Essential Church

I like books-- especially free ones. And I really like author Thom Rainer, and his son Sam.

That’s why I was excited to see this: their book
Essential Church? is available for free as a downloadable e-book (PDF format). Only until Monday. Get it here.
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Books for September

  • Beyond Bells and Smells by Mark Galli. I was surprised by this book, as I had thought (and hoped) it to be something that would introduce the reader to the spiritual foundations of the liturgy, explaining the elements, etc. It wasn’t that, or anything like it, though I wasn’t disappointed with it overall. It is more a collection of essays on the spiritual impact and importance of liturgical worship, offering something more like a devotional approach to liturgy rather than an analysis of it. (8)
  • The Power of Speaking God’s Word: How to Preach Memorable Sermons by Wilbur Ellsworth (re-read). This book is very good, offering a perspective on preaching and the preparation for preaching that is different and fresh. Beginning with the premise question of “what makes a sermon memorable?” Ellsworth quickly moves in the direction of an increased oral approach to preparing and delivering sermons, instead of the more common written/literary approach. Great words on the “what” and “why” of orality, but lacking a bit on the “how” aspect-- a factor that I find myself both disappointed with (who doesn’t like “method” and concrete advice on something like this?) and grateful for (because the approach I’ve developed is fairly different from his, and I like the freedom to do it my way). (8+)
  • A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion by Trevor Hudson. Hudson, it turns out, is one of the original “Christ-Followers”-- those who have eschewed the term “Christian” as being over-used and lacking the oomph they want in a label. If that suggests something about the ethos of this book, then you’re probably right on. Hudson’s contribution here is one part helpful reflection on the need for deeper compassion in a Christian’s (oops-- I mean Christ-Follower’s) life, a la Henri Nouwen; and three parts method for how to do what Hudson did. In all, sadly, the book amounts to only a little more than a planning resource for a Hudson-style spiritual exercise-- which is really a shame, since had the ratio been reversed it really could have been something. I give it slightly higher marks only because the gold to be mined within the method is good stuff, and maybe worth the work. (8)
  • Calls to Worship: a pocket resource by Robert Vasholz. Following his pocket guide to Benedictions, Vasholz has produced another very helpful book for pastors and worship leaders, opening the door to fresh material that is too easily overlooked. A useful addition, this time, is to break them down into sections-- Vasholz offers the following sets of calls to worship: for special occasions including the Church calendar (42), responsive readings (36), and those to be read by Pastors only (39). A great resource. (9+)
  • The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do by Mark Sanborn. I’ve already reviewed this one elsewhere. (6-)
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Book review: The Encore Effect by Mark Sanborn

Waterbrook Press once again sent me a book to review: this time, it was The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do by Mark Sanborn. (I was actually supposed to blog this review by last week, but I hope they’ll forgive me of it.)

There’s no doubt that
Mark Sanborn is an effective communicator. A motivational speaker and a Christian, Sanborn has built his business and reputation offering wholesome leadership and personal achievement advice, peppered with biblical truth and spiritual reflections. The Encore Effect follows this model exactly.

There is a lot of good advice in this book, and a lot of good examples of how to put the advice into practice, whether personal stories from Sanborn’s life, accounts of others historical or contemporary, or analogies. Following something of a modern-day Norman Vincent Peale approach, Sanborn offers a classic take on life: “you can do it! Here’s how to focus your time, energy, and attention.”

Therefore, someone who is doubting their capacity for living a full life might find this book a great encouragement. Others, needing a few nudges in the direction of the pursuit of excellence, may also profit from a quick read. (The book isn’t long, and it reads fast-- I found it no trouble to put away 40-50 pages in a matter of 15 minutes or so.)

But here’s my concern, both for Sanborn and for Waterbrook: the book is published by a Christian publisher, and I suppose that Sanborn may present himself as a Christian author (though his website doesn’t make any specific mention of his faith). But the book doesn’t do great justice to the connection to biblical faith-- and in some ways, it does harm to it.

