When I Pray What Does God Do? by David Wilkinson


Sometimes I hate writing reviews, and, honestly, this is one of those times.  When I first was offered this particular title I was very excited, mainly because prayer is something I have often struggled with in terms of being committed to and feeling like I “do” well.  And when I received the book and started reading it I was so ecstatic I shared with several friends, “I’m reading this great book on prayer!”

Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t stay with me.  To put it quite bluntly, I found the book became depressing and downright boring.  In the first chapter I really connected with the author and his struggles with prayer – and he raised many of the questions I have found myself asking over the years.  But then as the book progressed I felt like he never really came to a clear answer, but I just kept reading over and over about his struggles without seeing any victory.  To be fair and transparent, I never finished the book, but by the time I was half-way through it (literally) I found that reading it was sapping my joy and I was more discouraged than I was encouraged, so I had to stop.  Maybe the author finally did reach some resolution (though in my skimming of the last half of the book it didn’t appear he did), but if he did he arrived there way to late to keep my attention (and I typically have a high level of tolerance and patience for wading through books).  In short, reading it because a chore rather than a joy.

So, for that reason (and that reason alone), I’ve got to give the book 1 star and I just do not recommend it.  For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

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Too Many to Jail


Let me start by saying Too Many to Jail by Mark Bradley is available until April 5 for just $.99 on Kindle – and you need to order it now by clicking here.  The book tells the story of the Christian church in Iran – a country where you’d expect the church to be dieing – but to the contrary, Iran is the country with the fastest growing church in the world, growing at a rate of nearly 20% every year!

In the book Bradley provides several chapters that give a brief overview of the history of Iran since the Islamic Revolution, with an eye towards explaining both Christian persecution during that time and the growth of the church.  He goes into detail regarding five house churches, and the book really is a study of the growth of the house church movement in Iran.

Rather that provide you with any further details about the book, though, I’d like to share what the book has forced me to think about – and reminded me of.  Overall, it has led me to reflect on my own witness for Jesus (0r lack thereof) – I’ve had to ask myself, “Why is it there are so many people in Iran who are willing to go to jail, be tortured, or even die for sharing the Gospel and I’m afraid to talk to people here in America?”  The boldness of these believers is both inspiring and convicting.

The book also addresses why people are so open to Christianity (and, honestly, why do I assume they aren’t open to it here?)  The biggest reason?  It’s really simple: the primacy of Jesus Christ.  Bradley writes, “Ask an Iranian why they are attracted to Christianity and the answer is often very simple: Jesus Christ” (p. 104).  It makes me wonder, why don’t people in America say that?  Is it because we’ve done a lousy job of showing them Jesus?  Several times in the book Bradley wrote about how in the house churches Christians told others (evangelized them) simply what God had done in their own lives – it is the story of testimony.  Yet here in the American church we struggle to get people to even see the movement of God in their lives, yet alone tell others about it!  There’s also an emphasis in the book on the practice of church discipline in the Iranian church: “[The church] is particularly string in two areas: sexual relations and gossip” (p. 131).  The process?  People who fall in these areas are first warned and asked to live pure lives, but if they continue they are asked to leave the church.  It’s that simple.  And do you notice the two that have been picked?  Wow!

The other reason the church is growing?  Christians aren’t afraid to share Jesus with people!  Even in the presence of persecution, Christians share the good news:

“The policy for Christians who do not actively threaten the status quo of the Shia state is discrimination, which often leads to the ordeal of emigration…It is true that many hard-line Muslims in Iran interpret the Sharia law as demanding death for male apostates and life imprisonment for females.  Hence, in more colorful publication,s the impression can be given that a Muslim in Iran who becomes a Christian spends every waking moment in fear of being murdered or dragged of to a kangaroo court to be sentenced to death.  However, even Iranian officials can be uncomfortable with this image and there is no record of any Christian facing that sort of treatment in Iran – as long as they are quietist and not active at all…The issue is that many Christians are not quietist” (p. 165-6, emphasis mine).

