Monday, May 2, 2016

Praying Together, by Megan Hill

It goes without saying--well, it should go without saying--that Christians ought to pray.  In Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches, Megan Hill calls Christians not only to pray, but to pray together.  Hill reminds us that prayer is a communal experience.  When we pray together, "we nurture our relationship with our triune God and with his people--a relationship that will never end."  When praying together, we are following the example and exhortation of the New Testament, which "tell us to pray together.  With everybody.  Everywhere.  About everything."

The fruit of praying together is "love, discipleship, and revival."  Hill tells stories of answered prayer and revivals sparked by prayer that you may not have heard of.  By its very nature, corporate prayer does not draw the same sort of attention that other forms of Christian activity might.  Hill points out that "contemporary Christianity is plagued by unbiblical elitism.  We esteem Christians who do stuff."  And we don't really look at prayer as doing something.  When we gather we tend to want to have more of an agenda than just "pray."

Praying Together is practical and convicting.  Many prayer meetings I have been in have been about prayer in name only.  Fellowship is important, as is teaching and preaching, but we need to pray together, too.  Hill writes that one benefit of structured corporate prayer time is the regularity of it.  Even if you don't feel like praying, you can show up and agree with the others.  She describes how to pray when you are the one speaking, and how to pray when you are listening to someone pray.

Prayer can be hard.  It's a discipline to learn and to practice.  But it's something we learn by doing together.  Children learn from their parents, praying at home.  We learn from each other in our prayer meetings.  Corporate prayer can bring us together with Christians from other traditions.  And most importantly, prayer brings us together into the presence of God.  Let us pray.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book on prayer

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Failure, by Karl Stevens

The first thing to say about Karl Stevens's new collection Failure is that I really enjoyed his art.  He realistic, sketch-based style is appealing and approachable.  Failure contains examples of a comic strip he wrote for a Boston alternative weekly paper, as well as some of his sketches and other art.  He's an artist with a gift.

On the other hand, most of the actual subject matter content of Failure I could do without.  His target audience is hip, urban 20-somethings.  I'm a few years (OK, a couple decades) out of that age group, and I never really was "hip" or "urban."  If you consider yourself hip, urban, slacker-intellectual, artsy, weed-smoking, heavily drinking, sleeping around, and use lots of foul language, then Failure is a collection you will relate to and enjoy.  It just wasn't for me.

But I did get a kick out of Pope Cat.

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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Loaded, by Heather King

I've read many books on money, particularly money and Christianity.  Heather King's Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough is the most unusual one I've read.  Her target audience is people who have chosen voluntary poverty or asceticism.  King's perspective is that Christians shouldn't feel compelled to underearn.   She says Loaded is about "how to detach from the idea that our identity could possibly lie in how much or how little money we make or have."

King says she wants to "explore how we might spend as much of our days as possible doing what we love." When we "follow the deepest desires of our heart. . . . the money will come. And we'll want to share it."  I appreciate that sentiment, but I didn't feel like that is really what the book accomplished.  The main message I took away from Loaded is to be okay with having enough and spending what you have on what you need.

King and some of the individuals she profiles in Loaded come from a perspective of voluntary poverty, where they underearned and struggled with guilt if they spent money.  She talks about going through twelve step programs to find freedom in earning money and using it.  Don't get me wrong, King is all for living simply and is definitely not in favor of the excesses of American consumer culture.  But neither is she in favor of choosing poverty as an end rather than a means to an end.  She concludes, "We help poor people not by compulsively staying poor ourselves, but by sharing our material and emotional riches with them."

King knows her audience, people like her who have been involved in the Catholic Worker movement, or who have otherwise lived lives of voluntary poverty.  That is a pretty small audience.  Most Christians in mainstream America come from an opposite place.  But for her audience her writing is relatable and, at times, moving.  Whether we have a little or a lot, live in a slum or a suburb, King reminds us to do what you love and be generous with what you have.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a female author

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Seven Laws of Love, by Dave Willis

Pastor and relationship expert Dave Willis and his wife are committed to helping couples have stronger marriages, as founders of the aptly named  In his book The Seven Laws of Love: Essential Principles for Building Stronger Relationships, Willis expands his scope beyond marriage to help the reader strengthen relationships with family, friends, and others.

Willis is a lover of lists.  In Part 1 he discusses the Laws of Love:
Love requires commitment.
Love selflessly sacrifices.
Love speaks truth.
Love conquers fear.
Love offers grace.
Love brings healing.
Love lives forever.
He develops each law with examples, scripture, and more lists.  Lest you think someone who specializes in strong marriages would only write about marriage, he expands these principles in Part 2, applying them to loving your: spouse, family, neighbor, friends, enemies, yourself, and your creator (again with lots of lists).  I don't want to sound like I'm completely dismissing his lists.  He's a preacher, after all.  Lists help people remember and apply a sermon.