Each chapter ends with a section called “Intersection,” typically containing a quote of a Bible verse and a brief reflection about how Sanborn sees that verse applying to the content of the chapter. But there are two problems with this: first of all, these verses were frequently taken out of context, and Sanborn’s reflections further distanced the verses from their biblical meaning. It is a too-frequent commitment of a common mistake: having an idea, then finding a verse that
appears to have some sort of connection to that idea, and claiming the verse is then a support for the idea. Sanborn’s ideas aren’t bad ones-- they may be a bit saccharine, but they aren’t bad-- but his claim of their support from Scripture IS bad.

Secondly, and on a larger level: the whole “intersection” idea bugs me. Too often, Christians relegate their faith to a compartmentalized, segmented aspect of their lives. The idea I get from Sanborn’s “intersections” is that he views faith this way, too: live your life-- you can be remarkable!-- and every now and then, what you do and who you are will intersect with biblical Christianity. The fact that Sanborn almost never incorporates Scripture or even people or events from Christendom in the rest of the book underscores this; he quotes from secular philosophers and even leaders of other religions more than Christian folk in the main body of the chapters. I’m making some judgements here about Sanborn’s views on faith that may be unfair, but they are based on the portrayal he has put before me.

The net effect is like trying to straddle the two worlds, and it doesn’t really work: taking something popular among the unbelieving world, frosting it with a bit o’ Christianeze, then re-presenting it as something new and better. This is the model that most Christian popular music applies, and the results are little-satisfying to either side. Or perhaps it is like co-opting “
Free Ride” or the chorus from “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to be used as praise songs; it just doesn’t really fit.

Overall,
The Encore Effect isn’t a bad book; like so many other self-help and motivational books, it offers some nuggets of truth. It would have been a much better book had Sanborn resisted the temptation to spiritualize it and present it as something that is Christian in nature.

My rating: 6-
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Book Review: A Handful of Pebbles

Banner of Truth asked me to write a more detailed review of this book, so I’m posting it here.

Publisher: Banner of Truth Trust
Publication Date: 2008
Rating (1-10 scale): 7+

Anytime I hear the term "liberal" these days, I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand, the word can mean a number of things that are threatening to orthodoxy, or it can mean some things that are actually very good. On the other hand, I wonder if the term has served its purpose, and no longer is the broad-sweeping inclusive category that it once was. So when I received my copy of A Handful of Pebbles and saw that it was subtitled, "theological liberalism and the church," I wondered which of these it would be.

Fortunately, author Peter Barnes is quick to define what he means by liberalism, even granting that it can sometimes have good associations-- yet qualifying how the liberalism he intends is that which is a threat and challenge to biblical orthodoxy. What follows is Barnes's summary of what liberalism is, how it came to find its way into the church, and how an orthodox Christian ought to respond.

This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. The first half could be an outline to a historical theology class, if that class focused exclusively on the rise of heresy and philosophical departure from orthodoxy. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially, and thought the content in the couple of chapters given to the problem of "what do we do about it?" were helpful, at least in a limited way, to give the reader some idea about why theological liberalism is at odds with orthodox Christian beliefs.

However, at the end I was left with a nagging question about who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; It clearly is not intended as an academic reference. If, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems; only the most willing and self-skeptical liberal would be convinced by this little tome.

The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. I could see it being especially useful to put in the hands of a "liberal church refugee," stepping into an orthodox church after years of having the edge taken off of his or her beliefs. Or perhaps it might be a good tool for church officers, who may at times encounter mild or vague questions along the lines of what this book answers.

At times the tone of the book is a bit too defensive or even aggressive. While this may be justifiable given the subject matter, it undermines the brief urging at one point of approaching those in error with love and forbearance. I would have liked a bit more gracious attitude in a book like this.

