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Books That Have Changed Your Life

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of spending a wonderful luncheon with a group of believing faculty and staff at The Ohio State University. What made the luncheon wonderful was not simply the good food from our Faculty Club buffet line. Nor was it simply the charming personalities around the table. It was rather hearing from one another about books that had been formative in our spiritual journeys.  With the organizers permission, I am sharing the list* (to which I contributed a few titles). I’ve added Amazon links so you can learn more about any titles that sound interesting.

Title, Author(s)

Four Portraits, One Jesus, Mark Strauss

Names of God, Mary Foxwell Loeks

Women at Southern: A Walk Through Psalms, Jaye Martin, Alyssa Caudill, and Sharon Beougher (link is to a blog with ordering information, one of our staff contributed to this book)

Tales of the Kingdom, David and Karen Mains

Tales of Resistance, David and Karen Mains

Tales of Restoration, David and Karen Mains

Death by Suburb, David L. Goetz

The Parable of Joy, Michael Card

How to Know God Exists, Ray Comfort

Origins, Ariel Roth

The Radical Disciple, John Stott

Praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton

The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas

The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken and Gregg Lewis

The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cross of Christ, John Stott

Knowing God, J. I. Packer

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoffer

Daring to Draw Near, John White

Life of the Beloved, Henri J. M. Nouwen

The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman

Christianity: The Faith that Makes Sense, Dennis McCallum

The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

A Skeptic’s Search for God, Ralph O. Muncaster

One of the delights in such times is what you learn about people by the books they share. For one person, it is the chronicle of their seminary journey. For another, their journey to faith. For a third, it is their love for prayer. With another, it was the story of books read aloud to children and grandchildren that had drawn a family into the common narrative of the kingdom.

The other delight of course is having your attention called to books that you might want to read. The Robe is one of those classics I’ve never read. Death by Suburb sounds like it explores the realities we’ve lived with for the last 25 years in suburban Columbus. The Question of God is a book I own but haven’t read that is going to get moved onto the TBR pile.

This is one of the simplest things to organize. You just invite a group of friends to lunch (or brownies, as we did last January, described in my post “Books and Brownies“) and talk about the books that have meant the most to you or shaped your life. It might be that you could gather people around different themes (like “books I’d take on a vacation”, or books I hated as a kid and wouldn’t be without as an adult”).

(Books on this list are not endorsed by the Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff or The Ohio State University but simply by those recommending the books!)

What books have changed your life?

*Thanks go to Paul Post for typing up and posting the list!

Review: The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity
The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Os Guinness has penned this extended argument as both defense of and elaboration of how this statement passed in the United Nations in 1948 might shape the public squares of our countries nearly 70 years later, in a climate where this “first freedom” may be less enjoyed now than in 1948. Guinness argues here not for the privileging of any religion, or merely for religion at all. Rather his basic argument is that freedom is conscience is one of the things that defines us as human beings. He would argue this applies equally to the atheist and the materialist, as it does to any religious believer and that the compromise of this freedom, by the state or by competing belief systems, weakens this freedom not just for those immediately attacked but for all. Therefore, Guinness argues for neither a sacred public square, privileging a particular religion, nor a naked public square, banishing all religious belief from public discourse, but rather a civil public square where diverse beliefs, religious and secular, might listen and seek to persuade one another with regard to the well-lived life and the well-ordered society.

Guinness expresses grave concern over the impairing of the freedom of conscience in various parts of the world. His concern is not simply the forced conversions of religious believers in parts of Africa and the Middle East or the continuing persecution of religious believers in Communist countries. He equally, and especially has concern for the West, and what he sees are incursions on the singular freedoms of speech and conscience enshrined in documents such as our Bill of Rights. He would argue that mandates in health care laws that force religious organizations to provide abortion and other medical benefits contrary to their faith are such an infringement, as are the bans of religious groups on university campuses who “discriminate” because they require leaders (not participants) to affirm the religious beliefs of the group. He argues that while such impairments of liberty may not affect most of us, we may be witnessing a “death of a thousand cuts.” Each chapter concludes with this peroration:

It is time, and past time, to ponder the question. What does it say of us and our times that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be passed today? And what does it say of the future of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief if it can be neglected and threatened even in the United States, where it once developed most fully–that it can be endangered anywhere? Who will step forward now to champion the cause of freedom for the good of all and for the future of humanity?

Guinness has not left this task to others. In addition to this book, and his recent A Free People’s Suicide which I reviewed earlier this year, Guinness helped draft the Global Charter of Conscience, published in Brussels at the European Parliament in June of 2012. It articulates both the inherent rights of freedom of conscience and the necessary responsibilities any society must undertake to sustain that right.