The lists and stories are great and show Willis's insight into relationships.  He shows his insight into readers by wrapping the book up in the Afterword with a specific assignment.  Knowing how quickly a book's content may leave our minds as soon as we put down the book, he insists, before you put down the book, think of someone specific and apply the seven laws.  Then he gives a refresher on each.  I thought this was a great way to end.

Willis has a pastor's heart for his readers to have strong relationships, and a preacher's gift for communicating with warmth, humor, and practical application.  In a way, The Seven Laws of Love is an easy read, with quick chapters, neatly listed points, and discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  But in a way it's hard.  If the reader takes Willis's admonition to heart and thinks about specific people and ways to apply these principles in specific ways, it will have a tremendous impact on his or her relationships.

Thanks to Mr. Willis and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about relationships or friendship

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Players, by Matthew Futterman

In my living memory, whenever I have thought "professional athlete," I have thought "gazillionaire." OK, maybe just millionaire.  The money in professional sports today is simply outrageous.  Have you ever seen a picture of Tom Brady's house?  But that has not always been the case.  In Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution, Matthew Futterman tells the story, or rather stories, of how we got here.  (I guess I shouldn't say we.  I'm just a fan with no money, not a gazillionaire athlete.)

In the not-so-distant past, professional athletes were either nonexistent or were very poorly paid.  An occasional superstar or media darling might get some endorsements or command a higher salary due to his fame, but it wasn't until a lawyer named Mark McCormack signed up Arnold Palmer as the first client of his fledgling company International Management Group (IMG) that the keys to the treasure chests began to be found.  With IMG's sponsorship and promotional assistance, Palmer went from being one of the world's best golfers to being a very rich golfer.  McCormack changed the game and his company still represents some of the world's best (and richest) athletes.

McCormack also pioneered the televising of events like Wimbledon.  He converted this little tennis event, viewed by a few elite tennis aficionados, into a major television event, viewed by millions.  As a result of the increased exposure, the popularity of tennis soared, as did the prize money for players.

Futterman describes the rise of free agency in sports, starting with Catfish Hunter.  As free agents, players "could prove to everyone in baseball--and every team-sport athlete on the planet--the value of the open market."  Free agency "was an opportunity to allow the market to determine a player's value instead of some crony general manager trying to line his owner's pockets."

Futterman would agree that the professionalization of sports has raised the quality of play and the level of competition.  However, he isn't necessarily a fan of the increased players' salaries.  "Too many athletes forgot that performance was supposed to serve as the foundation for their success on and off the field, and that the object of sport is to win, not to become famous."  Television, and, later, cable television, added to the revenues sports could generate, so "the purpose of a sports team had morphed from an entity that could provide joy and a sense of community to a city or a region to a commodity that could be used to create vast wealth. . . ."  Futterman concludes, "Money in sports isn't, on its own, a bad thing.  But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing."

I enjoyed the way Futterman personalized each step in the process of monetization of sports, focusing on individuals and events that proved to be the turning points.  His writing is colorful and descriptive, and his research and interviews bring these stories together nicely.   Watching the NFL draft this weekend, watching the various commercials that feature athletes, watching my hometown team, the Cowboys, play mediocre football while raking in untold millions, I will think of Futterman's historical perspective.  Every year I think that sports salaries have gotten too high to sustain, but, as he said regarding the first forays into free agency, the players will earn what the market will bear.  Do I think anyone should be a multimillionaire because they are great football or baseball players?  In the grand scheme of things, no.  But people pay to watch them play.  Team owners and management pay their salaries.  More power to them.  Futterman explains why it all works and how it got that way.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, by Jonas Jonasson

Jonas Jonasson made a splash with his hilarious debut novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  His new novel, Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, has the same madcap tone, and some of the same elements (suitcases full of cash, bumbling criminals, misguided clergy).  Hitman Anders, a repeat criminal offender, is released from a stint in prison and takes a room at a sleazy hotel where Per Persson (the author makes a self-effacing joke about his own name) is the receptionist.

Per Persson has a chance encounter with a priest, who we learned never wanted to be a priest, doesn't believe in God, and whose congregation recently ran her off because she cursed her father, the church's former priest, from the pulpit.  The receptionist and the priest, drawn together by their thorough-going contempt for all of humanity, and by their desire to make a little money, become unlikely partners (and lovers).

