Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I was introduced to the existence of this book by my blogging buddy, Lisa. I believe she introduced A Gentleman in Moscow by saying that anyone who reads this book and discovers that they do not like it ought not to tell her. That's fairly high praise coming from her and so, with that endorsement, I went ahead and purchased a copy.

If you are unfamiliar with this story please allow me the introduction. Chiefly you should know that it is exceptionally well-written. Truly, not much happens between the pages of this book that could be considered wildly exciting (by some people's standards). It is not a thriller or a mystery but a marvelously written account of one fictionalized Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who is placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922. The reason for this sentence is due to a poem which was published in his name in 1912. The Bolsheviks weren't altogether fond of the poem and wished to punish Rostov. Instead of sentencing Rostov to Siberia - or to death - they place him under house arrest. He is warned that if he is ever to set foot outside of the Metropol he will be shot. The entirety of the book recounts the thirty plus years of his captivity, or, life inside the hotel.

I realize that the story might sound a bit dull on its face but it is most definitely not. The Count is forced to adapt with the changes in the political winds over the years and he has to find his own joys and contentment in being part of the small but glamorous world of the hotel. His likes and loves can still be explored and enjoyed although his freedom is limited. He makes friends, establishes connections, and takes comfort in relationships and a well-ordered life. To a large extent, I feel incredibly unqualified to be writing a review of this book because Towles is a master of the written word. What could I possibly write to describe his skills as a storyteller?! You are far better off finding a copy of the book and reading it for yourself.

One thing I particularly appreciated about A Gentleman in Moscow was that it somehow contains the magical ability to pace the reader. Trust me, I can fly through books when I am enjoying them but this one wouldn't let me! For reasons inexplicable, this book wants to be read in tiny bites and not in chunks. Curiously, as you are learning about Rostov over the course of thirty years of his life, you want to take your time to get to know both him and his world. I can't claim that I devoured this book in the way that I have any number of other stories. I wasn't "in control" of the read insomuch as it was in control of me in that it set the pace and I followed. I read a chapter here and a chapter there up until the final three chapters where I found myself unable to put it down. The end is exceptionally satisfying. I'll warn you that when you arrive at the end of the book, prepare to be fully engaged with the story such that you will feel an overwhelming desire not to be bothered with anyone or anything until you have completed the read. Warn the people around you not to take offense with your preoccupation.

Would I also recommend A Gentleman in Moscow alongside Lisa? Absolutely. It is charming, insightful, interesting and informative, and the characters are people you will want to know. I loved it from beginning to end. Don't be surprised if I mention this as one of my top favorite reads of 2018. It's really quite spectacular. Grab a copy. If you read it and you find that you don't like it quite as well as I did . . . well . . . just don't tell me!

Monday, March 05, 2018

2018 Guide to the Night Sky, by Storm Dunlop and Wil Tirion

I recently picked up a copy of the 2018 Guide to the Night Sky for "homework" you might say. I've had a little bit of an interest in astronomy in the past few years, but not the time available to learn or do anything about it. However, lately, there's been an opportunity to learn and I've been exploring the night sky in very small bite-sized chunks. It's fascinating!

I'm on the look out for good source materials for our family to use as we (um, struggle to) identify asterisms and constellations and planets among the billions and billions of confusing stars. Eye Spy has never been a more challenging game as far as I'm concerned! Yet, it's interesting work, to be sure. When you are looking up at the night sky you feel like you are a part of history past in a rather unique way which is hard to explain. It's overwhelming and mesmerizing all at once.

One evening I found myself browsing good ol' Amazon looking for resources to further my education as an extremely wet behind the ears amateur astronomer and I ran across this book and decided to give it a go. Now, I am a novice so I guess I can't say if this book is top notch or if there is a better resource out there, but I do find this book rather useful and wanted to note it on the old book blog.

In 2018 Guide to the Night Sky, author Storm Dunlop and star map maker Wil Tirion lay out a month-by-month guide for what you can expect to see over the course of this year. The Introduction to the book is useful in explaining some key terminology and then the majority of the book is divided up by month. In each section you are given a map of the sky from both a northern direction and a southern direction, from the 40 degree latitude vantage viewing point. The focal point makes this book impractical and un-useful for peoples living in the southern hemisphere but it is useful for much of North America and European nations within the same latitude.

