Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review - Chazown


Chazown is the Hebrew word for vision or dream found in Proverbs 29:18 - "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (KJV) It's also the basis for a recent book by Craig Groeschel called "Chazown: Define Your Vision. Pursue Your Passion. Live Your Life on Purpose," published by WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.

I enjoy books that inspire the reader to dream bigger, to consider the fulfillment and fruit of their calling, and about the importance of a clear vision. Invariably when I finish such books I'm left with no further clarity for my own dream, vision, or purpose. The Chazown Experience was distinctly different!

Chazown is definitely not just a ray-rah call to dreaming bigger. It does call us to that, and covers the critical need for vision quite well. But the goal of the book is to help the reader discover what their purpose (or Chazown) might be. The book has five sections:

Part 1: Seeing Clear to the End (the desperate need for vision)
Part 2: Circling the Truth (the circles that help us find Chazown: core values, spiritual gifts, and past experiences)
Part 3: A Dream in Deed (discerning your Chazown and moving from vision to action)
Part 4: The Five Spokes of Chazown (relationship with God and with people, finances, health, work)
Part 5: From Here to Eternity (Chazown in community)
In addition there are several helpful appendices including how to create a personal time line, discerning core values, assessing spiritual gifts.

Basically, because God is a master designer who cares about you deeply, you are wired such that your purpose/Chazown is at the intersection of your values and passions, your spiritual gifts, and the life experiences that have led you to where you are today. The book has many chapters, but each is very short and filled with graphics and call-out boxes for key points. From that format you might think it's meant for easy dipping for a casual reading experience. That's not going to work very well for you! This is one of those books where you will get out what you put into it. There are a number of very thought-provoking and introspective exercises. Without doing these the chance is remote that you'll get the most out of this book.

For those who are serious about discerning their calling / purpose / Chazown, Groeschel has provided an absolutely amazing free resource to complement the book. It's called "The Chazown Experience" and it provides video teaching from Craig and extremely helpful online tools for doing the most important exercises. These include an interactive personal timeline, tools for discerning core values and spiritual gifts, and tools to convert vision to action in the five spoke areas. Anyone interested in Chazown should check out Chazown.com. The book covers a lot more, but you'll do better with the exercises by using the website.

Waterbrook Multnomah has provided several resources for those interested.
You can download the first chapter of Chazown and read it for yourself.
There's also a short video by Craig Groeschel on this thing called Chazown...

Chazown is available at Amazon and other book retailers.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review as part of their Blogging For Books Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Biblical Basis for Saving

A friend from church who consistently calls us to faith and trusting God to meet our needs asked recently "Where do you see any Biblical instruction to save and keep reserves? Instead we need to live by faith!" (I love this man's challenge for us to be strong in faith.) I gave this a lot of thought and study, and present here my thoughts on what the Bible has to say about saving.

Scripture on Saving   (NIV)

Proverbs 30:24-25 "Four things on earth are small,  yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer."  (c.f. Prov 6:6-8)

God does provide. But sometimes he provides before the need, and expects us to be wise stewards in setting aside in times of plenty for times of greater need.

I Corinthians 16:2 "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made."

Saving up - to give away and use to serve others - is commanded in a way that is consistent, and proportional to income. That is contrasted with waiting until the last moment the money is needed and passing the plate.

Proverbs 21:20 "In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has."

Saving up (not hoarding) is considered wise. It's considered foolish to spend every dime you bring in. 

Luke 14:28-30 "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’"

It's not a great sign of faith to expect God to cover you when you don't plan and save up. It's merely a sign of poor planning that does not honor Him.

Proverbs 13:11 "Dishonest money dwindles away, but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow."  (or the NASB: "Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, But the one who gathers by labor increases it.")

Wealth itself is never described as evil in the Bible - the key is what you do with it. The way to become wealthy: piece by piece, spending less than you bring in. 

John 13:29 "Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor."

In the Bible there are stories of God providing miraculously (Jesus and paying a tax, Mt 17:27; Elisha and the widow's olive oil), but this is for His purposes and in His timing, not a command for how we normally operate. It's clear that Jesus and His disciples also 'kept a purse' and had to balance issues of saving and spending.

Scripture on Giving

It should be pretty clear that God loves a generous giver, that we are called to give to the poor, to share of our possessions. Giving is not something you do instead of saving, it's something to do in addition to saving.

Proverbs 28:27 "He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses."

Malachi 3:10 "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."

God loves to meet our needs, He desires the tithe from us both as an act of worship and as a means to develop us spiritually.

Managing the Tension - Both Giving and Saving

What about the story of the rich fool and the commandment to be like the ravens who have no storeroom or barn? (Both from Luke 12). The teaching points here are not to avoid saving, but rather:

1) If you store things up for yourself and are not rich toward God, look out (Luke 12:21)
2) To fret and worry about the future and finances is foolish - your heart will be where your treasure is, and that should be in God.  (Luke 12:34)

Here's how the 'Money Help for Christians' website displays it, as a continuum from
Squander -- Save and Give -- Hoard

They note that one who squanders lacks self-control, one who saves has self-control, and one who hoards has greed. "The question is not to save or not to save. Nor is it to give or not to give. Both giving and saving should be practiced at the same time. Each Christian must prayerfully find the right saving balance.  Squandering our money does not honor God.  Hoarding our money dishonors God.  We must find the right – God pleasing – balance of saving."

Kick Debt Off discusses what the Bible has to say about savings and offers these comments.

Benefits of Saving Money as a Christian

  1. You are able to meet your family obligations without getting into debt.
  2. You get the ability to support other people in need.
  3. You are able to support Gods work in the local church and missions abroad.
  4. You have the ability to demonstrate your obedience to God through your finances.

Dangers of Saving - you're on a dangerous path if:

  1. Savings becomes your god
  2. You build your confidence and security in your savings fund
  3. You are hoarding (a good word for greed)
  4. Are in the habit of just collecting stuff without a purpose
  5. Your saving is motivated by worry

One final heart check - if we are calling on the church to "rely on faith" in all things instead of planning well and having set-asides for both known future needs and to have the ability to meet unknown needs in the future - do you have life insurance? a mortgage? money in a checking account? and IRA or a fund for a vacation with the family? Again it's not faith OR saving, hoard OR give-it-all-away, but a prayerful balance of giving now and saving to give later.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ministry Design

I've had some interesting conversations with ministry leaders and small group leaders at Calvary about how we do ministry and what we expect of our people. Do we strongly challenge people to become fully devoted followers of Christ? Do we have events with no agenda (or challenge) other than to hope people make a new friend? Do we have high expectations of our volunteer leaders and help them to be more effective in our mission? Do we accept people no matter where they are? The answer to all these is 'Yes!' How we can say yes when these seem to contradict each other is a practical challenge. To explain this I want to unpack a little bit about ministry philosophy and ministry design.