Read that again – if Christians in Iran would be willing to put up with some discrimination (political, economic, etc), they could live their lives without fear of torture or murder.  But even know that they do not remain quiet but insist on sharing the good news of Jesus with non-believers! Bradley also writes, “One man closely involved with house churches made this striking comment, ‘The people are so open that you can get away with anything in evangelism if you go about it the right way.’  In other words people want to hear about Jesus, and if approached in the appropriate way they will make a commitment” (p. 147, emphasis mine).  Why aren’t the Christians afraid to suffer persecution for the sake of Jesus?  Apparently they actually believe what he said, and they believe it enough to risk it all – but they’ve also found that when they share Jesus with others people actually respond by also taking on the risk of following Jesus.

When was the last time you heard anyone in America talk like that?

Overall I’m giving this book 5/5 stars – if you’re willing to confront your own fears about sharing Jesus with others.   If you’d like to check out an excerpt before spending the $.99 for the book (see link at top of page) you can find one if you click here.

For the record, I did receive a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily favorable, review.

 

 

Skin in the Game by Rick Lawrence


Skin in the Game is a book about the risk it takes to be a follower of Jesus. Christianity isn’t for the light of heart, and Lawrence offers us some questions to consider in reflecting on our own level of commitment to Jesus.  81o4joU5zgL._SL1500_The book contains eight chapters, each focused on using a story from the gospels to ask a reflective question designed to draw us to further invest in “the game”.  The chapters are short and easy to read (the book is only about 150 pages), but don’t mistake its brevity as an indication the book is a lightweight. To the contrary, the questions Lawrence asks cut to the core of who we are (or claim to be) as followers of Jesus, and each chapter contains group discussion questions for further reflection.

Perhaps the chapter I enjoyed most was the one focused on our identity as believers.  Lawrence reminds us that what is most important is knowing who God is and who God says we are.  When we have a clear understanding of our identity then our behavior and perspective on life will radically transform. But we need to be willing to not only listen to what God says, not only be willing to believe he is right, but also willing to admit we may be wrong and let go of the lies we believe about who we are and why we do what we do.

Overall I’ll give the book 4/5 stars.  For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Gospel Formed by J.A. Medders


It seems that the last couple of books I’ve reviewed have been bombs.  Honestly, I was having a hard time getting excited about reading another book to review because I was wanting to read something good for a change – so when Gospel Formed appeared in my mailbox I left it lying on the table until the very last minute before the blog review was due.  Boy was that a mistake.  I am not sure I’ve read a book this spot-on in a very long time.  Medder’s style is conversational, yet the truths he expresses are deeply profound and transformational.  Every word is packed with intense meaning; this is one of those books where just reading two paragraphs made my mind spin as I contemplated what he was talking about – and hopefully that’s a reflection of the depth and richness of what he writes and not of the simplicity of my mind!

With very few exceptions, I’m not sure I’ve read many books that focused me more on the life and work of Jesus than Gospel Formed did.  Every word of every paragraph on every page was about Jesus.  Medders didn’t talk about being gospel-centered in his book, he actually demonstrated it.  This is one you’re going to want to read with a pen in hand because you’ll be underlining and writing in the margins (and when I didn’t have my pen I felt like I was missing more than I was taking in).  His thesis is simple: the secret to Christian growth is Christ, and then he spends the rest of the book showing how that is true.   He writes,

“The gospel is the center of the Bible, and it ought to be the center of our lives, homes, churches, ministries, spiritual disciplines, songs, parenting, marriages, jobs, – everything.  The focal point of the Christian life is one cross and one empty tomb.  Without the gospel, we lack the proper understanding of any doctrine, and especially a robust knowing of God himself…The gospel is the message of the church.  Christians are made strong because of the gospel…It’s all gospel.  All the time….The gospel, the news of the eternal Son of God dying in our place for our sins, is not only the center of the Bible; it’s also the center of history.”

And he’s just getting started.  Like a boxer delivering one bone-jarring jab after another, Medders doesn’t pull any punches, continually putting us in contact with what is central to life in Christ: namely, Jesus himself.