Overall, I appreciated A Handful of Pebbles, even if I felt it was appropriate for only a limited audience.
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Blogs I'm reading

A friend of mine asked me earlier in the week what blogs I’m reading these days; I told him I’d look at my list and post some recommendations here. So, here are some of the blogs I read and recommend:

Friends
  1. Craig Dunham
  2. Megan Dunham
  3. Jon Barlow
  4. Ann Barlow
  5. Adam Tisdale
  6. John Allen Bankson
  7. Paul Bankson
  8. Dane Ortlund
  9. Russell Smith
  10. Jeremy Jones
  11. Margie Haack
  12. Travis Scott
  13. Buffy Smith
  14. Nikki Sawyers
  15. Sam Murrell
  16. Jeff & Aubrey Tell

News (not really “blogs” but RSS feeds included)
  1. NY Times
  2. Slate
  3. Macworld
  4. byFaith

Church/Ministry/Theology
  1. Church Forward (Sam Rainer)
  2. Ed Stetzer
  3. The Sola Panel
  4. Jesus Creed (Scot McKnight)
  5. Seminary Survival Guide
  6. Internet Monk (Michael Spencer)
  7. Parchment & Pen
  8. Biblical Horizons
  9. Reformation21
  10. The Last Homely House
  11. The Rabbit Room
  12. PastorHacks

Random/Other
  1. 43 Folders (Merlin Mann)
  2. Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent
  3. From Where I Sit (Michael Hyatt)
  4. Unclutterer
  5. Rands in Repose
  6. GTD Times
  7. How to Change the World (Guy Kawasaki)

There it is. There’s something in there for almost everyone, I think. Have fun!


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Books for August 2008

I managed to finish a few more books this month than last-- and more importantly (to me, at least), I got my rhythm back for reading. I feel like I’m plowing through them lately, having finished four books in the last 10 days.

Here’s my list for August:
  • Evangelism in the Small Membership Church by Royal Speidel. This book is one of a series, entitled the “ministry in the small membership church” series, published by Abingdon Press. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am by this book. For one thing, most of it really isn’t about evangelism at all; after the first couple of chapters, the bulk of the content is just about pastoral ministry in general. Ironically, the author suggests that the book is a good one for groups of laypeople, but most of the book focuses on the pastoral side of church ministry. Secondly, the author doesn’t speak to small membership churches-- not really; he frequently cites examples from his own ministry experience where he refers to congregations of well over 100, several times mentioning events accomodating more than 500-- even though approx. 60% of all churches are congregations of 100 or fewer. Finally, much of his theology is just poor; there were a number of times that I just shook my head, wondering where he got an idea or how he found what he was saying in the text. While there are a few ideas in the book that I will come back to-- and I’m glad to have read it for those alone-- I simply cannot recommend this one. (3)
  • Waterbrook Press Children’s Extravaganza (children’s books)-- reviewed earlier in the month: God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren, When God Created My Toes and God Loves Me More Than That by Dandi Daley Mackall
  • Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the theology of the Lord’s Supper by Ben Witherington, III. I appreciate Witherington’s keen insight into the historical, social, and anthropological culture of biblical times; I’ve long been a fan of his “socio-rhetorical” commentaries. He brings that same insight into this book, giving a comprehensive look at what the institution and celebration of the Lord’s Supper would have looked like in Jesus’ day, and in the early church. There is good stuff to be found here, and Witherington affirms much of what has been something of a revival in Lord’s Supper theology. But I think the subtitle may take things a bit too far: the rethinking began well before this book was published (in 2007). Still, good stuff, even if Witherington is sometimes on the fringes with his theology, which makes me cautious about recommending him. Only because of that occasional theological variance, I rank this one a little lower than I might otherwise. (7)
  • How to Pick a Peach: the search for flavor from farm to table by Russ Parsons. This has been a great and fun read, one I picked up for our vacation in the NC mountains and have recently finished. Parsons offers a season-by-season, produce-by-produce guide for how to know when fruits or vegetables are ripe, how to store them, and even some good advice on preparation and cooking. He also has encyclopedic knowledge of the backgrounds of our modern produce, as well as the food industry (farm and market). His book is peppered with history, science, recipes, and tips for the garden and kitchen alongside a nearly-exhaustive reference for produce. It deserves a place on my shelf alongside my cookbooks and other kitchen references, but I found that I enjoyed reading it cover-to-cover, unlike any reference book I’ve read before. (10)
  • The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in broken bread by Robert Letham (re-read). I re-read this one quickly in preparation for the sermon series I’m about to begin on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Letham does such a great job of covering this topic, with a lot packed into this little book (only 60 or so pages). I especially appreciate Letham’s practical approach: everything he has put into this book is geared toward a practicable use, and while the content is certainly theologically rich it is also written at a lay-level. So this would be a great book to introduce folks-- maybe in a Sunday School class, or officer training-- to the fundamentals of the Reformed theology of the Lord’s Supper. It’s not comprehensive-- there’s a good bit of Old Testament and historical content missing that is well-covered in other books (such as Given for You by Keith A. Mathison). But it is a great primer. (9)
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially. However, my question is who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; if, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems. The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. While the tone is a bit defensive, perhaps that is justified given the subject. (7+)
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, and you can read my review here. (8+)
  • Serving in Church Visitation by Jerry M. Stubblefield. I was excited about this little book when I first got it-- and I wasn’t disappointed! This introduction to the approach, attitude, and practice of visiting others on behalf of Christ and His church is brief, yet as thorough as it needs to be. This would be a good tool to use in Officer Training, or perhaps more appropriately in ongoing study with existing officers-- though it is not limited to officers in its scope or audience. (9+)
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Book review: The Faith of Barack Obama