Ministry Philosophy - How we do and think about things

"You are loved. You are are accepted." - God loves everyone, withholding love from no one. And so must we.
"Encouraging the development of fully-devoted followers of Christ." - God accepts us where we are, but loves us enough not to leave us there. The Spirit lovingly and patiently ever calls us to deeper devotion and commitment to God. And so must we.
"Loving relationships" - community is not just a biblical value or a key purpose; Christ-centered relationships are essential to growth and ministry.
"Progressive sanctification." While conversion and justification happen at a point in time, sanctification is a process that takes a lifetime. Jesus' call to his disciples was also progressive. "Come and see", "Come and Follow Me", "Come and Be with Me", "Remain in Me."
"Next step" - we don't expect seekers to behave like believers, nor do we expect new believers to have everything figured out one month after coming to Christ. Our goal is simple - help each person discern and take the next step in (or towards) Christ which the Holy Spirit is leading them to take.
"Authentic Leadership" - we want our leaders to model, not just teach.

Ministry Design - Cultivating Environments for Growth

Because personal growth is an organic and relational process, we can't force things to happen. What we can do is to provide excellent environments which allow for such growth to occur naturally. Crafting such environments is not easy, but intentional thought about the design of ministry activities is important. The key to this is:

Know your Target - Know your Purpose - Know your Desired Outcome

Here is how we look at 'targets' at Calvary:
concentric circles of commitment.

Community - those outside the church
Crowd - those who attend Calvary
Congregation - have committed to membership
Committed - have committed to growth
Core - have committed to serve and share

It's important that ministry activities are friendly
and appropriate for your primary target.

The goal is for people to take further steps of commitment as they grow in Christ. Is it bad to be part of the crowd? No!! We're delighted to have people coming even occasional as they are exploring the claims of Christ. Is it ok to stay hidden in the crowd for 20 years? Not so much. We want the community to 'come and see' without other expectations. We want occasional attenders in the crowd to come to call Calvary their church family and commit to deeper fellowship. Our hope is that those who are close to Christ will join in His mission and start to build up the body and make disciples themselves. Here's the thing - an activity or environment that is well-designed for one target (or one transition) is likely ill-suited to people at other stages in their walk with Christ.

Let's look at some practical examples:
  • Community BBQ
The Community BBQ is what we call a bridge event. Its sole purpose to be a bridge to the community. It shows that Calvary cares about them, cares about being a good neighbor, and likes to have fun. If a person attends a bridge event and leaves thinking "Maybe not all churches are bad." and decides to come check it out sometime, that's a step forward, and a win.
  • Small Groups - Fellowship or Discipleship?
We have many small groups at Calvary. These are places where people can 'do life together', and encourage each other to grow closer to Christ. Some place a very high value on fellowship, doing things together, and trying to reach out to people on the fringe of the crowd. Others are fairly intense in the devotion to Bible Study. Is it ok for a small group to just be social - get together for lunch and shoot the breeze? No. But the "no" is not because it breaks a small group rule, it's because that doesn't help anyone take a next step in Christ. If the group spends most of the time chatting, but asks questions applying the sermon to their lives for 15 minutes, that might well be an appropriate next step for a group of guys in the "crowd", who have few friends who are strong followers of Christ, and who have never wanted to be in a small group before. A patient small group leader here will focus on "Come and See" and will have to be intentional to keep Christ as central in their time together (both inside and outside the group).
  • Men or Women's Ministries
The goal of a men's ministry or women's ministry is the same mission as the church - to encourage the development of fully-devoted followers of Christ.  But people are all over the map in terms of their current commitment to Christ and the life of the church. No one event or activity will adequate reach all people. No one event or activity will be 'the next step' for all the women, or all the men. How then do we apply principles of ministry design to pursue our mission and serve our people? By cultivating several environments, each designed to help a target audience to take a next step in Christ. For example:

- Bridge events (fishing trip, ornament exchange) to reach out relationally to friends in the community
- Fellowship-centric activities (casual breakfast, luncheon with a brief message) to allow people already part of the crowd to connect with each other, and develop an interest in joining a group or serving on a team
- Men's small groups or Women's small groups - where people are intentionally encouraged to great understanding of God's word commitment to spiritual growth
- Men's Fraternity or Beth Moore Bible study - more intense groups, though still relationally based, that challenge the committed to greater devotion and their next step
- Service Projects - both as a means to pull-in "hands-on" people to connect relationally with others, as well as to encourage those who love to study the Bible to get outside the church and let their deeds match their words.

That's a lot of activity. Trying to do all of these things is a recipe for burnout! Besides, chances are good that someone excited about in-depth Bible study might be frustrated by a meeting where spiritual growth is lightly referred to for five minutes. Team-based ministry is the answer here. Have a variety of people on your team, with a variety of interests, and work in those areas where you have both passion and skill. It is completely OK to start small, in an area you're excited about. Do the very best you can with that activity, but make sure that you are crystal clear in who you are trying to reach, designing your activity to best meet the needs of that audience, with a clear 'next step' that defines a win for those participating. If there's no one passionate about the activity or event, don't do it! But with everything you do choose to do... Cultivate an environment for growth for the people you seek to serve.

So, ministry leaders... does this make sense? What comments or questions do you have? Is there anything you want to push-back against?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wii Fitness and Spiritual Formation

To counteract a men's breakfast and a special dinner today I thought I better get in some exercise, and chose to do the Wii EA Active workout. Overall I like the exercises, feel they provide a benefit, and like the illusion of interactivity with a 'personal trainer.' Today for some reason it didn't go as well as hoped. On some exercises where I was giving my all, it just wasn't good enough the for program and the virtual trainer was nagging me to try harder. On other ones where I was gasping for air and barely moving, they chimed 'That's it! Now you've got it!'  (huh??)  Half-way through the routine I started completely ignoring the instructor, and just did whatever I wanted. Why? Because something the way I was holding the remote was not registering, and even though I was doing them right, the screen kept saying "No, watch closely and do it like me!" By the end I was ready to throttle the instructor, sell the disk, and never work out again. I'm thinking a Kinect system where it's actually paying attention to me instead of the other way around? Why did I even finish the workout? Because I get together weekly with another guy and I know we will ask me next week if I did what I promised I would do.

I wonder sometimes if our approach to spiritual formation in the church leaves people feeling the same way. Sermons that boil down to "You suck. Do better." Formulaic approaches to a quiet time, specifying the 'right' way to do it. Nagging way more about what we're not doing right than applauding that we're even trying, and encouraging what we are doing well. (I'm not saying our church is much like that, but it's easy for any church, any minister, to get too focused on the wrong thing.)

So after getting frustrated with this workout, I came up with...

