Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Point of Christmas

This morning I finished reading Melody Carlson's annual Christmas novel.  This one has a funny name (as they usually do)--The Christmas Joy Ride.  The story follows an 85 year old woman, Joy, and her neighbor, Miranda, as they travel in a large motorhome decorated for Christmas.  They are
traveling from Chicago to Phoenix to deliver Christmas decorations to some that need cheer.

I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book, but then it turned sour on me.  The last delivery was so unrealistic. I found myself actually wanting to sit down and rewrite the dialogue between the characters.  I had enjoyed the main character for most of the book, but then that disappeared.  She was presumptuous and unkind.  The ending was extremely unbelievable for me--much more so than the average "tied up in a bow" Christian fiction ending.

What's most interesting to me is what I realized after I finished reading the book.  Many Christians talk about how Christ is missing from the season.  People try to have joy--without the Lord in their lives.  This book emulates that idea.  God is mentioned in a crisis moment in the book once.  But, that's all I can recall.  Joy wants to share Christmas joy--for the sake of Christmas joy--not for Christ's sake.  This is how most Christmas movies are.   But, I was expecting The Christmas Joy Ride to be a feel good Christmas movie type book--with Jesus in it.  It's not.  It's missing the point of Christmas Joy.

A very long time ago, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  God gave his one and only son that we might live.  At Christmas, we celebrate his birthday--and the enormous, unfathomable gift that He gave us when He sent his son into the world.  The truth is that there is no Christmas joy without Jesus Christ.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book from Revell Publishing for review.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fun, Wholesome (if a mystery can be wholesome) Mystery

In our house, the reader of mystery novels is my husband.  But, every once in a while, I do pick one up.  That was the case last week when I sat down to read Ann Gabhart's new novel, Murder at the Courthouse.  Ms. Gabhart's fiction novels are all written under the name Ann Gabhart.  In a new turn, she takes the name of A.H. Gabhart for this series of mysteries she has written.  I think it's a little funny, but I do understand.  I can imagine that it can be difficult at times for authors to break out of the genre mold when they have written one "type" of book for years.  "A.H. Gabhart" sounds a lot more like a mystery author's name (ie. PD James, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse).

As I opened up this book, I knew from the first page why I have enjoyed Ms. Gabhart's books over the years.  She is one of the better Christian writers whose books I have reviewed.

The plot of Murder at the Courthouse centers around a deputy sheriff, Michael Keane, and his
search for the murderer who's victim was found at the courthouse steps in the first sequence of the book.  Michael is an interesting character to see develop over the course of the book.  He was a big city cop who returned to his small hometown to keep the peace.  His Aunt Lindy is a teacher at the local high school, who is known by most, feared by some, but respected by all.  There is a bit of romantic interest in Michael's life, but hardly much to speak of, which is quite a departure from Ms. Gabhart's other books.  Anthony is a rough and tumble high schooler who figures prominently into the plot of the story.

All of the characters in the story were easy to get to know and likeable, save the murderer of course.  The plot moves along at a healthy pace, though about half way through I will admit that I figured out who the murderer was (no spoilers here).  The language is less flowery than Gabhart's other books--appropriately so since it is a mystery.  What I appreciated most about this mystery is that it isn't gory or extremely dark like many modern stories are.  Instead, the reader is left with a story that finds an end, but isn't entirely wrapped in a neat little bow.  I'll not say more than that, but let you encounter the story's end for yourself.

If you're looking for an enjoyable book that doesn't have questionable content, I'd highly recommend this book!  It doesn't get too romantic, has a great plot and interesting characters, and it's just fun to read!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Revell books.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Next up...

I'm nearing the end of my stack.  One more to go after the book I'm about to review.  Of the books I read this week, this book had the weakest writing.  It was a very interesting thing to sit down, open up a book, and feel that my middle school writing students could have written the essays in this book. That said, the reason people will read this book is not for the writing.  It is for the stories and the primary subject--Horses.