I was invited by Thomas Nelson publishers to review one of their new titles, The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. This is one of a small handful of books that are hitting the stores as the Democratic Presidential Nominee gains more attention in the U.S. and the world. Mansfield, who in 2004 wrote the similarly-eloquent title, The Faith of George W. Bush, brought the same approach to this look at Senator Obama’s life of faith.

You can’t consider a man’s story of faith without considering the story of his life, and Mansfield offers a brief but sufficient overview of Barack Obama’s family, childhood, early adult life, and entrance into the political realm. Senator Obama’s life story is rich and amazing in itself; through Mansfield’s pen it is a delight to read.

From there, the author presents us with Obama’s re-introduction to Christianity-- a more personal one than the senator had encountered before. We also get a closer look at Trinity Church of Christ of Chicago and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, both of which were instrumental in Obama’s spiritual awakening, as well as Rev. Wright’s version of Black Liberation Theology, which was less a part of Obama’s journey. And we are offered a brief contrast of Obama’s faith story with those of Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and President George W. Bush.

As a book, I appreciated Mansfield’s insight and perspective very much. He was light-handed with his own interpretation, instead relying on extensive interviews and quotes to tell the stories of Senator Obama’s life and faith for him. He was also mercifully light on political material or analysis, though at times (especially in later chapters) it emerged more explicitly, though not in a dogmatic way. Due to the timing of the book, I found some parts of it already felt a bit dated-- especially a couple of references to the likelihood that Obama would lose in the primaries-- but overall this aspect was masked fairly well.

As a message-- and every book has a message-- I appreciated Mansfield’s perspective, though less so. As
I’ve mentioned before, I accept Barack Obama’s profession of faith as credible, and find it frustrating when people assume otherwise simply because of his name or his background. Mansfield does a fine job of addressing this, and perhaps that was a major goal for his writing; his style and approach is a positive one, focusing more on affirmation than exposé. But I felt that the questions that needed to be answered in a book like this went unaddressed, such as how much or how little Senator Obama embraces the prominent Black Liberation Theology of his (now former) pastor and church, or how he reconciles some of his more extreme views with his professed faith and trust in the Bible. As such, the book felt just a little unfinished-- as if the rush to press meant that the time ran out for the interviews that would answer these and other questions.

Still, the country and the church-- especially the evangelical right-wing-- need this book, and others like it, to help us understand our brothers and sisters of the evangelical left. Overall, I’ll rank this book at 8+.
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Blog tour: The Children's Extravaganza

Waterbrook Press invited me to participate in another blog tour-- where I read and review books on my blog(s). This time, it is the “Children’s Extravaganza” (their term) which is a set of three children’s books they have recently published.

We read through the books-- of course we read them with Jack and Molly-- and got their opinions as well as forming our own. I’ll take each one in turn and offer sort of a mini-review.

