Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: INVITATION TO RETREAT by Ruth Haley Barton

I’ve never read a book by Ruth Haley Barton that didn’t speak to my heart, and this is no exception.  Being a teacher of and on retreats, and a regular retreatant myself, I was looking forward to reading this small but helpful guide to the how’s and why’s of making a retreat.

For many Christians, especially Protestants, retreats are foreign, something made by Roman Catholics or disguised as preaching or evangelistic events.  Those are certainly legitimate and useful, but Barton’s subtitle, “The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God” hits the nail on the head of what a retreat should be.

The book is divided into four sections, introducing the concept of true retreat, preparing ourselves for retreat, what to undertake during retreat, and how we move back into day-to-day living from retreat.  Each of the twelve chapters offers practical assistance to the retreatant in terms of preparation and execution of the retreat.  Two appendices are offered for guidelines for fixed-hour prayers and planning a retreat.

For the person considering a retreat but not sure where to start, this book is a good place to start.  It helps us know ourselves as individual followers of Jesus as well as giving us tools for introspection when gearing up for a retreat and actually being away.  Among the key learnings, of which there are many, is to understand oneself as being able to be off-limits to anyone but God during that time, that none of us is indispensable.  Needing to be connected, 24/7, is often one of the biggest hurdles to an effective retreat, and Barton reminds the reader that such disordered attachments are not helpful to connecting fully with God.

Retreat is one of the main gateways to true spiritual freedom.  This book is a helpful guide in aiding us to achieve the true spiritual freedom the Lord seeks for us.

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat:  The Gift and Necessity of Time Away With God (IVP, 2018), ISBN 978-0-8308-4646-7.  I am grateful to Martin at Parasource for the desk copy he provided for me.  The book is available at most Christian retail outlets, including the Tyndale Bookstore in Toronto.

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Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: DIDN’T SEE IT COMING BY CAREY NIEUWHOF

There is a certain romanticism about Christian ministry.  Many – dare I say, most – 9780735291331people who enter ministry, especially younger in life (as I did), tend to have a view of pastoral leadership as something ideal:  we get to preach God’s Word, share in people’s highs and lows of life, and live as full-time disciples of Jesus.

While all of that is true, there are many other aspects to ministry that our romanticized view conveniently blots out.  They are not as fun, not as exciting, and often highly challenging.

Carey Nieuwhof, Founding and Teaching Pastor at Connexus Community Church (with campuses in Barrie, Orillia, and Midland, Ontario) has written a book which will be most helpful to all people in church leadership, especially younger leaders.  Having gone through a career change early on (he studied and practised law briefly before accepting God’s call), being appointed a student pastor while still studying for ministry, leading a congregation through exponential growth and eventually out of the denomination in which he had served, he found himself at one point – about 12 years ago – in a period of burnout, from which he initially wondered if he would ever recover.

I was keen to read this book, not only because Carey is a longtime friend of mine, but because the latter part of that story eerily paralleled my own.

When I started in ministry over 30 years ago, the church and the social landscape were vastly different.  I was educated to lead a church in a Christendom world, where churches were strong and pastors were well-respected.  Today, those realities, in the Canadian church at least, are long gone, and we live in a time where change is the only constant.  There’s a lot of adapting that needs to be done, by church leaders and congregants alike.

Younger leaders may find this season in history especially challenging, because they are starting at the bottom of a steep hill.  Didn’t See It Coming, while applicable to everyone, is especially helpful, I think, to those younger leaders who are starting out in the pioneering work of bringing in God’s Kingdom on earth.

Carey addresses cynicism – how we get there and how we get out of it; he addresses intellectualism – how we are trained to think but also need to learn to experience God’s goodness and grace; and he addresses character – how Christians, and especially church leaders, need to be honest and transparent about developing lives like Jesus.  Most of the rest of the book builds on these themes.

Readers of Carey’s blog (careynieuwhof.com) will find some familiar words in this book, as much of Didn’t See It Coming piggybacks on a number of Carey’s more popular posts.  But there’s sufficient illustrative material and extrapolation to warrant reading the book, even if one has already read the blog.  I am a faithful reader of the blog, and still gained insight from the book.

Carey addresses a number of issues about which I wish I had learned as a younger leader, especially before my season of burnout – topics like solitude versus isolation; personal growth preceding helping others grow; technology, with its ups and downs; and studying culture.

From his own experience, Carey uses this book to help readers avoid the pitfalls he faced.  While, by grace, he did not find himself in a situation of moral failure as some other prominent church leaders have, he has written Didn’t See It Coming as a tool to help other church leaders avoid the challenges that can lead to ministry-ending situations.

I recommend that all church leaders read this book.  It is not a long read, but it is a thought-provoking read.  It will be widely available as of September 4, 2018.

Didn’t See It Coming:  Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone Experiences, by Carey Nieuwhof (New York: WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018).

Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher, electronically, of Didn’t See It Coming.

