Saturday, February 27, 2010

Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli

Pages: 141

How it was obtained: It was sitting on my book shelf at the office.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: I just picked it up and started reading it.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I've been interested in reading this book for awhile. It is often lumped into discussions about spiritual formation along with Abba's Child by Brennan Manning and Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. So I have been interested in reading it for quite some time.

Brief review: Messy Spirituality is a book about unconventional Christian growth. It is a book for people who are willing to admit they are spiritual losers. The premise of the book is that none of us is perfect, and we will not be. But God loves messy people. He loves entering their lives and transforming them. But most of all, God loves us even when we are not cleaned up and polished after he saves us.

I think there are a number of great principles in this book. I think a lot of people feel like they do not follow after God hard enough. They don't DO enough. This book is a healthy corrective to that mentality. Messy Spirituality is full of anecdote after anecdote of imperfect people trying to live by grace. Many people have been hurt by their churches because they do not fit the mold of perfection (and legalism). What I like about Messy Spirituality is that it reminds me that all of us are broken people and need God's grace every day. Some of us are just more blatant than others.

I agree with a lot of what Yaconelli says in this book. I agree that people are broken. Even Christians are broken. I loved what he had to say about us being spiritual losers. We get things wrong and we need to rely on God's grace. However, my biggest complaint about this book is that sometimes Yaconelli seems to revel in defiance. At times the message almost (or maybe it does) comes out as a blatant disregard for actual growth. We should never get rid of our rough edges. We should stay defiant and allow our imperfections to run along unchecked. I think there is something to be said for being real, and embracing our brokenness. It is something else to want to stay there. I think Jesus did so much more for us on the cross than simply allow us to join him. He takes us broken and hurt and dirty. But I think he also wants to transform us. And it is a process, and it will take time, but I think real growth and real maturity is possible. I'm not sure Yaconelli's book teaches the same.

I would recommend this book to people who struggle with wanting to (or needing to) feel like they are perfect. I would also give it to those who feel the exact opposite. I think there are great words of encouragement in this book. There are great stories of God's love. I think it just falls a little short of helping us to truly grow.

Favorite quote: "Spiritual growth is more than a procedure; it's a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness, and a healthy dose of gratitude."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Messy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Title: Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Pages: 542

How it was obtained: I bought it from a clearance sale at Borders.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 year.

Days spent reading it: 4 days.

Why I read it: I enjoyed the Reformed Vampire Society by Jinks, and I decided I would read this much acclaimed book by her as well.

Brief review: I love books about genius kids. I guess I always wished I was a child prodigy. Like the main character of Evil Genius, Cadel Pigget. He is a child prodigy. The only real problem is that he seems to have no moral compass. None. This book is about how he is nudged into a life in the dark side. He is drafted into the Axis Institute for World Domination (a great idea by the way, university for evil leaders, genius!) and begins to study how a life of crime can pay.

I admit I had some qualms with how this book was progressing at the beginning. I felt like it was a good idea with no heart. But sticking through the whole book, I was delighted by how Cadel grows and matures through this book. He is a wonderful character, very memorable. And his evil mentors Dr. Phineas Darkkon and Thaddeus Roth are great bad guys. They are complex, nuanced, and great manipulators of truth.

I felt this was a solid book. My major complaint would be that some of the plot became too complicated; I did not understand the set up and execution of a few of Cadel's plans. Apart from that, I enjoyed the book. I would definitely recommend it to people who like young adult fiction. I think for parents it might be a good discussion starter on the nature of good and evil. There are plenty of questions about morality throughout this book. Definitely worth a look if you had the time and interest.

Favorite quote: "Cadel Pigget was just seven years old when he first met Thaddeus Roth."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Complex.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Southern Cross by Paul Clark

Title: Southern Cross by Paul Clark

Pages: 158

How it was obtained: I borrowed it from a person in my small group.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: Less than a week.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I read it based on the recommendation of a person in my small group at church.

Brief review: Every now and then I read a book that challenges me, encourages me, and reminds me about who God is and what He is doing. This was definitely one of those books. I was completely hooked on the stories that Paul Clark tells in this book about his life.

Paul Clark is a missionary in Lima, Peru. This book is a collection of the different people he has met in his life as a missionary. The chapters are individual snippets about how God met these people in the streets of Peru or in the jungles of the Amazon. The stories told in this book are about how the simple gospel can transform a life completely. One of my favorite stories was about Tariri. He was the chief of a tribe of headhunters, when he was transformed by the gospel. "He learned to obey God and love his enemies and those who spitefully used him. He ordered his tribe to no longer kill, even if they were attacked. God honors those who honor him. Tariri and the many Christians in his tribe are living witnesses to this truth." One thought I had as I read this story was about how missionaries clearly teach tribes to stop killing each other (makes sense right?). They say to stop killing even if it is a unilateral move—meaning that they may be attacked, but to not fight back. They believe God's transformational love is able to overcome even in death. These tribes become powerful witnesses to those around them. I think about that, and then I think about how the world would be different if we took that simple concept and applied it to a nation. I'll just leave that thought there for you to think about.