The first book we read was God Gave Us Heaven, by Lisa Tawn Bergren. In it we follow a family of polar bears, with Little Cub asking Papa questions about God and heaven throughout the course of a day. It is a sweet story, and Bergren takes care to answer many important (and complex) questions in a way that is understandable to children. The artwork, drawn by Laura J. Bryant, is fun and cute, and both Jack and Molly liked it. In fact, Jack and Molly liked this book the most of the three. Marcie and I liked it a lot as well, though both of us thought that a few parts toward the end open the suggestion that everyone eventually goes to heaven. Apart from that concern-- and the subtle notion that polar bears have souls and go to heaven because of Jesus, which I don’t consider a huge problem in a book like this-- we liked the book and thought it was very helpful to begin conversations with Jack and Molly about eternal life and heaven. I’ll rank this one an 8+.

Bergren has written nearly 30 titles in the publishing world, and God Gave Us Heaven is her fourth. I hope she will offer us more.

When God Created My Toes was a cute idea-- speculate about what God thought about creating the different parts of the body (which, of course, we know already: He pronounced them “very good” in Gen. 1:31). It was done in rhyme, which made it easier to follow for the kids. While some of the rhymes were a stretch, several of them offered interesting and good insights. Jack and Molly liked it okay, but it wasn’t a favorite for either. And we didn’t love it, either-- mainly because a number of the pictures (drawn by David Hohn, some of which made Jack and Molly giggle) portrayed the children doing mischievous things, which we didn’t think we wanted our kids getting ideas from! Overall, I’ll give this one a rating of 6/6+.

Both
When God Created My Toes and the last book, God Loves Me More Than That, are by Dandi Daley Mackall, who has written many, many children’s books (over 400!), and has other titles published by Waterbrook, as well.

Last, but not least, was God Loves Me More Than That, which we all liked very much. Focusing on how great is God’s love for us (Ephesians 3:17b-18, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”), this book does a good job of offering something of a balance to the many wonderful books that focus on a parent’s great love (think Guess How Much I Love You?). The illustrations (again drawn by David Holm) were terrific-- my favorites of the three books-- and complemented the book so well. I had no parental or theological concerns about this one at all, in either the content or the drawings, and it’s a toss-up about whether this one might not be my favorite of the three. Marcie felt like it might be better for kids a little younger than ours, though Jack seemed to connect with it. I rate this one as a 10.

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Bible choices

How did you choose the translation of the Bible that you use? What was the process for evaluation? What factors did you consider?

My guess is that many folks “chose” somewhat arbitrarily. Maybe they were given a nice Bible as a gift, and they decided that would become their main Bible. Maybe a friend showed her a study tool in his Bible, and she thought she would like to have those tools as well. Perhaps they’ve simply used the same Bible since they were a child-- and they can’t even remember where they got their Bible!

When I was first beginning at Hickory Withe PC, one of the members asked me, “which Bible translation will you be preaching from?” It turns out that he and his wife wanted to do their devotional reading in the same Bible that they would use on Sunday mornings-- which they wanted to be the same translation that the preacher would be using.

This is a great idea-- and an easy way to make what is becoming a more and more difficult decision: which Bible translation should I use?

There are a lot of factors that go into a Bible translation, and there is an increasing number of useful and good translations. Evaluating them can be tricky.

Thankfully, there is a new website whose intended purpose is to guide people through understanding the different translations:
Best-Bible.org. Whether you’re looking for a new Bible, curious about the differences between your translation and others, or wondering what translation philosophy went into the Bible you love, you’ll find a great amount of helpful information over there.

[Full disclosure: I had been meaning to mention this helpful tool already; however, by linking to them today I’m
entered in a drawing to win a free copy of the forthcoming ESV Study Bible.]
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Books in July

Well, I came to the end of July and realized that, while I had actually begun a number of books through the month, I didn’t actually finish any of them. So August promises to be a heavier list of mini-reviews, but July is left with nothing to say (at least from my perspective regarding the books I read).

