Category Archives: Reviews

One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, by Gina Dalfonzo

As the tagline for this book says, there are now more single adults than married adults in the United States. But you might not think that from looking at typical evangelical churches, because many still seem to cater primarily to couples and families. I can attest to this, as a member of the “Focus on the Family” generation, and having spent several years in the church as a single adult.

The first section of this book shares a lot of stories from singles in the church, and corrects some unfortunate stereotypes that many singles have encountered (some of which are perpetuated by the church), such as the idea that single people have something terribly wrong with them, that they’re not “real adults” yet, or that they’re “projects” for others to “fix.”

The second section tries to take a look at “how we got here,” while the third focuses more on what the church does right, as well as practical ideas for welcoming the singles in our midst.

Dalfonzo does a fair amount of critiquing in this book, and it may give off a negative vibe because of that, though I think she works to counter that in places. She emphasizes that her criticisms only exist because she loves the church, and believes it should be a place where everyone’s voice should be heard equally. She isn’t afraid to call out (rightfully, I think) certain celebrity pastors who have made disparaging comments about singles, or have elevated marriage to a place that casts singles, by contrast, as “broken” or troublemakers.

I thought this book was valuable for giving the perspective of a female Christian who has been single all her life, but desired marriage and family. One section I appreciated was in section 2 where she attempts to answer the question of “how we got here,” by sharing some critiques of the “courtship culture” (and popular books it produced) that exploded into evangelical churches in the late 90s. She argues that this left many people even more obsessed with marriage, while also even more confused about how to get there. I mostly concur with her evaluations, and I think probably a whole book could have been written about just that subject. In section 2 she also covers “gender wars,” which was interesting, but probably the chapter I understood the least.

I think the strongest section for me was in section 3 where Dalfonzo talks about loneliness — and illuminates just how much of a driving force our fear of loneliness can be. As a single Christian who believes that celibacy outside of marriage is what she is called to, this would make her feel very isolated without the church there as a family to love her.

This is a good wake-up call to the church to make sure the singles in their midst have a voice, and aren’t getting pushed away by a “family-centric” approach.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255….

“Seeking Refuge,” by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir

This is a book that World Relief (a Christian relief organization) has put together to help Christians understand more about the current refugee crisis, and what parts we as individuals and as a nation can play in this situation.

The book begins with a brief overview of the statistics of the crisis (more than 60 million people displaced worldwide, about 20 million of them fleeing their home countries — half of whom are children). It’s hard to wrap our minds around numbers like these, which is all the more reason to read a book about it!

There are three primary authors of this book: Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, Matthew Soerens, a World Relief worker, and Dr. Issam Smeir, a professional counselor who was born in Jordan and is the son of a refugee — he currently works with refugees who are healing from trauma. Each author briefly shares their story and describes the circumstances that led them to do the work they are currently doing.

They acknowledge the conflict many Christians feel about trying to balance national security with helping others, but contend that:

“We need not and ought not choose between caring for refugees locally and caring for refugees overseas, because how we respond here directly impacts what happens there. The world is watching how we in the United States respond to the relatively few refugees who reach our shores, and our government’s encouragement to other nations to protect those fleeing persecution lacks credibility if we do not do our part.” (p 17)

The authors implore Christians to think biblically about migration. They note that, while we will be quick to say that the Bible is our primary authority on life topics, immigration is one area where that doesn’t seem to be the case. They say that:

“For many evangelical Christians … refugees and immigration are thought of as political, economic, and cultural issues, rather than as a biblical concern. A recent LifeWay Research survey of American evangelical Christians found that just 12 percent said that they think about immigration issues primarily from the perspective of the Bible. In fact, when asked what most influenced their thinking on this topic, the Bible, the local church, and national Christian leaders combined were reported less often than the media.” (p 29)

They assert that while there are many current cultural issues that the Bible doesn’t speak directly about (taxation rates, gun control), “as we examine the question of how to treat refugees and other immigrants, the Bible actually has a lot to say.” (p 30)

Jesus was a refugee, and the authors look to many other biblical examples of refugees, as well as Jesus’s teachings about loving our neighbors and how we see other people. We are also told the personal stories of several different refugees, whose countries, religions, and backgrounds all vary, but who found themselves on the run and in need of safety. This helps us to put a human face on this crisis, and not just see these people as statistics or scapegoats.

