Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Winsome Wednesday 12.30.15

From where I'm typing (Chicago) the weather outside is frightful and I tend toward gloomy moods on dreary days. Here's a little truth, beauty and authenticity this week to fuel prayers and action:

Philippians 4:8 MSG
"Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse."  

The Brilliance performs "Brother" 

This video just moved me to tears when I first listened to it. I've already shared it on Facebook, but it's so lovely and timely I'm gonna share it again. I heard Jesus in these lyrics.

Itty Bitty Beauty
Beautiful and tiny painted lockets, dubbed "daydreams in a nutshell" by artist Khara Ledonne. View her Etsy Shop or this little video about her process. After being deluged over the holidays, she's temporarily closed the shop to restock. When she reopens, I'm thinking a custom locket with a meaningful scene might be an interesting way to focus prayer. 

Helping Homeless Help Others
"We don't need coats, we need jobs!" Hearing these desperate, angry words inspired college student Veronika Scott to create a business that hires the homeless to sew innovative coats that turn into sleeping bags. I saw this inspiring story on my cousin's FB feed and am moved by the good things happening in Detroit at The Empowerment Plan. 100 bucks covers the cost of materials and the seamstress's wages for one coat.

Picture Books to read in January
I was thinking about goal-setting and resolutions for the new year, and how to encourage my kids to try something new this year. Google landed me on a NYC SAHM's witty and wise blog, "What We Do All Day." I love her crisp writing style and have already placed library holds on half her list "Childrens Books About Trying New Things."

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year, New Direction

My blog is changing again.

I've written this post in my head a hundred times, but I can't quite seem to make myself sit down and actually post it, for fear that I'll change my mind about how the blog is changing or that I won't be able to deliver on the proposed changes. You might have noticed I've changed my name to Behold & Reflect. It's a nod to 2 Corinthians 3:18, which talks about how as we continually gaze at Jesus, we become more and more His reflections. This is one of a handful of my "life verses;" like the others, it has stuck with me since high school, but its meaning and application has grown richer and deeper along the way. As my new name suggests, my blog will primarily chronicle my thoughts and experiences beholding Jesus and the reflections that spring from basking in His multi-faceted beauty. Specifically, I plan to explore prayer through personal experience, through interviewing passionate, prayerful souls from across the Christian spectrum, and, of course, by reading lots and lots of books. But while previous iterations of this blog were primarily a repository of book reviews with a little bit of random reflection sprinkled in, Behold & Reflect will prioritize my prayer experiments (exprayeriments!) and journalistic pursuits, with book reviews playing a secondary role.

How can you help me?
Though I've always enjoyed blogging for personal edification, it would be so, so much better if some of my praying friends would follow me and perhaps join in on the prayer exercises I hope to post each week. I'd love to hear your prayer stories. I'd love to learn about new ways to pray. I'd love to connect with people you know who know a thing or two about prayer. I'm interested in gathering stories from other sources and presenting a well-rounded narrative about Christian prayer. Will you join me?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mahtob's memoir is part psychological thriller, part a lesson in forgiveness, peace and gratitude

So, you remember the 1990s Sally Field movie Not Without My Daughter about Betty Mahmoody, the American woman who defied the odds and fled Iran with her daughter after being held hostage by her violent, radicalized Iranian husband? Mahtob Mahmoody is that daughter. It turns out she's as intelligent, resourceful, resilient and  as her mother.

Mahmoody's moving memoir, My Name is Mahtob (I totally did not mean to use that much alliteration) -- begins with the harrowing story through an exceptionally bright 5-year-old's eyes. The account is gripping. I found myself both appalled at the behavior of Mahtob's father and Iranian relatives and cheering for those decent strangers that were willing to help Betty and her daughter escape.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

McKnight avoids pat answers to questions about heaven

A couple of years ago, several Christian authors started an eschatological fray with books about hell. Scot McKnight's newest book, The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible's Truth About the Life to Come, puts forth a hope-filled side of the afterlife, with the premise that the Bible contains clear promises about heaven, such its existence: there's a "first heaven" and a "final heaven" (46), what it will be like:"a utopia of pleasures" (76), and who will be there: "Jesus and those who are in him" (157). 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Goyer's "Prayers That Changed History" introduces grade schoolers to 25 world-changers

Advent began yesterday, and for a lot of Christians that means a season of waiting and expectation. I'm planning to begin a new series on the blog, focused on different ways to spend time gazing on Jesus in prayer. You know me, I'm always trying to connect my own interests, whether spiritual or otherwise, to my kiddos. I snagged a review copy of the newly released devotional "Prayers that Changed History" by Tricia Goyer. The book covers 25 men and women who made a direct or indirect impact on Christianity and the world at large, with an emphasis on their answered prayers. Before you might think this is a how-to manual with exemplary prayers that are effective at getting God to do something--the title kind of makes it sound like that--I want to clarify that Goyer writes about pray from a few different angles. She sees prayer as both petitioning and as spending time with God, open to His transformation. As Goyer says, "prayer changes things, starting with us," which indicates that the second view of prayer is the primary frame for most of the stories in this book.