I have a daughter who loves horses.  Honestly, it is a love that I don't understand or grasp.  I decided to read The Horse of My Heart: Stories of the Horses We Love, edited by Callie Smith Grant, with the hope that the stories would help me understand my daughter a little better.  This collection of stories did impress upon my heart something I already knew--that there are many people who love horses.  They love them the way my husband loves dogs.  They love them the way I love to take pictures and capture God's beauty.

The stories collected by Ms. Grant are retold by adults of experiences they've had at various ages.  Horses hold a special place in each person's heart.  One story I read was about a mean horse who bullied the other horses until one horse stood up to him.  Another story focused on a mother's love for Secretariat and a shrine she had in her home for the horse.  Still another was about a man who spent a summer with the intention of doing construction and instead took care of the livestock all summer long.  If I were to sum up all of the stories into one succinct idea it would be a plea for people to understand that horses' lives have value.  

The writing is similar to what you'll find in an issue of Guideposts or Reader's Digest.  They are simple stories, with some description.  The tone of each story is very familiar as if the individual writers are retelling their stories to friends they haven't seen in a long time.  Standard transitions are used in a very standard grammatical form in each story.  If you are looking for a literature type of book about horses, this book is not what you are looking for.  If you are looking for a Reader's Digest type of book about horses, then this is the book you're looking for.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Revell Books.

Tackling a politically uncorrect topic

A few years ago, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield wrote a memoir.  Her book was about her journey from being a lesbian, women's studies professor in upstate New York to being a Christian pastor's wife and mom of four kids.  Her book was aptly titled The Secrets of an Unlikely Convert.  She was won over to Christ, not by man's words or by the four spiritual laws, but by Christ and the Word of God.  Her first book was intended to share her story--to encourage people to love instead of to preach.  There was a pastor and his wife who God used to encourage and walk alongside her quietly, listening in love, unwavering in God's Truth.  This book was not intended to be one given to someone living a homosexual lifestyle with the hope that it would convince them of the truth.

But, Ms. Butterfield has now written a second book with tackles sexual sin and God's Truth.  This
new book is one that can be given to one who is struggling.  It is one that addresses all sexual sin and the roots of that sin.  She writes in the same writing style--you can tell she was a college professor.  So, it isn't always an easy read, but rather a worthwhile read packed with nuggets of thought worth chewing on and mulling over.  I deeply appreciate Ms. Butterfield's commitment to God's Truth.

Concern has filled my heart as I've watched the changes in our culture at large and even within the Christian community at large.   Christians seem to be of two minds when it comes to homosexuality.  One camp says that it is not being homosexual and struggling with that temptation that is the sin, but it is acting on that temptation which is sin.  We are all tempted by different sins.  WE are ALL sinners.  This is true.  Another camp says that it is okay for a person to be in an actively homosexual relationship because loving another is glorifying to God.  This second camp relies heavily on the claim that parts of the Bible have been mistranslated or are only culturally applicable to the time in which it was written, therefore the scriptures (which are many) that say homosexual acts are sin are invalid.   Last year, a few years ago a Christian recording artist chose to tour with an lesbian singer and there was some concern deep in my heart.  A year and a half later, that recording artist got a divorce due to his infidelity.  I don't know if there is a connection, but I do know that when we decide we only want to live by part of God's Word we put up walls in our hearts as if we are saying to God, "This isn't comfortable and it doesn't make people feel good, so I don't want to agree with that part of the Bible anymore."  The problem is that the Bible isn't about making us feel good.  It is about God.  Life is hard and all of us should know that just because something feels "good" doesn't mean that it is "right".