10 Things that Wii Fitness can Remind us about Spiritual Formation:

1. If we lose sight of what we're trying to achieve, we'll never put in the effort it takes to get there.
2. Having a supposed 'instructor' that doesn't care about us or screams "Do it just like me!' pushes us further away from growth
3. Focus on taking your next step, however small. Don't look at someone way ahead of you and sigh.
4. Conversely there is great benefit to a personal trainer who can work with you to achieve your goals
5. Exercise and spiritual formation are often best done with a friend or a group
6. Finding the right exercises - ones that you actually enjoy doing and which build you up - is golden.
7. Going through the motions just to please your instructor is virtually useless.
8. Exercise/disciplines are half of the equation. It really has to go together with learning to feed yourself in a healthy way.
9. An accountability partner who asks questions but doesn't nag helps you get it done.
10. The goal is life transformation. Don't settle for anything less.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review - As Iron Sharpens Iron

If you're not a big reader, you may be tired of all these darn book reviews this month :)  I wasn't keeping up with reading (and reviews) earlier this fall, but have been catching up on my reading pile over the past few weeks. A growing interest of mine is mentoring, and I finally got to read a classic on the subject this week - "As Iron Sharpens Iron: Building Character In a Mentoring Relationship" by Howard and William Hendricks. It's a book I skimmed many years ago that didn't make much of an impression at the time, so I really wasn't expecting much more than an outdated men's ministry tool. I was wrong.

As Iron Sharpens Iron is an extremely practical and insightful book covering all aspects of mentoring relationships. Part One takes a close look at these from the perspective of a man (really, of anyone) seeking a mentoring relationship. Part Two flips things around to look from the mentor's perspective - why mentor, what to look for in a protoge, how to help the your mentoring partner set a learning agenda, and more. There is also a helpful appendix on how to establish a mentoring program in your church.

The principles within apply well both in formal mentoring contexts as well as informal. Both have advantages, but the authors make a strong case for informal mentoring relationships and taking things slow (especially for men). Here are some of the highlights I found within the book:
  • Established the benefits of mentoring relationships for all, including peer mentoring
  • Very practical and realistic advice on initiating mentoring relationships (one of the most common stumbling blocks) - including a nice list of 20 ideas for starting such a relationship
  • Clear focus that mentoring is about relationships, with intentionality for growth
  • The ten marks of a mentor - as well as the profile of a protege
  • A very useful guide in the appendix for personal or group use, to walk a person or pair through the book and apply it
  • Overall, an approach that seems like it would work well with modern (and postmodern) audiences of all ages
One of my favorite tips in the book was that when talking to someone about initiating a mentoring relationship, don't use the word mentor or mentoring!?! It tends to scare many people off unnecessarily. In talking to several men, both younger and older, I've found this to be quite true.  Likewise, if you're looking to start a mentoring program, they suggested that you don't actually make it a "program", and that you don't have to refer to it as "mentoring" :)

I've read over a dozen books and scores of articles on mentoring in the past few months. I now wish I started with this book - it pulls together many best practices and great ideas that I've seen scattered across many other sources. The intended audience for the book is definitely men, and leaders of men's ministry. Yet the principles and practices taught are definitely applicable to any audience. You can find "As Iron Sharpens Iron" at Amazon and other book retailers.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review - Spiritual Rhythm

In August I posted about discouragement and some encouragement found in Kem Meyer's blog, in which she was talking about a book by Mark Buchanan - "Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul". The very next day I found an unexpected package on my porch, a copy of Spiritual Rhythm, sent by Mark via Zondervan Publishers! In the intro he described the book as one not to be rushed through, so I've taken my time reading it. Tonight I finished, so here are my thoughts on the book.

Spiritual Rhythm is a deep and thoughtful book, looking how it's not just ok but natural and healthy to go through all forms of seasons in our spiritual lives. God is there, and speaks to us, in winter, spring, summer and fall. How we relate to Him, what is expected of us, and how we interact with others are all deeply effected by the season we're in. Mark writes with passion and out of the experience he has in dealing with each of the seasons. 

As I mentioned, this is not a book to be rushed through. It's one to take in slowly, to reflect on - and I imagine one to revisit when I find myself in a new season of life. The first part of the book takes a close look at each season, first describing what it looks like, then some thoughts on activities that will be most fruitful for that season. The second part of the book is a set of essay describing various spiritual rhythms: balancing, abiding, seeking, walking in the light, being, sustaining, knocking, persevering. I especially like the chapter on balancing. Most of us want balance, but we don't know that what we really crave is rhythm. If we tried to stand up in a kayak, yes, we better have perfect balance. But that won't get us anywhere. To actually paddle a kayak you need a rhythm. 

Spiritual Rhythm is a book worth reading - all the more so if you find yourself in the season of winter, or wondering why there seem to be so many ups and downs in your life, faith or ministry.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Review - Intentional Church

I dislike buying a book that has no reviews on Amazon, especially when it lacks the 'Search Inside' feature. Invariable when I get one of these, I end up wishing I didn't. Recently I took a chance on a book called "The Intentional Church: Moving From Church Success to Community Transformation" by Randy Pope. It was the first in a long time where I'm glad I did (even though the main content wasn't really what I thought it would be!)

The Intentional Church is a practical and well-written guide for church leaders desired to be more effective in developing mature disciples of Christ and impacting their community. The focus is on intentionality - thinking carefully about the elements of effective discipleship and ministry, and creating a reproducible process to help your people grow as followers of Christ. The Intentional Church was originally published as The Prevailing Church. It's been revised and updated, now including a number of examples and insights learned from Randy's experience as senior pastor of Perimeter Church in Duluth, GA. He does a great job of sharing real-world experiences and practical tips without ever making it sound like we should become copies of Perimeter. His goal is to provide a framework for thinking about church leadership without providing a specific model to emulate. Since reviews on this fine book are scarce, I'm going into a little extra detail here than normal...

Table of Contents Introduction: What Will it Take to Be Truly Successful?
1. What Jesus Wants from His Church
2. What Makes a Church Grow? Six Widely Recognized Causes... and a Neglected Seventh Factor
3. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. i) A God-Honoring Purpose
3. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. ii) A Faith-Oriented Commitment
5. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. iii) A God-Given Vision
6. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. iv) Well-Prioritized Values
7. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. v) Well-Defined Mission
8. Inside the Mission: Accomplishing Vision
9. Inside the Mission: Making the Mature and Equipped Followers: The TEAMS-based Church
10. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. vi) Biblically-based Job Descriptions- The Roles of Deacons and Elders
11. Biblically-based Job Descriptions- The Role of the Pastor
12. Biblically-based Job Descriptions- The Role of the Laity
13. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. vii) Strategically Designed Infrastructure
14. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. viii) Culturally Relevant Strategy
15. Inside Culturally Relevant Strategies- Four Questions that must not be Overlooked
16. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. ix) Well-Developed Goals and Plans
17. Inside the Effective Ministry Plan. x) Ongoing Measurement
18. Making the Tough Choices
19. Evangelism: Reaching the Lost in This Generation
20. Life-on-Life Discipleship: God's Model for Life Transformation
Conclusion: For His Gospel, for His Glory

There were a number of great insights throughout the book - I found myself highlighting quite a bit. The presentation is very logical, without being rigid, and not neglecting the pivotal role the Holy Spirit and power of God play in building His church. I saw four themes that came across very strongly in the book: a well thought out framework for strategic planning; a life-on-life approach to disciple-making centered on Truth, Equipping, Accountability, Mission and Supplication (prayer); leadership development; and the importance of the church being both gathered and scattered, reaching in and reaching out. Pope does a great job in providing the 'why' behind the tips he shares for effective ministry. For example, while discussing infrastructure he goes beyond the suggestion of providing large-size, medium-size and small-group structures to talk about the function behind each of these: to allow for celebration, community, education, and pursuit of the great commission. The only thing I felt was missing (given the title of the book) was more discussion on how to become more of an Externally Focused church transforming the community.