Some might think this either unnecessary fear-mongering on one hand, or impossible idealism on the other. My own sense is that it is a clarion-call alerting us to not take for granted the singular freedoms we have enjoyed in the west and a well-thought out proposal for extending these freedoms in contextually appropriate ways throughout the world.

A friend of mine who is an ancient historian observed that violence, the execution of enemies of a different faith, and the forced conversion of women and children has been the way of the world throughout most of human history. The experience of freedom of speech and conscience of the last few centuries in the West, with all its problems and limits, has been a singular space of civility in a brutal world. If Guinness is right (and I think he is) the choice before us is whether to protect and seek to extend that civil space or to revert to the brutality that is characteristic of most of humanity through most of history that quashes the very thing that makes us most deeply human, our freedom of thought and conscience.

View all my reviews

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Football

Friday nights in the fall meant one thing in Youngstown, as in so many towns across the country–football! In a town where hard physical work was the life of many, the brawny contests on football fields across the city were an integral part of the culture.

It began with pep rallies on Friday afternoons. Then there was the special homecoming game after elections of the homecoming king and queen.  Those were always the cool, good looking kids. I never stood a chance! But you found a group to go with to the games, cheered the team on, and avoided the fights that sometimes broke out after games between people from rival schools.

But the big thing was the rivalries. One of the most famous out of Youngstown was, and still is, the Cardinal Mooney-Ursuline rivalry. These are the two Catholic high schools in the city and to this day is one of the most celebrated high school football rivalries in Ohio. We tended to root for Ursuline, where kids from the West Side went who didn’t go to Chaney (except when they PLAYED Chaney). So wouldn’t you know it–I go and marry a Mooney girl!

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Scanned from 1970 Lariat–City Series Champs!

Our big rival at Chaney was Austintown Fitch.  The Fitch game was usually early in the year and a good bellwether for what kind of team we had. Chaney and Fitch were in different football leagues–Chaney was part of the Youngstown City League, and most of our games were against other Youngstown City high schools (this was in the day when there were six public high schools in Youngstown).

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Coach Angelo: Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Lou “Red” Angelo was the coach I most remember.  Mr. Angelo was also my gym teacher and his “no nonsense” approach and willingness to push guys hard probably contributed to the number of winning teams he produced. His son, Jerry Angelo, was a general manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2012. Ed Matey took over coaching the Chaney Cowboys in 1971, the fall of my senior year.

The death of the steel industry and population loss in Youngstown also led to the demise of the City League as four of the six high schools (Rayen, North, South, and Wilson) closed and Chaney became a STEM-focused school. Only East High School now has a football team.

The demise of the City League hardly spelled the end of football fever in Youngstown. The Browns-Steelers rivalry is still alive, with Youngstown the “no man’s land” between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. While City League football was waning, Youngstown State came alive under Jim Tressel, winning four Divisional National Championships and building Stambaugh Stadium on the near north side of Youngstown–a prominent feature of the Youngstown skyline.

Football is a tough, physical game and a team game where no one can slack. That somehow fits working class Youngstown. That toughness is one of the reasons I remain hopeful for Youngstown. Someone knocks you down, you get up, and make sure it is the other guy on the grass the next time.

What are your football memories? Who was your school’s big rival (no trash talking here!).

Review: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book that G. K. Chesterton said “made a difference to my whole existence.” I am not sure that I can say the same but I did find myself impressed once again with George MacDonald’s writing and asking why I hadn’t read this sooner.

Princess Irene lives on the side of a beautiful mountain that harbors a dark secret in terms of a goblin kingdom, whose rulers are pursuing a nefarious purpose–nothing less than kidnapping the princess. She and her nurse are rescued from one nearly tragic venture into the wilds at night by the son of a miner, Curdie by name, who sings the goblins away with his verse and leads them to the castle.

Though chastised, the princess acquires a mysterious friend, a wise great grandmother, ageless it seems. Not all believe she exists or can see her, but Princess Irene can. Later, a strong silver thread that the grandmother has given her leads her to return the favor and rescue Curdie, when he falls captive to the goblins after repeated attempts to discover their nefarious purposes in digging under the mountain. Irene takes him to see the great grandmother, but he can see neither the thread nor the grandmother and leaves pettishly, despite his rescue.

From here events lead rapidly to the climax of a goblin invasion to seize Princess Irene. I will leave you discover what happens, particularly to the awful goblin queen with stone shoes to cover her six toed feet!

Like a good fairy tale or fantasy, the story works on multiple levels. We have the fear of things that go bump in the night and acts of courage and heroism and the thin line between these and foolhardiness. There is the question of what is belief–is it the delusion of believing something that doesn’t exist or the belief in something marvelous and yet the “substance of things not seen.” Both the Princess and Curdie are faced with this choice. Is there really a grandmother? Can I trust where the thread will lead me or that it is even there? How will I act when others don’t believe me? And there is the question of how one will conduct oneself in the absence of the king-papa as one awaits his return. How watchful will we be? Will Irene become who she is as the Princess and not simply a protected child?