With a handy and helpful planisphere and this book guide it's been a little easier to figure out what direction I should be looking up at and I'm beginning to get a feel for which constellations are where in conjunction to one another. It's a slow start, but it is a start and it's a fun thing to figure out. Again, I couldn't say whether or not there is a better book guide to have on hand, but I like the fact that this title is specific to 2018 as it helps me to plot out specific events or positions as we will see them this year. I recommend it to beginners as I have found it useful. Of course, if you have a better suggestion to offer please leave a comment below and share your own resources and findings!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Bark of the Bog Owl (Wilderking Triology), by Jonathan Rogers

Let me begin by briefly explaining how it was that I came to read this book. My book blogging pal, Stephanie, recommended The Wilderking Trilogy to me for my kids. Trusting her, I ordered the series. (Because yes, I have that much faith in her recommendations!) I gave them to my nine-year-old adventure loving son for Christmas and he got started on them rather promptly. Normally I like to preview books before the kids get to them but that's becoming less and less a possibility these days. (Side note: once I was picked on for reading so much middle grade fiction before my kids were "of age" but I have found all of my pre-"work" to have been phenomenally helpful! So there, world! So there! Ahem.)

As I was saying, Bookworm2 got to these books before I did but I didn't want him to complete the series without my knowing something about it so that we could talk over any issues which might present themselves in the reading process. With that in mind I sat down to peruse them for myself. I picked up The Bark of the Bog Owl which is the first title in the series and gave it a go. What I learned from that book ultimately led me to the decision that I didn't personally need to read the rest of the series. They are fine. These are totally safe books, full of adventure and fun and he can proceed without me. (Do you see what I did there? I released control. *Pats self on back*)

If you've been seeing this series float around but you weren't quite sure what they were all about, let me enlighten you. Rather, I'm going to let the Goodreads description enlighten you because it's pretty accurate and why re-recreate?

Twelve-year-old Aidan Errolson comes from a long line of adventurers. His grandparents were among the first settlers of Corenwald’s Eastern Frontier. His father had been one of the kingdom’s greatest warriors. Aidan, on the other hand, lives the quiet, comfortable life of a nobleman’s son. He never has any real adventures, and that, he believes, is the one great injustice of his otherwise happy life. All that will change the day he first hears the bark of the bog owl and meets Dobro Turtlebane. Dobro is one of the feechiefolk—a tribe of half-civilized swamp dwellers who fight too much, laugh too loud, cry too easily, and smell just terrible. But another meeting on that remarkable day may change Aidan’s life even more profoundly. Bayard the Truthspeaker arrives with a startling pronouncement: Aidan Errolson will grow to be the Wilderking—the long-prophesied wild man who will come out of Corenwald’s forests and swamps to lead the kingdom back to its former glory. There’s just one question: Is Bayard the Truthspeaker a prophet or a madman?

About two chapters in and I deduced that the book was a retelling of the life of King David, fantasy-style. (See? So great is my trust in Stephanie's recommendations I didn't even bother to find out what the books were about. I just hit "add to cart" and away I went! What must it feel like to have such power over people?! One shivers at the thought!) If I were to be terribly honest about my opinion after discovering that this was a fantastical retelling, I have to say I was rather disenchanted. To be even more honest though, it's not that I'm disenchanted because this book exists but because I recognized that this is the type of book that Christian parents love to love because it's terribly "safe." Written by a Christian, published by what could arguably be identified as a strictly Christian publishing company, it's the type of series that certain Christian parents feel smug about having on their bookshelves. (Note: Stephanie is NOT. LIKE. THIS. She recommended the book because she liked the story for story sake and is a more magnanimous reader than myself!!!) Basically if you want me to like such a book like this you have to hand it over to me with some sort of reverse psychology tactic. Consider handing it to me with these beauteous words: "Oprah hated it." The deal would have been sealed! But, as it was, I could only see it in light of its "safeness" and I've had one too many Christian parents tell me that they only allow their kids to read "Christian books" and I don't even know what that means.

