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Monday, January 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Always on my Mind

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One of my favorite series has a new installment! Always on my Mind, by Susan May Warren, is Book #4 in the Christiansen Family series. Highlighting Casper Christiansen this time around, this book brings us back to Deep Haven and places Casper and his older brother Darek together at the resort.

We find Casper returning to wintry Minnesota after a failed attempt at treasure-hunting. Casper's restless attempts to escape the conflict that triangulated his brother Owen, beautiful Raina Beaumont, and him are unsuccessful as he finds himself face to face with her 9th month of pregnancy with Owen's baby. Although Owen's whereabouts have been unknown since Book #3, his presence is very much felt right in the middle of Casper and Raina, who gives the baby up for adoption. A decades-old mystery captivates them, however, just as a new flame threatens to prevent them from ever acknowledging how right they are for each other.

As always, Warren creates believable characters and weaves them into solid plot-lines. For instance, against the central story of Casper and Raina we find Darek and Ivy negotiating conflict of their own as Ivy nears term with their second baby. John and Ingrid Christiansen, the pillars of the family, return from Europe (with daughter Amelia hiding a sad secret) just in time to offer sage advice and assistance to their adult sons. The final few moments of the book leave us on a cliffhanger, anticipating Book #5. And like every book in the series, God's love and perfect direction for each family member's life thread through the pages.

Here is a delightful letter from Warren about the book series. Enjoy!

I received this book for free, in exchange for my review, from Tyndale Publishing.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Unplanned

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This book is not what you might think. It is not a holier-than-thou rant at the abortion industry, or a right wing field day against abortionists. It is one woman's story, and a woman pivotal to Planned Parenthood at that. It is sensitively told, with great humility and honesty. 

Abby Johnson grew up in a Christian home, but, as happens so often with young people, wasn't able to defend her beliefs when she came face to face with a Planned Parenthood recruiter at a college job fair. Within a few minutes her mindset shifted enough to apply to be a volunteer, escorting women to and from their cars at the Bryan, Texas clinic. Gradually embracing Planned Parenthood's official mission to reduce abortions by providing access to birth control, she eventually became so passionate about the organization that she was offered the position of clinic director.  And between college and the end of her career with Planned Parenthood, she had two abortions of her own. 


But the volunteers with Coalition for Life who stood at the fence line of the clinic day in and day out over those eight years befriended and prayed for her. She came to believe that they truly did care for her. She also saw them care about the women who came to the clinic, much as she did from her side of the fence line. And on the day that, after several key life events, she knew she could no longer be involved in the abortion industry, it was to those friends on the other side of the fence line that she ran...igniting a media fire when Planned Parenthood took legal action against her for doing so. Within hours, she was a national news story. 

Unplanned is riveting. I read most of it in one sitting, because Abby's story is so compelling and so thoughtfully told. I believe what sets this book apart from other pro-life books is her insistence on showing readers the genuine, though biblically erroneous, belief of many Planned Parenthood employees that they are helping women in crisis. She points to many employees who are uncomfortable with the organization's priority of abortions to make money, and indeed with the issue of abortion itself. In fact, as of the writing of the book, 116 former Planned Parenthood workers have left the industry through the assistance of the non-profit organization founded by Abby and her husband Doug (And Then There Were None). Abby now speaks around the country about her experiences, a firm advocate for the unborn.

I won't give away the reveal of the final chapter but suffice to say--it's a huge God thing! 

You can read more about Abby Johnson here, and if you'd like to read the chilling first chapter of Unplanned, go here (caution: upsetting content, though not gratuitously so). 

I received this book for free for purposes of this review from Tyndale Publishers. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

When Trash Attacks

Ewww, really? That's the picture to accompany this post?

My kids groan and say I can spiritualize anything. True. This morning it was my wrestling match with the trash truck.

Lately I've felt like my life is pretty much up to my neck. Commitments and circumstances have made me feel pretty overwhelmed, and some recent health problems have topped it off. Part of trying to get things into balance again is taking back up the walking that I really love. It allows me to listen to worship music or a Bible study podcast. I can pray or think for 30 minutes out in the fresh air without any interruptions.

So. This brings me to the trash truck.

I'm walking along, thinking, enjoying the fresh air after a couple of brief sprinkles (sorry, Buffalo), when a trash truck pulls ahead of me. I've just begun a fresh block of sidewalk, and it's an extra long block. The trash truck is on the same side of the street as I am, and the driver is stopping every house to pick up cans and dump them overhead into the truck. I quickly realize I'm in trouble, because he and I are at the same pace. I get a few steps ahead when he pulls in front of me and, as the hydraulic arms put each can back down, a burst of foul garbage air belches into my immediate future.