The authors address several common concerns and misconceptions they often hear about refugees — from economic concerns (refugees provide a net gain to our economy — and refugee men are more likely to be employed than US citizen men), to confusing refugees with “illegals,” (refugees are, by definition, in the country legally), questions about religion (I did not realize that Christians make up a much larger percentage of refugees, over the past few years, than any other religion), and fears of terrorism. Ultimately, they make the case that we love and welcome refugees because God loves them (and us), and though there will always be legitimate reasons to fear, we choose not to let that fear overcome our love.

Other chapters detail the refugee resettlement process, and touch on other displaced peoples too — from those who are internally displaced (and not considered refugees), to those who are asylum seekers — this helped me to understand the difference between refugees, asylum seekers, and those who are undocumented. These terms are often thrown around in reference to the wrong people and can become confusing.

The authors then give practical suggestions and opportunities to respond to this crisis. They give stories of how some situations have unfolded in various parts of the US, and advice on how we can serve refugees without hurting. We’re given information about PTSD and the effect that can often have on those who have lived through trauma — at least 39 percent of refugees experience PTSD, compared to just one percent of the general population.

We are also encouraged to consider and respond to the larger issues that compel people to become refugees in the first place:

“What people believe and value matter because they drive their behaviors, whether good or bad. As we think about how we can most effectively bring positive change to any culture, including our own, we must understand the relationship between behaviors, values, and beliefs. Change that yields results without a corresponding change in values and beliefs will be superficial and often temporary.” (p 156)

“The global refugee crisis is indeed global. It isn’t a question of whether we should respond here (in the West) or there (at the crisis’ points of origin), nor if we should address immediate needs or root causes. We can and must do all of the above.” (p 164)

The authors then discuss how we can interact with the politics and policies of our government to help justice be done, and how we can practically advocate for refugees and others who are vulnerable.

There were many stories told in this book, both sad ones and encouraging ones, but one of the ones I found most convicting was the overview of the events surrounding the SS St. Louis, which was a ship of German Jewish asylum seekers that was turned away from the US in 1939. Over 200 people aboard were later killed in the Holocaust.

“That same year, a bipartisan bill in Congress to allow twenty thousand Jewish refugee children from Germany was introduced … [the] wife of the US Commissioner of Immigration fretted that ’20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults,’ reflecting the sentiment of many Americans at the time. Her cousin, President Roosevelt, did not support the bill, which ultimately was defeated. In 1941, the Roosevelt administration tightened restrictions on Jewish refugees, worried that some could be — or could become — Nazi spies.” (p 167)

They summarize with “These stories are an important illustration of why refugee policy matters: the decisions of elected officials directly impact people made by God, whose lives we believe are precious.” (p 168)

This has been and still is a big (and sometimes subconscious) challenge to me, to come to terms with the fact that because everyone is valuable to God, my behavior toward them should reflect that. Being from America or looking like me does not change any of these facts.

It can be hard to process when the problems of the world seem so large and the statistics are so overwhelming. There is fear generated everywhere, and in my mind the only way to overcome that is to realize that there is someone more powerful than that fear. To truly believe that perfect love casts out fear.

The question on the back of this book, “What will rule our hearts: Fear or compassion?” has been a challenge to me as I try to honestly answer this question for myself, and may get a different answer at any given moment! I know that, if left to my own gut reactions, I’m just as likely as anyone else to have an inherent fear of those who are different or foreign to me, and that’s why I need to continually remind myself of things like this.

This book is short and covers a lot of topics that it is only able to cover briefly — much more could be said in more detail about peacemaking, Islam and ISIS, loving our neighbors, US public policy, and refugees themselves. But I found it a good start, and a useful, timely challenge.

I’ll end with one more quote from the end of the book:

“Our ultimate hope for this book is that the church would shine its light through the refugee crisis. As we access the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, we pray God’s people would rise up as never before to welcome strangers, each doing what God has called all of us to do:
To bind up the brokenhearted.
To love our neighbors.
To do justice.
To love mercy.
To pray without ceasing.
To practice hospitality, and to learn to receive hospitality of others.
Maybe just to take a plate of cookies across the street, trusting that a smile can overcome a language barrier.” (p 184)

“One Dress. One Year.” by Bethany Winz

As much as I enjoyed “Julie and Julia,” I sometimes get wary of “stunt blogging.” The idea of trying to do some strange or unusual thing (and documenting it the whole way) in order to make a statement about something. Things get even more complicated when this is combined with social justice. It can be difficult to tell sometimes what the “awareness” is actually being raised towards (e. g., ice bucket challenge).