Since I'm being frank and all, I should also tell you that I really debated whether or not to even mentioned on this blog that I had read this book because I feared my attitude would be all, well, snarky. I was moderately afraid I'd give off the wrong opinion of the work and chase people away from it unnecessarily. (HEY, I see you! Click back here!) If I remove myself mentally from conversations with The Righteous Readers then I could admit that this book is really quite clever. It is enjoyable. It probably gives young adventure-type readers a warm and pleasant feeling in the cockles of their heart. My son was oblivious to the fact that it was a retelling of the life of King David so I'm going to assume other young readers can be oblivious as well. It's not an allegory. It's just a flat out retelling, fantasy-esque. If you're looking for rousing good books for boys and you don't want anything to startle their sensibilities in any way then I say again: safe read. Really safe. Safer than N.D. Wilson. Same safe as The Green Ember (a book I loved, by the way, and published by the same publishing group). Put this series on your bookshelves with pride, right next to your Mandie Books for girls. (Hey, I have mine still!)

What I'm ultimately trying to say here is that this is a decent series and Rogers was clever in his re-telling. As an adult reader I can't say that I fell head over heads with this one (like with Trenton Lee Stewart works *cough*) but I certainly don't mind handing it over to my kids for them to read.

My son read the whole Wilderking series and I asked him what he thought of it. He said, and I dutifully quote, "I thought it was fun and exciting." So there you have it!

As a further note: upon finishing The Bark of the Bog Owl, I looked up Jonathan Rogers because his name sounded vaguely familiar to me. He wrote The World According to Narnia which I read and liked. Apparently Rogers makes a regular habit out of me wanting to discuss the Righteous Reader-types!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Loving the Little Years, by Rachel Jankovic

This isn't the first time I've read Loving the Little Years, by Rachel Jankovic. I've read and reviewed this title a couple of times, first in 2011 and then again in 2012. Each time I got something a little different out of the read and both times were beneficial. Life has been a little rough around the edges lately (to put it mildly) and as I was coming to a state of consciousness one morning, my waking thought was, "It's time to re-read this book." So? I did.

When I first read Loving the Little Years I had two children: one toddler and one baby. When I read it the second time I had three children. On this re-read I find myself the mother of five, but instead of them all being little, my eldest is now eleven. The youngest is three with everyone else in between. Life looks different. There is a new kind of busy in our household, but now everyone knows how to put on their own shoes. If I had to describe the differences between parenting then and parenting now, I would say that when the kids were all little the challenges to me were more physical (being sleep deprived with more physical demands of my person) and now they are more mental (as they seek independence).

Rachel Jankovic penned this book when her tribe of children were five and under and she was in the throes of diapering and nursing and chasing around a pair of young twins. I dare say her life looks a lot different now than it did back then. The book's advice is still spot-on for mothering and there are good little nuggets of truth to grasp hold of within these pages. However, in many ways I believe I have outgrown this title for the simple fact that I'm no longer "in the trenches" of babies and toddlers but instead am figuring out social situations, schoolwork, and a growing sense of independence on any number of fronts. The challenges of parenting remain, but they have changed. More often than not, I'm not trying to just "get through the day" but am instead trying to roll with all of the new punches. It's good different (and I like it).

I still like Loving the Little Years and I wouldn't want to give the impression otherwise. To any parent just getting started and who might be feeling a bit overwhelmed (come on now, don't pretend!) I'd say you ought to set aside some time to breathe this book in. See my past reviews (linked above) if you need convincing. Jankovic understands busy and she knows exactly what it's like to have several children  who need you for everything all at once.

As a slightly more experienced mom reading this book, I'd say that the best reminder I received in my re-reading was not to think of my children en masse when dealing with them but to remember that they are individuals. It's still incredibly tempting to make decisions and decrees based on the needs of the group instead of the needs of the one. She speaks to this by reminding us that our children don't see themselves as part of a group by nature. It's super easy to forget about them as different little people when they all approach us at once about a myriad of things. This was something I definitely needed to have said to me these days when personalities want and desire different things and I feel limited in how much I can help each person or do for them. Jackovic approaches this exhortation in the chapter entitled, "Know Your Sheep". We, as parents, are to shepherd each child individually. Yes, there certainly times when decisions have to be made for the whole instead of the one but that doesn't erase the fact that "the one" still remains. Honestly, I'm a little unsure how that's supposed to happen but I guess it's my job to figure it out, right? I have a learning curve ahead of me, I see! That one chapter gave me quite a bit of food for thought.

