Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Review: The Principle of the Path

I had not read a book by Andy Stanley before. I have been listening to the sermon podcasts from North Point Community Church (in Atlanta GA) for close to a year now. So when I saw this one come out, I decided I'd see if Andy's writing matched his remarkable preaching prowess.

I had some mixed feelings as I got started in the book. Not so much because of how the subject matter is presented or the writing style. In fact, Andy's stories in print are as good as the ones from the pulpit (and some are the same stories, of course). My mixed feelings came from the actual message that the book seems to be getting at: If you want to get somewhere, you need to head towards it. I was about 5 pages into the book and was wondering what the other 195 pages could have in them if this was the message.

Fortunately, Andy acknowledges this and tells you why this book rises above the self-help books on the discount table:
This is not a self-help book. I'm not offering a formula. I'm not going to provide you with seven steps. My intention is to bring to your attention a dynamic that is operating in the background of your life and the lives of the people you love.

It was worth it to stick with him.

The Principle of the Path is, and is not, as straight forward as you might think. I say that because on the one hand, the idea that you will end up where you are headed is pretty basic. On the other hand, most of us don't think about how this principle actually affects most everything in our lives.

Andy spends a short time in the early part of the book setting up the premise and describing the principle. Then he moves into the effects of leveraging the principle and the effects of ignoring it. Chapters 1 through 6 are pretty much about what it is, how it can affect you, and why many of us struggle with something so basic and seemingly intuitive.

Andy points out that we are not on a "truth quest" each day when we get up. In fact we are on a "happiness quest" every day of our lives. And that makes all the difference. We are not out there looking for what is true and wise and right. We are looking for what makes us feel happy.
[W]hen we stand at the crossroads between prudent and happy, we lie to ourselves. We turn into dishonest salespeople. We begin selling ourselves on what we want to do rather than what we ought to do... [O]nce we get fixated on the happiness option, we assign our brains the task of coming up with a list of very convincing reasons to support our choice. Reasons, by the way, that really have nothing to do with why we chose to do what we did.

We subvert our own rational, logical brains into trying to cover for our illogical, happy-seeking heart! As a lot of us know by now, that often leads to regret...

So, as I was reading through the book, I "got" the principle and I "got" the consequences of following/ignoring it. What I couldn't reconcile was how the idea of what sounds like conventional wisdom meshed with Scripture about the wisdom of the world:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1 Cor 1:20-26)

That is, the more I thought about the "doing the wise thing" with respect to finance, relationship, health, etc the more I thought about conventional wisdom, a.k.a., the wisdom of the world.

It took me thinking about it some more and looking and the last couple of chapters (there are 9 in all) to finally resolve it for myself. In chapter 7, the author retells a story of David and Saul from 1 Samuel 24. I won't retell the whole story but will summarize and say that in this chapter, and with this story, we move beyond just conventional wisdom. Andy illustrates with David and his choices how important it is to lean on God in choosing the wise path, and not leaning on just your own brain.
The law, principles, and wisdom of God provided David with the clarity he needed to do the right thing in the right way at the right time, despite incredible pressure to do otherwise.

Since direction, not intention, determines your destination... You should be getting that direction from God.

I liked this book more when I finished it than when I started it. If you pick this one up (and I recommend that you do!), don't bail out on it in the first chapter or two. Stick with it. Andy does point out some obvious, intuitive things. But he does so with good reason. Once he gets to the motivations behind them, the ways you can deal with them, and the importance of God in all of it, you will realize that this book was well worth the read.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the book or the subject. Let me here from you by leaving a comment below.

Per the recent FTC ruling, I am required to tell you that I received a free copy of this book from Thomas Nelson in return for publishing my review.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Book Review: The Coffeehouse Gospel

Matthew Paul Turner has written a few books. I've only read a few of them so far and plan to get a few more. The first one I read was "The Coffeehouse Gospel: Sharing Your Faith in Everyday Conversation." Right up front I'll say that I liked it a lot.

Push aside the subject matter for a moment. Turner's writing style alone is enough to like this book (or really just about any book of his). He has a way of writing that makes him instantly relatable (is that a real word). And that is an even bigger strength when tackling a subject like everyday evangelism.

The title of the book ties in because, by his own accounts, Turner has worked in a few coffeehouses and can be found lurking in them eavesdropping on your conversations. I mean, writing in various coffeehouses around town....

Seriously, the idea is that the corner Starbucks or local coffee shop is a cross section of life and an intersection of people. It is as good a place as any to meet people, have conversations with them, or just enjoy company. Because of these things, it is a place where stories are shared. And that is a key.

Throughout the book, Turner talks about the good and the bad ways that evangelism happens today. Mixed in with that are snippets of conversations and interviews the author has had with various people in his life. The point of each of these interludes is to try and show how you can bring your faith in the conversation without swinging the God hammer in a two-handed overhead smash.

The central idea behind everyday evangelism is knowing and telling YOUR story. Not just your testimony or you "the day I was saved" tale. That is a part, a very important part but still just a part, of your whole story. And it is your whole story that is the most important.

