Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Brave is the New Beautiful

Brave is the New Beautiful:

Brave is the New Beautiful: Finding the Courage to Be the Real You by Lee Wolfe Blum

Life is hard. It seldom goes like we planned. Bad things happen to good people. Life comes crashing in — or oozing in. And we’re expected to be brave?

As Americans, we want easy answers, quick resolutions. As Christians, we want Jesus to wave his magic wand and make it better. The reality is, answers are seldom quick or easy or perfect. The big question is then, what do we do? How do we react or respond? How do we find hope in the midst of the hopeless?

Lee Wolfe Blum is brave. And beautiful. As a therapist in an addiction and eating disorders program, she explores what it means to be brave, facing her own demons and telling the stories of other women who have faced theirs. In the process, she makes it clear that while there are no easy answers, there is Jesus. But not just the “right answer” Jesus. No, the real, gritty Jesus who meets us in the mess.

Blum weaves her own story of burnout and her resultant quest for wholeness with the stories of other women in a gracious and gentle way. But this is not the typical namby-pamby “isn’t Jesus sweet?” book that I so often review. Blum tells raw, authentic stories of vulnerability laced with faith. Her writing is beautifully crafted, but not every story has a happy ending. Some don’t even have an ending. Just like in real life.

Brave Is the New Beautiful: Finding the Courage to Be the Real You reads smoothly, but I wouldn’t call it an easy read. It moves deeper with each chapter and offers hope without guarantees. Just like real life. It will be a resource in my ministry. My only complaint is that she wrote it for women only. I would love to give a book like this to many men who are also facing tough stuff. Who also need to be brave.

 

What an Open Heaven Means to You

Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel

Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel by John E. Jonson

When reading the gospels, do you ever wonder what it’s all about? What it means to you? If those stories from so long ago really have any impact on your life today? I think if we’re honest, we all feel that at least on occasion.

John E. Johnson tackles these questions in his new book, Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John’s Gospel.  In a conversational, almost irreverent tone, he takes thirteen of Jesus’ conversations with others in the Gospel of John and explains how in each, Jesus is demonstrating what an open heaven looks like and what difference it made to His hearers and to us.

Contemporary and Scholarly

Johnson weaves his language between 1st century commentary and 21st century vernacular, reminding the reader that yes, this applies to you. He takes pages out of today’s headlines with mentions of elections, human needs, and the #NeverJesus crowd. And he inserts his reader into the narrative with, for example, Jesus asking the disciples “what food stores remain open” or the disciples recognizing that “even at thrift store prices, there is not that much money in the deacon fund to cover the need” of feeding five thousand adult males, not to mention the women and children. Blended into this very real, very contemporary narrative is excellent scholarship, many quotes, and precise documentation.

Applies to Real Life

So what does an open heaven mean to an ordinary person pursuing splendor? I found myself engaged with Jesus, the human, the one who faced common everyday needs and opportunities in his setting which strangely had a lot in common with my setting. This book took Jesus from “way back then” to right now, from “I wonder how this applies to me” to “Wow, that’s just like my life.” More than any commentary I’ve read, Under an Open Heaven gave me actionable concepts. In addition, application questions at the end of every chapter helped to extend the concept of an open heaven to my everyday life.

This book is readable and penetrating. Well worth your time.

Control Girl: Lessons on Surrendering Your Burden of Control

"Control Girl: Lessons on Surrendering Your Burden of control from Seven Women in the Bible" by Shannon Popkin

“Control Girl: Lessons on Surrendering Your Burden of control from Seven Women in the Bible” by Shannon Popkin

What do Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, and Miriam have in common? According to Shannon Popkin, they are all “Control Girls.” And what is a “control girl?” It’s a girl (or woman) who, one way or another, believe that it is good, right, or necessary to take control. They take control over their husbands, their kids, their circumstances, and try hard to control God. Their motives and methods are different, but the result is always the same – tragedy.

In Control Girl: Lessons on Surrendering Your Burden of Control from Seven Women in the Bible, Popkin has taken a topic I’ve seen little written about and tackled it well. She is an excellent writer, skillfully blending solid biblical study with personal examples. She goes deep by lesson 2, which I appreciated. And every lesson was peppered with good strategies, penetrating application questions, and depth I seldom see in a women’s book. Great job for her first book. You’ll want this book for yourself, your women’s group, or for someone you love.