At a Glance
This 223-page paperback is organized chronologically, with chapters on Polycarp, Constantine, St. Patrick, Oswald (King of Northumbria), Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Governor William Bradford, John Eliot, Susanna Wesley, John Newton, Robert Raikes, Mary Jones, Sojourner Truth, Catherine Booth, David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale, George Muller, Billy Sunday, Helen Keller, Amy Carmichael, John Hyde, Mother Teresa, The British People of WWII, Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

4 picture books that explore what it's like to be a refugee

I'm a little late on this post as Thanksgiving Day has passed, but honestly, why should feelings of gratitude and thankfulness abruptly give way to the materialistic frenzy of Black Friday? They shouldn't. I'm still immensely thankful to have a lovely home and to have my family near me: safe, happy and healthy. And when so many in this world do not have a home and are not able to keep their families safe and happy and healthy, I hope I'll continue to be thankful regardless of the day or season. In particular, knowing that hundreds of thousands of Syrian men, women and children are terrorized and displaced by ISIS humbles me. The heated debates over this crisis in the news and on social media show that it's easy to let fear, mistrust, self-righteousness and self-love be the lens through which we see the world. But because of Jesus, I'm compelled toward compassion, and I hope to model it for my boys. So with these thoughts in mind, I bring you four moving picture books (found at my local library) that make the concept of a refugee a little more personal.

For me, How Many Days To America?: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Beth Peck perfectly united both a sense of gratitude for our country's freedoms and bounties as well as a sense of duty to maintain our long tradition of receiving those who are fleeing religious and political persecution. For my kids, it tells a rather gripping tale of a family who leave all their possessions behind to escape their Caribbean island home by boat. They face rough weather, food shortages, pirates and rejection from other potential destinations before finally being received in the United States on Thanksgiving day. While I found the story engrossing and my boys aged 2-7 stayed tuned in to the end, they were mostly interested in knowing whether pirates still existed today and why the pirates in the book didn't look like the Veggie Tale variety.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sink into your comfy chair and wile away the hours with "The Message 100" bible

I grew up with extreme loyalty to one bible translation, believing it was the most accurate. But as I've gotten older and less dogmatic, I've discovered the value in comparing passages across several versions to get a multi-faceted view of scripture. One of the main versions I like to use in my YouVersion Bible app, (along with NLT, NIV, NKJV and AMP), The Message is a contemporary translation created by long-time pastor and biblical scholar, Eugene Peterson and published by NavPress. It's not the bible most of us have lodged in our heads as memory verses from youth group, and Peterson often paraphrases by a few verses at a time, so sometimes entire passages seem quite different than what I remember. One example is the oft-quoted James 1:19 (quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger). Peterson translates it: 
"Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear." 
To me, the rendering isn't quite as catchy, but the unusual personification of anger did cause me to do a double take. For other verses, Peterson's metaphoric style really did add something special. Consider a few verses later in James 1:21: 
"In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life."
What a gorgeous word picture!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Berry's "Sabbath Poems" have become part of how I do church Sunday mornings

The Parrinos have made a pretty big transition in the last couple of months: We've moved states after nearly a decade living in Kentucky. We've both changed jobs and two of our boys have had to adjust to a new level of academic rigor. We've gone from small town to bigger city. We've moved from a modest ranch to a lovely home with three floors and many, many places to put people. Perhaps one of the most significant changes, and the one that probably raises the most eyebrows among both our "Kentucky people" and our "Ohio people," is a shift in our church community. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

ZonderKids "Good Samaritan" a good intro to Jesus' parables for new readers

I have to confess my kids and I rarely stay on with a devotional or children's bible all the way to the end. Lately I've been trying to build my collection of stand-alone bible stories. I've also got a first-grader learning to read, so Zonderkids' I Can Read book, Adventure Bible The Good Samaritan seemed like a good fit-- plus, it's one of my favorite parables. With only a sentence or two on each of its 32 pages, this slim paperback Level 2 reader kept my three sons' attentions.

I liked that this version puts the familiar story into context as a parable Jesus told in response to a question about obtaining eternal life. I also liked that the text and illustrations of the priest and the Levite didn't portray them as "bad guys" but rather as people making the wrong choice because of fear and anxiety. This choice leaves the characters open for discussion. My son wanted to know, "Why did they just leave him there?" The book also ends with a simple description of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, "In Bible times, the Jews and Samaritans did not get along. They were foreigners and did not know a lot about each other" (32). I felt this provided another jumping off point for relevant discussion.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Chapman's "Growing Up Social" offers new perspective to the screen-dependent family

So, somehow I thought I had written this review already. But apparently I did not. Maybe because subconsciously I was feeling guilty about my use of screens as baby-sitters of late. Over the past four months, we've moved 8 1/2 hours away from the only home my three boys have ever known. We've lived with family and friends, started a new school and new jobs. Transition has a way of wrecking hard-wrought schedules or forestalling good intentions. This is all a fancy way of confessing that sometimes I let my older boys play on or for 3 hours straight. Sometimes my 2-year-old watches his favorite episode of Curious George (the one with the mariachi band) three times in a row. And it keeps me sane for those hours... and it also makes my younger two boys super cranky and ungrateful when it's time to unplug. There. I've gotten that off my chest.