This book came as a pleasant diversion from “weightier” books and yet not from “weightier” themes. And perhaps that is the value for adults of reading a story supposedly for “children”.

View all my reviews

Review: Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction

Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction
Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction by John Jefferson Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There has been a remarkable growth of books around spiritual formation and spiritual practices that lead us into communion with God. The title and artwork of this book offer the promise of both deepening our relationship with God and doing so through an engagement with scripture.

As one delves into this book, it appears that the author has taken on an important project. He acknowledges the plethora of meditation practices in the culture, some grounded in Eastern sources, some in ancient or more contemporary Catholic practice, and some grounded in neuroscience. What it seems that Davis is proposing is a theology of communion with God that grounds meditative practice in evangelical theological conviction. As such, this is an important project as some approaches to prayer and meditation seem to be thinly veneered adaptations of practices grounded in a very different worldview.

Davis grounds the possibility of communion with God in the real presence of the Trinity through the work of the Holy Spirit, our union with Christ and the possibility of real intimacy with the Father. All this is because we are now in “the age to come” because of the work of Christ.

Interestingly, Davis also argues for the rehabilitation of the ancient four-fold reading of scripture in light of these theological realities. We not only read in a literal sense. We read in a tropological or Christological sense, reading all scripture in the light of Christ. We read in a moral sense, and we read in an anagogical or heavenly sense, realizing that heaven and the rule of God is already breaking into our present reality because of Christ.

He concludes with an outline of how this might inform our practices. This includes a four step process of meditative engagement with scripture that consists of (1) intention and invocation, (2) reading and reflection, (3) prayer, and (4) recollection at some later point in the day. He also proposes Five Practices of Right Comprehension that flow from his theological convictions:

1. Right Comprehension of God (as the Triune God)
2. Right Comprehension of Reality (that includes the heavenly, unseen world.
3. Right Comprehension of Self (in union with the Triune God and the people of God)
4. Right Comprehension of Purpose (to glorify and enjoy God forever)
5. Right Comprehension of Worship (of the Holy, present God)

He differentiates this from the kinds of meditation practiced in contemplative prayer that seem to focus on the wordless comprehension of the presence of God. His method is focused prayer centered around theological truth about the God who encounters us.

While I strongly affirm the work Davis has done in theologically framing our communion with God including our uses of scripture in that communion, I had several difficulties with the work. One is the question of who Davis was writing for. It appeared from the cover and some of the things said in the introductory material that this was for a thoughtful general audience. Yet the language seems more for the theological guild in its assumptions that we will understand things like “ontology” and “realized eschatology” without explanation. Second is that it would have been helpful to provide some “guided practices” that fleshed out how one might enter into the kind of meditative
communion with God he is proposing.

My third difficulty is with an either/or approach that seems to deny the value of approaches that assume a theology of God “beyond words.” He acknowledges that our knowledge of God transcends words but is not dissimilar from the words we use to articulate that understanding (p. 140). If this is so, is there not room to move from words to wordless contemplation of God in a sense that is still consistent with evangelical theological conviction? Where is it right to simply be still and know that God is God (cf.Psalm 46:10)?

In sum, somewhere in the title of this book, I thought the word “toward” should be added. It raises important questions and proposes a theological framework often absent in spiritual formation circles. Yet I believe more work is needed to translate this into spiritual practice and to integrate this practice with contemplative practices grounded in the apophatic tradition (a tradition that does not always negate the use of words but recognizes that God transcends the words we use of Him and makes place for wordless adoration). I hope Davis will carry this work further.

View all my reviews

The Mystery of Growth

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pastor Rudy preached this past Sunday on one of my favorite parables. It is brief and so I will quote it in full:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29, NIV)

One of the things Rudy observed was the unusual character of Jesus ministry. If he was going to introduce the “kingdom of God” into the world, he seemed to have an odd way of doing it. He calls a group of followers from the margins of life–working class guys, tax collectors, zealots–not the best and the brightest by worldly standards. Instead of marshaling political power or training a militia, Jesus preaches the fulfillment of God’s covenant law and promise to Israel in his person, and exemplifies it through healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and caring for those on the margins. He succeeds in forming a ragtag group of followers and so provokes the powers that be that they kill him. What kind of growth strategy is that?

It’s the strategy of someone who trusts in the mystery of growth, who knows that he is sowing good seed, and that it will result in a harvest. Jesus knew that the words that he had sown, his investment in the Twelve, and the sowing of his own life (cf. John 12:24) was good seed. As crazy as it seemed, as mysterious as the growth process might be, growth and a harvest were inevitable.

