kindle via amazon. I do not know the author or otherwise, but agreed to review the book here at my blog and and also to post the review at Amazon.com.

Picture of Grace is a short children's book in the genre of picture book. It is an endearing story about a young girl who adores her grandfather who happens to be a painter. She spends considerable time with him in his studio talking to him while he paints. Clearly, the little girl adores her grandfather and he clearly adores her.

I cannot say too much about the plot without ruining it for potential readers, so let me just say that it takes a quick turn and ends in a rather unexpected, yet pleasant, way. 

As far as the story goes, this is a success. I rather enjoyed the story and I rather enjoyed the artwork. I have noted in other reviews of children's books that I am a fool for good artwork in children's books and this one got me too. I think the artwork is very well done and it compliments the story nicely. The characters are slightly exaggerated but this endears them to the reader. A lot of the story is conveyed through the characters' emotion displayed in the pictures. The artwork rendered nicely on the Kindle program running on my Dell 2in1.

I had two problems with the book. One is that at times the transitions in the story seemed kind of abrupt. This is a small thing to me and probably won't even register with younger readers. Mostly it's a matter of preference and it's not one that in any way detracts from overall content of the story.

The other problem I had was with the character Delilah who is the antagonist. Her character rankled me she was so unpleasant. I wondered where the influence for this character came from because she seems rather offensive and it was almost hard to believe someone could be so callous. With that said, this might be a character in the story where a child reader would need adult guidance to understand. Really, she's a fairly complicated character for a children's book.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed the story. It only takes a few minutes to read and it does have some meaningful lessons that can be pulled out and addressed by an adult. Among those themes, love, grace, death, family, and, well, mean people.

And mean people become the perfect place to speak to young readers about how to be a picture of grace and graciousness.

I have no problem recommending the book and awarding it 4.5 stars because of the issues I noted above.

4.5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Picture of Grace (Amazon: Kindle, currently $0; hardcover is $13.67)
  • Author: An interview with the author Josh Armstrong
  • Illustrator: Taylor Bills
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Self-published (?)
  • Pages:
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: children
  • Reading Level: Elementary
  • Disclaimer:

ThrivingI love when a book just sort of 'shows up' and it has immediate relevance to my life or ministry. Such was the case with Thriving in Babylon. I was searching through the David C Cook offerings on NetGalley and this book just appeared…I'm fairly certain I heard the sound of 'ahhh' sung by angels as a halo of gold surround the book. Needless to say I was happy to see the book, a book, any book focused on the Book of Daniel.

I have been engaged in serious study of the book of Daniel since sometime in 2014 as I prepared myself to teach an undergraduate level course on the book at a small Bible College located near my home in the Fall of 2015. I mean it must be providence because this is the fourth book on Daniel I have managed to get for review from publishers in the last year (and in fact, I just received a fifth one in the mail today from another publisher). All of the books have had unique perspectives on the Book of Daniel and have lent their insight to me as I sought to understand Daniel.

It does make me wonder though why there is currently so much popular and scholarly level interest in the Book of Daniel–so much interest that one noted author even published a lifestyle book based on something he read in Daniel. It's curious how it seems that perhaps people are slowly beginning to realize that all our American dreams are not quite the stuff that being a disciple of Jesus is made of. Or maybe what people are seeing is that the time is ripe, the axe is at the root, the signs are converging and coalescing, and maybe we imagine we hear just the faintest hint of a trumpet blast being carried by the wind.

This book started out strong with a heavy focus on the Book of Daniel and I was rolling along with Osborne nicely. He is correct: Daniel is neither an adventure story nor a prophecy manual. Where he kind of lost me is when he stated what he does think the main point of Daniel's book is: "When it comes to the book of Daniel, his incredible example of how to live and thrive in the most godless of environments is the main lesson we don't want to miss. It's a template that's particularly relevant today" (Location 128). Unfortunately, this kind of made me yawn a bit because I started sensing where the book was going–a mere manual for living, something the church does not need. Fact is, if we read the Book of Daniel as a book of mere examples for living, however incredible, encouraging, and faithful they may be, then we may as well read it as an adventure story and we probably miss the bigger story he is telling us about ultimate redemption of the world, of His saints, of his Son, and of a victory that even death cannot prevent. 

A deeper look at Daniel reveals a deeply theological story, one that is entirely focused on the sovereignty of God over the nations and of how, despite the terribly negative outward appearance of things in this world, God will rescue and redeem his exiles from Babylon, establish his Messianic Kingdom by uprooting, supplanting, subverting, and at times destroying the kingdoms of earth, and establish his Son and People as the rightful heirs and rulers of the kingdoms of earth.

