Saturday, November 12, 2016

Book Review: 'Listen, Love, Repeat' by Karen Ehan

A few years ago, I sat across from a smiling man who shared a revolutionary idea with me: the whole purpose of our existence is to share God’s love with everyone around us.  Doing so may come in physical expression, in quiet prayer for another, in serving our neighbor, or sharing the gospel with a coworker.  Yet, whatever we do, we must do it in love.  For in doing so, we combat the evil that is present in the world.  That smiling man was Bob Goff, author of the hugely successful devotional book Love Does.  Bob is an internationally known and respected attorney and human rights advocate who advises world leaders, yet he is as friendly as your favorite uncle.  And in the short time that I spent with him, I was humbled and challenged (generally what we called “blessed”) to practice the simple yet profound discipline of love.  Love Does is not groundbreaking in its conceptual framework, yet it is paradigm-shifting in its radical call to practical expression.  Love does the will of God in a broken and hurting world.

Now, this is not a review of Love Does.  However, Goff’s book helps set the context for the book that is the focus of this review—Karen Ehman’s newest volume Listen, Love, Repeat.  It may seem strange for a male writer to review this volume.  To be honest, it is strange.  The included publicity material is from all female reviewers.  And, yet, why is it strange?  I spent one evening reading through several chapters at my local Starbucks while I was waiting on my daughter to finish up her nightly theatre practice.  Before I left, I ordered my daughter a drink for the ride home.  The barrister show the book in my hand and asked me about.  I explained that the focus of the book was about practicing kindness and compassion in the midst of a selfish world.  He thanked me for sharing about the book, stating that he would likely get it and read it himself.

In the same way as Love Does (and Devoted by my friend Arron Chambers), Ehman’s book assumes a couple of things.  First, it assumes (naturally) that you are a follower of Jesus.  Secondly, it assumes that you want to follow Jesus’ command of sharing God’s love and God’s truth with those around you.  And lastly, it assumes that you are not simply going to read this book and then stick it on a shelf; it assumes that you will do what the author recommends. 

In fact, these books—Devoted, Love Does and Listen, Love, Repeat—could serve as a trinity introduction to the basics of practical Christianity.  Devoted could serve as your introduction, giving you the what of the Christian tradition.  Then, you could move on to Love Does and trek along with Goff as he explains why Christians demonstrate love to the world (and don’t we need this right now!).  Then, you could conclude your orientation reading with Listen, Love, Repeat, where you would discover a whole lot of how.  This book is crammed full of practical advice, ranging from recipes to share with your friends to devotional plans to practical challenges for the reader to engage in.  I read Listen, Love, Repeat in two days, really just a few hours.  Yet, what Ehman offers will require a lot of processing, planning and implementing.  However, the lives that can be impacted through her advice and challenges are limitless.

And that is why I liked and highly recommend this book.  I am already thinking back to that conversation that I had with the Starbucks barrister.  It was just a few moments, and we just talked about a book.  Yet, what kind of impact did it have?  What kind of impact will we have if we listen, love and repeat?  That is the challenge presented by Listen, Love, Repeat, a challenge that I hope you will join me in accepting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Book Review: 'Near Christianity' by Anthony Le Donne

While I was working on my doctorate, I traveled back and forth between Huntington, West Virginia (where I lived), and Memphis, Tennessee (where I was attending).  On one of my flights to Memphis, I was seated next to an older gentlemen who was traveling to Memphis for business.  He was a lawyer from Boston, and was traveling to Memphis for a board meeting at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  As we begin talking during the flight, the question of religion eventually came up.  He discerned quite easily that I was a Christian, probably by noting what I was reading.  He, then, noted that he was Jewish.  As we continued talking, we noted the number of areas that we had in common—a love for God, a respect for creation, a concern for ethical living and social justice, and a desire to meditate on Scripture.  He shared with me that his daily practice was quite simple: Every morning, he rose and read a Psalm.  He would then pray for moral guidance throughout the day.  Not long after, it time to secure our trays and refasten our seat belts.

Ironically, my daily devotional practice is similar: I rise, read a psalm and pray for guidance throughout the day.  The only difference between my Jewish traveling companion and myself is that he is Jewish and I am Christian.  On one hand, my practice of Christianity is the logical continuation of the Jewish religion, as defined by the New Testament (or Christian Bible).  On the other hand, my practice of Christianity is a divergence from orthodox Jewish faith, as defined by the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible).  The question is not necessarily who is correct but can we (Jews and Christians) have open and engaging dialogues about the similarities and differences in our understandings of faith.