Instead, then, I’ll offer up this brief list of books that folks in my congregation are reporting that they have found to be of great help and interest to them:
  • Putting Amazing Back into Grace by Michael Scott Horton. This isn’t a new book, but there is a new edition out, and several HWPC members have been reading it. Horton does an excellent job of offering an overview of the doctrines of grace, which are pillars of our theological foundations in the PCA.
  • How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. This one has (relatively speaking) flown off the HWPC book table, and tells the truths of the doctrines of grace from a decidedly different angle. It is, nevertheless, a great book that offers transforming truths to those who would look for gospel change in their lives.
  • Surprising Insights from the Unchurched by Thom Rainer. This great book, based on Rainer’s research a few years ago, gives an amazing look at what formerly unchurched folks report were the keys to the church having an effective ministry of outreach to them.
  • The Only Necessary Thing by Henri J. M. Nouwen. One of our members just lent me this book, assuring me that I would, as a Nouwen fan, be delighted in this look at prayer and the prayerful life.

Also, I’ve been asked to participate in several “blog tours” or blog reviews of books, so I thought I would mention those books at this point as a teaser:
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. Published by Banner of Truth.
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield (the same guy who wrote The Faith of George W. Bush). Published by Thomas Nelson.
  • Three Children’s books by Waterbrook Press: God Loves Me More Than That and When God Created My Toes by Dandi Daley Mackall; and God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren.
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Books for June 2008

June was full of travel, which in this case meant substantially less reading for me. I feel a little bit starved of books, and hope that I’ll recover somewhat in July and August.

At any rate, here are the couple of books I read in June:

Effective Small Churches in the Twenty-First Century by Carl S. Dudley is a very helpful book that is based on thorough and useful research. Dudley deals with the data and concepts that arose from his study, so many of the ideas here are fresh and not found elsewhere (in other words, this one takes you beyond the "conventional wisdom” about small churches). A bit of a slow read at parts, but generally good stuff. (8+)

“The Vision Thing” by Don K. Clements. Clements is a retired PCA Pastor who now does consulting through Metokos Ministries, working with churches in helping them develop a useful vision for their congregation. He freely admits that he has borrowed heavily from Aubrey Malphurs’s Developing a Vision for Ministry in the 21st Century, but he does a good job of summarizing that book in this small volume. Clements clearly knows how to coach churches in this process, and his knowledge comes through in the book. He writes with a conversational style, and it’s not difficult to get a fair grasp of what is needed for vision-casting through this little book. (8)
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Books for May 2008

The Work of the Pastor by William Still (re-read). This brief volume is a help, challenge, and rebuke for all of us. Still, who pastored a single flock in Scotland for 51 years, here presents the sum of the pastor's duties, distilling it down to the essence of shepherding and feeding the lambs on the Word of God. For such a short book, there is much to be found here, and it is one of those books I believe should make its way into the rotation of every pastor. (10)

Wiring a House by Rex Cauldwell. Yes, I actually read this book cover-to-cover. And, in fact, I thought it was a great read. When I was in seminary, a friend who was a former electrician taught me how to wire lights and outlets; now, as I face the work of our attic renovation, I realized that I had a bit more wiring to do than simply a light socket here and there. This book answered every question I had remaining, and gave me the knowledge and confidence to move ahead with the electrical part of the job without fear (or at least without more fear than is a healthy amount when working with electricity). This writer is a seasoned Master Electrician, and he does a great job of telling the industry secrets while introducing concept after concept in a very readable and didactic manner. He also goes the extra mile with "Above Code" comments in every chapter, telling you where the code standards aren't quite enough for one reason or another. A great book, and a must-read for me in my current status as part-time contractor! (9)

With Reverence and Awe by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether. This book, subtitled, "Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship," was a difficult read for me. I agreed with 90% of the content, and found it engaging in that manner; however, I agreed with about 30% of the tone-- how they brought about communicating their ideas. Like most forms of communication, tone matters so much when conveying sometimes difficult and/or confronting content. Even though they claim not to do this (of course they would!), there was also a little edge of "if you're not worshiping like us, then you're not worshiping the way God wants you to" in the book; that sort of arrogance gets under my skin quickly, even in small doses. There is some good content in this book, and they do a fair job of driving the discussion toward the Scriptures-- it might be worth reading just as an introduction to relevant biblical texts for thinking about worship (though other books do a better job at that). (5)