My only complaint about this book is that she aimed it squarely at and for women. Sure, we need it. But her points are equally pertinent to men, and I’m sure she could have found a half dozen men to write about. I would love to use a book like this for a co-ed Bible study or in ministry with male clients. But hey, let’s get the women in line and pray for the men!

 

Waiting for Wonder

Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God's Timeline by Marlo Schalesky

Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God’s Timeline by Marlo Schalesky

Full disclosure: Marlo Schalesky is not only a friend, but also one of my favorite fiction authors. She and I attended the same seminary, although not at the same time. I’ve know her for many years and have watched her live out an amazing Christian life. But I must say, Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God’s Timeline is a giant leap forward in her writing. In this book, Marlo has combined her remarkable fiction skills with her academic prowess – a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. That may sound like an odd combination – and it is. But Marlo pulls it off with aplomb. The result is an engaging read, peppered with historical and theological facts. And then she tops it all off with personal application and challenging questions.

Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God’s Timelineis the story of Sarah. I’ve heard many sermons and read a few books on Abraham, but few on Sarah. Who was she? What was her world like, and how did she navigate it? How did she respond to being essentially a pawn in Abraham’s drama? How did she manage the twenty-five year wait between the promise and the fulfillment?  And so what? Why do I care?

A Compelling and Scholarly Saga

Marlo weaves a compelling saga, laced with insights from scholarly authorities. Her theme is, of course, waiting – and finding God in the wait. Imagine being infertile and then in your old age, being promised a son. A son from your womb! Imagine the roller coaster of emotion as month follows month, year follows year with no son. Imagine the frustration of being a woman in that culture, a woman whose husband leaves home, family, and a good life behind and becomes a nomad to chase a promise from his God. His invisible God, by the way. Did Abram really hear God? Is this invisible God really able to pull off his promise? If so, what is taking so long?

Admit it. Sarah’s story is all too often our story. Sarah’s wait reflects our seemingly endless wait. Sarah’s flimsy faith and attempts to help God out – well, yeah…..

This book is well worth the read. It’s an excellent devotional and would also be a meaningful book for a small group.

Marlo Schalesky’s ‘Waiting for Wonder’ Giveaway (12/6-1/23)

Waiting for Wonder Marlo Schalesky

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The Power of Presence

The Power of Presence: A Love Story by Neil T. Anderson

The Power of Presence: A Love Story by Neil T. Anderson

Neil T. Anderson is well known in the Christian community for his ground-breaking books: The Bondage Breaker, Victory Over the Darkness, Freedom in Christ, and others. So I was intrigued when The Power of Presence: A Love Story was offered for review by Kregel. It was promoted as being a book about his care for his wife of 50 years, now gripped with agitated dementia.

My heart goes out to Dr. Anderson. He has served the community well, and is now serving his wife well. There are few things more draining than the dementia of a loved one, and he is devoting this part of his life to her. I wanted to hear more about that journey.

I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps something like Henry Nouwen’s later writings as he moved from being a professor to serving in a facility for the physically and mentally handicapped. His books from these years speak to and offer hope to those who have been sidetracked by God. As a person who has been involved in family caregiving for over a decade and “looking forward” to many more years, I hoped that Anderson would have words of wisdom for the weary and confused. I hoped that he would bring alive the ministry of presence—both God’s and the caregiver’s.

I was disappointed. While he used his and Joanne’s shared story as a common thread, the bulk of the book was theological. And I had a hard time finding the unifying theme or purpose of the book. I didn’t gain better ideas of how to be a better caregiver, and I often couldn’t draw the connection between the story of Joanne and the theological ramblings. I’m sure if I had had my theological hat on, I would have found the book interesting. But I had my caregiver hat on, and the book was promoted as a “luminous meditation.” I wasn’t meditating and I wasn’t illuminated…

When There Are No Easy Answers

When There Are No Easy Answers by John S. Feinberg

When There Are No Easy Answers: Thinking Differently About God, Suffering, and Evil by John S. Feinberg

We’ve all heard the stories. Some of us live them. How do you reconcile the worst types of suffering in life with the notion of a good God?