I knew I needed a book like Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World, co-authored by Alrene Pellicane and Gary Chapman of 5 Love Languages fame. I aspire to have children who play outside whenever its above freezing, who read books for fun, and who play together using their imaginations. I want my boys to value creativity and generosity and kindness over the accumulation of stuff. I feel like this book speaks to that longing.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Apartment Therapy" a visual treat for modern eclectic collectors

So. I just moved into a new house a few weeks ago. Because this is the first abode I've genuinely felt excited about inhabiting, I'm brimming with ideas to make it "my own." Maxwell Ryan and Janel Laban's Apartment Therapy: Complete + Happy Home with its 300 pages of full color photos brought me into the dwellings of well-to-do homeowners and renters, city and country folk.

While I enjoyed gawking at all the photos and imagining the designers, artists, professors and CEOs that actually lived in the locations featured, I didn't feel there were too many ideas that applied to my tidy, 1940s brick cape cod. Most of the rooms featured - especially living rooms and bathrooms- were truly oversize. Even the supposed "entry-level" apartment has an open, airy feeling afforded by gigantic windows.

Monday, October 26, 2015

"The Plans I Have For You" prompts kids to think about God's plan for their lives

During our Sunday morning devotional time, after some raucous worship in the basement, the boys and I sat down to read The Plans I Have For You by Amy Parker and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The title seems to come from Jeremiah 29:11, in which God promises a future and a hope and has plans to prosper and not to harm the the Jews exiled in Babylon. It's an oft quoted verse among Christians, perhaps so much so that the authors didn't feel the need to mention the scripture anywhere. Instead, the book is written in the voice of God, speaking both to readers and to the cute, multicultural children depicted in the lively illustrations. A visual metaphor of the "You Factory" runs through the pages, as God creates children destined to be firefighters, chefs, nurses, mountain climbers and ballerinas.  I appreciate the message of this book, which encourages children to not only dream about their futures, but to rest in the thought that God has formed them with a specific talents and gifts to accomplish a specific task on the earth.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Metaxas' "Seven Women" leaves many secrets to greatness a bit of a mystery

After reading best-selling evangelical biographer Eric Metaxas' 7 Men, I was so happy to see an excerpted chapter about Corrie Ten Boom for his then-upcoming 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness. Overall, this book has introduced me to the remarkable, difficult, impacting lives of seven women, some of whom I knew very little about. And, as with any book that includes stories of far-flung missionaries, holocaust survivors and martyrs, I was left pondering my own life's work.

And I was left with questions. Lots of them. Like, what is greatness, exactly? Is it maintaining your convictions to the end, like Joan of Arc? Is it a general measure of one's faithfulness, skill, or impact on others? Or is greatness something specific, like ministering to hundreds of thousands like Mother Teresa? Or like using one's God-given gifts to turn the tide of public opinion against institutionalized evil like Hannah More? Or simply learning to forgive staggering wrongs, like Corrie Ten Boom? Or is it all of these, in the form of doing what you alone can do in your unique situation in time and place with your unique set of characteristics and abilities and weaknesses? If you're familiar with my approach to life, you'll know I prefer the latter, open-ended possibility. I think in many ways, since Metaxas never really tries to synthesize all seven stories into one central "secret of womanly greatness," he might agree with or at least permit my foggy conclusion. For this reason, I found the book a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Hatmaker's "For the Love": my new favorite book

The first thing you should know about this book and this author is that she's hilarious. If you're tired of boring and dry, this is the antidote. However, if you're like me and consider yourself a serious thinker, you might worry where the opening humor, light hearted self-deprecation and self-helpy prose are leading you. Happily, there's depth and wisdom and maturity bubbling beneath Hatmaker's big personality.

What's striking about pastor and popular blogger Jen Hatmaker's newest book For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards is that she blends personal stories, theology, humor, and practical tips for child rearing, marriage and Christian community so seamlessly. There's even recipes for Roast Lamb and Pad Thai in there. In this way, it's somewhat like a blog. Yet all the parts send a cohesive message, which I think is summed up in these freeing words Hatmaker gives to her five children: "God measures our entire existence by only two things: how we love Him and how we love people. If you get this right, you can get a million other things wrong" (189).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review of Believe Storybook by Randy Frazee

The Parrinos have been on the move particular, we've moved from Hopkinsville, KY to Cleveland, OH. With our family in flux, I'm longing for some consistency. Just before we moved, I began reading the Believe Storybook: Think Act Be Like Jesus, written by Randy Frazee and illustrated in a rich, evocative style by Steve Adams. Unlike most of the children's bibles in our collection, this is a weighty book. A hefty 256 pages measuring 9 x 11 inches, and 2.8 pounds, the Believe Storybook is arranged into three 10-chapter sections: Think, Act and Be. Each chapter teaches a particular theme using one old and one new testament story.