Last Sunday evening, I was teaching my Sunday School class about Moses and the ten commandments.  I emphasized to them that God told the people not to touch Mount Sinai or they would die.  I put a fence up in front of my cardboard model to emphasize this point. One little boy asked with glee, "Well, what if I just throw something at the mountain?"  He thought he could get away with it--going around the exact rule.  I responded that the person would die, because God was concerned with their hearts.  Now, I know that isn't in the Bible, but I do know that Scripture tells us over and over that God is concerned with our Hearts.  (Proverbs 21:2, Matthew 6, 1 Samuel 16:7, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)  The little boy was shocked when I told him that he couldn't be sneaky and get away with it.  We need to live by God's terms, not ours.  He gave us the Moral law in Exodus 20 to help keep us safe--to protect us from harm.

In the same way, Ms. Butterfield writes about our hearts.  She wants to challenge us to look at not just our actions, but what is inside our hearts.  It isn't the act of throwing a stick that would alarm God, but the heart behind it.  God is calling us to live on His terms, not our own.

I deeply respect Ms. Butterfield for writing this second book, Openness Unhindered.  But, I respect her more for walking a tough road than for her writing.  That is what is toughest.  I was shocked to realize how some Christians have treated her over the years.  Her stories challenged me to look at my own heart.  On page 32, she says, "It is sinful to write people off because they sin in ways that offend you."  Wow.  She's right.

This book tackles important topics that I think we all need to think about community, loving sisters in Christ that you disagree with about this issue, repentance, sexual orientation, and self-representation. The ideas she introduces can be applied to other areas in our lives.  For example, on page 133, she insightfully explains that "Our tendency is to find others who sin just like we do, so that we won't be alone.  We search for role models, so that we might minimize the sinfulness of our sin.  We enlist others to help us in calling our sin a sanctifying grace.  But we ought to quake in fear when we find ourselves traveling that path.  Because without intending it, such "covering of sin renders us enemies of God, and not friends."  That nugget of truth applies to anger, gossip, lying, cheating...  not just to sexual sin.

I grieve to think that there will be Christians who attack this book and the author.  Please pray for her and for those who attack it.  There are many Christians today who are buying into the belief that we all have a right to be "happy" and because of this, they are absorbing ideas that include thinking that the Bible has been mistranslated and misinterpreted.  Yes, it is hard when people we love are declared sinners by the Bible and that they will go to Hell when they die if they don't believe in Jesus.  I have people in my own family who have outright denied God and attacked Him and His Word.  Should that change that I view the Bible as the infallible, inerrant Word of God?  No.  I am sad for them, but God's Word is the Truth.

If you are struggling as a Christian to know how to think about homosexuality, how to respond and love people well, how to stay strong in the Truth that you read in God's Word about homosexuality, and get mind around what is changing in our culture, then I highly recommend that you read this book.  It will give you an enormous amount of food for thought.  I know that it is going to give me much to think about for a long time.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher, Crown and Covenant Publications.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


My oldest daughter is in that tweendom stage and my middle daughter is entering that time as well.  On Sunday as she was getting ready for church, she told me that she has her own style.  She said it sweetly with a smile on her face.  I looked at her in skinny jeans and a grey blousy shirt and agreed.  New territory.

A friend of mine recently shared that her daughter and her friends--fifth graders are looking forward to the school dance that will be held at the end of the year.  Her daughter isn't into boys, but this is a girl ask boy, or boy ask girl situation.  New territory.

Last week at lunch during our co-op day, I talked with the middle school girls, which included my 7th grade daughter, about what their families talked about at dinner.  We often have very humorous conversations at our table, so Autumn and I explained how my husband was interrupting Autumn's story with "in a volcano", "by a volcano", "under a volcano", "inside a volcano", etc.  The other girls talked about how their parents often talked about the bad things that happened during their days, or how they all talked at once if they had had good days.  I watched and realized that the girls hadn't developed the skill yet of learning how to ask each other questions--of valuing what their friends had to share more than what they wanted to say.  New territory.