Re-reading this book certainly didn't hit me in the same way it had previously. To be honest, I probably won't go back and re-read it for myself, personally. That said, I will still heartily recommend it to new mothers with young kids because I still think it's one of the best titles for encouragement and attitude instruction (oh yes, oh yes!) that I've ever read.

Now, if you are a mother who is on the same road as me or are a little ahead of the game and you have a title you'd recommend for me to read in the current stage of life that I'm in, please do share! I'm all ears!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Closer Than a Sister, by Christina Fox

I seem to be on a major non-fiction kick these days. I've been doing quite a bit of thinking and processing lately as to what God might be asking of me in life. And honestly I hesitate even to confess this because it inevitably results in someone, (who thinks they know me), coming up to me while gleefully clapping their hands and taking the opportunity to tell me how they are "so happy" that God is changing me in some manner which they are a.) assuming and b.) feeling that I ought to change. Truly, I am always delighted to talk about the way that God is at work in my life and the life of my family but I do quickly become disgruntled in the conversation when a person hearing my story assumes that now I'll become the person they've always hoped I would be so as to suit them better. And I don't believe that's how God works. I think He delights in progress and delights when we delight in the process. Furthermore, I also think He delights in the fact that He has made such a splendid variety of people to live in fellowship with one another and to worship Him in unity. He doesn't expect us to all be the same. We expect it of each other but He has no intention of us looking anything alike. The beauty is in the differences and, really, that's what I'm taking note of more and more frequently.

Enter: Closer Than a Sister.

One of the great challenges of life is in fellowshipping with other believers. Can I get an 'amen'?! There are a wide variety of reasons for this, of course, and we could speculate as to what causes the greatest barrier to real relationships. The simple answer is that sin is the culprit but how that sin manifests itself varies by person and by congregations. I can know in my head that I'm designed to know and love my fellow Christian sisters but living out that love feels like a complete impossibility more often than not. The older I get and the more disagreements I "suffer" my way through, the more I find myself valuing true fellowship. But true fellowship isn't what I thought it had to be either. In fact, it's pretty much the total opposite of what I hoped it was. True fellowship isn't always being "like-minded" with those I worship alongside but it is being challenged by the differences and learning to extend both love and grace despite of that. Together we make up the Body of Christ. Alone we are arguably not a part of the Body at all. I don't know about you but when my time comes to meet the Lord face-to-face, I want to hear "well done" and I do strongly believe that that means being a part of The Body, or, The Bride of Christ. If He cares much about His bride than we probably should also. All difficulties aside, we really ought to strive to work and live together instead of apart.

The question is how to get along. Fun question, indeed.

My bloggy friend Melissa listed Closer Than a Sister as one of her upcoming reads for 2018 and seeing as how I've also been rethinking what it means to be a part of the church (local) and the Body (universal) I thought this title worth a read. And it is! In Closer Than a Sister, Christina Fox takes a pretty close look at what scriptures have to say about what the church local is called to be to one another. She touches on all topics such as rejoicing with one another, grieving with one another, exhorting, growing, learning, sharing and helping. She also talks a great deal about the challenges we face within our local community of believers. I might have found that section the most poignant for myself, personally.

Fox takes a truly Biblical approach to the topic and is constantly taking the reader to scriptures in order to understand what our calling is in Christ towards our sisters within the church. This is a role which modern believers seem to approach rather casually and even callously. Again, the reasons for this are many and she lists a big obvious such as the role of social media (i.e., Facebook, Instagram, etc.) in our modern lives. Fox goes back to the basics (Genesis!) in discussing how we were made for community with one another. One of my favorite verses which she focuses on right from the get-go is 1 Peter 2:9-10 which I will type up for you here:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy."