What struck me about Clark's story is how he lives and breathes his faith in every single step he takes. He sets aside the security and safety that the world offers and instead lives by faith (which is a completely different kind of safety and security). It is the memoirs of faithful missionaries like Clark that remind me of the true power of the Gospel when we allow faith to completely filter down through our lives.

I highly recommend this book. It will pushes and challenges. But it will also warm your heart. It is a solid book about God's love for lost and broken people. 

Favorite quote: "The great lesson I was about to learn was that although circumstances and settings can be vastly different, God's dealing with all men and women, girls and boys, is the same. He meets us all at the point of our greatest need and, having heard our cry for help and sensing our anguish of soul, responds with compassion and love. I was to witness love at work in this ancient, troubled, and mysterious land of Peru."

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Faithful

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Title: I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Pages: 357

How it was obtained: I bought it at Borders from their bargain bin. Sweet!

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 year.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I enjoyed The Book Thief by Zusak, and I was interested in reading some of his other stuff.

Brief review: I really looked forward to this book because of how much I enjoyed The Book Thief. And while this book was alright, it was not nearly on par with the quality and insight that I know Zusak is capable of achieving. I Am the Messenger is about a young man named Ed who mysteriously receives a playing card in the mail one day with addresses on it. As the story progresses, Ed realizes he must go to these addresses and accomplish some task. 

The driving force of the book is Ed accomplishing these missions, which range from heart-warming to butt-kicking. It was a strange mix. The clear message of this book is that normal people can be extraordinary if they open their eyes and address the needs around them.

I had two problems with this book. First is the use of violence in this book. Ed uses violence to accomplish his goals. A mysterious "benefactor" uses violence against Ed to force Ed to act. It is like there are no other alternatives to violence in these scenarios. I think that is a dangerous message to put into a young adult novel. Second was the ending. I will not spoil it, but the concluding revelations at the end made the rest of the novel weaker. It was just not convincing to me. And unlike some endings, the very premise of this book hung on the ending.

I did enjoy I Am the Messenger, but I thought it could have been better. There are moments of wonderful writing and story-telling. The characters are believable and you are clearly invested in their lives by the end of the tale. With a stronger ending this book could have dazzled me, but instead it was just middle of the road.

Favorite quote:
She soon says, 'You're my best friend, Ed.'
'I know.'
You can kill a man with those words.
No gun.
No bullets.
Just words and a girl.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Average.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

Title: The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

Pages: 139

How it was obtained: It was a gift.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 month.

Days spent reading it: 1 day.

Why I read it: I have heard a lot about Timothy Keller and was interested to check him out. Glad I received this gift.

Brief review: Keller's premise is that the story of the prodigal son should really be titled the story of the lost sons. He focuses almost exclusively on the fact that the parable of the prodigal son is as much about the older son's relationship to the father as it is about the younger son's relationship. And he does a good job at explaining that element of the story well. One idea I wish he explored more was the idea of God being a prodigal. The book has it as the title, and it is mentioned in the introduction, but little else is said explicitly about that particularly thought provoking nugget.

I really wanted to love this book. I looked forward to reading it, enjoyed the introduction, but it just seemed to fall kind of flat for me. Not that it wasn't good, it was fine. It just did not grab my attention like I thought it would. Prodigal God lays down a clear gospel message. Furthermore, Keller does a good job of addressing distortions of the gospel that pervade our thinking. I think Keller has a clear message, but it just was not as creatively presented as I thought it would be. I would recommend this book to people, mainly because it is a quick read and full of good insights despite the few drawbacks I have noted.

Favorite quote: "Forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Grace-filled.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton

Pages: 228

How it was obtained: I bought it from

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 6 months.

Days spent reading it: 4 weeks.

Why I read it: It was recommended by my senior pastor.

Brief review: I find leadership books hard to read. They vary so much in how directly they relate to my own life or ministry. Sometimes a book hits you right where you are at, but for me leadership books hardly ever do that. I found the same problem with this book. At times I felt like the book had a good piece of advice or an interesting way of looking at leadership. Other times I felt like this is not yet my experience, maybe when I am older. Or I just said to myself: This will most likely never be my experience.

In Strengthening the Soul, Barton explores the life of Moses and how his life is a model for Christian leadership. There are good times, there are tough times, and there are times that he wants to throw it all away. I found a number of her discussions helpful and insightful. She has a lot to say about how leaders need to be keyed into how much they are doing and how much they are resting. A healthy word for many in ministry.

Of all the things I appreciated about this book though, was the fact that it introduced me to the writings of Ted Loder. Poems from his collection Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle are prominently featured in this work. I do not usually go for poetry, especially when quoted at length in a book. But I found his poems spoke to me. I found them so refreshing I looked forward to the end of the next chapter so I could read some more of his wonderful words. Definitely a book I will be picking up in the near future.

I would recommend Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership to other leaders and pastors, but only because I know it has been read and appreciated by people in a different part of life than I am. I think there are powerful words in the pages, and sometimes I caught a glimpse of them. But overall I seemed to be missing large pieces of the picture.

Favorite quote: "No matter how much one spiritualizes it, Christian busyness must not be confused with the Christian spiritual life or with a Christian's experience of God."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Untimely.