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?