Fox asks her readers to focus on the words in this verse which declare us having standing before the Lord not as individuals, (although that does exist too, obviously), but as a people designed to live and work together. Note the words race, priesthood, people. We've been called out to be together. We're designed for community. Not that that is always a fun thing, mind you, but it is the thing to be, like it or no.

So if we're called to live together then how do we do that when this sister over here works outside the home, and that one is sarcastic to beat the band, and that one is a perfectionists, and that one is controlling, and that one can't stand conflict of any sort, etc., etc.? There are lots of reasons why we shouldn't get along. But God. Incredibly, He makes us TO get along. It really doesn't make any sense sometimes, does it? Hey, I agree, it's bizarre! But we're called to it. And if God calls and bids you 'come and die' then you better get your last Will and Testament written and done with because He has a reason to call you out and use you in ways which you probably cannot even begin to fathom. He's good for that.

I'm here to say I struggle with this myself. I needed to read this book because I need my own understanding of how God uses people to stretch, challenge, and strengthen His church. In the past few weeks I've been challenged to lay aside prideful thoughts and feelings which operate more as a barrier to fellowship than a boon. It's hard! There are some people that I just flat out don't like and some people out there in this world who flat out don't like me! (It's true, if you can believe it!) Again, this is not an excuse so much as it is a challenge. If God called us to be united in Him, then we'd better work hard to figure out how to be united. How that looks will also vary from friendship to friendship and church to church. But the hard work must still be done.

What I've been learning is that the very people who I thought I didn't "mix well" with are the very people from whom I have already received some of the greatest blessings. I've been discovering that God has been "setting me up" to fail at my own expectations so that He can broaden my horizons and give me a new set of expectations. Godly ones. Lately everything I thought I knew to be true has proved false and everything I've doubted has proved a huge blessing. What I thought Christian fellowship needed to be has been turned on its head. I would argue it's being turned into a position where my relationships are facing THE Head of the Church (which is Christ) and that's what should have been happening all along. Is it pleasant? Not always, no. Does it feel nice in the end? Ohhhh my word! The freedom and the peace which comes when you deign to listen to God's plan instead of  your own are immeasurable.

I want to be honest about my own struggles because I think that honesty is more healing than not. Will some people misinterpret my words and my expressions? Yes, undoubtedly. And that'll have to be their problem which I won't be at liberty to fix. But I do trust what Fox also affirms: that after the struggles on earth we will find ourselves truly One with the Lord in Heaven. One day we will be united in spirit and in truth. Even if we do not experience this in our lifetime, the time is coming. That will be a glorious thing.

Would I recommend Closer Than A Sister? I think it's a good challenging read for pretty much every woman I know. Regular readers know that I don't normally go the devotional book route but at the conclusion of each chapter Fox includes 3-4 questions for the reader to consider. This probably goes down in history as my first book where I'd say the questions are thoughtful and poignant and worth spending a little extra time considering. All in all, I think this book is top notch and I'd happily recommend it.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Laugh it Up!, by Candace Payne

I purchased a copy of Laugh it Up! Embrace Freedom and Experience Defiant Joy, by Candace Payne on a whim. I had recently had a "game changing" conversation with a close friend of mine wherein I confessed that I have a very difficult time expressing deep joy, even when I can feel it. Somehow or another I feel trained to keep a straight face and a dignified look about me and move along with a prim and proper smile. Whether or not this is something that I was trained into (by myself or others?) or influenced into, I really couldn't say. Or is it my natural personality? I'm still asking myself these questions. At any rate, on the heels of this very insightful and interesting conversation, I was standing in a check out line and I saw a copy of this book on the shelf. Hmm. Well . . . what timing! Familiar with "Chewbacca Mom", (yes, I was among the millions who laughed), I figured I would pick this book up and give it a read. What could it hurt?

I opened Laugh it Up! with an open mind and I forced myself to keep it open straight through to the end. From what I can tell online, Payne's writing voice matches her speaking voice very well. This is not the most elegantly written book but it is written from her heart and it is an encouraging read. Payne writes about the pursuit of joy (are you catching the irony here?). It's not a Biblical treatise on the subject. No scriptures are referenced. If you're a theological-treatise lovin' reader this book is going to be a little on the difficult side for you (as it was for me) unless you make yourself read it because you know you need it.

