Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Cana Mystery by David Beckett

★★★☐☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I had mixed feelings while reading this novel. Parts of it kept me at the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen next. But parts of it seemed farfetched and made me shake my head at the worldviews and assumptions of the characters.

Of course scientific conclusions are shaped and data interpreted by scientists. The strong waft of Catholic secularism permeated the scientific descriptions in the book: I felt a strong agenda that defined in a particular way the archaeological discoveries in the story. (So 3 stars instead of 4: I'd rather draw my own conclusions than be told so definitely what to think.)

That said, I had fun with this caper. The characters were interesting and mostly believable as they circled the Mediterranean coast. The adventures at times seemed fantastical and over-the-top, which made it all the more riveting. I'd take this book along on a long plane trip in a heartbeat!

A Girl's Guide to Moving On by Debbie Macomber

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
A young woman and her mother-in-law deal with cheating spouses and life as they leave their deadbeat husbands behind. This novel was both sweet and bittersweet. Macomber is good at developing likable characters, encouraging us to cheer them on and hope for good outcomes.

The author shows how life - with all its challenges and opportunities - is rich and full of possibilities. I liked the style of alternating voices: in different chapters we get the viewpoint of Leanne or Nicole. The friendship of the women touched me.

An interesting read that makes you happy you're living your own life. It's a chick-flick with the message that life goes on: we get to choose how we respond to circumstances.

Enjoy the book on a weekend getaway when you want to cozy up to the fire and put your feet up.

The Psychology of Christian Character Formation by Joanna Collicutt

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Just in time! Soon I'm teaching a course on Spiritual Formation for Leaders. Of course I have most of my notes and classroom aids done. But in the spirit of continuing education, most professors keep looking for more information and better ways of thinking about the subject.

Therefore I was delighted to run across Joanna Collicutt's new book. The three sections flow together with theological, practical, and provisional insights. A pastor or spiritual leader can use the book to analyze character and spiritual strengths and weaknesses of themselves as well as those they serve.

The book is helpful because it is thoughtful and well-researched. I felt it was a pragmatic and theologically sound volume that I certain will recommend to my students. I heartily recommend it.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Out of Sorts: making peace with an evolving faith by Sarah Bessey

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.
Ever wonder why life is not what you expected? Sarah Bessey says, "I’ve come to believe that there is always a bit of grief to the sorting out of a life, to making sense of the stories and the moments and intersections, in our ability to move forward with integrity. We figure out what we need to keep, what we need to throw away, and what we need to repurpose."

With real-life examples we can relate to, Bessey explores the process of grieving what is past and moving into the future with hope and vision. She deals with the life issues of theology as they impact living and thinking. 

Well worth reading.

Time to Get Ready: an Advent, Christmas Reader to Wake Your Soul by Mark Villano

★★★★★  The publisher has provided a copy for review.

Can you feel it? Christmas is coming! Mark Villano presents ways to to meditate on and absorb scriptures and stories related to the birth of Christ. If you're preparing your heart for the season through reflection and and imagination, you'll enjoy this Advent book.

You may also find yourself thinking of ways to engage life and service in practical ways.

Be prepared for meaningful transformation of the soul as you engage the retelling of the events leading up to Christmas and the stories told by the author.

Villano offers pastoral encouragement for the Advent and Christmas weeks. He'll help you make the most of the season, regardless of the fluff and frills that surround Christmas.

The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book by Vinita Hampton Wright

★★★★★ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
A prayer book hardly sounds like an exciting read, does it?

Yet this arrangement of historical prayers, devotions, and reflections comes at the right time for me. I'm teaching a graduate course this fall: The Spiritual Formation of Leaders.

I felt I got to know St. Teresa as a person as well as a spiritual director and supplicant. The well-organized presentation kept my attention. As a Protestant, I'll omit the prayers included to saints and Mary.

That said, this remarkable collection presents me with opportunity to spend my meditations with this remarkable woman and scriptures. Can't wait to see how God transforms my heart in the process. 

I recommend it!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Year without a Purchase: our family's question to stop shopping and start connecting by Scott Dannemiller

 ★★★★★ The publisher has provided a copy for review.

This progressive unfolding of family in transition and transformation made me rethink my priorities and possessions.
How do you respond to a challenge? We take so many things for granted - things we say we need (when they are a want). But how do you sort out what you have to replace and what you can live without?

Dannemiller and his wife decide to measure their consumption (or rather non-consumption) by their purpose: "To tirelessly seek God's will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing together in faith, and serving God's people to build a world without need."

How do you set rules for such living? Imagine living by these: 1) buy stuff that can be "used up" within a year. 2) Fix stuff that breaks. 3) Give gifts only in the form of charitable donations or "experience gifts." Sounds like a challenge?

The commitment to the family and to their principles has Dannemiller and his wife thinking through assumptions about the very essentials of life. For example, we're used to throwing away things that are ruined or aging. How could the commitment to repair and reuse affect the world around us - beyond our circles?

The author exposes the unexpected successes and failures of the process of replacing "stuff" with quality of life and deliberate simplification. It's fun to read but beyond that ... if you compare your life to the Dannemiller family's life that year, you'll be surprised, challenged, and amazed at this reality check.

The summary and 8 Practical Ways to handle ownership, grow in faith, and serve are a bonus that wrap up the the story.

How much influence does your "stuff" have on your life? Is this a challenge you need to take?

