Monday, March 23, 2015

Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Seasons

Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season (Plough Publishing House)

Light that shines out of darkness, life that comes from death, and newness of life that comes out of the barren Earth, all these themes encapsulate the beauty of the stories in Easter Stories : Classic Tales for the Holy Season published by Plough Publishing.  With writers such as C.S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and others, these short stories are sure to open your eyes this Easter season. 

My daughter and I read together the first story about the white lily and were amazed at the narrative.  One doesn’t know his own dirtiness until he looks at the radiance of something so pure and clean.  The story reminded me of two things so very important in regards to faith; one, that the kindness of a stranger can make an immediate impact on the way we live out our lives of faith and two, that the beauty of the lily pointing to the Christ figure dispels all the gloominess and sin in our lives.  I was amazed at even how Jane Clement managed to include a change of appearances and attitude in the dog Rubles.

Included in the selection of stories is one by Leo Tolstoy called Two Old Men.  In it, two men, Efim and Elisha, both set out to go to Jerusalem to worship God.  Efim was a steady man of some means who lived a straight life, and Elisha was a man who kept bees, not poor but not rich, a peaceable man who still liked to drink and chew snuff.  Upon journeying toward Jerusalem, Elisha visits a house where the wife and son are dying because of starvation.  Upon seeing their dire need, Elisha gives them bread, stays a while and begins to think about leaving.  Yet, as he wakes up the next morning he stays and helps out with the hut, buying and making food, and going to church with the family.  He foregoes an opportunity to stay with Efim on his trip to Jerusalem an brings hope to one family.  Finally, at the end of the story Efim stops by this hut and they tell of the wonderful bald-headed man who came to help them.  Efim realizes it must’ve been Elisha and hurries back home to check on Elisha. 

Stories like these increase our ability to see the love of God and love of neighbor as central to the Christian story.  The narratives here lift up the life of faith in real and tangible ways that we sometimes miss when they are put in moral maxim forms.  Plough Publishing has also done a wonderful job at putting well-known authors with lesser known authors, giving the book a good compilation of authors.

Thanks to Handlebar and Plough Publishing for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Skin in the Game

Skin in the Game: Living an Epic Jesus-Centered Life by Rick Lawrence

Give a little, take a little, this is a phrase we often live by in American culture.  Risk, however, is not an everyday kind of thing that we take into consideration.  In his new book, Skin in the Game, Rick Lawrene, Executive Editor of Group Magazine, and active in the youth ministry blogosphere, takes on the notion that a halfway relationship with Jesus is ok and counters this with a book on risking it all for the Savior.  What turns it in the book is a story of true grace and grit, a story that digs deep into the wellspring of the false talk tapes we speak about ourselves and offers us more, how the God of the Universe acts toward us.

Is it possible for our lives to be realigned?  Is it possible that our shame has led us to many narcissistic behaviors that trap us from really being free?  Rick answers these questions by writing, “…and that is because our basic shame, compounded by the thousands of trigger experiences of shame we encounter in our life, clouds our soul’s lens and taints everything we see.  A rebirth is our only hope – but simply a rebirth into the same world of sin and shame we’ve already experienced.  We need a rebirth into a new world – a world called the kingdom of God (25).”  Rick then goes onto to lay out the themes of shame and hope of John 4.3-42 with the Samaritan woman.  There is a degree to which psychology, self-determination, and discipline can go, but the healing that is needed to reorient our identity, our lives is done only by the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  The beautiful challenge that Rick brings out in considering the new birth is that the way through to Jesus doesn’t short-circuit the fears and pain we have been through, but cuts right through the heart of them to healing.

In the chapter on embracing your true identity, Rick makes a distinction about identity formation that is worth repeating.  He writes, “Identity formation doesn’t happen when our circumstances tell us a new and better narrative, which we then embrace, it happens when we change how we respond to the same narrative that has always been destructive to us (62).”  Rather, naming the destructive narrative, renouncing it, proclaiming the truth about God, and proclaiming the truth about ourselves, there is way forward for us.  This series of truths and actions is greatly encouraging to me as I struggle with responding the same to new circumstances.  Yet, there is the responsibility for us to put our skin in the game, to name the past and embrace the truth of God as we he sees us.