If I could give a book a higher rating I would, but I’m limited to a perfect 5/5 stars.  You need to get this book and read it, and you need to let the truths of it seep deeply into your soul.  I don’t say this lightly, but if you’re looking to be reminded of what it means to live your life in light of (and response to) the Gospel, this is by far the best book I have ever read and reviewed on the subject.

Yes, for the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.  And since I’m offering such  strong recommendation on this particular book I don’t want anyone reading this to think I only offer “good” reviews – in fact, there are plenty of books I’ve given poor marks to and which end up in my trash can.  This is probably the strongest review I can give: normally when I finish a book I either throw it away (if it’s no good) or give it away (if it was worth reading).  When a friend saw this sitting on my table and asked about it I told him that when I finished reading it I’d let him borrow it; as I started reading it I was kind of sad I said that because I don’t want to give it up, so when he told me he secured a copy on Kindle through a sale I was actually relieved that I wouldn’t have to let this one get out of my hands.  This is one I’m going to have to read a second time.

Citizen by Rob Peabody


Citizen was a refreshing look at what it means to walk as a follower of Jesus.  Peabody directly confronts the me-centered religion that many modern Americans substitute for authentic Christianity.  Having moved from Texas as a pastor in a mega-church, Peabody ended up in London reaching the lost in a post-Christian culture.

While there were many quotes in the book that gave challenged me, perhaps this is the one that spoke most to me:

Back to our earlier statement: citizens of the Kingdom should be the most risk-taking people on the planet.  Why, you ask?  Because we have absolutely nothing to lose.  Citizen, this is your reality: you died with Jesus and were buried with Him.  You were united with Him in His death, and therefore you have already died, and there is no fear of death for people who have already died.  Death has already been dealt with.  What is the worst that can now happen to you? (p. 98-99)

The book challenges us as followers of Jesus to re-examine what it means to live as members of the Kingdom of God, as citizens from one world who live in this one.  And it’s not an easy challenge to ignore.  Peabody doesn’t simply remind us of what scripture calls us to, he models for us what it means to live that way and shares his experiences with us.  While reading the book I found myself not only challenged to live differently but also longing to meet the challenge; it wasn’t just an intellectual challenge but one that tugged at my heart and I found myself changing how I view my own interactions with people now.

One thing I particularly appreciated about the book was the amount of time Peabody spent reminding me of my identity in Christ and his focus on the community of believers, and his application of these truths to my own life; Peabody makes clear that living as a citizen of heaven is the right (and responsibility) of every believer – not just those in professional ministry.  Over the past year, in particular, I’ve been focused on trying to understand and experience what it is to live in community with other believers – both from my own church and from other churches.  Peabody’s words paralleled, in many ways, what I have been learning this year on these two topics.  Read Peabody’s words, again:

The gospel in no way supports a ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ distinction.  In fact, the gospel message is exactly the opposite.  Jesus died, and the veil separating the ‘Holy of Holies’ from the common area in the Temple was torn…The gospel is a proclamation that no longer is there a divide between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.  Jesus infiltrates all your life and desires to penetrate every sphere in which you are active.  Therefore, Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs to adhere to in order to save your individual soul and escape the world at death or the rapture, but is actually a new way of seeing (and experiencing) everything in the world.

Are we artists, baristas, teachers, electricians, engineers, students, or factory workers who also just happen to be citizens of the Kingdom?  Or are we, first of all, citizens of the Kingdom who happen to serve vocationally in these ways?

Our baseline for living has been changed to a Kingdom baseline.  The gospel and the Father’s Kingdom are now the foundations for the citizen, and all of our other loyalties are to be viewed through this lens.  When this lens is used, we can clearly see that a job as a banker can be just as glorifying to God and just as Kingdom-focused as the life of a missionary out witnessing every day.  For the citizen, it is about who you are and how you live, not about your title or job description.