John S. Feinberg is one who is living “the worst” of suffering. His wife, Pat, has suffered from Huntington’s Disease, an incurable, debilitating, genetic disorder, for over 25 years. For many years, she has been unable to walk, talk, or respond. In addition, his children are at risk because the disease is genetically transmitted. Pat’s mother probably suffered from Huntington’s and the information was in her medical record, but was not made available to them until years after her diagnosis. So Feinberg, a seminary professor, was hit with not one, but several, tragedies–each one raising theological and emotional questions.

In When There Are No Easy Answers: Thinking Differently About God, Suffering and Evil (Kregel Publications), Feinberg uses his theological training and life experience to grapple with the many questions that suffering raises. The result is a raw attempt to make sense of the nonsensical. He tackles the character of God and the stupidity of friends. He offers theological assessments and practical tips.

I was especially drawn to this book because my husband has Parkinson’s Disease, and while he is still quite functional, I know from friends in my support group what most likely lies ahead. I strongly recommend this book for anyone struggling with theodicy – the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, for anyone facing personal or health issues they don’t understand. It isn’t an easy book to read, although it is quite readable. It will make you think, pray, and discuss. It will help you become a woman of splendor. And hopefully, will give you answers to make the journey a little more tolerable.

 

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season by Lucinda Secrest McDowell

Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season by Lucinda Secrest McDowell

I was excited to be invited to review this book by Lucinda Secrest McDowell. I usually like her writing and I was ready for a new devotional. This book takes an interesting approach. First, it is organized by season, with a theme for each – dwell for fall, shine for advent, renew for Lent, and grow for summer. Then within each section, each day focuses on one word, finding the word in a Scripture verse. Interesting approach. Good potential. The layout is typical devotional: bible verse, narrative, prayer. The narrative usually offers a brief story or anecdote,  followed by some discussion of that theme.

Sadly, the book disappointed at every level. First, it’s unreadable and looks self-published even though it’s published by Abingdon. I know their goal – small format with each devotional contained on two facing pages. So the book measures 5” x 7” – a nice, portable size. But to accomplish the goal, they used what looks like about an 8-point font with 3/8 inch margins. Definitely not a book for anyone over 40! The paper is common newsprint.

Reviewers were asked to select a season to review. I chose Summer (grow). I love summer – gardens, vacations, family, leisure… Some of the words chosen fit the summer theme, but several were a reach. With few exceptions, I also found the narratives to be ho-humm. Not bad, but not underlinable.

All in all, this book was a disappointment. Look elsewhere for your new devotional.

Lucinda is sponsoring a drawing for some really fine prizes. Enter at https://promosimple.com/ps/9d4a by July 5. Winners drawn July 6.

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart by Steve Brown

Hidden Agenda: Dropping the Masks That Keep Us Apart by Steve Brown

You wear a mask. I wear a mask. We all wear masks. But it should not be so. And Steve Brown is determined that we know every possible way we adopt hidden agendas.

No one can argue with his premise. It’s human nature to hide our true selves. We fear authenticity. We may abhor phonies, but when it comes right down to it, we’re all about as phony as they come. And then we pretend no one notices.

Brown’s style pulls no punches. He’s clear, concise, and in your face. He writes with the humor of an excellent speaker, punctuating truth with a dash of absurdity. The book reads like a spoken sermon, laced with phrases cleverly turned and fingers pointed.

As well written as the book is, I found it rather tedious. It seemed that he made his point well in the first couple of chapters. Then he made it again and again and again. It reminded me of the speakers’ mantra: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.” Except that he put several more “tell them’s” in the middle.  And yet, perhaps this is a new concept to some readers. Perhaps some are blinded to their hidden agendas and need them pointed out in several different ways before they get it.

Brown redeemed himself in the last couple of chapters when brought it home and applied the concepts to the church where he advocates “a new kind of family.” The book includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, making the book useful for small groups or personal journaling.

So Says Sassy

So Says Sassy by Ann Marie Shields

So Says Sassy by Ann Marie Shields

Ann Marie Shields is sassy. Or so she says. And she says it in her delightful book, So Says Sassy.