Hitman Anders, not to smart or moral, likes to drink and doesn't have any trouble roughing people up, which he does for hire.  The priest and the receptionist become his agents, of sorts, soliciting much more lucrative contracts, of which they take a large cut.  Anders is perfectly happy as long as he has enough to buy drinks.  When the priest inadvertently inspires Anders to become a Christian, he declares that he will no longer be breaking arms and legs, but wants to give his money away.

Anders becomes well-known for his acts of benevolence, which leads the priest and the receptionist to set him up as pastor of a new church.  Of course, they take a hefty portion of the weekly collection. . . . Meanwhile, competing elements of the Stockholm underworld are determined, alternatively, to snuff Anders and his companions, or to make sure they live.

Hitman Anders is a fun read, full of unexpected twists and random (dare we say providential?) resolutions.  The hapless Anders remains oblivious to what all is going on around him, accepting both setbacks and windfalls with equal guilelessness.  So what is the meaning of it all?  For the receptionist, maybe "the meaning of life is to make other people happy as long as we have the financial means to make ourselves just a little happier?"  The priest keeps looking for a way to make a buck.  Anders rolls with it all.  And plenty of truly bad guys get their just rewards.

Maybe Hitman Anders doesn't pack the punch that The 100-Year-Old Man does.  But Jonasson's latest is full of absurd, irreverent story telling that kept me laughing.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A novel set in a country that is not your own

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hope Heals, by Katherine and Jay Wolf

Rarely have I read a book that moved me the way Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love.  Katherine and Jay Wolf were college sweethearts just starting out life together.  He was weeks away from finishing law school.  She had a budding modeling career.  They had a 6-month-old baby.  When Katherine suffered a sudden stroke, everything changed.

In Hope Heals, they tell the story together of their romance and marriage, her life-shattering stroke, the weeks and months of recovery and rehab, and the new normal of post-stroke life.  As the book alternates from Katherine's voice to Jay's, we walk through the journey with them.  They both open up about their fears and doubts, but ultimately what comes through is the hope and faith that they find in the Lord.

From the beginning of their ordeal, while Katherine was in surgery, Jay was encouraged by scripture.  As he read Romans 8, he "released Katherine from my feeble grip and into God's.  I knew that, though Katherine may well lose her life, she would never lose the indomitable goodness and inexplicable love of God.  And neither would I."  Jay became convinced that in the midst of suffering, "God's presence remains the same.  He finds us in our hurts, if we want to be found.  His power to filter the worst that life has to offer, with goodness remaining, is our greatest hope."  That faith sustained him, even as Katherine continued to struggle first to survive, then to relearn how to talk, eat, and walk.  He realized, "Maybe healing just looks different from what we think it does. . . . Maybe she had already been healed as much as she would be--and if so, was that enough healing for me?"

Katherine, though grateful to be alive, says she "felt no comfort at all" in her miraculous survival.  "In fact, the whole miracle thing really stung because the 'miracle' had left me unable to live normally." In God's timing, though, he reminded Katherine that he does not make mistakes, and that he knows better than we do.  Jay reminds us, "Don't wait to celebrate the life you have been given, even if it looks different from the one you thought you would have."

Several things stood out about their story.  First, they have a remarkable network of friends and family who surrounded them and provided for them in many ways.  It's a reminder to me of the importance of family and church relationships in times of need.  Their son, James, never lacked a caretaker, Jay never missed a meal, Jay's sister come home from her overseas mission post to help out, their church group kept a 24/7 vigil at the hospital for weeks. . . . the list goes on.  Further, God's provision and timing were constantly evident, as was his hand in miraculous healing along the way.  She wasn't supposed to survive, wasn't supposed to be able to swallow, wasn't supposed to be able to walk, but God kept proving those predictions wrong.

For his part, Jay inspired me with his selfless servant's heart for his bride.  Sure, he vowed to be with her in sickness and health, but he never could have imagined the kind of care he would have to provide.  The worst I have ever had to nurse my wife through is a kidney stone attack.  Once that passed (haha), she was in good shape.  My wife's needs are different than Katherine's, but no matter what she needs, I aspire to show her the same selfless love that Jay does for Katherine.

Katherine and Jay turned to scripture and faith in God for hope and healing.  They are honest in Hope Heals about their struggles and doubts.  Their narrative brought me to tears on several occasions. More importantly, their story brought me to my knees.  I am grateful for their witness, and am reminded to lean on that "special kind of Christian peace that doesn't quite make sense."  Katherine writes, "believing in God is not possible without also believing God.  He says He is my hope and strength, and I am taking Him at His word."  Amen.

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

You ought to check out their web site, particularly the video they made of their story:

You might also enjoy this interview with James Robison on LifeToday:

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about suffering