According to the cover, this devotional, based on the popular Believe series of devotionals, is geared for ages 4 and up. I have a 4-year-old, but he only sat next to his big brother and I for about 30 seconds before scampering off to grab another book off the shelf.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Flipped" promises thought revolution but underdelivers on citations

It's hard not to be intrigued by a the title of Solomon's Porch pastor Doug Pagitt's new book, Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. Inside, Pagitt promises that he'll be telling a story about Jesus and how revolutionary His words were when he lived and now, if taken in their proper context. That context, Pagitt contends, is one in which we Christians are "In God" and where we live, move and exist in Him. This is in opposition to the prevailing religious story of a transaction-based relationship between us and God.

I love this line of thought. And I wanted to read more about the author's view of being in Christ (as opposed to simply Christ in us), which he hints is that revolutionary truth that changes everything. In his third chapter, Pagitt writes, "The preposition in is a profoundly meaningful word. And flipping the order of words from 'God is in all' to 'all is In God' is more than a semantic move. It offers a clearer, more honest, more biblical understanding of who God is and who we are In God" (40). At this point, I'm hooked.

Friday, May 29, 2015

"Only God Can Make a Kitten" Quietly Promotes Outdoor Exploration

I'm always on the look out for God-aware picture books to enrich my boys' understanding of Him. Only God Can Make a Kitten, by Rhonda Gowler Greene and illustrated by Laura J. Bryant looked promising for several reasons. The book follows a curious boy, his mom and baby sister as they romp through quintessential experiences of a curious kid outdoors- star gazing, tree climbing, beach splashing, nest spying and kitten snuggling to name a few. With each new scene, the boy asks, "Mama, who made...?" Mama answers her little boy in simple rhyme that God made each wonder he points out.

"Mama, look! On the ground! Who makes these rocks so smooth and round?" the boy exclaims as he scales a pile of boulders. "With a way unknown, only God can make a stone," Mama answers as she climbs after her son.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review of "Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer" by Micha Boyett

I was drawn to Found, Micha Boyett's memoir/musings on Benedictine spirituality for several reasons. First off, Boyett writes from the perspective of a one-time youth minister turned stay-at-home mom who moves away from all her relatives when her husband's job takes them to San Francisco. The tension of wanting to be a good, content nurturer to her son amid the mundane and often wearisome tasks that rob her of her prayer life was something with which I easily relate. I was also interested in learning more about praying the hours, as I've been exploring various Christian spiritual practices beyond my own culture. Finally, the foreword is written by Ann Voskamp of One Thousand Gifts fame and the opening pages are graced by recommendations from Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey, who've both written books I enjoyed.

Boyett's book tells the story of her loneliness, isolation, discontent and aimlessness as a new mom longing for the days when her life was filled with spiritual activities as a busy youth minister. She struggles openly with feelings that God wanted her to choose a more lofty life, perhaps as a missionary or continuing in ministry. She wonders if she took the wrong path by choosing her handsome, caring husband and adorable, precocious son who fill her days with trips to the park and dinner parties (and allow her to take not one but two solo retreats to monasteries in idyllic locations within the first two years of motherhood.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Clean, care-free eating: a review of "A Modern Way to Eat" by Anna Jones

My happiest meals are the ones where vegetables take center stage; they're full of color, textures and nutrition. Food stylist and student of Jamie Oliver, Anna Jones has compiled a comprehensive book of not only vegetarian recipes, but also information on individual ingredients and idea generating charts of how to combine foods for maximum impact and flavor. The understated cover and philosophical title of A Modern Way to Eat, I think, was meant to signal that this book is more about promoting a life-style of simple, clean, creative eating that takes advantage of our current knowledge of the benefits of plant-based diets and our access to global ingredients and cooking techniques. And it's right up my alley.

Reasons I like this book:

It has a good variety of dishes- from breakfasts, to snacks, to light lunches to food for a crowd to desserts and condiments.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Reading into life: Thinking as a worthy pursuit

Oftentimes I catch my oldest son, Stephen, staring off into space or romping around the house muttering to himself. "What'cha doing, Steve?" I'll ask, already knowing his answer: "I'm just thinking." My middle son, Rockam, eventually does everything his big brother does. I was still surprised when he recently shot back that same line to me when I asked him whether he felt alright. He had appeared to be moping on the couch for half an hour.

My thoughtful sons got me thinking. Is "just thinking" a valid way to while away twenty minutes or even an entire afternoon?

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Swede in me: "Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break"

Fond childhood memories and my affinity for all things Swedish drew me to author Anna Bronnes' and illustrator Johanna Kindvall's Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, an illustrated guide to the Scandinavian tradition of taking a mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon break to sip a restorative beverage and nibble tasty treats. While most Americans see coffee as fuel to speed through their day, Anna Bronnes explains that her coffee-loving homeland sees it as a reminder to pause, savor and converse with friends.