So Says Sassy is not the typical book I review. But I agreed to read it as a favor to her daughter, who has been a friend for almost 30 years. We used to be neighbors; our kids played together until Judith and her family moved away. We’ve stayed in touch through Christmas letters and Facebook posts. When Ann Marie passed away last year, Judith decided to compile her blog into a book. And what a book it is! I’m so glad I agreed to read it.

I fell in love with Ann Marie. What a sassy, bold, engaged, and authentic woman. We’re familiar with all the mommy blogs out there, but hers was a senior blog—a slice of the life of a woman in her last years. I haven’t seen another like it. Ann Marie began blogging at the spry age of 75. That alone gives me great admiration for her. I started blogging in my late 50s, and let me tell you, every step was a steep learning curve. I was grateful for the constant tech support of my son, and Ann Marie was grateful for the tech support of her family. She was a hip, techie grandma, often blogging about her new digital camera, new phone, new computer. Like me, she tried very hard to keep up with this technological new world, even though it was hard and often confusing.

But hers wasn’t a technology blog. That was just one little aspect of it. Rather, it was the very well written life and thoughts of an aging woman. A woman who wanted to be a writer, but never seemed to gain the traction she wanted. So she found her outlet in her blog. She writes about her Irish “second and last husband, Des” with all his delights, idiosyncrasies, and maladies. She writes about her family—her kids, grandkids and great grandkids and the family events that added sparkle and delight to her life. She writes about her precious and imperfect parents, about being an only child, and about growing up in the close-knit Italian neighborhood in Chicago. And as she aged, she wrote about the increasing impact of her illnesses and health challenges, and about the last days of her precious Des.

As an aging woman, I appreciated this sneak peek into the life of one who was about 15 years ahead of me. I wondered what I would write if this were a slice of life blog rather than a motivational blog. I gained new insights into the struggles of my mother, now 95 and in the midst of all that Sassy wrote about. If you are aging or know someone who is, this book is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I’m missing her sassy attitude now that I’ve finished the book.

Hunting Hope

When I receive a book for review, I can usually tell within a few pages if it’s one I want to keep or pass on. If it’s one I’ll tell clients about or one I’ll shelve and forget. Hunting Hope: Dig Through the Darkness to Find the Light by Nika Maples is not only a book I’ll keep and recommend, but also one I’m ordering for my ministry’s bookstore. I began underlining on page 2 (page one was very short) and I have tabs throughout. My indication of a good book.

So what’s so great about this book? Other than everything?

Authentic Voice:

First, Maples speaks with an authentic voice. She is a survivor of systemic lupus and a massive brainstem stroke that left her a quadriplegic at age 20. She fought her way back and became a public school teacher in her native Texas. She still struggles with the lupus and with falls. But she has learned how to mine God’s character and conform hers. She doesn’t sugarcoat her points, but rather shares from the depths of her discipleship.

Excellent Writing:

Not only does Maples make good points. She makes them well. She has the ability to turn a phrase, and then illustrates her points with great stories—most of them aimed at herself. Hunting Hope is a good read, a compelling read.

Transformational Points:

Maples has been tested in the fire. She had to learn to trust God or die. Her writing isn’t theoretical. It’s real. And transformational. If readers will pay attention, she offers hope for those trapped in situations that don’t seem fair. She shows God to be faithful. She says, “when we have nothing left to lean on, we learn to lean on God.”

It seems that most writers are either all miracle—believe God will heal everything all the time. Or no miracle—just thank God in the suffering. Maples says, “We should always ask for a miracle, but while we wait, God’s calming presence in our lives is a miracle in itself.” She focuses on obedience: “God unfolds His plan after the person takes a step of obedience, not before.” She affirms that wounded warriors have a vital place in the church: “Our worst life experiences may be exactly what qualify us to lead with authority…. The darkest moments of our lives might be the beginning of our divine mission on earth. So many times, the battlefield is a training ground.” And she recognizes that trials are just an exercise. An opportunity to grow in godliness.

My Only Complaint:

I’m usually not a fan of discussion questions in books. They are usually trite. But this is one book I wished Maples had added discussion questions. Now I’m going to have to write them myself. I’m pretty sure I’ll be teaching this book.

So please, I don’t say this often, but BUY THIS BOOK.

Hunting Hope Nika Maples