I really enjoyed this book and know that it will be a great encouragement to those who read it, even a challenge to get up off the couch and put some skin in the game.

Thanks to Kregel Publications for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When Mountains Won't Move by Jacob Hawk

When Mountains Won’t Move: How to Survive a Struggling Faith by Jacob Hawk

These days we hear a lot about people losing their faith, finding their faith, or being lost and eventually shoring up their faith near the end of life, but rarely do we hear about surviving a struggling faith.  Pastor Jacob Hawk in his new book, When Mountains Won’t Move, seeks to address the issue of struggling faith with a sincerity and biblical faithfulness that is both wonderful and unique.  The beauty of this book is that Jacob doesn’t wave to us from the side of the road as we read but opens up his own struggles with faith, giving us a sense that we are on the same road as he.

Jacob lays the table at the beginning of his book by addressing some similar experiences humans face; the hard work of an employee hoping for a promotion but being passed over, and the death of a family member.  These events catapult us into the front row of a theatre that is playing the movie Struggling and Not Sure How to Move on.  We cringe at the thought that life is not supposed to be this way.  Yet, Jacob offers us some sane medicine that soothes even the deepest pain.  In the chapter 2, Jacob writes that the first principles is to Embrace Weakness, “to confess that we don’t have it all together, to admit…that even we-Jesus following, Bible-believing people – need to return to the basic matters of faith (19).”  There is a healing that occurs when the church exudes a beautiful solidarity for others as we all confess with Jacob, “We’re broken too.  Let’s heal together (26).”

In this little book there is simple yet profound message here about struggling faith and the church.  After Jacob’s youth group in sixth grade went to Arlington, Texas to help paint the house of a Mr. Pheres, a retired painter, the strength of the gospel showed up on their return trip.  Mr. Pheres, though not sure about the kid’s painting quality, embraced this act as a moment of grace.  He writes about his own struggle with faith, “I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my day.  For 80 years, people and preachers have visited my house, begging me to come to church.  I’ve read books.  I’ve been to seminars.  I’ve even been to the potlucks.  But I never believed it, and I never understood why, until I met you kids.  When you painted my house, on your own time, with your own money, I finally saw the love of Jesus (53).” 

Yet, Jacob challenges those who see the church as irrelevant, boring, or full of hypocrites by pointing out that the church is real, a gift, heavenly, it cares and its stable.  Even more, he asks a pointed question, “Do you really think that if you turn to your job, your money, or anything else, you will always find what you need (78)?”  If the church has damaged your faith, an apology is on offer.  Although the church can’t bring healing to every scar we experience on this earth, she does offer grace, healing, and hope without reservation.

I was really encouraged by this book and the way Jacob really offered healing to those with struggling faith, including myself.

Thanks to Start2Finish and BookCrash for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross by Colin S. Smith

Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross by Colin S. Smith

In this dramatic re-telling of the story of the thief on the cross, Pastor Colin S. Smith draws us into the world of Roman rule and the way Jesus met the this criminal on the cross.  With an eye towards revealing the emotional and backstory of the thief and with a lens towards Jesus’ compassion on the cross, Heaven, How I Got Here grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning.  Readers are sure to find much good here including a clear presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Beginning the book Colin brings out a narrative of what the thief on the cross’ life might have been like prior to his painful execution. Initially, the thief tells the story of being raised in a Jewish home, his father was a builder and his mother was the caretaker of the house.  What struck me was how Colin mentioned that the thief’s mother had a ‘ridiculous faith’ and that her foundational teaching came from Exodus 34.6, “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  This passage was taken up many other times in the prophetic literature, including in Joel 2.  Seizing an opportunity to set the table, Colin goes to tell of how the thief came to understand in injustice by Roman taxation and how this crippled his families livelihood (12-13).

Colin goes onto bring out the interior dilemma held onto by the thief on the cross concerning the cultural idea of Messiah he was taught and Jesus’ actual work.  Colin writes, “Jesus.  I had heard about Him.  The One from Nazareth, claiming to be the Messiah…Well, I thought, ‘If He is able to perform miracles, this is surely the day to produce one.  But it’s always the same with these religious types: great claims, nice thoughts, but no muscle to confront the harsh realities of the word (22).’”  There is a rising sense of disappointment about a Messiah who would come into the world of taxation and bitterness and yet not overturn Roman rule. 