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero (re-read). I first read this book a few years ago, but decided that it might be, well, healthy to read it again. It was just as good. Scazzero deals with a difficult subject honestly, with clarity, and with practicality. He discusses what emotional health is (on a primarily individual level), and how a church might (or any relational group) might embody good emotional health. While there are some shortcomings in the book, and while I want for more help and information on some of the points (another post on this is coming), I'd like to think that every church CAN aspire to what Scazzero sets forth as something like an ideal. (8+)

Ruling Elder by Leonard Van Horn. Here's a (very) brief little booklet that is great for orienting Elder candidates to the office. It is quite basic, offering a short examination of three questions: Are you called to be an Elder? What is your view of the church? Are you qualified to be an Elder? Van Horn works through each competently. By no means is this little book sufficient for all officer training needs! But I plan to use it as a give-away to all nominees (in complement to the training they are already receiving) to help guide them in considering their nomination. (8)

Framing Floors, Walls, and Ceilings by the editors of Fine Homebuilding. You can tell by the fact that I read two books on home remodeling-type subjects that I'm in the midst of a big project at the house! Unfortunately, this one wasn't nearly as good as the one above. It looks to be essentially a compilation of articles by these editors, all of which are moderately helpful. But because this one was cobbled together-- rather than written step-by-step with comprehensive planning involved, like Wiring a House was-- there are big holes of information. Since I've done some basic building and remodeling before, I was mostly able to follow along; someone with no experience in this area would easily get lost. I'll still use this for reference at times, but it's likely that I'll look for another (better) book on the subject to round out my knowledge-base. (4)
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More thoughts on reading

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about reading in response to a question from one of my blog-readers. A few more thoughts have occurred to me.

On reading books:

  • Keep a list for recommendations. Suggestions for good books to read come up all the time: from blogs, on the radio or TV news, in lectures, from friends. I've found it helpful to make a note of recommendations that I want to eventually follow up on-- even if I don't plan to get the book soon-- and keep a list in one place. This way, I have my list handy when I order books. I've found using an Amazon Wishlist is the easiest way for me to organize these recommendations; since I'll probably buy from Amazon anyway, this makes it particularly easy to choose from my list. (I can access Amazon-- and add to my Wishlist-- through my mobile phone, too-- so it works on the road as well.) It doesn't hurt that this makes for easier gift-giving at Christmas and birthday times.

  • Have options on-hand for "what's next." If you're keeping a list, this makes it a lot easier to have options-- whether you go to the library or buy books yourself. I buy books about once a month, and I rarely order only one at a time; instead, I'll get two or three from my list (which also qualifies my order for free shipping, if I'm buying from Amazon). This way, I have a stockpile to choose from when I finish the book I'm reading.

  • Keep reading. When I finish a book, I start another within 24 hours. It is easy to fall out of the habit of reading, and difficult to get back into it. Reading is exercise for your mind-- so persistent discipline for it is the same as going to the gym. Keep it up.

  • Make notes about what you've read. I've begun to do this on this blog, as you may have noticed. When you finish a book, reflect on whether it was worth reading, what you learned, whether you would recommend it to someone else-- or at least that you read it!

  • Catalog your books. If you buy very many books, eventually you'll amass a collection that can be difficult to keep up with or manage. I've found it helpful to keep my books cataloged in a computer database (I use a free one called Books, which is made for the Mac; there are others for Macs, some for PCs, and online options), but you could do fairly well with just a spreadsheet. Keeping track of the author, title, some publishing data, and other helpful information (like if you've lent your copy out, or the notes you made about it when you finished it) is a good minimum. My database keeps all of this, plus a lot more.
If you really want to learn more about reading books well, I actually have a few book recommendations about that: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler; How to Read Slowly by James Sire; The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen; and Shelf Life by George Grant.

On other reading:
  • Keep newspapers in check. If you subscribe to a daily newspaper, do you read it every day? We've found that we actually read our paper more because we cut our subscription back to Saturday and Sunday only. We don't have stacks of newspapers piling up as fast as before, so we're more likely to read them. You might find that a re-evaluation of your newspaper subscriptions will keep your reading progress streamlined.