Somewhere in this, yes, we are called to live and thrive. Clearly the prophet Jeremiah, one of the books Daniel read, told the exiles that they should settle down, build houses, raise families, live, and seek the welfare of the city where they were confined, but I doubt Jeremiah did so without first giving those people a picture of the great God who led them there in the first place. I doubt that living and thriving are the main focus of the book–or of any book of the Bible for that matter. I'm not saying they are absent; I am saying they are the trees we see when we take our eyes off the forest. 

I absolutely agree that we live in a world of chaos. I agree that for all intents and purposes our times are no different than those of Daniel and that Christians are, by and large, living in the shadow and confines of Babylon. I disagree that we are going to change this world simply by displaying hope, humility, and wisdom–the three ideas explored in the book. To me, however, this sounds like a convenient outline–kind of preacherly (if that's a word). Needless to say, however well he may find these ideas in the Book of Daniel, I was fairly disappointed that this was the route he chose to go. It's not that anything he says in the book is wrong or that it cannot be found in the book of Daniel. It's just that this is not the point of Daniel's book and, therefore, I think Thriving in Babylon was wanting for something more.

So let me wrap up by noting a couple of things that did resonate with me and ultimately were good constructs–even if I think the foundation upon which they were built was a bit beyond the blueprint. First, I agree that '[F]rom the first page to the last, Daniel clearly saw God's hand in everything that happened' (Location 203). I agree. This is laid out for the readers in Daniel chapter 1 and it carries all through the book. He goes on to note that 'God is in control of who is in control' (Location 222). Here I think Osborne nails it and, to this point, he is correct: upon this understanding of God we can indeed thrive in Babylon. I only wish he had explored his point a little more with respect to how Christians respond to the the kings of this world. Daniel is a decidedly political book and I think it needed to be explored, and could have been even at this popular level.

Second, he brings out some import and valid points about suffering in this world and our response to it. Key among his points is this: 'Those who walk away from God in anger and disillusionment in the midst of their suffering never do so because their test was too hard. They do so because their faith was not genuine' (Location 541). Whatever else I may have written, I want to be clear that Osborne has written a good book with much worth lauding. His points about our suffering as Christians in the midst of the Babylonian shadow are important and timely. We do well to listen. Yet we also do well to remember that there is no resurrection needed for those who remain alive. The saints of God will suffer at the hands of kings. Perhaps this timely message needed to be explored a little more.

My main disappointment with this book is that I don't think Osborne handled the Book of Daniel very well. Frankly, it was a huge disappointment. At times, it was like he utterly forgot he was even taking us through the book at all. Besides this, as noted above, I think he failed to get to the heart of what Daniel is teaching us. I get that the book is not designed to be a thorough exposition of Daniel and in this Osborne succeeds. The book of Daniel is a complex book and the character of Daniel–one of only two characters who 'survive' the entire book from start to finished–is a complex character. He has good days and bad days. He spends a lot of time sick due to the visions he has. He has to make difficult choices at times and seems at times to be all about his own self-preservation. Sometimes he doesn't tell the whole truth when interpreting visions and dreams. At times he us utterly brilliant and at other times he seems confounded. Sometimes he appears to compromise a bit and other times he is utterly bold and forthright. It is, therefore, difficult to make Daniel the sort of hero I think Osborne wants him to be.

Daniel is complex and I wish that complexity had been explored with a little more nuance than Osborne did. Again, it's not that anything Osborne said was wrong or out of place. It's just that Daniel is not so black and white as he leads us to believe.

It's a good read for the most part and I didn't disagree with all that much. He says a lot of important and timely things. There are some surprisingly fresh anecdotes and I like that he doesn't fall back on the the so-called standard sermon illustrations–oh thank God for that! I found the book to be honest and readable; accessible and, at times, challenging. It has plenty of Scripture references quoted and/or alluded to (notes are at the end of each chapter.) I also found the book a bit unbalanced. Chapters 1-4 talk about 'Daniel's Story'; Chapters 5-7** discuss 'Prepared for Battle'. He discuss all these things before diving into his thoughts about hope, humility, and wisdom. Chapters 8-13 are 'Hope'; 14-16, 'Humility'; 17-20', 'Wisdom'. It's slightly unbalanced as you can see, it's a small thing to be sure, but it bothered me.

One last thing. Daniel's book warns us over and over again of putting our hope in the kings who derive their position and authority 'out of the earth' or 'out of the sea' (see Daniel 7). Christians in America are particularly susceptible to this scheme of the devil–the one where he tries to convince us that our hope is found in the next great ministry or the next great up and coming politician. We are continually told about how important it is to vote for a particular political party or a particular political candidate. Sometimes we are even told that Daniel himself is a fine example of why Christians ought to be involved in the political process. At one point Osborne makes an utterly brilliant point when addressing this scheme: "[Satan] is still at it. Today, he's convinced many of us to replace our passionate hope in Jesus with a passionate hope in politics or the latest ministry on steroids. It's taken our eyes off Jesus and put our hope in that which can't deliver" (location 1334). Here I think he nails it because it is here, at this point, that I think the point of the Book of Daniel is clearly in view.