Closer to the Edge: walking with Jesus for the world's sake by Ron Ruthruff

★★★★ ☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This personal and personable look at spiritual transformation caught my attention. I'm teaching a class on spiritual formation in a week or two - so I was interested in the story of how God changed the author. I lived in Seattle for 30+ years and the "who is my neighbor?" resonated with me. 

Ruthruff retells the parables and examines the scriptures in his challenges to mindful obedience. He asks us to move from our isolation and beyond our comforts into the world of the poor and hurting. He presents issues of justice, mercy, culture, and self-sacrifice in light of "following Jesus in the Way of the Cross."

He says, "This is the message of the Cross - great power concealed in weakness." The book concludes with questions for small groups that offer us opportunities to reexamine what is taken for granted and things that are overlooked. 

"Where are you willing to go?" the author asks. By the end of the book, you will have made decisions to open your heart to those Jesus loves and accepts or to stay in the safe zone of people who don't see themselves as needy or poor in spirit. What not take the challenge of this book and step into transformational service!

The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergovic

☐ The publisher has provided a copy for review.
I was revolted, amused, confused, and finally had to let this one go before I finished it. There was too much psychoanalysis and dredging around in convoluted psyches to be an enjoyable read.

Very "Eastern European" characters - how else can I describe the small-village penchant for digging in everyone's business and the charm and dismay of looking too deeply and intensely into the past and present? (My parents were European immigrants and I "know these people.")

I didn't grow to like or cheer for the characters, so that killed it for me, too. Glad to have a chance at this: the orientation was too "literary" for the read I expected. I may have a PhD but I want to be entertained and captured by fiction (or movies.)

Cold Girl by R. M. Greenaway

The publisher has provided a copy for review.
This is a Canadian novel. The language, insights into BC's culture and its people, and the way the plot unfolds is thoroughly Canadian.

I was surprised. I haven't lived in Canada for 30 years but I was transported to the winters in mid-province. I could hear the accent of my childhood friends in the conversations and the idioms.

I got lost a few times but in the end, the plot was full of satisfying twists and turns. (hence 4 stars) I kept going back to the next chapter.

And bam bam. Just when I thought I had it figured out, something in the plot surprised me. This is worth a read and worth a few winter evenings with the characters. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Christmas at the Vicarage by Rebecca Boxall

The publisher has provided a copy for review.
★★☐☐☐ I had high hopes for the book. Maybe I had in my head a sweet "Life in Medford" tale because of the title. And I was in a Christmas mood, considering decorating a tree or two (though the weather is in the 80s where I live).

Isn't Christmas all about God's faithful love and goodness? So what's the draw in two immoral bed-hopping daughters and their friends. Their dad (the vicar) is so "loving" that he looks the other way? Yikes. I cringed at inappropriate twists in the story and left feeling a bit stunned. (You'd have to be really jaded to think the interactions in the vicarage were wholesome.)

The setting was pretty. The book was an easy read once I got past the plethora of adjectives. But I'm getting frustrated by the insertion of gay characters in every modern novel. C'mon people! We don't need blatant cultural agendas in every book (and every film or sitcom). I started to check out completely when I realized I could never trust a vicar who thought it humorous to turn the lovely invitation of God upside down by choosing a lesbian couple for Mary and Joseph. I guess I also wouldn't consider trusting people as blatantly uncommitted to their friends and spouses as the novel's characters.

Sigh. So the story line wasn't appealing. I stayed hopeful to the end, wanting a redeeming story - but the premise of "no one gets  hurt if I'm the unfaithful one .. but oh how it hurts when someone does the right thing" was jarring. So sadly, I can't recommend this.

I gave it 2 stars for the setting, the cover, and the title. I love British villages. And Christmas. And committed pastors who shepherd their flocks carefully and well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

God for Us, ed. by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe

The publisher has provided a copy for review.

★★★★★ Have you ever celebrated the rhythms of the weeks before Easter? In some traditions of the Church, Christians are surprised by Easter when it appears on store shelves loaded with Easter bunnies and egg baskets. In many modern denominations, Easter is just one more long weekend that culminates in a special church service. There is no Lenten meditation for a thoughtful pause in the calendar.
This year, I challenge you to find a good Lenten reader. A new one this year is God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter. (Look for it in your local bookstore or online.)

For those who experience Easter as "Just-Another-Long-Weekend," this is a godsend. The book is divided into categories: the feasts and fasts, the beginnings and weeks, and Holy Week and Easter. Each unit includes a bit of liturgical or church history as well as scriptures, thoughtful reflection and study, and prayer. The daily readings may make your heart sing.

The scripture groupings for daily meditation and the explanations from new points-of-view will encourage and enlighten. I loved the personal prayers in spoken English:

Lord Jesus, even two thousand years after you moved to heaven from our planet 
I want to be your companion, your disciple. 
You promise to be with me now, 
walking my life along with me. 
Put your strong arm around my shoulders. 
Teach me what your suffering means to me. 
And if need be, hold me close 
when I myself must suffer. 
Amen. (148)


Slow me down, 
push me deeper, 
enlarge my trust in your timing. 
May I never frustrate your purposes by imposing my own timetable. 
I pray this in your powerful name. 
Amen. (153)

So - we may be looking forward to Christmas now (see my review of Advent readings here) - but Easter is coming! Wouldn't this book be a nice gift for those you care about?