If that touches your soul, challenges your heart, and draws you in so that you find yourself wanting more, wanting to say, “That’s how I want to live!”, then I would strongly recommend you purchase Citizen and start reading it.  I’m giving this book 5/5 stars.

For the record, I did receive a free copy of the book from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.  For more information on the book, or the ministry of which Peabody is associated, visit http://www.citizenthebook.com/

A Christian Survival Guide by Ed Cyzewski


A Christian Survival Guide claims to offer an “accessible and safe place to deal with issues that can give Christians sleepless nights.”  While it addresses many of the issues, I can’t recommend the book.

Perhaps I was just unrealistic in my expectations, but they certainly weren’t met.  Based on the description of the book and the table of contents I expected a primer on basic theology and spiritual disciplines.  And the introduction and first chapter (Prayer) was actually enjoyable.  Cyzewski wrote about how as our survival “as followers of Jesus may hinge on our preparations for the decisions we make and the challenges we face,” saying that we need to learn to “rest daily in Christ, our solid foundation.”  When I read the statement, “This book aims to help the saints persevere” and that “surviving as a Christian demands having the right beliefs, putting them into practice in community with other Christians, and most importantly, meeting with God regularly” I was actually excited.  While I believe in the concept of grace – that we can’t do anything to become saved – I also understand that the Bible speaks much to sanctification and working out that salvation, so I felt like the book was going to offer a great balance to those books that almost seem to suggest we can just keep sinning and never experience the transforming power of God all because of grace.

So where did I start struggling?  It was in chapter 2 when he starts to talk about the Bible.  My objection is probably obvious to Cyzewski (and probably not unanticipated – not from me personally, but from readers in general).  He does a great job of trying to balance a lot of different ideas in the chapter, but the one that I struggled with the most was his view on creation.  While he never comes out and specifically says he doesn’t believe the Biblical account of a literal six days for creation, he suggests that perhaps that view is a very acceptable view in scripture and that perhaps evolution and creation can co-exist.  He offers the usual arguments, most notably that the Hebrew word translated “day” can refer to a 24 hour period or to a longer period of time, and they were all arguments I’ve heard before.  Yet he (and everyone else) always gloss over the rest of the verse where scripture says, “And there was evening and there was morning”.

And, to be honest, normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal for me.  But in the very next chapter he begins to address some of the more difficult concepts presented in scripture – like God being violent – and offers up the explanation that since Scripture is inspired we have to both believe it and accept it, even when we don’t understand it.  And that’s where I started to get the rub.  Why is it that he (we?) can accept the stories of God destroying entire nations in the Old Testament and explain it away as “because the Bible says so,” but when it comes to creation in six days apparently “because the Bible says so” isn’t good enough.  In other words, where do we draw the line on what is solid ground and what allows for interpretation?  In the same book – in adjacent chapters – Cyzewski seems to argue both points.  And that’s my ultimate issue.

If you want to believe that God took more than six days to create the world that’s honestly fine with me; we can disagree on it, and I’m not going to say you’re not a Christian.  But you can’t have it both ways – you can’t say that scripture is open to interpretation and also suggest that there are things we don’t understand and just need to accept.  Cyzewski – even if he doesn’t say it outright it is there if you read between the lines – seems to suggest both are true, but he never offers any guidance for when to disregard something and when to accept it, outside of the typical “pray about it”, “listen to what God is saying”, and “confer with other believers”.  But the problem I have with this is that it places the ultimate source of authority for interpretation and understanding not in what God has already said, but in our own mind and perceptions.  The authority on God can’t be us; it needs to be God.

Does the book offer some great, practical suggestions for how to live a Christan life?  Absolutely.  But are there better books out there on the subject that won’t leave readers walking away scratching their heads going, “So how can you say one thing in chapter 3 and another in chapter 4?”.  Certainly.

Overall I’ll give this book 1.5/5 stars.  His style is great, he’s easy to read, and the tone of the book is very comfortable and conversational.  I just think that if you read the book you’ll see there are glaring inconsistencies in it that just leave you more confused than when you started.

For the record, I did receive a complementary copy of this book in exchange for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.