Some readers might be surprised to find a modern cookbook without full-color photographs with every recipe. In fact, there are no photos in this book.
Instead, Kindvall's fresh, minimalist artwork perfectly includes just enough detail to illuminate techniques and equipment while giving the book an airy, uncluttered feel in tune with the idea of simplifying and slowing down.As for text, the book is divided into five sections, walking Fika-novices through historical and contemporary fika culture, sweet treats for summer fika and holiday fika, and savory fika fare. Each section begins with several pages of explanation and insight. I found Bronne's analysis of the Swedish love-affair with foods from afar-- namely, coffee, chocolate and exotic spices like cardamom, ginger and cinnamon-- especially interesting. Often, when a cookbook author advocates for homemade, unprocessed and organic, they also champion locally sourced ingredients. But Swedes have happily absorbed many exotic ingredients as foundational flavors in their national cuisine. As someone who values both environmentalism and multi-culturalism, it's a contradiction I'm happy to live with. I was also inspired by the idea of getting out the fancy china and making ordinary moments special, even if that means packing the indoor spread for enjoying outdoors.

And, of course, the 150-page hardcover contains plenty of from-scratch recipes for traditional and contemporary Swedish pastries, breads and sandwiches, all of which had me daydreaming of how I might start a fika tradition in my own home. Notable recipes include: vetebullar (cinnamon and cardamom buns), syltgrottor (jam thumbprint cookies), kladkaka (sticky chocolate cake), rabarbersaft (rhubarb cordial), mjuka pepparkakor (soft ginger cookies) and pannkakor (Swedish pancakes).

For those who enjoy Swedish cookies and are curious about Swedish culture, I highly recommend this book. Or, even if you haven't given much thought about Swedish coffee break, but would like a reason to slow down and savor the little things in life, Fika is a fun excuse to help you do just that.

*I received a complimentary copy of this lovely book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Finding our calling in plain sight: A guest post by Matt Rennels

I'm very happy to present guest post, by my friend Matt Rennels, who reviews Jeff Goins' new book The Art of Work, which I'm keen to read myself. Once upon a time, Matt, my husband and I lived in the same town, worked at the same newspaper and worshipped at the same church. Matt is passionate about exploring how his faith intersects with his other interests, such as mental illness and overcoming fear. On the topic of careers, Matt also has an excellent post for idealists dissatisfied with their seemingly mundane careers, which I highly recommend you check out after reading his review.

If Ginny Phang can find the silver lining of her life’s work in the face of bleak circumstances, so can the rest of us, Jeff Goins writes in The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do.

Phang was about to be a young single mother in Singapore. Not only did she face social ostracism and eviction from her parents' house, Phang had no job experience and her boyfriend planned to leave her if she had the baby.

So, what to do?

Phang’s gripping story is one of many in Goin’s new book. Art of Work weaves together a collaborative mix of people who have looked past various personal challenges and roadblocks to see something glimmering in the distance. What do they see? Purpose. Calling. Opportunity.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I found something sacred in Rachel Held Evans' "Searching for Sunday"

I've been looking forward to Rachel Held Evans' new book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church for several months. Her excellent blog has challenged, affirmed and inspired me over the last few years. Books written by bloggers often read like scrapbooks of their greatest hits: A rehash of the post that went viral here, an astute observation from commenter Mary L. from Kansas there. Thankfully, Searching for Sunday is not that.

It is an honest, hopeful meditation on her disorienting drift away from her childhood church into the wilderness of doubt, then back to a renewed search for community and the discovery of Christ's Bride in unexpected places.

While many topics covered in her book have been discussed extensively on her blog, Evans resists recycling popular posts. Instead, the book benefits from her versatility as a blogger. Chapters like "Chubby Bunny" humorously relive Evans' childhood growing up small town Baptist. Chapters like "The Meal" showcase her training as a journalist as she interviews the pastor of an innovative, inner-city "dinner church" in New York. Chapters like "Trembling Giant" meditate on the awesome single organism that is an entire forest of quaking aspens in Fish Lake, Utah, as a metaphor for the universal church.  Still other chapters, like "Dust," stem from Evans' Bible college education, reading like beautiful sermons that explore stories from scripture.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jonathan Malm's "Created for More" devotional caters to creatives

One of my favorite aspects to ponder about God is him as Creator. I like to think that when I have moments of creativity, the energy coursing through me is His Spirit, and that my times of dreaming up new ideas are like prayer times for connecting with my Creator God. The times I feel so close to His soft whisper are when I'm writing or envisioning a new children's book or even singing a made up tune as I wash dishes. I think God is in those moments, and I was excited to see a book written from this perspective.

Jonathan Malm, in his devotional Created for More: 30 Days to Seeing Your World in a New Way, hopes to "awaken the spiritual act of creativity" within us by pairing scripture readings, devotions and a creative challenge. I'm going to focus on this hands-on component of the devotional, because I think that's what sets it apart from most other devotionals. 