This is where Anthony Le Donne’s book comes into play.  A New Testament professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, Le Donne is an emerging prolific author who focuses his research on the historical character and mission of Jesus.  As such, Le Donne spends much of his time dialoguing with both Jewish and Christian scholars.  And this volume serves, somewhat, as a summary of the conversations that he has had with both his Jewish and Christian dialogue partners, conversations that are becoming more and more nuanced as scholars and religious teachers continue flowing towards a more inclusive acceptance of one another.

Le Donne finds himself in a quandary.  He was raised in a fairly conservative religious home, one that ingrained a more black-and-white understanding of the relationship between the Jewish and Christian religions.  [Having come from the same denominational tradition, I can certainly “Amen” many of his concerns.]  Armed with a doctorate in New Testament and Christian studies and the humble attitude of a student, Le Donne sought out on a journey to discover the complex and rich nature of the Jewish religion and how Christianity has been deeply influenced by it.  In engaging in these conversations, Le Donne found his faith in God growing deeper as he embraced the values of honesty, integrity, humor and tolerance that undergird modern Jewish faith.  He finds himself growing in faith by living on the “borders” of Jewish and Christian spirituality.

Overall, I enjoyed this volume.  Although it could have easily been constructed as a series of lectures, it is not.  It is crafted more like conversations with over coffee or a meal.  Whether it be a dinner group that has come together to discuss connections between Jewish and Christian adherents, Le Donne is transparent in his concerns and his limitations.  He does not present himself as an expert on these “borders,” nor does he bring theological judgment against either side.  Instead, he offers a model of transparent tolerance and open dialogue with those who stand on the borders of particular religions and (perhaps) faith in general.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: "Make a Break for It" by Bill Purvis

Bill Purvis.  Make a Break for It: Unleashing the Power of Personal and Spiritual Growth.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.  216pp.  $21.99.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one defines “direction” as “the path along which something moves, lies, or points” or “an order or instruction to be followed.”  Both are fitting definitions when applied to the realm of spiritual development.  On one hand, we, from the moment we are born to the moment we expire, are moving along a direction.  We have a starting point (mine was in December 1978, in Huntington, West Virginia), and we have will have a stopping date (still working on that one).  The time in between our starting point and our stopping point is the direction of our life, or “trajectory,” as one of my college Bible professors referred to.  We begin, we move along for a while, then we end.  Direction.
            On the other hand, we, from the moment we are born to the moment we expire, are following directions.  Some of those directions are instinctual (crying when we are spanked at birth), some of those directions are intentional (the directions that I give my students in order to complete a paper or project), and some of those directions are accidental (pointing blindly at a wrench when fixing an appliance and your son actually brings you the correct item).  Regardless of the purpose of the direction, we will find ourselves following directions throughout the course of our direction of life.  We begin, we move along for a while, then we end.  Direction.
            Yet, should life not be more than simply follow directions as we follow along a direction?  This is the idea that is at the heart of Bill Purvis’ new book Make a Break for It.  As he writes in the introduction, “Do you ever feel as if your whole life is stuck in a traffic jam, on idle as you wait. . .and wait. . .and then wait some more for a lane to open up so you can get on the fast track to where you want to be?  Or maybe you feel more like you’re in a roundabout.  You keep going around in circles, driving past one exit after another because you don’t have any idea where you’re supposed to go next” (p. 11).  As Purvis argues throughout his book, life should be more than beginning, moving along for a while, and then ending.
            Purvis’ story begins somewhat like you would imagine a published testimony to start—a young man trapped in a broken life fueled by vices.  Yet Purvis’ story is not your usual testimony material.  His testimony includes being stabbed in the heart by a pimp who tried to murder him and his friend.  Just let that line sink in for a moment.  Escaping that moment led Purvis to a true “come to Jesus moment”—a hospital bed confessional that leads to a young man committing his life to not only follow Christ but seek to lead others to Christ. 
However, before you part company with Purvis 20 pages in because you—like me—have a boring testimony, I encourage you to stick with him.  This is not Augusten Burroughs’ This Is How, a brash, abrasive therapy session where you almost feel guilty for not being more broken.  [BTW, I like Burroughs’ book.]  Nor does this delve into sappy sentimental religiosity.  The chapters that follow Purvis’ testimony are carefully-crafted conversations about life, redemption and the self-sacrificial love of God.  It is a book about living well, about moving past excuses and criticisms, about choosing mentors well, and about living the adventure of life. 

This book is about direction—about beginning, about moving along for a while, and about ending.  Yet, Purvis argues, all of this direction should be taken with purpose—purpose which is found in God because it is only God who can give us direction for our direction in life.  So, in Purvis’ words, make a break for it—break away from your direction-less life and allow this redeemed journeyman guide you to a better direction for your life.