Suddenly I laugh out loud. This is my LIFE!!  This objectifies my tug of war with my circumstances and commitments...just when I think I pull ahead, here come the challenges. It feels like I will never be able to escape them! Plus,it's just an awkward thing to keep pace with the garbage man, y'all.

I look ahead to the end of the block..and see another block to my usual route which is probably the truck's next destination on its route. I decide to walk much more quickly and see if I can pull ahead. We're neck and neck for a few houses, but then I break ahead. As I push myself to walk faster than I have in awhile because of my health problem, I realize I don't have the pain I thought I would. The truck falls farther and farther behind. My air is clear again and the noise fades. Finally, I make it to the end of the second block, cross the street, and the truck turns and disappears.

So. This brings me to the spiritual lesson.

 Job said to him had been appointed "months of futility" (Job 7:3). That meant that what God had allowed him to suffer would come to an end. He hadn't been appointed futility for the rest of his life, but for a certain season. We know that God restored Job's losses and blessed his future more than his latter. The trash truck fell behind. Job pulled ahead.

Paul said he counted all things as garbage (grin)  that he might win Christ. He said "forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" Philippians 3:13, 14. The trash truck fell behind. Paul pulled ahead.

When trash attacks, pull ahead. Doing so will push you to grow, and you may be surprised to find strength you didn't know you had. You may never had known it had you not been keeping pace in the garbage race. Pretty soon your air will be clean again, and your trash truck will fade from view.

I've now spiritualized the trash pick up. You're welcome.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Underground Girls of Kabul

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Hidden in plain sight are the bacha posh of Afghanistan--young girls chosen by their families to be boys during their childhood years in order to improve the family's social standing. This is not a transgender experiment, some sort of odd sexual trend, but rather an adaptation to a culture which values boys and crushes girls. Jenny Nordberg, in The Underground Girls of Kabul, explores this fascinating phenomenon.

Threading through the book is her budding friendship with Azita, a woman who defies many of Afghanistan's edicts about women being hidden away in burkas behind the closed doors of their homes. Azita holds political office and is devoted to improving her country. However, because she has had no daughters, she and her husband have chosen to make their youngest daughter into a boy. Although others in the city know these boys are really girls, they choose to accept them as boys, allowing these families improved social standing: a family with no sons is frowned upon, and the wife is mocked. Yet Azita suffers many of the difficulties of Afghan women, including an arranged marriage to an abusive husband.

Nordberg profiles a number of bacha posh from a variety of circumstances, highlighting the perhaps heretofore unknown prevalence of this strange cultural dynamic. As she does, she remarks upon the phenomenon of bacha posh as, really, an underground revolt against the patriarchal system of Afghanistan.

I found this book very interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which was simply learning more about the social climate of this area of the world. As someone with a graduate degree in psychology, I found the idea of bacha posh very curious and interesting. I doubt that anyone could read this book and not come away with a new compassion for the extreme hardships women face under these political, religious, and social edicts.

I received this book for free from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

REVIEW: Journey to Jesus DVD Curriculum

Journey to Jesus: Building Christ-centered Friendships with Muslims is a six episode DVD curriculum appropriate for small group teaching. Interspersed with teaching sessions that illustrate the faith of Islam and the different approaches we can take to sharing the gospel are three role play dramas. One mini-drama shows us a Christian woman befriending a Muslim woman, one shows a Christian and a Muslim man, the final one involves two male college students--you guessed it, one Christian and one Muslim.

I found the curriculum interesting. To me, the takeaway on the course is the importance of building relationships with Muslims, finding common life ground from which to begin an eventual sharing of the gospel. The teaching session about the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam was most instructive to me, because now I know more about what Muslims believe about Jesus. The session that describes the different types of Islam and the way these types break down across the Muslim world was helpful as well.

Although as a woman I found the drama about the two women to be the best role play for me personally, the one between the two college students got my attention because of my involvement in youth ministry. The young Christian man was clearly unable to articulate his faith, a fact which made the Muslim student (who knew his Koran inside out and upside down) openly contemptuous. We are always praying that our youth will have sustainable, defendable faith when they enter college, and to that end I will share this curriculum with our youth pastor.

I think this curriculum would work well for churches seeking to better understand the Muslims in their communities and reach out to them in friendship, love, and the gospel of Jesus.

I received this curriculum for free from Tyndale Publishing in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Willie's Redneck Time Machine

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Once again, the Duck Dynasty does not disappoint! And that's a fact, Jack--to quote Uncle Si.