I'm not doing Turner's writing justice in how I'm describing this, so I'll let him say it himself:
A large part of sharing your faith through everyday conversation is being able to relate to others in everyday circumstances... People want to relate to you. People want nothing more than for you to relate to them. In most cases, all human beings desire to relate to others. The common thread that ties the two together doesn't have to be thick, unbreakable, or long, it just has to be there and available.
Knowing and being able to tell your own story makes that common thread available to others.

Towards the goal of equiping us to use our stories to connect with people, Turner includes a couple of sections with guiding questions. By following along with these questions and topics, you can begin to outline and even write out your story.

And if you've never really looked at your whole story, written or not, doing this exercise can be very eye opening. The more I thought about where God was in my story, my life, the more I came to appreciate how He could use me to speak to and reach other people.

Of course, in sharing your story, you may end up sharing your faith and what you believe. Turner points out that we do not have to be theologians in order to do that. We do need some preparation, just like with our stories. So the author provides a chapter (chapter 7 to be precise) called 'Knowing the Basics.' In this chapter, Turner breaks down the Apostle's Creed into 7 key pieces and describes the basic theology around them. It is a good primer on Christian beliefs and a pretty succinct way of describing it.

I highly recommend "The Coffeehouse Gospel" if you at all feel the tug to share your faith with the people around you. Actually, I recommend it even if you don't feel that pull. Reading this book can definitely help you understand what authenticity looks like and why it is so important.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Book Review: Crazy Love

Ok. So back to the blog. It turns out that reading the books isn't really the hard part. Determining what the review should convey and then sitting down to write it is the part I've been having trouble with.

But enough of that. Let's talk about Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Many of you may already be familiar with Francis Chan. He is the Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley and he is a prolific speaker, especially to young adults and Youth. With Crazy Love, Chan has burst onto the scene as author, as well.

The title "Crazy Love" calls out the main point of the book: God's love for us is absolutely crazy. Crazy as in - it defies all logic and reason as we know it. And to prove his point, Chan begins the book by stepping back and taking a look at the clearest evidence of how great and mighty God is: creation. By walking through a list of ever larger things in the universe that God has created, we can see some of the enormity of God. Francis counterbalances this with a discussion about how fragile and small our lives, and our contributions, are in comparison to God.

So, by the time we roll into chapter 3 (also titled "Crazy Love") we can easily see how utterly crazy it is for the creator of all things, the source of life, the universe, and everything, to love created beings so frail, small, and, let's face it, unappreciative. It just doesn't fit into the mental model that most of us have.

After establishing hos groundwork for Crazy Love in the first three chapters, Chan starts digging in deeper. He exposes how many of us react to a God with this kind of love for us. He is not necessarily aiming at the overtly evil, rampant "sinner" that we would all shake our heads at and "tsk tsk" about. Chan aims both barrels at the people who call themselves Christian. Using words from Revelations 3:14 - 16, Chan talks about the "lukewarm" Christians; the "good enough" or "at least I'm not as bad as..." Christians.

Chapter 4 is titled "Profiles of the Lukewarm" and was hard for me to get through, at first. I squirmed uncomfortably as I read each profile in the chapter. Each one seemed to hit home in some way. Here's a sample:
Lukewarm People tend to choose what is popular over what is right when they are in conflict. They desire to fit in both at church and outside the church; they care more about what people think of their actions (like church attendance and giving) than what God thinks of their hearts and lives.
Lukewarm people don't really want to be saved from their sin; they want only to be saved from the penalty of their sin. They don't genuinely hate sin and aren't truly sorry for it; they're merely sorry because God is going to punish them. Lukewarm people don't really believe that this new life Jesus offers is better than the old sinful one.
And there are plenty more profiles like that. It is pretty convicting. But wait! Don't think that this is the main point of the book. It is an uncomfortable piece, to be sure, but it is necessary to see know where we are if we want to know how to get to where we want to be.
By holding the mirror up for us in this chapter and the one that follows it, Francis is helping us to see a truth that we probably would not be willing to admit ourselves. And once you've come to the point of admitting it, (or at least to the point of continuing to read the book), the author carries you forward towards hope and a way out.

Chan, using quite a bit of Scripture, talks about what it means to be in love with God, to be obsessed with God. He discusses the various responses we see both in the Bible and in our the lives of people around us to God's love for us. Chan's profiles of love and obsession for God are in stark contrast to the lukewarm profiles.

Francis wraps up the book with some examples of people that live their lives not cold or lukewarm, but HOT! The list has some names that you might recognize and some that you won't. It is convicting, like the lukewarm profiles were convicting but in a little different way. To see that people do live their lives everyday in love with God, and not just treating Him like a passing acquaintance, actually gives me hope.

In the final chapter, Francis says
After the apostle Paul preached on the day of Pentecost, people "were cut to the heart and said... 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). The first church responded with immediate action: repentance, baptism, selling possessions, sharing the gospel.
So, how will we respond when we learn of, and truly accept, God's great love for us? What will we do when we fall in love with our Creator? For that, my friends, I'll let you read the book yourself....