Monday, February 17, 2020

Running for Our Lives, by Robb Ryerse

Almost everyone, at one time or another, complains about our elected officials and the state of our nation/state/town.  Very few of us have the guts to step out and put our names on the ballot in order to make some changes.  Robb Ryerse had the guts.  In Running for Our Lives: A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good, Ryerse tells his own unlikely story of his campaign for the U.S. Congress.

As a kid, Ryerse was a political junkie with dreams of someday running for office.  Then God called him into full-time ministry, so he pursued theological studies and became a pastor.  After several years as a pastor in a fundamentalist denomination, his theological convictions shifted and he planted a more liberal church, where he remains as pastor.  In Running for Our Lives: A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good, Ryerse tells the story of his return to the dream of political engagement, as he ran for U.S. Congress in 2018.

Readers can't help but applaud Ryerse's energy and desire to make a difference in national politics.  One of his biggest frustrations throughout the campaign is the prominence of large corporate and PAC contributions.  He writes that "elections shouldn't be determined by who can raise the most money from corporate PACs and special-interest groups.  They should be about who has the best ideas to represent the people of the district."  I totally agree with that sentiment, but neither should he overlook that fact that PACs and special-interest groups sometimes share interests with the people!  Case in point: the NRA represents the interests of millions of gun owners, who gladly elect representatives who resist excessive limitations on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

It was interesting to read about Ryerse's adventures as a candidate with little budget going up against an entrenched, well-funded incumbent.  He set out to buck the idea that only the wealthy can run for office.  As a middle-class bi-vocational pastor, he didn't have much personal wealth to back his campaign, but he managed to make it work.  More citizens should follow his example and bring energy and passion to congress.

The frustrating thing about Ryerse's book and candidacy is the fact that he is very liberal on most positions, but chose to run as a Republican, then tries to play the victim because he couldn't get much traction in his conservative district.  He has some historical claim that his positions are more like the Republican Party of a few generations ago, but the fact that he takes the opposite position from today's Republican Party on issues like abortion, economic policy, immigration, guns, etc. should have given him a clue that he might not be the toast of every Republican gathering.  Running as a Republican in a Republican district while opposing virtually every plank of the party platform, in hopes of gathering enough liberals, Democrats, Greens, and independents to unseat the incumbent Republican representative seems deeply cynical and deceptively immoral.

Ryerse makes it clear that he is opposed to every bit of Trump's administration and policies.  Starting from weeping on the night Trump was elected, to his campaigning for a bunch of Democrats in the 2018 election, he can't find a single good thing about Trump.  He quotes one of his comrades: "White evangelicals have been complicit with the Trump administration. . . . We're calling Christians to repent and vote differently" which to him and Ryerse means flipping the House to the Democrats.  This sentiment is deeply offensive to Christians everywhere who chose to vote for Trump out of a belief that Trump's policies better represent their convictions on issues like abortion and religious liberty.

Ryerse thinks "people ought to vote based on the common good."  Oh, the common good like low unemployment, strong job growth, a stronger military (accompanied by declining overseas engagement), secure borders, and a more conservative judiciary?  I know on some issues one can disagree about what is the "good" and that some people are more globalist than nationalist, but it would seem that on an objective level, even the most liberal among us can agree that it's a good thing that employment is at an all-time high, which translates into a higher level of dignity and prosperity than any government program can produce.

In short, good on Ryerse to get involved and put himself in the arena of public debate and action.  On the other hand, his cheerleading of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his absolute contempt for Trump--and, not to mention, Trump voters--erase any semblance that he has a postpartisan or non-partisan message.  And, by the way, while he rails against those who "sell their soul to a corrupt and corrupting system," he'll have an easier time finding such corruption among those with a D after their name.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Lead Me, by Matt Hammitt

Matt Hammitt was riding high as the lead singer of the popular and successful band Sanctus Real when his wife confronted him about his absence from the family.  If he wasn't on the road, touring with the band, he was at home, emotionally distant.  His wife confronted him.  "Matt, I need you to step up.  For me.  For our children.  Be the man of your house.  Lead this family."  In response, Hammitt wrote "Lead Me," which became one of the band's biggest hits.  In his book, Lead Me: Finding Courage to Fight for You Marriage, Children, and Faith, Hammitt tells the story of his life with the band, his marriage, and the fight to turn around his marriage and family life.