But I appreciate Bethany Winz’s (pre-ice-bucket-challenge) take on this, because she at least had the maturity to admit that the conflict is there. When she was 16, she decided to wear the same dress every day for a year, in order to raise awareness (and funds) for victims of human trafficking. The idea being that victims do not have choices, and this project would, in some small way, show her and others what it’s like to let go of one of the choices we get every day.

This is a quick read, and most of the book involves the things she did during this challenge–speaking about it to different groups, finding accessories to vary her look, enduring health problems, growth pains, and insecurities. In some ways it is a refreshingly honest look at doing a “challenge” like this. This book would probably appeal very well to teenage homeschoolers like her, especially those who also liked the book “Do Hard Things.”

One of my favorite quotes came as she summed up her project at the end:

“I now realize that taking a stand for justice doesn’t have to involve a big, dramatic, gesture intended to change the entire world. Maybe it’s something much smaller–righting wrongs one relationship at a time. I’ve found that discovering who I am has much less to do with impressing people and much more to do with living a life of faithfulness wherever God has placed me.”

I think this is a very valuable lesson to take away from this, especially in our image-obsessed society, and I appreciate her willingness to be honest.

I also appreciated the tidbits and facts shared about human trafficking and the different organizations that are doing something about it.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255….

Book Review: The Original Jesus, by Daniel Darling

Without Jesus, there would be no Christianity, and so it is imperative that we know, to the extent that we are able, who we are talking about when we talk about him. In this book, Daniel Darling helps us to trade “the myths we create for the savior who is.”

I was intrigued by the chapter titles for this book, each one debunking a common label that Christians sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, apply to Jesus. These include, but are not limited to: Braveheart Jesus (the idea of the savior as the epitome of modern manliness), Prosperity Jesus (the “Jesus just wants you to be happy” trope), American Jesus, BFF Jesus, Legalist Jesus, etc.

For each one, the author mixes some personal experiences and observations with Scripture to present the problems and limitations or inconsistencies with each perception, and point us to passages and principles in Scripture that contradict our shallow labels. I could certainly nod my head in agreement at ideas and concepts I’ve seen in the culture around me, and also, unfortunately, in my own heart as well. This book is most definitely gospel-driven, but I didn’t feel the theology was too deep to understand or too heady to feel personal. The author also has a humorous voice when appropriate, which helps the book read in a conversational way.

This is a short book–only 160 pages including notes and introductory sections (are books getting shorter or is it just the English major in me?) There are parts that I felt could have been fleshed out more. Certainly, a separate book could probably be written on the subject of each chapter. But that’s not to say it isn’t as thorough as it can be for its length. Ultimately, the author hones in on the primary problem behind all of these labels in the first place:

“I’ll admit, I want to accept the Jesus who conforms to my image, the Jesus whose statements fit nicely on coffee mugs and T-shirts. But this safe, sanitized Jesus looks nothing like the real one, the one who came not to give me what I want but to rescue me from the kingdom of darkness. This Jesus, the real Jesus, is dangerous and unpredictable, calling me to lay aside my life and follow him regardless of what it costs. Jesus came not to conform to our desires but to transform us into his image.”

Even though this book primarily focuses on what Jesus is NOT, there is still room to succinctly spell out who he ultimately is, although this book is no substitute for reading about him in the gospels. But it is a good takedown of our cultural stereotypes. I would recommend it not only to Christians, but also to those who are seeking more information about him, or are dissatisfied with the stereotypes. For further reading, especially reading that focuses on a more chronological look at Jesus’s life, I’d recommend Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew.”

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255….

Book Review: Blessings for the Morning, by Susie Larson

Blessings for the Morning: Prayerful Encouragement to Begin Your Day, by Susie Larson, is a little book of blessings that can be read in the morning to spiritually jump-start your day. The book is arranged with a blessing and a scripture quotation on each double page. Each of these has a header sentence that introduces the theme, such as “Wisdom to guard and guide,” and “Forgiveness and mercy,” etc.

What I liked about this book:

Presentation-wise, this is a gorgeous book. The cover is padded, the colors are well selected, there is a nice pink bookmark built in so you can keep your place, and a “presented to” page at the beginning. This would make a nice gift for graduations, birthdays, etc. All of the pages have full-page photos as the background image, making this a very vibrant, colorful book, which helps give it more appeal beyond just the words on the page; though it is not overly wordy, there is no “wasted space.” The photos themselves are very beautiful, and usually involve nature–sky scenes, landscapes, flowers. In fact, the presentation is probably one of my favorite parts.