  • Get your news from more than one source. It's hard to get accurate news. While it's tempting to settle for just one news source, it's likely that you won't really get a clear picture of the news, but a mostly editorialized version. I get my news from World magazine, Newsweek, the local newspapers, and the New York Times online.

  • Magazines are good-- in moderation. In addition to my book reading, I also have several magazine subscriptions. I've already mentioned Newsweek and World; I also get Cooks Illustrated, Photo Techniques, ByFaith, and Leadership Journal. Magazines are great for quick, concise articles on specific topics. But they can get overwhelming too-- Marcie gets stressed out with too many magazines coming in, so we keep these in check too.

  • Use RSS feeds for blogs and internet news. If you don't already know about RSS feeds, you should definitely check them out. I keep up with over 100 blogs and websites, and RSS feeds allow me to skim through more than 200 posts and updates daily in what amounts to just 1-2 hours total (and that's spread throughout the day in 10 or 15-minute increments). I don't even bother trying to read a blog that doesn't have a feed anymore-- but I haven't seen one without a feed in recent memory.
Reading is so worthwhile, but like anything worth doing it requires time and discipline. I hope that my suggestions have been helpful to make you a more effective reader.
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Book Give-Away: a winner!

Back in March (!), I offered a free copy of Andrew Peterson's On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness as a part of the "blog tour" I was participating in. Entry in the drawing was simple: answer a question about how frequently you believe a congregation should celebrate the sacrament of communion, and why.

There were five entries, and I'm pleased to (finally) announce the winner is:

Megan Dunham!

Congratulations Megan... I'll get the book in the mail to you in the next few days.

Thanks to all who participated in the drawing; your answers were interesting and helpful.
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When to read?

In response to one of my book listings, a member asked me, "you're a busy guy-- when do you find time to read all that you do?"

Fair question, and one that I've had to be creative in answering over the years. Here are some thoughts for folks who want to find more time to read, and/or read more effectively:

  • Take it with you. I rarely leave my home or office without SOMETHING to read-- a book, a journal or magazine, or at least my phone! (I make heavy use of RSS feeds, and my feed-reader syncs with a website that makes it easy for me to read RSS feeds from my iPhone.) If I'm going to be somewhere that there is even the potential for a wait-- restaurant, doctor's appointment, picking up the kids from school, etc.-- I will use that time to read, if I can. BUT not (usually) to the neglect of social interaction with others I'm with.

  • Place your reading in strategic places. I leave books and magazines around the house where I know I'll be when I might have a few minutes to read. I've usually got a stack by the chair where I usually sit in our living room and on my nightstand. (Yes, I also keep some reading in the bathroom.) And I keep something on my desk to grab when I have a minute or two at work.

  • Learn to read multiples. I usually keep three or four books going at once. One of them typically emerges as the "go-to" book of choice, but for some reason I've found that my reading pace slows if I'm only reading one book. If you can train your mind to follow more than one book at once, you'll get a lot more reading done, in my experience.

  • Learn to read efficiently. Not every book is one that I feel compelled to read every single word of. A professor in seminary suggested that, to read more efficiently, a good examination of the table of contents and/or index might suggest some emphases, and you may be able to determine that there are sections (even chapters) that you can skip without missing too much. Another technique: Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, and thereby determine if the whole paragraph is important to read. (One would hope that this method wouldn't be necessary, because every word should be important, right? But in our day, editing is done with a light hand, if it's done at all, and books are often repetitive.) Two notes here: first, this doesn't work for fiction books! Second, I don't employ this method for most of the books I read, and you may find that, like me, you prefer to read more slowly and absorb a book, rather than skimming it quickly.

  • Know when to stop. Here's a freeing concept: you don't HAVE to finish every book you start! If you find that a book just isn't offering you much, or you think that you've probably gotten the gist of it, feel free to put it down-- for now, or for good. Not all of every book was written for you; some books aren't really suited for you at all, while others will have sections that just don't apply. Discerning when these are true can free you to use your valuable reading time more effectively.

  • Make time to read. This one seems obvious, but most of us have a dozen things that we would do