In this book, Candace Payne shares her life story with all of the trials and triumphs combined. She has had moments of intense suffering and a bit of an unstable life from certain perspectives. She shares these parts of her with her reader because she wants the reader to know that despite tragedy and hardship, it is possible for a person to find and know true and abiding joy and to be able to express it so that others might come to know joy as well. (My quibbles rear their ugly head here and I feel compelled to point out that this book was published by Zondervan so it's weak on scriptural references and truths and is pretty vague on the point of where true joy can actually be found.) Payne is a Christian; that much is apparent. But there's not a Gospel message delivered within these pages. It's more of a motivational speech. I've decided to believe that this is okay. (See? I have to tell myself it is ok. I struggle still. I really would have liked a more meaty message but the pep-talk was good.)

Laugh it Up! is probably pure entertainment reading for some people and that is okay too. Some people will pick it up to read simply because it was written by "Chewbacca Mom" and they are curious to know more of her than her laugh (which is quite infectious). Some people will read her because they want to know how sorrow can be turned into joy (and I'm not totally sure that they will find the answer in this book, truth be told). I read it because I know of my black-and-white, legalistic-towards-everything-in-life tendencies and my deep, previously hidden desire to be able to relax and laugh (when something is genuinely funny, mind you, and not just silly). Heh. Dignity! Always dignity!

The truth is: I'm uptight. I don't know all of the reasons why. Perhaps it's the season of life. (Hello, mother-of-five!) Perhaps it's frustrations, or maybe it's just an intensely long To Do List which keeps me mentally preoccupied. It's hard for me to stop and catch my breath sometimes when there is so much to do. One thing that God has been revealing to me over the past few weeks in particular is that I need "silly people" in my life. By that I mean, people who make a regular habit of belly laughs and who aren't so concerned with their public appearance that they can't just relax and have a good time. I need people who maybe aren't so busy to remind me of the good things that can be born out of quiet. I need people around me who don't take everything as seriously as I take things (while still acknowledging that life has its serious moments and things.....we can't just dismiss that fact). I felt like Candace Payne is one of those people. Not that she can be in my life, mind you, but she understands that life is hard and that there is a To Do List and she makes sure she takes the time to find joy in the little things. Hearing her story prompts me to keep exploring and keep looking for God to surprise me and teach me things in ways which I am not currently expecting. He has already begun to do so which is heartening. I have a few stories already over which I can marvel about how He has been preparing the way for me to follow after Him more completely, giving way for all aspects of my personality to be used for His glory and my delight.

Honestly? I have a long way to go.

Some of you will catch this reference but I came home from talking with my friend and I felt like she was Reep and I was Eustace.

And now I feel like this is happening:

And then this will happen:

“Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was jut the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.  You know — if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place.  It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.

“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .”

Personally, I've always been a fan of 'hurting like the billy-oh' when I know there's a plan for change. And believe you me, I KNOW there's a plan for change. So it's good. It's just long and somewhat bewildering and stupefying to me most of the time. But things are coming right for God is working. And as long as He is at work, I have nothing to fear.

This is probably one of my more personal posts because I'm talking about something that isn't resolved yet and I haven't figured out to any degree of certainty. I typically don't like to post things before I've settled on a conclusion but I'm left with little choice in this moment. This post is just where I'm at right now in this exact moment in time. It's what I'm thinking about these days and it is enough (for now). I am curious to see where this is headed. I'm sure it goes much deeper and further than Candace Payne but I'm grateful to hear her encouraging words. They weren't ones I probably would have sought out for myself but they were words I needed to hear all the same. So cheers to random check-out line encounters of the bookish kind! God can use anything He likes, whenever He likes.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Uncomfortable, by Brett McCracken

Where does one even begin? I don't feel remotely qualified to write a review of this book because it's on a topic that I struggle with myself. The subtitle of Uncomfortable is "The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community." Isn't that the truth!? Being a part of the Body of Christ is everything the title declares. There is no denying that joining one's self to a church is an absolutely mortifying thing sometimes. Yet, as Christians, we are called to be a part of it. That is also an unavoidable and undeniable truth. The church is something that Christians both long to be a part of and are simultaneously filled with dread about. There aren't many more things that I can think of as being a huge struggle in my Christian life than that being a church member. But I am one, I am one!