But the blessings are nice too. They are not deep or complicated, but seek to remind us that God is with us as we begin our day. Most of them contain about 4 to 7 lines. Here are examples of some of the lines from different blessings:

“In this day of uncertainty, may God give you a faith that cannot be shaken.”

“When the storm rages overhead, may you know–with everything in you–that new mercies are on the other side.”

“May God heal your heart, soul, mind, and body, and may you approach life with eternity in mind.”

What I didn’t like about this book:

There wasn’t much. Obviously this is not what you want if you’re looking for any kind of in-depth study of scripture. Some of the phrases used may seem to become repetitive, especially if you want to read it more than daily. I could also perhaps critique the out-of-context use of certain phrases, such as “God is for you,” which certainly depends on the person reading, and does not offer a blanket approval to everything any person does–otherwise it could venture into sentimental territory.

But provided this is read by someone who has enough understanding of scripture to see the bigger picture and is not using this as a means of learning it, then it can be a lovely way to remind oneself of some timeless and encouraging truths from God’s word, and remind us to keep our focus on him–because he values us very much.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Bethany House through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255….

Book Review: Mothering From Scratch, by Melinda Means and Kathy Helgemo

When I was a new mother to my now-toddler, I was pretty insecure. I’m not sure how much of that came out to those around me (probably more than I realized), but one of the ways I tried to compensate for it was by finding some particular “cause” or belief to cling to. It’s an easy thing to do, and it usually involves something that is external and rather unlikely to truly make a big difference in the long run, at least compared to more important decisions, or the degree to which it would actually affect the child’s future character (for example: infant feeding choices).

I know I’ve learned and grown since then, but there is certainly more of that to do, and this book does a great job of hitting on the underlying threads of things that cause us to struggle as moms. It’s not that learning about the “externals” is necessarily wrong, but if such a pursuit is not firmly grounded in the truth, it can easily take us over. For Christian moms, this is a great and encouraging resource that I would definitely recommend reading before (or alongside) any other parenting books or “philosophies” you may peruse.

Melinda and Kathy are conversational and open about their own struggles and growth, and share various specifics and generalities of their experiences as they relate to different topics.

Some of the topics that are covered include:

“Mommy guilt”:
“Let’s cut to the chase: Mommy guilt is a liar. It tells us that if only we had made all the right choices and done everything perfectly, we would’ve been able to produce all the right outcomes. It tells us that if we’ll only try harder, the internal struggle will stop. Unfortunately, it’s a false, misleading trap… Mommy guilt stems from an illusion that we’re ultimately in control.” (pg 36)

Perfectionism is definitely a struggle of mine, and so I related quite a bit to this section. The authors encourage us to take realistic appraisal of our past regrets and current weaknesses, and then move forward, breaking free from condemnation and the false assumption that we are “in control.” This can be painful, because many of us use our desire for control as a crutch. But the authors continually point us to Jesus, and remind us of what we’ve been set free from.

We are encouraged to realize that none of us will ever be good at everything, and we don’t have to be – we only make it worse by pretending that we are, or striving for an impossible goal. We need to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses, to maximize the things we are good at, and develop the humility to ask for help and encouragement in the things we aren’t so good at.

“How many times have we thought ‘I feel like I’ve lost myself in being a mom’? Isn’t it reassuring to know that’s not possible? We can’t lose our identity. It’s eternally secure in the hands of the Savior who died to purchase it. Rest assured, we may lose our keys, our kids’ soccer uniforms, and even our minds from time to time, but we can never lose who we are in Christ.
However, if we believe our identity is formed by us alone–our achievements, our circumstances, and our productivity and usefulness to others–we’re bound to feel unstable… If we look for our sense of self by pursuing the goals our culture tells us are valuable, we’ll never end our search. And we’ll never measure up. They use a different yardstick–one that’s always changing, by the way.” (pg 70-71)

The authors encourage a long-term perspective on mothering. It is so easy to get caught up in the details, both important and ultimately unimportant, and while they certainly do not minimize the sometimes agonizing choices we must make or situations that arise, the authors remind us to look at the big picture. Our identities are not found in the externals, and if we live as if they are, we will never be satisfied or secure, no matter how well we follow our own (or someone else’s) “rules.”

Working at home vs. outside the home:
Thankfully, the authors do not “take a position” on which is objectively “better.” Instead, they simply encourage mothers to maintain the home as their first priority, no matter what their employment status may be.

Connecting with other mothers:
Melinda and Kathy wisely caution mothers not to get too caught up in seeking the validation and encouragement we need primarily from the Internet. It can be tempting, and can offer what seems to be an unlimited forum for complaining, venting, and seeking validation for just about any choice we’ve made, but it is also incredibly fickle. They outline several qualities and character traits to look for in wise friends and fellow mothers.