There are other excellent books providing frameworks for thinking about church, from a wide variety of perspectives, including The Purpose-Driven Church, Church Unique, and AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church. The Intentional Church is an excellent resource that should appeal to many church leaders - especially those with a desire for more intentional strategic planning, a more relational and focused discipleship process, and/or a desire to be both the church gathered and the church scattered.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Best wishes to you all on this wonderful Thanksgiving day! My family and I are really looking forward to sharing the day with some good friends, as we celebrate together the many things we're thankful for. I was commenting recently to my wife that one of the main things I'm thankful for is to have someONE to be thankful to. It's what makes the difference between Thanksgiving and merely Turkey Day. A friend on Facebook recently posted how Thanksgiving came to be a holiday in the United States - it was via a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

The Abraham Lincoln Online website presents it as follows:

Proclamation of Thanksgiving

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

This is the proclamation which set the precedent for America's national day of Thanksgiving. During his administration, President Lincoln issued many orders similar to this. For example, on November 28, 1861, he ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." She explained, "You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution."
Prior to this, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, mainly in New England and other Northern states. President Lincoln responded to Mrs. Hale's request immediately, unlike several of his predecessors, who ignored her petitions altogether. In her letter to Lincoln she mentioned that she had been advocating a national thanksgiving date for 15 years as the editor of Godey's Lady's Book.

The document below sets apart the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise." According to an April 1, 1864, letter from John Nicolay, one of President Lincoln's secretaries, this document was written by Secretary of State William Seward, and the original was in his handwriting. On October 3, 1863, fellow Cabinet member Gideon Welles recorded in his diary how he complimented Seward on his work. A year later the manuscript was sold to benefit Union troops.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review - Ignite

"Ignite - How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church" by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Henson takes an approach of having a series of 'big days' in your church to spark growth, and double the size of your church. The method is very practical, has been used in Searcy's own church, and lays out its rationale very clearly. The book is fairly well written, and will be of use to many churches who are healthy but stuck at a size barrier and wishing to break through.

I have enjoyed Searcy's other books like Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church, and Launch: Starting a New Church from Scratch, which are also very pragmatic books seeking to help leaders do a good job with their systems for small groups, first impressions, and church planting. Searcy is definitely a 'systems thinker.' What I like about the other books is that they give very practical tips about implementing things that are very healthy and appropriate for most churches. (See my earlier reviews for Fusion and Activate)

Yet I don't feel the same enthusiasm for Ignite. While he does not intentionally minimize the role of the Holy Spirit, and notes that God wants to reach people far more than we do, the book still comes across as a paint-by-numbers approach to manufacturing growth by human means. He says that both attractional and incarnational approaches to outreach work well and that he advocates doing both, this is a 100% come-to-us approach to evangelism. The material really isn't that new if you're already familiar with the purpose driven church model and the teaching of Rick Warren (which also thinks highly of big days). One issue I have with this book's approach is that it really has a goal of growth, as opposed to a goal of health. In every discussion of big days and church growth I've heard from Saddleback it's been very clear that the goal is church health, and the natural result (if your structure doesn't interfere) is growth - but you never make growth itself your target. When the table of contents talks about equipping the people for evangelism and giving them the tools they need to succeed, I was really hoping for more than 'invite postcards'.

The book describes how big days and the buzz and momentum that come from it can attract more visitors. What is not discussed at all are the reasons why the people would choose to stay. For your limited budget and energy, do you want to invest in mailings and big events and attendance numbers, or do you want to invest in people and disciple-making that show the difference it makes to be a fully devoted follower of Christ. (If you're doing the latter well and want to know how to do the former, this book is for you.) Again, the book and methods aren't bad in themselves - if read and followed with a great attitude seeking to honor God, reach the lost, and be a part of God building a healthy church, then your church may find benefit from this. But more likely the church that is "stuck" and not growing may have a deeper and more spiritual reason that is not best addressed by Ignite.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review - Insights on John

Chuck Swindoll has been a trusted and powerful communicator and teacher for many years. Recently he has been writing a powerful series of books aimed at bringing the Bible to life -- Swindoll's New Testament Insights Series. His gifts for teaching in a way that combines scholarship, storytelling, and personal insights really shine through in this series. Through the Amazon Vine program, I received a review copy of the "Insights on John" volume in this series.

Swindoll's Inisights on John is an extremely readable commentary on the Gospel of John. The author definitely takes a deep and careful look at the text, and does not shy away from trying to explain nuances of language and history. Yet at the same time, the writing style is quite clear, never pedantic or condescending, and very understandable. At 368 pages it's not a book you're going to read cover to cover quickly. It's best application is probably as a companion to an in-depth personal or small group study on John. As such, the name "Insights on..." describes the approach of the book very well -- it definitely doesn't come across as a standard commentary. He doesn't strain to come up with something to say about every verse; instead you get the sense he really is sharing a number of insights that have been meaningful to him in his own study and devotions. Finally, the quality of the book and its hardcover format are very nice. 

Insights on John contains a number of helpful features: 
- The Bible text itself, as a whole passage, in the NASB version 
- Insightful comments, taking things a few verses at a time 
- Personal notes in "From My Journal" sections 
- Application sections that aim to help the Word transform the life of the reader 
- Many useful pictures, charts, tables, to better explain the text 

I would recommend this one to anyone who wants to understand the Gospel of John better and apply its teaching to their life. It can be found at Amazon or other retailers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - The Walk - Appalachian Trail

One of the fun things about being a book lover and blogger is occasionally I'll get a chance to read an inspiring book that was completely off my radar. This week I got to do that as I read "The Walk - Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail," by Randy Motz and Georgia Harris. Randy ran across several of my reviews on Amazon and asked if he could send me a review copy of this book, which he described as "stories from our six months on the trail, scripture passages, inspirational quotations, prayers and devotionals to draw the many parallels between walking the trail and a walk of faith." I'm glad I took at look at it...

Randy "Windtalker" Motz and his wife and hiking partner Georgia "Mom" Harris love hiking, music, telling stories, and sharing their faith. The subtitle describes the book well - a reflection on life and faith. Across eight chapters they share a number of great things they learned as they saw parallels between their spectacular 2,175 mile journey and the walk of faith as a Christian - insights on prayer, perseverance, community, praise and worship, materialism and simplicity, pride and humility, and service.

Some distinctive features of the book: a warm conversational tone, always reflecting awe and wonder for God's creation and never condescending, blocks quotes sharing some words of Native American Wisdom, several prayers and devotional thoughts, and some keen insights on the Christian walk. I like how they found, as introverts expect to marvel most at scenery, just how more impactful were the people they met along the way, discovering that "The people ARE the trail. When you do life with people, it changes you." (great words for every small group leader to hear!)  Their prayer: "Lord, give me the compassion to love those around me as you would love them. Help me be an encourager to everyone I meet on the path."