Fans of Sanctus Real definitely will want to read Lead Me.  The story of Hammitt's life and marriage is interwoven with the life of the band.  They started playing together in high school, and Hammitt met his wife when he saw her at some of their shows.  As newlyweds they toured together, living with the rest of the band on the tour bus.  She worked the merch table while he played the shows.  Once they started having children, she stayed home while he was on the road.  The growing success of the band was contrasted with the growing tension of home/road life.  Hammitt is not shy about revealing the struggles they shared. 

I was reluctant to read Lead Me for one reason.  Whenever the song "Lead Me" comes on the radio, I have to resist the urge to change the station, not because I don't like the song but because the song is so convicting.  They sing:

"Lead me with strong hands
Stand up when I can't
Don't leave me hungry for love
Chasing dreams, what about us?
Show me you're willing to fight
That I'm still the love of your life
I know we call this our home
But I still feel alone."
My struggles are very different from Hammitt's but the song forces me to consider the ways and times I fail to lead my family.  I was relieved and encouraged to read Hammitt's confession that he feels the same way!  He writes that he sang this song at their shows with the reality nagging him that he was not living up to the message of the song.  "For years I sang it with shame.  Now it feels hopeful instead."

That's the good news; his own song played a part in convicting him to change his lifestyle, leave the band, and spend more time with his family.  He began to receive invitations to speak at marriage conferences and to join the teaching staff of FamilyLife.

Hammitt leads by example end encourages men with empathy to fix their priorities and to lead their families.  He points out that "many of us spent years dreaming about finding the right person, but how much did we spend dreaming about being the right person?"  "Lead Me" the song and now Lead Me the book encourage and convict me to be the man my wife dreams of and the husband and father God has called me to be.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Suffer Strong, by Katherine and Jay Wolf

Since suffering a near-fatal stroke over a decade ago, Katherine Wolf, along with her husband Jay, have been a force for hope, healing, and help for people with disabilities and their families and loved ones.  They tell their story in Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and Overcoming Love (which you should definitely read).  In their new book, Suffer Strong: How to Survive Anything by Redefining Everything Katherine and Jay continue their story, sharing lessons they have learned as they have walked together through life after the stroke.

Katherine and Jay write with their characteristic humor, honesty, and humility, giving readers a glimpse into their "good hard life" and encouraging us to trust God as we live with our own wheelchairs, actual and invisible.  Katherine writes that, contrary to the old saying that God won't give us more than we can handle, "It seems that God does give us more than we can handle--sometimes much more.  And yet He does this so He can handle it for us and so we can handle it together."  The book--and her life--are testimony to her learning to let God handle it.

Part of trusting God to handle hardship for us is remembering what He has done.  Jay writes that "the word remember is found in the Bible five times as often as the word believe and twice as often as the word trust.  Perhaps, just maybe, God is trying to tell us something! Remember Me.  You already know the end of this story; you just keep forgetting.  So remember Me."  Most of us don't have the daily, tangible reminders that Katherine and Jay live with, but all of us should embrace remembrance.

One big idea from the book that I really like is "post-traumatic growth."  We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder.  The Wolfs embody the idea that "surviving trauma is good, but growing above and beyond trauma is possible."  As Christians, "we have the Holy Spirit of God within us" and we have the example of Jesus, who is "the ultimate post-traumatic growth story."  Spend time with the Wolfs and you will see this idea in action, as they live with grace and gratitude.

On many levels, the Wolfs's marriage is an example for all of us.  They aren't shy about putting their lives on display and honestly talking about the day-to-day struggles to which any married couple can relate.  But their deep mutuality and unity are evident.  Amid the "daily sacrificing of our time, sleep, preferences, and attention for the good of others," Jay writes that "marriage may be the death of me, but it's the birth of we. . . . It's interdependency perpetuating flourishing."