What the church needs is a formidable and robust picture of a great God who will wreck the systems born in this world, born of this world, born from this world, and who will set up his own kingdom which is 'not of this world' (Daniel 2; cf. John 18). Daniel gives us this vision–as a prophet should. I find that looking at mere examples of mere humanity is not enough to strengthen us in our current need. This is why, for example, when John the Revelator was writing to the seven churches in province of Asia who were muddled in persecution and complacency, he began not with a robust picture of an exemplary human being but with a picture of the cosmic Jesus who is the Alpha and the Omega. In short, I think the focus on Daniel as a person is misplaced.

So I'm a little disappointed with this book, but not entirely. There are times when Osborne gets Daniel brilliantly and other times when he falls down. It's a preacher thing to narrow down a book to a set of memorable ideas. In this case, hope, humility, and wisdom are the memorable ideas he wants us to remember. I think we would have been better served if he had asked us to remember that it is God's faithfulness to his people, to his own plans for this world, not his people's mere example, that is why and how and for what we thrive and survive and ultimately own this world and how he ultimately conquers Babylon.

4/5 Stars

**I would make one correction to the book. In chapter 7, he begins with an illustration of living near Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego, California. In paragraph 2, he refers to those who train recruits as 'drill sergeants.' This would be fine if he were talking about Army recruits, but those who train Marines are called Drill Instructors. Trust me when I say this is a big deal to Marines. It should be addressed in future editions of the book.

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Thriving in Babylon (Amazon: Kindle $9.28 ) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback $9.99) David C Cook (Trade-Paperback $15.99)
  • Author: Larry Osborne
  • Larry Osborn on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.

Cover65208-mediumBack in the day when I was still invited to stand in the pulpit each week and preach, I once had a crazy idea after reading a book by Eugene Peterson. Actually, Peterson's book began sparking little fires in me that I simply could not control. He eventually wrote five volumes in a series of spiritual theologies, but it was that first book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places that wrecked me. The crazy idea was that I should start sharing with my congregation this newly found discovery that Christianity was not about 'me.' I still remember the sermon series because it came out of me around the time The Purpose Driven Life was all the rage. My series was called The Crucifixion Driven Life.

Then I took a seminary class called Doctrine of Grace at Cincinnati Christian University (hosted by a preacher named Jack Cottrell) which served as another fire that eventually, completely undid me. Along the way I met a preacher/author named Tom Wright, another named Tim Keller, and still another named Brennan Manning. David Crowder*Band released A Collision and redefined (at least for me) Christian music.  Then I read a book by a now deceased blogger named Michael Spencer (Mere Churchianity) and heard a sermon by an obscure preacher named Max Lucado who called his sermon It's not about Me, It's not about Now. (Of everything I have heard and read by Max Lucado that sermon remains the most powerful and convicting I ever participated in. It was truly a watershed moment in my faith. He also wrote a book with a similar title, which I read. But even the book paled in comparison to the sermon he preached.) I don't even have the space to tell you about what happened when I was introduced to a turn of last century theologian named Peter Taylor Forsyth. 

So many books…so many steps….so many sermons…

It took several years of reading and listening to these sermons and allowing these radical ideas to flood my own sermons for me to get fired from the church where I was preaching at the time. OK. I'll be fair. I 'resigned.' And it's been six long years that I have been in the wilderness learning about what Kyle Idleman crammed into 224 pages. And what is worse, I'm not sure God is done ending me just yet. Truth is, we probably don't 'end ourselves' as much as when we submit ourselves to Jesus he undoes us for us. Sometimes the submitting isn't done so willingly either. We may not ask for it. I'm certain it will be (or is) unpleasant (for the most part). And I'm certain it will not be a finished task until after Jesus has returned to claim his own and to set things to rights. Idleman wrote:

Even though most of us can point to a significant event like the ones above, getting to the end of me is not just one moment in life. Reaching the end of me is a daily journey I must make because it's where Jesus shows up and my real life in him begins. (location 49**)

I'm not sure how Idleman crammed so much into 224 pages. I mean, it's taken me more than six years to get where I am and I know that I could fill more than 224 pages, but I like writing and I probably wouldn't work well with an editor. Nevertheless, here I am. Once again I heard the voice of God whispering the truth to my heart and it hurts my ears and demolishes my pride and almost drives me to hopeful despair. Jesus is not easy. Following him is less so. So if John the baptizer 'must become less', how much more must we?