The Walk: Reflections on Life and Faith from the Appalachian Trail can be ordered along with other resources at QualtechResourceGroup.com or from Amazon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review - Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual

I recently reviewed "Real-Life Discipleship" and here take a look at the companion "Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual" by Putnam, Willis, Guindon and Krause through NavPress. The subtitle, 'Equipping Disciples Who Make Disciples' sums up the purpose of the book. Their approach is to reform the small group ministry within a church. It seeks to help small group leaders develop as a discipler with their head, heart and hands - learning what a disciple is and how they grow, becoming an intentional leader in the process.

The term 'training manual' is an apt description - this is no casual small group study. The manual lays out twelve key topics spanning twelve weeks, and each member will need to spend 20-30 minutes a day for five days a week in preparation outside of small group time. There is a leader's guide in the back which helps the group leader to plan and work out a 90 minute study that includes shepherding, vision casting, discussion, coaching, application and practice.

Topics include: the heart of a discipler, what is a disciple, how disciples grow, three keys to making a disciple, how to be an intentional leader, a closer look at a relational environment, a closer look at the reproducible process, being intentional with the spiritually dead and spiritual infants (Share), helping spiritual children grow (Connect), helping young adults help others (Minister), being intentional with spiritual parents (Disciple), and a tool for study called storying.

The Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual is a practical workbook that would be ideal to first apply as a pastor with small group leaders. I don't get the sense it's intended for direct use within a typical small group with a mix of spiritual infants, children and spiritual young adults or parents. If your team can make the commitment to study and discuss the discipleship process laid out here, it would likely be of great benefit to your church. The question that remains in my mind even after reading the manual - how do you actually pull this off with a mixed bag of small group members who feel their lives are already out-of-control busy?

If discipleship is important to you, do check out the Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual and companion hardcover Real-Life Discipleship.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from NavPress Publishers as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review - Real-Life Discipleship

"Real-Life Discipleship: Buliding Churches that Make Disciples" is a new book by Jim Putman published by NavPress. It's a concise and well-written book aimed at church leaders to address a critical question: "Is your church making disciples... who make disciples?" and that gives them the principles and tools to be able to answer 'yes'. As the senior pastor of Real Life Ministries Putnam's approach is both biblical and very practical, and has been successful at his and other churches.

Real-Life Discipleship reexamines the goal and methods of discipleship. Part One sets the stage for discipleship and describes three keys for effective discipleship: an intentional leader, a relational environment, and a strategic, reproducible process. Part Two takes a close look at five maturity levels of seekers and believers, then gets into the details of their process: Share, Connect, Minister, Disciple. Part Three addresses some important questions on developing leaders within your church. "The leadership of the church must view its job as that of making disciples who can make disciples."

I had a a mixed but overall good impression in reading this book. In some ways it seems like many other old and new books on discipleship, hearkening a return to how Jesus did things - most of which fail to provide practical insight on how to actually do that in the 21st Century. The 'process' in Real-Life discipleship is more of a framework than something you can directly implement. That is both a plus and a minus - you will definitely need to consider further how to apply the principles here to your specific situation. In addition, there is a supplemental Training Manual that gives some more specific ideas and studies.

The material in Real-Life Discipleship is very solid, and Putnam does a great job in addressing a tough subject in a short space, covering both the rationale and process for discipleship. NavPress is known for its commitment to discipleship, so it's a natural addition to their lineup. I would recommend it to pastors and church leaders whose churches are not doing as well as they could be in making and reproducing disciples.

Real-Life Discipleship: Building Churches that Make Disciples is available at Amazon and other book retailers.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from NavPress Publishers as part of their Blogger Review Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review - Fatherless Generation

This week is the blog tour for Fatherless Generation: Redeeming the Story, by John Sowers. It's from Zondervan, who provided a complimentary copy to review for the tour. Sowers shares a powerful message looking at the question: "What does it mean for a generation to grow up without Dad? What happens when Dad walks out the door of your life, never to return? What happens when our givers of life give us a lifetime of tears?" Sower knows this answer first-hand, from personal experience and as leader of The Mentoring Project - a ministry whose mission is to address the significant problem of fatherlessness.

Fatherlessness is a huge problem in this generation. The numbers presented here (though he doesn't talk much about numbers) are staggering. In the US, 33% of youth are fatherless. Children from fatherless homes account for: 63% of youth suicides, 90% of all homeless and runaway children, 80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger, and 85% of all youths sitting in prison. The implications in the life of each youth, and for society in generation, make this a tremendous challenge today.

Part One of the book describes the problem of the fatherless generation from various angles, paints a vivid picture of how widespread and important the issue is. Part Two 'Redeeming the Story' talks about things that can actually make a difference in reversing the trend and in reaching out to the fatherless generation. There are a number of great stories and examples here, from Matt Redman and Big Mike, to teenage elephants gone crazy in an unending musth cycle, cutting, teenage pregnancy, and boys and girls desperate for their father's love. The situation comes across times as hopeless, but the goal of the author is to describe just that - a picture of hope, one based in Jesus (who became fatherless for a time) and on the difference the loving, modeling and coaching of a community of mentors can make. He challenges us, and challenges churches, to stand up and make a difference.

I thought the book was very well written, informative, and challenging. I would have like to have seen more about The Mentoring Project, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, or other practical approaches to getting involved in being friends and mentors to youth. He makes it very clear that building trust and relationships takes a lot of time and commitment, done consistently. The huge challenge remains how do we fit something like that into already crazy schedules?! I would recommend the book to anyone unaware of the severity of the problem of fatherlessness and to any person or church leader who is wondering how to make a difference.

Fatherless Generation is available from Zondervan, Amazon or other retailers. (This week only, Oct 11-15th, there is a 50% off coupon from Zondervan). Or check out a free sample excerpt. The forward was written by Donald Miller, who has provided a short video review.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Keys to Being an Effective Team

I ran across a scrap of paper this morning on which I took some notes from "The Human Side of Enterprise", written by Douglas McGregor. He talks about what characteristics separate high performance teams from others.

Key Characteristics of Highly Effective Teams
  1. A good a team is comfortable, relaxed and informal in their atmosphere.
    There is a lack of obvious tensions, and people are engaged.
  2. Everyone participates in discussions.
    The discuss in on task, people speak up, not dominated by one person.
  3. The task is well defined and accepted by team members.
    Individuals can identify their objectives and commit to them.
  4. Members really listen to each other.
    Ideas are heard, not ignored, and the loudest voice doesn't win.
  5. Critical suggestions are made without personal attack.
    There is disagreement, and this is not viewed as unhealthy.
  6. Members are free to express feelings and not just ideas.
    In addition, the group is conscious about its own operations.
  7. Everything is out in the open, with no hidden agendas.
    There is both unity and clarity of purpose.
  8. Clear assignments are made and accepted.
    No ambiguity on next step or who is responsible.
  9. Most decisions are made at the point where there is general agreement.
    Reservations are expressed during meetings, not held and griped about later.
  10. Leadership shifts depending on the circumstance.
    At times others may step up due to special knowledge, skills, or passion.
Some of these may seem surprising. Disagreement and conflict are ok? Leadership can shift around? Full consensus may not always be required? The group takes time talking about itself and how effective it is functioning?