Malm seems to target those who work in creative professions, since the challenges often involve taking an existing work task and modifying it (cut your resources in half or move the deadline up) or looking at it from a new perspective (avoiding familiar techniques or creating your work in public). Most of the ideas have a clear tie-in to the particular focus for the day's devotion. For example, performing your art in public is paired with a devotion on being brave and resisting the urge to fear others' opinions.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Salad Love" by David Bez a visual feast

David Bez writes at the beginning of Salad Love that it isn't a cookbook. Instead, this is collection of 260 of the most photogenic salads he made over the course of three years of preparing lunch at his desk as part of his personal goal of eating more vegetables, which eventually gave way to the challenge to document it in a blog called Salad Pride.  The recipes in the book, which cater to vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian and omnivorous tastes with an emphasis on crunchy raw produce, are simply lists of ingredients that Bez assembled at his desk. 

In addition to not being a cookbook--as there’s not a whole lot of cooking going on in the recipes--there’s also not a lot of text in this book. The first 30 pages feature the author’s guidelines for the proportions of produce, proteins, toppings and dressings that make up his ideal salad, the back story of how his personal dietary vision became a blog and then a book, and a cubicle tour of how he was able to prepare all these culinary feats at his desk as office mates salivated in the background.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review of "Jesus Outside the Lines"

Presbyterian pastor Scott Saul's new book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides tackles issues that bring out the "unchristian" side of many believers on Facebook or Twitter. He looks at issues from many angles and borrows thoughtful quotes from both Christians and atheists to send a message of respect and tolerance.

Early in the book, Sauls tells the story of how Dan Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, and viewed as either a hero or bigot depending on one’s views on gay marriage, never “personally affirmed or joined” the Christian rally to support Chick-fil-A after the LGBTQ community boycotted the restaurant chain. In fact, in the aftermath of Cathy’s public statements about viewing marriage as between one man and one woman, he discreetly reached out to a gay activist in an attempt to dialog. Instead of defending his rights to religious freedom, Cathy approached the activist in an attitude of learning and expressed regret that people were mistreated in the name of his company. Sauls sums up this model of being Jesus outside the lines of our particular Christian tribe’s doctrines on page xxvii with this:

Deep disagreement and no apologies for what he believes. 
Love, respect, listening, and friendship. 
At the same time.

The author also takes this posture as he expresses his views in chapters addressing politics, abortion, same-sex marriage, the institutional church, money matters, constructive critique, hell, hypocrisy, suffering, and true humility. Without apologizing for his conservative views on issues that often polarize Christians from nonbelievers (and from each other), Sauls follows his own advice to see the good in all viewpoints by striving to find points of agreement with those who might disagree with him.

I thought the best chapter in the book was “Chastity or Sexual Freedom,” which firmly maintains the Evangelical perspective on sexual purity before marriage and marriage between one man and one woman, but also urges the church to be the place where singles and celibate homosexuals could find unconditional love and deep, meaningful relationships. Here I need to pause to say that I’m not 100 percent sure of my views on gay marriage. Though I grew up holding the belief that the Bible expressly forbids homosexuals from acting on their desires, I honestly wish that maybe one day most Christians will interpret the biblical passages on homosexuality differently, just as Christians see verses mentioning slavery much different today than 300 years ago. I wish that those born with the desire to have a loving, exclusive marriage relationship with a soul mate of the same sex could do so in good conscience. I know there are many gay Christians who wish this as well.  As a pastor of a large  Presbyterian church, the author says he serves many such men and women in his congregation, so he speaks from a place of humility. But to the argument that gay marriage is a civil rights issue and Christians are going to be on the wrong side of history, Sauls makes a passionate, loving observation that when gay Christians surrender their inborn desire to pursue a homosexual relationship, “it is a surrender that each of them has considered worthwhile, not because Jesus is a roadblock to love but because Jesus is love itself” (144).

Again, it’s this characteristic attitude of being unapologetic for his Christian beliefs, yet respectful and open to what others experience and believe that makes this book worth reading to those who follow Jesus, no matter on which side of the issues they fall. 

*I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review.*

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review of Metaxas' "7 Men"

I was excited to get a paperback copy of Eric Metaxas' celebration of Christian role models 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness for two reasons. Regular readers of my blog know I'm a bit of a feminist, but I'm also mom to three boys and I want them to aspire to the best kind of life. Second, I enjoyed reading Metaxas' 600-page biography of German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer two summers ago. While I highly recommend getting to know this hero of the faith and the aforementioned tome, 7 Men is far easier read, which provides a primer on Bonhoeffer as well as inspiring chapters on George Washington, British abolitionist William Wilberforce, Olympic runner Eric Liddell, baseball player Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson. In seven miniature biographies, Metaxas showcases each man's personal faith in Jesus the centerpiece and secret to their enduring influence.

For me, the first half of Washington's chapter was the hardest to read. Our nation's father struck me as an entitled social climber with a shocking lack of compassion in some early battles. But eventually, I was impressed that Metaxas could transform the "grumpy grandfather" he appears to be on the dollar bill to a valiant hero who not only fought for our country's independence, but also the subtler battle against pride in order to birth a democracy. My favorite chapters, Eric Liddell's and Jackie Robinson's stories, moved me to tears. The protagonist of the 1980s blockbuster Chariots of Fire, Metaxas aptly argues, lived a life far more amazing after his Olympic victory as a missionary in China. As the first black baseball player to enter the major league, Robinson's ability to take the brunt of racist backlash scorn and abuse, all without retaliation, struck me as truly supernatural.