Uncomfortable is the sort of book that hits you between the eyes and challenges you to think outside of yourself and your personal preferences as to what any given church should look like. McCracken writes to challenge the Christian to think about their calling in Christ to be joined to the Body and to prepare to be uncomfortable with that calling. It's a book filled with scripture, history, quotes from Christian leaders, and tales of some of McCracken's personal experiences. He writes honestly, sharing his own struggles with the Body and how he has had to work to overcome various difficulties. He also writes with humor and sarcasm making him easy (for me) to read. He paints pictures of what the perfect church would look like to his way of thinking while acknowledging he isn't permitted to think of the church in terms of his preferences but in terms of God's design. There's a laugh and an "ouch" in this book and both are incredibly necessary.

I marinated in this book awhile. I read only a chapter or two a day at first, because I wanted to take it in slowly. I worked through the first half of the book at a reasonable pace and then, by the time I had arrived at Part II, I was struggling with my own feelings towards my own church home and family. You know how it feels when you are really focused on learning to be obedient unto the Lord and He's feeding you good things through some outlet and all of the sudden you start struggling with the very thing you are learning about? That was me and that was this book. For a few weeks I could barely read it because I felt I was in such a huge battle with my own beliefs. I hated Uncomfortable but I needed it, too.

The simple fact is that life within the church is not easy. Any way you slice it, it's imperfect. Yet miraculously it is Christ's bride (Ephesians 5: 25-27; Revelations 19:7-9)! I marked lots of passages within the pages of this book and I'll share some of them below, along with a few thoughts. I won't share everything I marked, because I marked quite a few spots as being impacting (to me, personally).

"If we always approach church through the lens of wishing that were different, or longing for a church that "gets me" or "meets me where I'm at," we'll never commit anywhere (or, Protestants that we are, we'll just start our own church). But church shouldn't be about being perfectly understood and met in our comfort zone; it should be about understanding God more, and meeting Him where He is. That is an uncomfortable but beautiful thing." (Introduction, page 24)

As you can see, that quote was in the Introduction and at that point I wasn't dealing with my own mental battles. I was just warming up to enjoy the ride.

"This book is about the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for Him. It's about recovering a willingness to do hard things, to embrace hard truths, to do life with hard people for the sake and glory of the One who did the hardest thing." (Introduction, page 25-26)

That's a true thing, isn't it? Christ did the hardest thing and we think we have the hardest thing to do. "Yeah, but . . ." is such a stupid thing to say to God.  In the Garden of Gethsemane the Lord prayed that His people would be one just He and the Father are one. We are meant to be united. That's not an easy task. Show me the person who thinks its easy and I'm likely to think very little of that person's church experience. If being a part of the church is easy for you, then I'm inclined to think that something is seriously wrong within your particular church body or seriously wrong with you for not feeling the holy challenge. Being one with other Christians feels like the impossible dream sometimes. The hope is in knowing that all hard work is worth it because, in the end, we really will be one and the struggles we know now will be no more. Then we will worship the Lord in unity and in peace. Life on earth is a muddle. Eternity has already been sorted out and that's where the joy in the journey can be found right now.

We don't like to think that way though, do we? Humans seem to have a desire to want to believe that if something is hard then it's bad. They willingly ignore the fact that the cross symbolizes death-to-life. We must die to live. We must fight to breathe. We must struggle and bleed and die ourselves so that God's glory can be made manifest within us and through us so that others can know the love of God. That means death to self before those in our church and also death to self before the world who loves to mock and cajole us for our beliefs.

"There is a reverse correlation between the comfortability of Christianity and its vibrancy. When the Christian church is comfortable and cultural, she tends to be weak. When she is uncomfortable and countercultural, she tends to be strong. I believe the latter is how she was meant to be." (Chapter 1, Embrace the Uncomfortable, page 32)

Right now there is a huge struggle even between Christians who are embarrassed by the Gospel for a myriad of reasons and who want to appear more "relevant" to the culture. Hang Scripture! How can Scripture be helpful if it hurts people to apply it to their lives!? We demand answers. We resent the embarrassment that the Bible demands that we endure with obedience. We're in a perpetual state of face palm when we hear people who claim to be Christians speak out loud. Really, the Christian life seems to be too much, too often.