Rudy explored our anxieties about growth in the life of the church. At times we can be fearful where we see decline or nothing seems to  be happening. Sometimes we lose heart and just circle the wagons with the few and faithful. Equally, our anxieties can move us to driven and frenetic activity that assumes that if we do the right things, we can make the church grow. Neither is appropriate for people who have the good seed of the good news of the kingdom.

Rather, like good farmers, we keep sowing, and keep tending the farm. We understand what our part is and what is God’s part in this growth process. There is a place for both faith and faithfulness. Good farming involves hard work and yet no farmer considers a harvest guaranteed simply because of having done the hard work. Harvest comes through the mystery of growth. I’m struck with the phrase, “whether he sleeps or gets up.” Farmers know they have work to do in the day, and trust the process of growth as they sleep each night. And they are watchful. They expect a harvest and watch the crop for that moment when it reaches the proper ripeness.

This is a word I need in several ways:

1. I’m actually part of a “growth” initiative in the ministry I work with. I need to remember that the message of the kingdom of Jesus is good seed and that the strategies we pursue reflect faith and faithfulness in looking to God for growth. This frees us from the pressure of “making it happen” that releases us to the faithfulness of hard work and the trustfulness that rests in the mystery of growth.

2. Like the farmer, I need to remember that growth takes time. I’m struck that it is easy for me to be tempted to give up too soon when I don’t immediately see growth. Instead of faithfully tending the work, it can be tempting to try the latest “new thing.” Sometimes this is like plowing over a field just when seedlings are emerging. Similarly, the Word takes time to grow in people. It sure has in me!

3. Finally, this parable raises the question of expectancy. Am I looking for the growth of the kingdom, whether it is the ripening understanding of the gospel that results in a person coming to faith, or the growth of a community in the depth and breadth of its work as it listens to and enters into the words and life of Jesus?

We all live toward some vision of the good life. Rudy’s message encourages me to live toward the mysterious yet inevitable growth of the kingdom of Jesus that challenges me to the hard and expectant work and the carefree rest of someone who trusts the good and powerful King.

This blog also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog.

A Problem I’ve Not Had

Actually there are probably a number of them. But the one I have in mind here is reading slumps. It occurred to me to write about this because I came across an article recently in Bookriot titled “5 Tips For Getting Out of a Reading Slump.” It has some good suggestions including reading an old favorite, finding a new book by a favorite author, going to the library, which allows you to try out a book and set it aside if you don’t like it, planning out a reading day filled with all your favorite things, including, hopefully a book or two, and going digital if you have not. This is probably great advice–I can’t really say because I’ve never been there.

It’s probably something in the way I’m wired but I can’t imagine being in a reading slump. I don’t say that boastfully because I don’t think there is anything special about being a bibliophile–weird maybe, but not special! My hunch is that slumps might connect to those emotional undulations many of us go through, or they might simply relate to a season of life where it is hard to find the time and energy to sit down with a book. It would seem to me that there is no great guilt attached to this. I’d say, read as you can, not as you can’t. But take this with a grain of salt–I’ve never had to get out of a reading slump, so what do I really know?

The closest I’ve gotten are periods where I’m either mentally distracted or simply physically tired and the words don’t register. Then, it is probably better for me to pray, do some yard work, take a nap, or get a good night’s sleep. Most of the time, that does it for me, and if it doesn’t, the real issue is usually somewhere else in my life, and inattentiveness in reading is just a symptom. Sometimes, I’m just doing enough “brain work” in other areas that I don’t need to do this in my reading. Then its time for something more light-hearted–a good mystery, a Teddy Roosevelt biography, or even a children’s story.

A more interesting question for me is, what keeps me hungry for the next book? A few things come to mind:

  • The consciousness that there are “so many books and so little time.” There are so many things I’d like to read, whether it is in fiction, theology, history, or science that it always seems incredibly easy to find the next book.
  • I move in physical and virtual communities where people often are talking about books. Whether it is someone else’s Goodreads reviews, a book mentioned in a meeting by a colleague, or a New York Times review, I keep hearing about interesting books. I guess hanging out in bookish circles sustains a bookish habit.
  • In my work, I often encounter interesting issues or intellectual challenges that pique my interest. Often these have to do with real people asking sincere questions or facing life issues. Sometimes, just listening is enough but sometimes consulting with better minds than mine is helpful!
  • Prowling bookstores and libraries restocks my mental list of interesting books. I may not have time right now for that book, but the next time I see it, particularly if I find it at a bargain (which is often the case if I wait), I may be ready to read it.
  • Talking or writing about the books you read and interacting with others makes reading more fun and less solitary. For some, a reading group is a great way to get around to reading the books one wants to read, if others want to read them as well. Or you may discover books and authors you never knew you’d like.

I suspect some of these things may be helpful for the slumping reader, or simply the reader who wants to find more time to read. But as I said, I may not be the best to ask as this is a problem I’ve not had.

Have you ever struggled with reading slumps? What has been helpful to you?



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