These characteristics apply well in business settings as well as on ministry teams.

Is there something today you can do to help your team be more effective?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review - Sun Stand Still

I'm a fan of Pastor Steven Furtick, and was very excited to get an advance review copy of his new book "Sun Stand Still" from the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. Pastor Steven is the lead pastor and founder of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC (6000 strong and growing). He's a very talented young man, a passionate and biblical preacher, and someone who demonstrates audacious faith.

The full title of the book is "Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible." This comes from a passage in the Old Testament describing a highly unusual event. Joshua prayed and God caused the sun to stand still for a full extra day (!)  The theme of the book can be summed up in two words: audacious faith. In his own words...
"This book is not a Snuggie. I’m not writing to calm or coddle you. With God’s help, I intend to incite a riot in your mind. Trip your breakers and turn out the lights in your favorite hiding places of insecurity and fear. Then flip the switch back on so that God’s truth can illuminate the divine destiny that may have been lying dormant inside you for years. In short, I’m out to activate your audacious faith. To inspire you to ask God for the impossible. And in the process, to reconnect you with your God-sized purpose and potential."
I found this book to be simultaneously very easy to read, and very hard to read. It was inspiring, but at times discouraging. It was easy to read because Furtick writes heart-to-heart, in plain terms. It was hard because it's so darn challenging! He succeeds at encouraging the reader to consider a faith and a life far beyond what we can do in our own strength, and for this he is to be commended.

The difficult part for me, and perhaps for several other readers, is that much of what he talks about assumes the reader has a clear dream or vision from God, a definite purpose that perhaps seems too big to tackle. He says "Before you can pray a Sun Stand Still prayer, asking God to do the impossible you've got to set your sights on the specific impossible thing God wants you to trust him for in your life... When I use the word 'vision' I mean a "clear sense of purpose regarding what God wants to do through your life." Some people would refer to it as a calling or life mission."  Therein lies the trouble. For myself, and for many friends I talk to, there is but a faint sense of a calling or "life purpose." It's a huge great big fog cloud for many believers. I don't really have trouble believing God can and wants to do great things, and wants to act powerfully in my life, but have much less understanding about what it is He wants to do through me :)

In any case, there were a number of powerful insights I took away from the book.
- The key to being a disciple is being completely available to Jesus, i.e. unconditional obedience.
- Whatever you're good at, that's your calling. Wherever and wherever it may lead you, is holy ground.
- Every member of the body of Christ is a link in the life-change process of other people
- Furtick also hates the phrases "just a volunteer" and "full-time Christian ministry"
- The scope and impact of your vision will be determined by who you believe God is.

Probably the biggest takeaway on the nature of trying hard and/versus trusting fully in God was described in the story of Joshua in noting that in addition to this audacious prayer, he staged an all-night forced march of his army. That's a grueling task! And it led to this insight by Furtick:

If you're going to pray for God to make the sun stand still, you'd better be ready to march all night!

In other words, it calls both for giving it absolutely all we've got, but also trusting in God to do things absolutely beyond our ability in our own strength. If you've got a dream but are lacking the faith to see it come to pass, or if you just find yourself too stuck in comfort and safe prayers, this is definitely a book worth checking out.

Sun Stand Still releases TODAY, Sept. 21, 2010, and is available now at Amazon and other retailers.

(Disclaimer per FTC guidelines: as with other books I receive from publishers, the review copy is free but I'm completely free to post whatever honest opinion I have about the book, good or bad. I always call 'em like I see 'em!)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

For You Who are Hurting

I prayed for you this morning. I don't know or understand the pain that's going on in your life right now. But I want you to know that you're loved. We're friends, not close enough that you can share all that's going on, but enough to care, to feel sorry that you're hurting. I don't have much to offer you, except a word of hope. There is one who does understand your heart, your pain, and who knows your future. He loves you deeply, even though you may not feel that much right now. It may seem like He is distant, or does not care. It may seem like this pain will never stop. He does. And it will.

What I don't have hope in, I'm sad to say, is that people will stop being such jerks to you. Little hope that family members or once close friends won't continue to disappoint. Not much hope that everything will instantly be better tomorrow. Little hope that the craziness and bs you face will stop once and for all. I don't have hope you'll forget the pain that seems like got you into this season of despair.

What I do have absolute hope in is that the God who made you and loves you will be there for you when no one else is, wants to help you through this rough time, and will one day bring a time of peace and restoration of joy (yes, deep joy) in your heart that will pass all understanding. I have this firm hope because the One who loves you is faithful and He will do it. In Hebrews 10:22-24 we're asked "Let us draw near to God, with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith... let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful." Until that day comes when you find lasting peace and and end to suffering, I hope that I and others can continue what is commanded next in verse 25: "Let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching."

He loves you... more than you can imagine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Review - The Church of Irresistible Influence

"The truth is finally revealed. Anything done in the name of Christ, in the name of love, is ministry. Anything."  That's a powerful quote that caught my attention from a book called "The Church of Irresistible Influence: Bridge Building Stories to Help Reach Your Community," by Dr. Robert Lewis. The Church of Irresistible Influence is a story-filled book describing the early church's spiritual energy and depth which amazingly transformed the surrounding culture - and encouraging the church to do its best to do nothing less. Lewis shares the story of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, and encourages the use of a bridge metaphor to become a church of " irresistible influence" (or i2). The book has five parts:  i) Spanning the great divide - what will it take to reconnect church and culture;  ii) Designing the Structure - How-to of incarnational bridge building;  iii) Experiencing the Results - true stories of i2 in action;  iv) Expanding the i2 effort - through partnering and leadership development;  v) Anticipating the Future - the Church in the 21st C.

What would it look like if it were more important that our lives were more attractive, rather than our church buildings? Lewis discusses at length the FBC mission statement: "We exist to manifest the reality of Christ to the world by equipping Christians to live lifestyles of spiritual integrity...  i) Passionately committed to Jesus Christ (a heart for God); ii) Biblically measured (everything by the Book); iii) Morally Pure (in a morally compromised age); iv) Family-centered; v) Evangelically bold (willing and confident in sharing one's faith); vi) Socially Responsible (the community around us is our business).  ... and to equip Christians for influential works of service in our community and in the world."