Reading about the Wolfs and hearing their perspectives on life and faith will draw you to trust more deeply in God and his purposes for your life.  Whether your suffering is physical, mental, or spiritual, whatever you're going through, God is for you. "Embracing the lot we're been given is about embracing the God who gives it."  Frustrations, setbacks, and maybe life-altering medical trauma and disability happen.  But no matter what, "if we have a pulse, we have a purpose."  The Wolfs inspire me to embrace the "good hard life" and seek God's purposes daily.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Living for God, by Mark Jones

Canadian pastor Mark Jones has a simple message in Living for God: A Short Introduction to the Christian Faith.  "Good theology (that which is well received) results in good living (that which is well delivered)."  Jones writes from a perspective of solid, historical, biblical Christianity, and defines Christian faith "as that which is 1. Trinity focused, 2. Christ focused, 3. Spirit energized, 4. Church inhabited, 5. Heaven anticipated."

This list sets up the structure of the book.  Jones draws extensively from scripture, as well as from a broad cross-section of theologians and writers from throughout Christian history.  Jones keeps the focus on lay people; he doesn't want the people in the pews to be left out of the discussion.  He provides plenty of references, clear explanations, and a systematic, if nontraditional, presentation.

I like his focus and fresh approach.  He wants Christians everywhere to recognize that Christians who want to know God should strive to know about God, and that if we want to live for God, good theology is a necessary foundation.  While he writes for laypeople, I did get a sense of trying to put too much too simply in too small a package.  There is a reason that theology books tend to be much bigger than this one!  Nevertheless, this is a good place to start for the Christian who wants a strong framework for theological thinking.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

From Sky to Sky, by Amanda G. Stevens

Following immediately on the heels of No Less Days, Amanda G. Stevens picks up the story in From Sky to Sky.  If you haven't read From Sky to Sky, don't bother opening No Less Days.  You can't have one without the other.  You'll be confused and bored.  But if you enjoyed the first book, you don't want to miss this one.

The characters in these books were treated with an experimental serum from a frontier doctor back in the 19th century which essentially immunized them from death.  They can still be injured or sick, but if they experience a fatal injury or illness, they will regenerate and continue to live.  In From Sky to Sky, a new longevite comes along claiming that some of his fellow longevites have been killed.  This leads to a search for the doctor who originated the serum and an answer to the mystery of the dead longevites.

Stevens deals with the question of immortality.  If someone never ages or dies, how does one have relationships with mortals?  Perhaps longevites desire a "cure," the ability to actually age and die a natural death.  And what about faith?  How does one deal with God when one is essentially immortal?  And when one has a century of sin, can God forgive?

I enjoyed Stevens's characters and some of her thought experiments.  She holds back what's happening just enough to have some surprises and suspense.  But the limited scope of the story and the shallowness of many of the characters' actions and interactions kept this from being a really great book.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder about where to find that serum. . . .

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Snug, by Catana Chetwynd

Catana Chetwynd's Snug: A Collection of Comics about Dating Your Best Friend had one primary effect on me: I wanted to immediately go snuggle with my wife.  These cutesy comics about Catana's life with her boyfriend are relatable and honest, capturing the joyful, simple domesticity of two people in love.

Many of the strips deal with typical issues of domestic life: sharing the blankets, negotiating over cleaning duties and dinner, making time for each other.  The overall tone is of a couple full of affection for each other, who love to snuggle in bed or on the couch, and whose favorite place in the world is at home together.  Not only is this their favorite place, but it's their place of recharge, sanctuary, and mutual support.

Be warned: if you don't have someone to share life and snuggles with, this little book will create a longing for the kind of mutual love that Catana and John share!  If you do have someone, well, this isis a great reminder to cherish your time together.  The art is simple black and white.  The characters have huge eyes that make them look like frogs or fish or something.  Even though I didn't really like the appearance of her characters, Chetwynd's tone and themes more than made up for it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

I Am a Promise, by Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce

I admit I am a sucker for inspiring running stories.  Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce tells her story in
I Am a Promise, a children's book colorfully illustrated by Rachel Moss.  Shelly loved to run as a little girl.  As her love of running grew, she began to realize that she could run faster than other people.  One day her grandmother told her, "You are a promise."  Later, coaches and other encourages would tell her, "You have great promise."

She continually wondered what that meant, to be a promise, but it came together when she competed at the Olympics.  Her coach told her, "You represent the promise of our country."  She ran, and continued to run, as an Olympic champion and world champion.  She is a personification of what it means to represent one's country, family, faith, and oneself on the world stage.  Her story of rising from poverty in a relatively small, poor country to world dominance in her sport will inspire kids to dream and pursue the promise they have.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!