The book in front of me is about that New territory.  Peter and Heather Larson have written She's
Almost a Teenager, with the help of David and Claudia Arp.  Peter and Heather Larson have experience counseling, but their daughters are in the tweendom time right now.  So, I began reading this book feeling a bit unsure.  I prefer to read books written by people who have lived through what they're talking about and are several years down the road--so they have had time to reflect on what they walked through.  Things always look different when you step back and get a bigger picture of things.  But, I have been pleasantly surprised by this book.  I am glad they have the Arps input.  The Arps do have those years under their belts already.  Additionally, I liked the many, varied stories from other families that the Larson's include.  Those stories give me ideas and they are what I value most.  Every family is unique.  For example, the Larsons are big on daddy/daughter "dates", as are the Arps.  This isn't something that works for our family--it doesn't fit our family's personality.  But, the Arp and Larson families do fit with that concept.  On the other hand, the subjects talked about at our dinner table are likely not the same as many other families.  As I learned last Thursday, telling stories about a motorcyclist named Sally who goes to Mars and passes by a dragon eating up princess dogs is more than a bit unusual.  Oh, and the story was, of course, "by a volcano".  The end of that story was that the Princess Cerberus came and attacked the dragon.

The book covers a lot of topics that I'm finding come up during these years:  boys, academics, faith, friends, money, tech, and their bodies (including how they dress and sex).  Each chapter gives some thoughts about the topic and some questions at the end that could be discussion starters.  I like that the authors acknowledge that every family has different feelings about dating, but the authors aren't extreme in their own views.  It felt very balanced.  They even referenced one of my favorite authors, Cynthia Heald, in the discussion of how to dress.  That tells me who these authors are listening to and receiving encouragement from.  The discussions are food for thought--they are not a legalistic list of you should do this and not do that.  I would always say to anyone reading a book like this--take from it what fits you and your children. You have your own personality and so do your children.

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, I think I would.  It's a place to start.  Even if you disagree with the Larsons and Arps, it will give you food for thought.  Iron sharpens iron.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from Bethany House Publishing.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Growing in Grace

Grace.  We are saved by God's grace.  And the Word calls us to show grace to others.  It is one of the most beautiful and wonderful, yet difficult words.  Over the years, I've several books about grace that I have learned from and enjoyed.  The Discipline of Grace is probably my most favorite.  A second place would go to Becoming a Woman of Grace by Cynthia Heald.  Lastly, What's so Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey is full of challenges to Christians about what Grace looks like and should look like.

In front of me, sits another book about grace.  It is titled Grin With Grace by Kathy Carlton Willis.
 Ms. Willis writes from her heart in this book.  It's full of stories of her life and what the Lord has taught her.  She writes with a very casual tone as if she was talking with a group of ladies at her church.  The tone of her book sounds like that of talks I've heard at various women's retreats I've gone to over the years.

If you enjoy books by Women of Faith conference authors or from Lysa TerKeurst's ministry, then you may enjoy this new Bible study about grace.  This book is more book than Bible study.  There are reflection questions, but they aren't questions like the ones in Ms. Heald's study about Grace.  If you're looking for a Bible Study about Grace that will get you into God's Word every day, I'd recommend Becoming a Woman of Grace.  If you're looking for a lighter study filled with life stories and reflection questions, this may be what you're looking for instead.

I find that I don't have a lot of time these days for this kind of Bible study.  My life has been crazy busy the past two months.  As a result, I need go through a study that just gets me into God's Word right away.  That's where my head and heart need to settle right away.

But, I respect Ms. Willis' honesty in her book and her heartfelt admissions about the lessons she's learned over the years.  On her website, www.kathycarltonwillis.com, she shares a great deal of information about herself--you can quickly get to know her.  I admire that she can grin with grace after all that she has walked through in this life.  She's gone through a lot, so she knows first hand what she's talking about.  If you read her website and resonate with what she's gone through, you may really be encouraged by her book.

One quick last note, I did think this book would be for younger women--even teenagers, but this book is really for women in their 20s and up.  There were a few stories that I think teenage girls might cringe at and not connect with--I'll say no more.

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the author.