Readers should know that each story is clearly filtered through the Metaxas' lens as both a Christian and unabashed fan of each of these men. Some might find that the author's insertion of himself into each chapter detracts from the stories, but I felt that each story was really inspiring enough to make up for this slight drawback.  I recommend this book to anyone looking for historic Christian role models. And I eagerly await the release of 7 Women, which is excerpted (a bio of Corrie ten Boom) at the back of this book.

*I received a copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.*

Friday, March 13, 2015

Review of "The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden"

After being buried in snow and ice for the last weeks of February and first week of March, I've been ready for spring. Happily, I've had the perfect book to fuel my fantasy of warm days and garden-fresh produce. Karen Newcomb has revised her 1975 best-seller The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden: Grow Tons of Organic Vegetables in Tiny Spaces and Containers. Newcomb advocates a method of gardening that produces unusually high yields of high-quality vegetables in tiny spaces by working hard on building up a rich, organic soil before planting and then coasting through the summer. In a postage stamp garden, plants are spaced closer together than the distance recommended by the seed packet and taller plants serve to shelter shorter ones from intense sun and evaporation. Newcomb also offers strategies for which plants can help replenish the soil and how to pair mutually beneficial crops. The author uses an upbeat and encouraging tone and writes passionately about a wide variety of heirlooms, making this book applicable to seasoned gardeners and motivated newbies. She makes a convincing case that produce raised on Miracle Grow is not nearly as delicious, healthful or safe as vegetables nourished with natural fertilizers.

Half the book reads like a seed catalog with descriptions and growing tips of Newcomb's favorite heirlooms, from Cole crops to nightshades to root veggies to herbs. Descriptions of Blue Jade Sweet Corn and Sicillian Violet Cauliflower really spoke to the foodie in me. Aside from the full-color cover, this paperback guide does not contain photographs. It does, however, include some illustrations on preparing the soil and creating cages and trellises for climbing vegetables. Detailed illustrations of sample postage stamp garden layouts in the beginning of the book are helpful for readers like me who have not had much gardening success. [Confession: My dear husband built me a raised bed a few years ago, which, after being repeatedly destroyed by squirrels, has become my boys' version of a dirt-filled sandbox.]

For this "brown thumb" some of Newcomb's descriptions of preparing the soil seemed daunting and potentially stinky, such as her insistence on horse manure and fish emulsion. Additionally, what Newcomb describes as little to no work after the garden is set up and going actually looks like a complex watering system that involves timers and misters or underground drip systems...and more applications of fish emulsion. Though the author tries to bolster city-dwellers with encouragement about container gardens, I got the feeling that to really implement her vision for productive gardening requires a good investment of time, labor and money. But, despite these draw-backs, I'm eager to attempt this method some day in the future.

*Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.*

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review of Megan Boudreaux's "Miracle on Voodoo Mountain"

I feel like I hit the jackpot with Thomas Nelson lately. (See my review of Donald Miller's Scary Close if you haven't already.) Megan Boudreaux's Miracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman's Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of Haiti is another book that will make it on my year's best list, and it's only March. Megan founded Respire Haiti and lives with her husband and four adopted children in the town of Gressier. This book has so many things going for it:

The cover is gorgeous
The book's beautiful, haunting cover is not just a marketing tool. The image features a tamarind tree that is symbolic of so many of the miracles that happen in Megan's story. She dreams of the tree night after night, until realizing God is calling her to uproot to Gressier, the town where she first saw the tree on a business trip. Under the same tree, she meets a raggedy little slave girl, whom she later rescues and adopts. For years before the story begins, a local Haitian pastor and his wife met weekly under this tree to pray for a Christian to come and transform the mountain, which served as a mecca for Voodoo priests. The same tree can be seen today from the school and medical clinic that now occupy the land.

It's a page-turner.
Sometimes I just try to get through a book so I can review it and shelve it. I read Boudreaux's memoir in a day and have been re-reading parts of it in the days afterwards to savor the story.

It's a true story of a real-life role model.
Similar to Kisses from Katie author Katie Davis, Megan leaves a cushy life of cute outfits and bright futures to live without running water or electricity among the destitute of earthquake ravaged, voodoo entrenched Haiti.

Megan follows God's leading with simplicity. 
I've been so moved by how the entire plot of this book hinges on Megan cultivating an awareness of God's moving and nudging and instructing in her spirit. She obeys simply again and again, and God keeps speaking to her. The result is a life full of miracles and restoration.

It's full of meaningful miracles.
I've never doubted that miracles do happen today, but I'm usually skeptical of supernatural claims because they often seem to serve no other purpose than to show off and puff up. Megan experiences the gift of tongues similar to the way the disciples did in the book of Acts: after weeks of struggling to communicate and making little progress in learning Haitian Creole, she suddenly understands and is able to speak it fluently. With this gift, she is able to really start changing the lives of the poor children she lives among.