Willie's Redneck Time Machine is the first of four choose-your-own-adventure books by John Luke Robertson (with Travis Thrasher), the other three being Phil and the Ghost of Camp Ch-Yo-Ca, Si in Space, and Jase and the Deadliest Hunt. This book is pretty much as many books as the reader wants it to be, all in one. Let me explain.

You are Willie Robertson, discovering an odd outhouse in the back yard. At the same time, you realize John Luke is nowhere to be seen. Upon closer inspection, you realize the outhouse is actually a time machine, and at that point the choices begin: do you step inside, or wait outside to see what happens? Depending on your choice, you are directed to turn to different pages...and at the end of that chapter, you have two more choices (occasionally, there is only just one). The fun just multiplies as you go on to have adventure after adventure. There are even different endings possible to the story--but once you've ended, you can always go back to any point in the book and make a different choice than you did the first time, ending up somewhere completely different. Sound like fun? It is!

On top of that, all the Duck Dynasty characters are to be found in the adventures, saying and doing pretty much all the things you would expect them to. I found that I heard their voices in my head as I read the (very believable) dialogue. It was like hanging out with people I already "know."

My 10 year old son, who isn't a big reading fan, really enjoyed this book. He said it was "full of adventure" and carried it around everywhere he went, even reading in the car on the way to church or football practice. I can see this being a great book to have on hand for times when young ones are sick with the flu, or if you have a kiddo down with a broken leg; using their imaginations and choosing where to go next in the story could definitely alleviate times of boredom or get their minds off feeling crummy.

I received this book for free for review purposes from Tyndale Publishing.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rear view mirror

How good are you about checking the rear view mirror when you drive? I check it often, but sometimes I get to relying on the side ones too much. A couple weeks ago I almost caused an accident because a car that wasn't in my side view would have shown up in my rear view--but I didn't look back before changing lanes.

Um, what's the spiritual point here?

Tuesday night I sat alone in the prayer room. For various and completely reasonable reasons, none of the other prayer moms could make it that night. I thought about just going outside to watch kids play the ongoing epic saga of capture the flag, but felt instead God tug on my heart to just be alone with Him. So I sat in the prayer room, opened my Bible to read through the chapter for the Bible study that night, and prayed.

As I prayed, I remembered. I remembered praying before there were prayer moms. Before I ever knew there would be prayer moms. Before I ever thought the words "prayer mom." When my oldest son was in jr high and God had me in a 7 year holding pattern of praying for His green light to enter youth ministry, I used to arrive early to pick him up. I didn't know any of the youth kids or the leaders, so I didn't go inside; I just sat in the car, listened as strains of a worship song or the Bible study wafted out through the open doors if it was a warm night, and prayed.

I prayed for those kids and leaders I didn't know. I prayed for the spiritual battle I thought I understood. My heart would pound and sometimes I would cry, though I didn't know why. I just knew God had planted this passion of prayer for youth in my heart, and this was the only thing I could do with it.

It's been 10 years now since God called the prayer mom ministry into existence. And as I remembered those nights in the parking lot, I also remembered many things during the years between then and now. I remembered lots we'd shared together in prayer through the years. I also remembered times we were variously so broke we were putting change in the gas tank to get to meetings, or were really grateful for the leftover food at some event that someone suggested we take home for our families. I remembered times of spiritual oppression so heavy we could barely drag ourselves to meetings. And hard times of fasting that brought powerful spiritual fruit.

See, it's good to remember. This morning I read this in Jeremiah 2:

“‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown."

It's good to remember because sometimes we forget. God says remember when you were so broke you couldn't pay attention and I sent you home with those leftovers? Remember when you were crying in the car because the battle was so fierce in your family and I showed you My power in every situation? Looking back, you remember that He led you through the "land not sown"--which would mean it was hard, dry, wasn't producing any crops.

Jeremiah 4:1, 3-4 says,

"Return to Me...break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts." 

There's something about looking back that's good. Because I don't know about you, but sometimes I forget. I take things for granted. Ok, it's Tuesday...hop in the not-jimmy-rigged car, park where I belong now, go inside to talk with kids and leaders I know, pray about the usual things, eat some nachos, head home. Now it's not "wilderness..a land not sown." Now it's "(my) unplowed ground" and I'm being warned not to sow among thorns. I'm being urged to "return" and to cut away the places I've become complacent so that my heart is once again tender like "the devotion of your youth" when "as a bride you loved Me."

This is a transparent post, but hopefully it challenges you to look back on your own "land not sown" that He led you through..and then to readjust your "go forward." God never says go back and live in those years--He says remember them and return to that attitude of heart.

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls." Jeremiah 6:16

Check the rear view mirror.