They talk quite practically about "Structure" which is about unleashing people with purpose - this structure must allow for hands-on i2 exposures, personal i2 ministry, strategic i2 investments. FBC's small group structure is designed to counteract getting stuck in our own safe huddles. The SG structure "intentionally processes people toward finding a personal ministry of influence." : They diagram it as: 1) Discovery,  2) Seasons of Life,   3) Common Cause. Discovery is for newcomer orientation, small group training and church membership, lasting 8-10 weeks. The Seasons of Life phase is a 3-year long small group spiritual growth experience emphasizing relationships according to a member's particular life stage. Common Cause is a small group spiritual growth experience emphasizing service to Christ according to a member's gifting and design; the time commitment is year-to-year. A partial list of the Common Causes groups includes CR, Bethany Christian Services, Crisis Pregnancy Center Support, Crown Financial Ministry, Divorce Care and Prevention, Habitat for Humanity, Upward. There are groups centered around the needs in the church, needs in the community, needs around the world.

Chapter 10 talks about the how there is no greater investment than in finding and training the leaders of tomorrow. "So, what kind of church leader should we be seeking to influence? Those who possess the following characteristics: keen intellect, high energy, a track record of leadership accomplishments, spiritual passion and a godly lifestyle, an ability to think conceptually, results-oriented, an ability to work in a team environment, a bent toward idealism. Of these, idealism is perhaps the critical trait."

Chapter 11 was quite interesting, talking about developing a community strategy. Phase One: Community Research.  Phase Two: Focus Group Feedback (panels of 22 community and social service leaders, to interact with the results of the findings from phase one).  Phase Three: Survey of Churches. In their area, race and education remain the dominant issues. Eight others were identified: affordable housing, domestic violence, health-care access, youth in poverty, substance abuse, elderly issues, transportation, economics/employment. The ended up with the following recommendations after the survey:  i) churches participating in the survey should focus as much as possible with their internal ministries on areas of need; ii) churches should focus on existing programs in the community that are doing a good job at meeting needs rather than start something new; iii) churches should look for creative ways to work together; iv) churches should look to partner with other organizations in the community that are effectively meeting priority needs and which are consistent with the mission of the church;  v) churches should be actively pursuing racial reconciliation.

Overall, The Church of Irresistible Influence is a good read. At times it provides great stories and useful principles, while at other times it feels a little too much like a canned model of things that might work great for them but not for us (I don't think this is their intention!)  If you want to have a greater influence in the community, personally or for your church, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review - Your Money God's Way

We're currently taking a close look at managing your finances, from both a biblical and practical perspective at Calvary. We're even preparing to launch a Financial Peace University program (Momentum) next January. So I've been doing some reading in this area. One book I got to look at recently (via a review copy through Thomas Nelson's Book Sneeze program) is "Your Money God's Way: Overcoming the 7 Money Myths that Keep Christians Broke" by Amie Streater.

Streater's approach is different from other books teaching sound financial principles. While it gives a lot of practical advice, it's not trying to treat the symptoms of financial woes, but rather take a look at the root problems, identifying seven "counterfeit convictions" that love to get between people (especially Christians) and financial peace. She takes a look at money habits, where they come from, how they affect us, and sees which habits are supported by Scripture and which go against God's plan. Amie Streater is an Associate Pastor of Financial Stewardship (that's a new one!) for New Life church in Colorado Springs. Her writing style is very clear, filled with stories, and with no hesitation in telling it like it is!

The seven key chapters on counterfeit convictions are:
  • The Fix-It Fantasy (money can't fix you or your problems)
  • Saviors or Enablers (doormat syndrome)
  • Self-Righteous Slackers (how work is part of God's design)
  • You Must Be Here to Help Me (assuming other people's intentions are good)
  • God is an ATM (giving as a magic wand)
  • The Scarlett Syndrome (rose colored glasses, Christian style)
  • The Cliff Jumpers (pushing the need for faith a little too far)
At the end of each chapter are two useful sections: God's way - a collection of takeaway points from each chapter; and Solution Steps - simple actions you can take today to start improving your financial situation.

Overall I think this book should be quite useful to those currently longing for financial health, especially those wondering how God can let them as a Christian flounder so badly. It's a good complement to other action-based book. For example several times the author refers to and recommends Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. Read it to find out if your beliefs or habits might be a key cause of current financial struggles, or if you prefer lots of stories rather than dry economic advice.

Your Money God's Way is available at Amazon and other book retailers. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Oh No - I am one of THOSE Dads

You know those dads who seem to not have a clue, who other people shake their head at as irresponsible, and take for granted the roughly 10 million things their wonderful wives do to take care of the family? This morning it was pretty clear... I'm one of those dads!

Dawn had to take our daughter down to Indy early this morning, so I just had to feed our three sons and get them on the bus. How hard can that be? It was a breeze. We had plenty of time. I toasted the bagels, slathered on some peanut butter, and we had breakfast together. Holy cow they eat slow. Like "watching a glacier advance across the polar caps" kind of slow. Eventually it's time for the bus for the older two. I notice my eldest's hands have an unusually large quantity of peanut butter on them. "You have any kids in your class allergic to peanut butter?" "Nope." "Good. Still, be sure to get that peanut butter off your hands. It's time to get the bus, so hurry up, put your things in the sink, and get moving." Note carefully the how that was phrased...

I went to grab something for my other son, and hear the other two say "Bye dad!" and sprint for the bus. Me and lil J relaxed a bit, and I got him on the bus 20 minutes later. Off to work. That was easy. Phone rings on the way, I figure it's Dawn thanking me for watching the kids or double checking they made it ok. Oops, I forgot to sign his homework like she asked. Hmmm, wait that's not even her ringtone.

'Is this Laurence?' (uh oh). 'This is the nurse from your son's school. He is covered in peanut butter. We are a peanut-free zone, and there are kids here who could be in serious danger with this! You need to come and get him, get him cleaned up and changed immediately!!' 'Yes ma'am, right away!' Off to school I drove, and when I saw him and took a closer look through the eyes of a school nurse, I saw a boy who looked as if he had literally taken the knife and spread peanut butter all over his face, shirt and pants. The hands were of course clean. The nurse held her tongue but had that look of "Are you naturally this bad of a dad, or did you take special lessons to reach this level of incompetence? Seriously!?"

I took him home, gave him a mini-lecture, but knew it was my fault. "Get all that peanut butter off your hands." Indeed he did! I had forgotten how I would have done that as a 10 y/o boy. Boys don't wear clothes for style. They wear them as a large surface area napkin available at all times.

As he got changed I pondered if I had to say more or punish him. Explaining to his mom why he was in difference clothes than what she left him in would be enough. I also thought that really, we're all "covered" in "stuff." Me, you, every one of us. It's not so easy to see as peanut butter on a dark shirt, but it's there. Envy, pride, lust, a drive to succeed at all costs. Whatever it is, we're covered in it. But the love of God and sacrifice of Jesus cleans us from all that. It's serious stuff, to be taken seriously, and God commands against all these, but he doesn't nag us or scream at us. Instead he says "Son, I love you. I've got some clean clothes for you to put on, if you're willing to put them on. I'll help you get cleaned up too - but I'm far more concerned about our relationship and how you love your brothers and sisters than I am about perfect behavior." So when he came downstairs with a nervous look on his face, I told my son I loved him, and gave him a big hug. "Let's get on with our day, shall we?"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review - Velvet Elvis

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith is the first book by Rob Bell, pastor of the rapidly growing Mars Hill Church. (Published by Zondervan in 2006). Previously I had seen the Nooma series which he taught, and found it to give a very fresh perspective on the Christian faith. We definitely view some things pretty differently, but I found Nooma to be thought provoking and had a lot of important things to say to Christians and seekers alike. Yet Bell seems to be a bit of a controversial figure. What light would Velvet Elvis shed on Bell's beliefs, and on mine?