Balancing self-care with our other responsibilities:
We are encouraged to take care of ourselves, and not to get so caught up in mothering that we neglect our own needs–especially spiritual ones. We are also encouraged to involve our children in the household duties, rather than enabling them by feeling that we must do everything ourselves–because in the long run, that’s not good for us or them.

There are also a few practical tips on how to balance household duties–cleaning, instructing, cooking, etc. But the last chapter is another admonition to depend on God’s power–and therefore to flee perfectionism and our desires to be “super moms”:

“When we primarily look to our husbands, our children, or our role as a mom to fill us up, we ultimately come up starving and empty. There’s a real danger of making false idols of our families. Our children’s accomplishments and opinions of us can become the focus of our worthiness. We burden them with the job of being our measure of effectiveness in the world. Yet nothing else will fill the God-shaped void in our souls. Not even the ones we love so dearly.” (pg 191)

I found this book encouraging, and it helped to really spell out and deconstruct some of the things I have struggled with. I appreciated the balanced advice and helpful tips, and the continual reminder of what’s most important in life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of life, and this book offered much-needed perspective.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Bethany House through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255….

Book Review: The Making of an Ordinary Saint, by Nathan Foster

A few years ago I was introduced to “A Celebration of Discipline” in a small-group study, and found it very helpful and was intrigued and encouraged by the pictures it painted, and the various threads of spiritual life that were all woven together and yet distinctly different, and differently practiced.

So I looked forward to reading this book by the author’s son, and found it not only a good “refresher” on the disciplines themselves, but a personal journal of sorts from someone who dedicated a few years of his life to integrating them into his spiritual life.

The book is divided into 12 sections that cover each one of the spiritual disciplines: submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. Each section is introduced with a very condensed version of the discipline from the original chapter by Richard Foster. Then we get to hear Nathan Foster’s take on each one, and get to hear about his struggles and triumphs in practicing them, and other observations he makes along the way.

I appreciate his honesty and the fact that he doesn’t sugarcoat things. I know there is a lot that he’s left out, by desire and necessity, but he isn’t afraid to identify his own brokenness and failures in the process. He certainly doesn’t *have* to tell us about arguments with his wife, or bad thoughts he has about people, but he does, and usually finds good applications and lessons to take out of them when he does choose to share specifics like this.

Granted, this is just one person’s take on things. He probably does not practice all of these disciplines in the same way others would, since we all have our own baggage and personal limits. But I appreciate that, despite the personal nature of what he shares, he doesn’t allow his observations to get too small. In the introduction and the conclusion, he keeps coming back to the greatest commandment: love. God’s love is seen as the driving force and fuel behind all of this, and joy in Him as the ultimate reward.

I also appreciate that Foster doesn’t take himself too seriously. He needs these disciplines to help him draw near to God, not to puff himself up. He says,

“In recent years I’ve been coming to the conclusion that I have very little idea what’s going to be good for me. I think I know what I want, but historically, some of the best things for me I never would have chosen.”

Thus the very real need for discipline, for all of us.

These are very personal accounts, and won’t follow the same way for everyone, but the book is not all about one person. He knows there’s something bigger out there, and sees these disciplines as a way to connect with God. But, I was encouraged by the personal stories he shares – of the times he practiced a discipline well, or found he had to change his actions or attitudes before he could really even start to get it right.

At the end of each chapter is a brief blurb about someone in history who was known for that particular discipline, which I found interesting too.

I also found the two “interlude” chapters to be vital to the larger story: “Discipline Hazard #1: the Self-Hatred Narrative,” and “Discipline Hazard #2: My Inner Pharisee.” Some of us may identify with one of those more than the other (or both!), but in the midst of learning what discipline is and is for, it is also SO important to be reminded of what it is *not*, and once again the author is honest and willing to admit his own failures in order to help us get a better perspective.

Overall, I found this book to be a great follow-up to Richard Foster’s “original,” and I think this could easily be read even by those who have never read “A Celebration of Discipline,” though it will hopefully point readers in that direction. I may not agree with everything the author says, and we are different enough people that I can’t relate with everything he experiences, but he captures enough of our common human faults and desires that there were many many parts of the narrative that I related to quite well, and I’m sure others will have the same experience. He is also a very good, clear, succinct writer, and I found myself picking this book up again even after I’d put it down, and even knowing that it was probably better to be sampled in “small bites” because each chapter contains so much to think about.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255