It confronts the heart with the reality of poverty and corruption.
Megan is almost never preachy in this book. When she does take time to express her views, it's to expose the corruption that well-meaning American churches often fund in the form of sham orphanages. She also thinks critically about the ethics of adopting children with living parents, as two of her daughters have a living, but estranged father.

It inspires reflection. 
Obviously, I'm moved by Megan's story and the story of Gressier. It makes my heart long to move abroad and live simply, hanging on the words of my Savior each moment. And it makes me also want to stay right where I am and hang on my Savior's words each moment.

It's an on-going story. 
There are some loose ends to this story, which on a literary level was a slight detractor. However, I see the untied story lines as opportunities to pray for real people in tenuous situations.

So, what more could you want from a book? Hopkinsville friends, you can borrow my copy, but I'm not giving it away :)

*I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.*

Reflections on Chris Seay's "A Place at the Table"

This year I decided to read Chris Seay's devotional A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor during Lent. As I wrote last year, Lent is not something I grew up observing, and the idea is still new to me. But I love the idea of building up holidays into extended seasons of deeper, enduring reflection and prayer.

Seay's devotional contains thoughtful reflections on Moses as both a slave and as the one called to lead the Israelite's out of their life of slavery. He also includes a prayer and a brief profile of a child that lives in a village served by Compassion or Living Water. I've really, really enjoyed these little vignettes and find that some of my prayers for these children have taken on a life of their own.

As for the actual fast, Seay proposes making justice a centerpiece, based on Isaiah 58:6-7, in which God desires a fast that frees the oppressed and shares food and shelter with the hungry and homeless. Practically, Seay's recommended fast permits a nutritious but narrow diet of staple foods to help his well-off American readers to identify with the majority of earth's population, the poor. If readers sponsor a child or missionary family in a developing nation, Seay suggests they fast by eating a diet restricted to that nation's staples: beans, corn, rice and vegetables. The money saved, he proposes, can be donated to a charity readers have confidence will make a tangible contribution to helping the poor locally or abroad.

This vision of fasting is so inspiring to me. I honestly wrestled with trying this diet myself, but in the end I feared I would be overly consumed with trying to prepare "normal" meals for my three kids and husband while also trying to eat a limited diet that was not going to affect my health. I already eat a lot of veggies and limit processed foods, so I opted for cutting out desserts, added sugar and, my food idol, chocolate. This seemed like the best way to take my focus off cooking and eating (two things that definitely take up a large portion of my daydreams) and place it squarely in the realm of getting into God's heart for His many suffering children. As for giving leftover funds (there haven't been any) to the poor, I've focused on cooking meals for others and taking a leap to be more involved with my neighborhood's Challenge House.

I'd love to hear from some others on this. How do you observe Lent? How do you view fasting?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reflections on John Walton's "Lost World of Genesis One"

I had a lull in my review schedule, so I decided to read a book that's been on my shelf for a while, John H. Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

A little bit about me. I'm a Christian, I love the inspired word of God, I majored in Geology and I don't find these things incompatible. Like Walton, I see no credible evidence for Young Earth Creationism, but I'm still not exactly sure what I believe regarding the when and how God created the universe. (And part of me thinks that's no big deal either!) The lovely thing about this book is that it minimizes the importance of the material creation of the world and refocuses our attention on the key point that God is the source and continues to be the One in control.

In a nutshell, Walton proposes that reading the Genesis creation account literally means we take account of cultural context for the first audience of the book. And as an Old Testament scholar at Wheaton College, Walton shows that in the Ancient Near Eastern worldview, the concept of existence is tied to functionality rather than material presence. To establish this idea, Walton analyzes how the Hebrew word for create (bara) is used throughout the OT. While Walton thinks that yom in Genesis is best interpreted as a 24-hour period of time and not an age or millions of years as some theistic evolutionists propose, he also believes that the material creation of the universe happened long before the Genesis narrative. In this way, his view is similar to the "Gap Theory" I grew up with in the church of my youth, which also sees the Adam and Eve taking place long after the dinosaurs and Lucy.

I think this quote, from page 130, sums up Walton's view (and my own):

The view of Genesis offered in this book is also teleological but accepts that all of creation is the result of God's handiwork, whether naturalistic mechanisms are identifiable or not, and whether evolutionary processes took place or not. God has designed all that there is and may have brought some of his designs into existence instantaneously, whereas others he may have chosen to bring into existence through long, complicated processes. Neither procedure would be any less an act of God.
The book also contains a thoughtful proposal for the way origins should be taught in public schools (a proposal in which neither the prevailing system nor Creationists or Intelligent Design proponents win completely). Additionally, a Q&A section in the prologue of the book is written in very accessible language, offering a good cool-down to the mental workout the rest of the book provided. If you're interested in how the scientific consensus of our day and the Biblical explanation of origins mesh, and if you don't mind whipping out your dictionary from time to time, I recommend this book.