I have not heard these things taught in any of the churches that I have been to in the last six years or so since I stopped preaching and became a special education teacher in a public school. Well, maybe I heard some of it in the Anglican church we attended for a while, but the truth is that when I started thinking deeply about what real faith was like and started to express those thoughts in the pulpit, the people in the pew became increasingly uncomfortable. It was palpable. Truth is, it's just not popular, frankly, to tell the truth about what it means to truly follow Jesus. I mean we all utter things like 'Jesus said to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.' Yes, we do. But in America that scarcely has the subversiveness that Jesus attached to it. In America we bear crosses of cranky neighbors, Facebook debates with 'liberals' who deny young earth creationism, or long slogs to boring jobs. Idleman brings this back to his readers: "I want to warn you now–so much of Jesus' teachings seem oppositional to what we have come to accept. And the life He invites us to is not just countercultural, it's counterintuitive. More often than not it flies in the face of what feels right" (location 64).

I seriously do not understand how the preacher at a so-called megachurch can say things like this and still have a pulpit to climb into every week. But he said it. And I think he is right. It all seems so backwards to me at times and yet there's this nagging in my brain and heart that tells me he is correct. "Embrace the paradox," he writes, "Brokenness is the way to wholeness." When I read things like this I hear the echoes of those I have read before: Manning, David Wells, Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, Lucado, Crowder, Keller, Mullins, Tolkien, Lewis, Carson, Wright, Willimon, Hauerwas, Buchanan, Rowling, and so many, many more. There are so many voices screaming this in their books and pulpits and records and blogs–and yet…here we are…running over the same old ground…retracing our steps to the same old fears and misconceptions about Jesus and what it means to be his disciple. Here in America.

That phrase, 'brokenness is the way to wholeness,' is alone worth the price of the book. I know it's only a retread of something Jesus said, but I don't care. Say it again. Print 224 pages with nothing but that on each page and I'll buy the book because I have lived it–as have many others who will also testify to it's veracity. I cannot explain it or even wrap my head around it. But I see how God in his righteousness has been breaking this chain that bound me–bound me to a pulpit, bound me to an idea, bound me to a people and how he has taken that brokenness and retro-fit me with something better than pulpits, projects, and people. Grace. That's all. Just grace. It means coming to the end of me and realizing that God through Jesus loves me more than I imagined he ever could or would. It means truly living the Resurrection Driven Life (another series of sermons I preached back in the day.)

Even more importantly though is that in coming to the end of me I come to the beginning of others. I've been teaching special education students for 4.5 years now and every day I have to get out of the way and see them. When I was all up in my own business, there was no room for others–even though I served in a hundred different ways. I can honestly question my motives. My students force me each day to end myself. "This is the death we must die. Not a one-time death. Not a partial death. It's a daily dying. And every time I come to the end of me I discover what I deeply wanted all along–real and abundant life in Christ." (Location 2037). In my church of six members, located in a self-contained special education classroom in a public school, I work with emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. Every day they remind me to close the book on myself, to lose myself, to die to myself. They remind me of what it truly means to be the least and the last; the overlooked and forgotten, tucked away safely from the general population where we won't be a problem. Every day these six show me Jesus.

Well, I could go on quoting from the book and preaching this sermon, but I think at this point it's enough to say that I love this book. I like that Idleman, given where he is and what he does, has stayed humble. In many books I read like this, the authors come across somewhat pretentious and condescending. Not so with Idleman. It's a testimony to the leadership in his church, his upbringing, and his training that he has remained in touch with earth. This is what impresses me about this book. I get not a single hint of arrogance or condescension. This book reads like it was written by a fella who has walked with Jesus. His stories are self-deprecating when he tells them, but in truth he doesn't tell a lot of stories about himself–which I appreciate–and instead he tells stories about Jesus. I like this a lot. Too many authors write autobiographies and call them books about Jesus. This book is truly a book about Jesus.

My point is that Idleman seems to think there is something more important for his readers to read than stories about his own faith-prowess or preaching super-skills. He seems to have this idea that it is Jesus who saves and loves and who models for us what being a disciple looks like. So in wonderful fashion, he wrote a book about the end of himself by telling us about Jesus. And I'm sure Kyle Idleman would tell us that a story about Jesus is far more interesting than a story about himself.

This is a book you should buy and read. And then read again. And then buy for someone so they can read it.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase or pre-order (on sale October 1, 2015) The End of Me (Amazon: Kindle) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback) David C Cook (Paperback)
  • Author: Kyle Idleman
  • Kyle Idleman on Twitter
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: David C Cook
  • Pages: 224
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: Mostly Christians, but others too (maybe)
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided an advance reader's copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley.

**All page locations are relative at this point because I'm using an uncorrected proof. Pages should be checked against the final publication for accuracy.