Even the title is interesting - what on earth is a Velvet Elvis? Apparently it's a painting of Presley on velvet. The point of the title is that no painting of Elvis could ever claim to be the 'ultimate rendition', so perfectly capturing his essence that no other painting need ever be done. Bell suggests our faith is like that - there is no 'perfect' once-and-for-all time snapshot the perfectly captures who God is or how we relate to Him. A key discussion point in the book is that the Bible - while a reliable source of truth - must always be interpreted. As we are not perfect readers, we'll not always get the right picture. Bell suggests that fresh painting of the faith are helpful conversations that can draw us closer to Christ and help us live the way He wants us to.

As I didn't know what to expect before reading this, I kept an eye out for crazy out-in-left-field stuff, and for powerful thoughts that encouraged me to think deeply about my faith. By the end, the latter far outnumbered the former. In fact, early on he wants to be clear that he affirms an orthodox position:
"I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. I'm a part of it, and I want to pass it on to the next generation. I believe that God created everything and that Jesus is Lord and that God has plans to restore everything."
I'm glad he did this, because in a few places his discussion of Jesus as the way and similar themes was rather fuzzy. At other points he raised interesting points about the trinity and the effectiveness (or danger) of some forms of gospel invitations which push hard for mental assent to get your ticket punched. I really thought several discussions were extremely thought provoking and useful - on calling, on relentlessly pursuing all the God has made you to be, Sabbath rest, and the Bible's teaching on the Kingdom of God. I also loved how Bell shared some interesting background on customs prevalent in the Old Testament and in the early church, on what it meant to be a rabbi and/or a disciple.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that a seeker or a Christian seeking a fresh perspective on the faith read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. At the same time, I would echo Bell's explicit instructions to the reader: Test it, probe it, don't swallow it uncritically. Think about it. Wrestle with it. Great advice, as the Bereans, Paul and Luke would agree (Acts 17:11). Pastor Bell know he hasn't "nailed it." In some ways the strength of the book is in raising good questions, not trying to give unique teaching or change your mind. It might make you a bit uncomfortable, or it may help revive passion and joy in following Christ.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review - Kindle 3 First Impressions

After what seems like months, a new Graphite 6" Wifi Kindle 3 arrived at my door last week. As an avid book reader I've considered a Kindle since the first model, but the time (and price) never seemed quite right. With the announcement of the next generation model at just $139 for a Wifi model, the wait was over, and I pre-ordered it the day it was announced.

The latest generation Kindle is a marvelous device that really sets a new standard in electronic reading devices. The improvements seen in the new model at a price of just $139 for the wi-fi version make this a remarkable bargain. I've read Kindle books on the iPhone, iPad and PC but have held off until now on a dedicated e-reader due to the price. With the arrival of the Kindle this afternoon, I'm very glad I waited for this third generation. The details have been reviewed and discussed in great detail, but I'll highlight what I've seen already that make this such a great unit.

  • Setup including secure Wifi access was incredibly simple 
  • The new high-contrast e-Ink screen is really great for reading. I had seen this mentioned in reviews, but the difference between the dedicated e-Ink screen and LCD screens like on the iPad is night and day. 
  • The page turn speed is much better than in earlier models of the Kindle. After seeing a first generation Kindle of a friend I thought I would never get a Kindle. As a fast reader, the delay and flicker in earlier models was terrible. While not completely gone, it's no longer a deal-breaker. The combination of the e-Ink screen with the graphite case really does improve the contrast and readability tremendously. 
  • New fonts - having choice over serif or sans serif and the ability to use a compressed font is great. Even better is the ability to adjust the line-spacing so you have much more control over how much text is present on a page. For a 6" unit this is so important. 
  • Text-to-speech - this worked surprisingly well, with the option to speed up or slow down the voice, or choose a male or female voice, was very nice. You can pause/restart speech with a tap of the space bar. 
  • Smaller design. While the screen size is identical to the Kindle 2, it's about a half-inch less all around or 21% less area. It's really small, portable, and crazy-thin, while having a lot more reading area than the iPhone. I almost went with the DX model out of fear it would not be much better than reading on my phone, but after reading a whole book tonight, it was far superior. 
  • PDF support is greatly improved - another reason I'm glad I waited for this new model. With Kindle books there is also instant word look-up via included dictionary, tightly integrated. (I still prefer a larger screen like the iPad for PDF's)
  • Social network support - not a big deal for some, but the ability to select a sentence or two and instantly send them plus a comment to Twitter or Facebook is pretty handy. 
  • Battery life looks to be superb; download speeds over wi-fi are great; it has ability to play MP3s, even in the background while reading; and it even has a built-in web browser (not wonderful, but nice to have in a pinch). 

Below is a side-by-side comparison of the Apple iPad, the Amazon Kindle 3, and the Apple iPhone. The iPad screen size is much larger than the Kindle 3 (but is very similar to the Kindle DX model). The Kindle screen may not seem significantly larger than the iPhone, but it's much easier to read and covers a lot more text on a given page. Battery lives are 10 hours with iPhone/iPad but up to one month with the Kindle. The latter works great in bright light and direct sunlight, but not in the dark. The iPad is the opposite. The iPad excels at PDFs and for night reading. The Kindle is far better for extended reading.

How do these compare with a laptop? Here's a picture of the same devices alongside a MacBook Pro. That's a 15" laptop by the way, not the 17" boat anchor!

If you're an avid reader who has stayed away from the Kindle for reasons of price, screen quality, size, or page turn speed, stay away no more! The new Kindle, especially the Graphite Wifi model, is a great unit. It also comes in classic White, and there is a 3G model for $189, if you need to be able to download new books anywhere-anytime, or if you don't have a smart phone and would like something with light web browsing capability.

As an added bonus, you can install free Kindle reading software on your PC, Mac, iPhone/iPad or Android, and read any Kindle books you buy on other devices - whether you have an actual Kindle device or not. I had bought several Kindle books and read them on the iPad before getting my Kindle. With the iPhone I have always-with-me access, the iPad is great for late night reading or color books, and the Kindle is great for extended or outdoors reading.

If you're a Kindle book fan, be sure to follow the Kindle Review blog / web site which highlights discounted books and limited time offers of free Kindle books.

I have to give a shout out and huge thanks to the Going To Seminary website which sponsored a contest for seminary students with a new Kindle as the prize. I was one of the lucky winners, and wrote three articles on Maximizing your Learning ExperienceLife Doesn't Get Easier, and Getting It All Done. The timing was perfect, as the next generation model came out just as the awards were being made. Alas, classes are almost over for me at Rockbridge Seminary... maybe I'll need to enroll again after I finish for another degree?!  :)

So... what are you reading, and how?