The change of judgment to hope happens as the thief narrows in on Jesus’ words of forgiveness.  Smith writes, “Hope began for me in the strange words of Jesus that at first filled me with hate: ‘Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.’  Forgiveness!  If Jesus could offer forgiveness to His torturers, perhaps He would offer forgiveness to me (37).”  This was the part of the book that was most wonderful to me, the forgiveness offered to the thief, and the compassion and grace offered by Jesus .  His former way of life was one of thinking that God was out to get him but Jesus offer of forgiveness does not come with a package of merits as its condition. 

I really enjoyed this book and think many will be caught up in the narrative life of the thief.  My only criticism is that I think Colin goes a little overboard about trying to explain that salvation is not about our works.  I totally agree but I believe this came out more clearly in the narrative part of the thief’s life.

Thanks to Christian Focus Publications and Cross Focused Reviews for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Salvation Applied by the Spirit

Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ by Robert A. Peterson

The preponderance of debates and scholarly discussion regarding the Trinity, the Sacraments, and the role that redemption plays in biblical theology has been at the forefront of much evangelical discussion.  Yet today, more than ever, we have front and center the teaching of ‘Union with Christ,’ a formerly neglected doctrine that needs to be rediscovered.  Dr. Robert Peterson, in his uncanny knack for making the biblical text sing with echoes of God’s grace and mercy takes a look at union with Christ in his new book, Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ.  Looking at the doctrine from a whole Bible perspective, Dr. Peterson moves from the foundations in the Old Testament, Synoptics, and Acts, to the writings of John and Paul in the rest of the NT corpus.  What we find is a unique and penetrating analysis of how God’s Spirit works to join believers to the Son and seal the redemption accomplished by that same Son.

One of the unique ways Dr. Peterson brings out the strong character of union with Christ and the believers hope is through Jesus’ story in the life of the church.  Peterson contends, “To put it another way, to be united to Christ is to share in his death and resurrection, his suffering and his glory. This is not explicitly stated in Acts as it is in the Epistles, but it is enacted in Acts as the church grows and engages in mission (50).”  The storyline of the Suffering Servant parallels the life, suffering, and ministry of the early church as she seeks to pattern herself after the Son.  Rather than focusing on the doctrine of union of Christ in thought, the Book of Acts gives us glimpses of the implications of union with Christ in practical action.  We see this concretely exemplified in Acts 9 where Saul is changed on the Damascus Road from one set apart from Christ to one who is in union with Christ.  Furthermore, his first actions as a new believer are to bear witness to that unity in Christ but proclaiming who this Christ is whom he serves (see Acts 9:19-31). 

In Chapter 7, Dr. Peterson points out that 2 Corinthians 1 is foundational for understanding present  suffering  but also present suffering and future glory.  He writes, “That is, union with Christ in his death and resurrection involves not only present suffering and future glory, but also present suffering and present “glory,” experienced as the Father’s aid and encouragement (116).”   The Spirit comes to our aid in guiding us through our present sufferings even as we await future glory.  Yet, this future glory is not so far in the future that we do not get a foretaste of present glory, for the Father comforts us in our affliction.  Christ does not suffer again, for he has already suffered on our behalf, but he mediates comfort for us in his glory. 

Drawing on the work of P.T. O’Brien and his commentary on Hebrews, Peterson sees Hebrews 3:14 through the union with Christ lens as he writes, “The writer teaches, then, that we share in who Christ is and what he has accomplished for us. That means we partake of the Son of God and his saving benefits. By God’s grace through faith we participate in his person and work (251).”  Christ’s saving benefits given to believers provides great joy and encouragement, to continue the race set before them with endurance and perseverance.  Though Hebrews 3:14 is debated, Peterson in lieu of O’Brien notes that by virtue of their union with Christ, believers share in his inheritance. 

Overall, this book is an immense work of sound biblical teaching concerning our union with Christ.  Systematically weaving through the NT, Dr. Peterson aids in our understanding of a fully-orbed view of union with Christ. I recommend this book to any desiring to grow in their faith and learn more of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Thanks to Crossway for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.