"Reflecting the truism that "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21), these martyrs lost their lives but also gained. And so it is for all people of the cross: visible loss for invisible gain, present suffering and future glory. This is the offense of the cross. Not only that a God would subject Himself to such weakness and death, but also that such a perceived folly would become the pride of His followers." (Chapter 2, The Uncomfortable Cross, page 46)

It's one thing to know in your head, with your mind, that we are to expect trials and tribulation on earth and count them only as "light momentary afflictions" (2 Cor. 4:17-18). It's an entirely different manner to actually be living with such affliction before a sneering public. The struggle is even harder when there are those within the Body itself who sneer with the world and chide you for being blind because you aren't following all of the political winds of the day. It's hard work to be a Christian and to remain committed to the church. This is to say nothing of staying committed to the cross. I've been spending more time on Twitter these days and the number of Christians who accept a watered down, more convenient truth could prove rather frighting. The masses are definitely running from the pews and they will continue to do so I am sure. The question is: will I stay in obedience to Scripture or will I run too? There would seem to be a lot of reasons to run. That doesn't excuse me to do so though. Scripture is clear about the fact that we are called to stay, even though we might not always identify with the church and/or struggle to fit in.

A charge delivered by non-Christians is one thing but it is infinitely more damaging and painful when a fellow Christian turns from the faith and the church and takes on the world's chatter. The common cry these days among just about everyone and for just about every reason is that the church and fellow believers are not to be trusted because they are hypocrites. McCracken addresses this issue as well and a stand out passage for me was this:

McCracken quotes Erik Thoennes, a professor at Biola University and elder at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California.

"There's this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that's a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn't hypocrisy; it's integrity."

Sticking with the church, showing up week after week when you just don't feel like it feels like a waste of time. It doesn't feel like we're going to get a lot out of the experience more often than not. But the idea that McCracken is promoting with this book is not that we seek out preferred experiences but that we join with a church to learn to be more like Christ. The way that we do that is to join to the Body and practice service, generosity, commitment and sacrificial love. It's not going to be easy and any honest person will testify to that. But anyone who believes that God means what He says in scripture about the church being His bride will continue on, believing that there's a hidden purpose and a good end in store.

Uncomfortable is a book that offers hard encouragement. There is no wiggle room for escape from the church within these pages so don't be looking for it. Our life with the church is a story of commitment, even when times get hard and, yes, even when it feels somewhat foolish to be a part of things.

"We've become so bored with our story, or just ignorant of it, and so naturally others have too. We're a bride who forgets why she fell in love in the first place. We're a bride who often takes off her wedding ring in public. We've lost eyes to see the loveliness of the covenant we are in because we're too preoccupied with how skeptical onlookers see us. We assume the only way hipsters and seekers and anyone else might like us if we offer a "safe place" Christianity, one with endless caveats, asterisks, apologies, and trigger warnings (and fair-trade coffee).
Yet seeker-friendly and hipster Christianity failed to invigorate contemporary Christianity because they've been too embarrassed to lead with the admittedly uncomfortable truth that a Christianity with no teeth, no offensiveness, no cost, and no discomfort is not really Christianity at all. It attracts the masses to something vaguely moralistic and therapeutic, but mostly just affirms their "eat whatever fruit you want" freedom and status quo comfort." (Chapter 14, Countercultural Comfort, page 187)

If you're feeling tempted to walk away from the church, will you read this book? If you're committed to a local church, will you read this book? There is something in this for everyone and mostly it's to affirm an undeniable truth: being part of your local church won't always be fun. Being a part of the church will be one of the single most stretching experiences of your Christian life, but through it and by it you will become more like Christ as you learn to die to self-preferences for the glory of something - Someone - greater than you. That is an uncomfortable fact we must live, but live it we must. To the pain. To the death.
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