ADDENDUM:  If you want an ‘insider look’ at the book, you can listen to Ann Voskamp interview Carey about the book on his podcast here.  It really adds to the already rich nature of this book.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Mirror For the Soul by Alice Fryling 

I became interested in the Enneagram several years ago when I first was introduced to 41s5KK3HBRLthe ministry of spiritual direction. It is one of many tools that can help individuals know themselves better, and can help teams of people to know each other better.
As a qualified practitioner of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, I am familiar with the concept that knowing ourselves (and our spouses, and our team members) is always a good thing. And while any two evaluative tools will have some overlap, each has its value. Up to this point, I had struggled to understand the Enneagram as one of these tools.  I had attended a seminar, as well as done some reading on it, but had neither grasped the tool well nor been able to find a clear application for Christians.
Some Christians have been reticent to use the Enneagram for a variety of reasons. (Some have been reluctant to use other tools, too, but the push-back against the Enneagram seems to have been more pronounced.)  A follower of Jesus who reads Mirror For the Soul will find his or her fears assuaged, as Alice Fryling integrates her very helpful teaching on the Enneagram with her solid Christian faith in such a way as to disarm the critic and to encourage the believer who is considering using the Enneagram to understand himself or herself more fully.
The book helps the reader understand each aspect of the Enneagram in the most basic way, so that even someone with no knowledge of the instrument can grasp the concepts clearly. Helpfully, Alice Fryling also includes questions for personal reflection and/or group discussion at the end of each chapter, along with a brief Scripture passage and questions relating to it and the portion of the Enneagram just studied.
The book concludes with a brief treatise on how to use the Enneagram in spiritual direction, and some helpful external resources.
Perhaps the one unusual but singularly helpful aspect to the book is that there is no inventory included to help the reader discern her or his own Enneagram number. Instead, the author encourages the reader to review descriptions given in each section so that the reader has to think through, prayerfully, which Enneagram number may be most descriptive.
I highly recommend this book if you are seeking an easily-understood unashamedly Christian take on the Enneagram.
Disclaimer: The reviewer was given a pre-publication copy of the book for the purpose of this review. 
Mirror For the Soul, by Alice Fryling – published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2017.
Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “Deep Church” by Jim Belcher

A confession:  I’ve had this book on my ‘to read’ pile for a few years now, and I really wish I had read it sooner.  Deep Church, as the subtitle suggests, attempts to find “A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional”.

Depending on the circles you travel in, you may not know what the author means by “Emerging” or “Traditional”.  Within the realm of evangelicalism, a movement began some 20 years ago that became known as the Emerging (or Emergent) Church.  It isn’t a denomination and doesn’t have formal leadership (though there are informal leaders).  And, as this book, highlights, there is no theological or liturgical unity around the movement.  Some Emerging churches look like mainline liberalism in a new suit, while others look like typical evangelical congregations, but with candles and corporate prayers of confession.

What Belcher looks for is a “third way”, something that finds balance between traditional evangelical Christianity and this somewhat numinous Emerging movement.  What he comes up with is “Deep Church”, as he calls it, the model for ministry that he uses in his own congregation, Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Newport Beach, California.

The big learning for me from this book was about the value of community.  I’ve been thinking a lot about community in the church in recent years, and this has helped me even more to pinpoint what needs to happen if the church is to be effective with the millennial generation.  Belcher writes about his congregation’s four core commitments:  gospel, community, mission and shalom (the latter defined as making or transforming culture, in a Kuyperian sense).

I found the stories he told reinforced the points he was making from his research and his interviews with key players in the Emergent-Traditional debate, and the book’s 207 pages (plus copious endnotes) read fairly quickly.  I wish I had read this sooner.

Deep Church:  A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional by Jim Belcher (foreword by Richard J. Mouw), published in 2009 by InterVarsity Press.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3716-8.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: How Churches Became Cruise Ships

The subtitle says a lot:  “A survival guide for the seasick Christian”. Many churches in the 21st century have lost their purpose, going from gatherings of people seeking communion with God to being institutions existing to promote the organization. Skye Jethani uses the cruise ship analogy to help us understand how that model doesn’t fit with God’s plan for the church. 

Ships were called liners because they moved people from one place to another. With jets being used for that purpose – and more efficiently – when they were invented, ships turned to the cruise experience instead. No longer modes of transportation, cruise ships became ends in themselves. Some churches, large and small, have made similar transitions, but Jethani suggests they have missed the mark in terms of being the church faithfully.

Jethani’s analogy of the cruise ship church helps the reader put into perspective what has happened – and happened again – to the church in recent times. This hour-long read will help church leaders hit the reset button if they have disengaged from God’s picture of the church. Well worth your time.

Skye Jethani, How Churches Became Cruise Ships: A survival guide for the seasick Christian. Available for Kindle and Kindle app at https://www.amazon.com/How-Churches-Became-Cruise-Ships-ebook/dp/B018RJHNZK?ie=UTF8&keywords=Jethani%20cruise%20ships&qid=1462736837&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

Book Reviews, Uncategorized

BOOK REVIEW: Still Voices – Still Heard

Still Voices – Still Heard is a collection of biographies of prominent, albeit dead, Canadian 50441043Presbyterians connected to the Presbyterian College, the seminary of The Presbyterian Church in Canada at McGill University in Montreal. These are the “still” voices; the individuals are no longer living. This is interesting enough in itself, and not all that uncommon a topic about which to write. But making the book even more interesting is that, appended to each chapter, there is material written (or spoken, in the case of sermons) by the individuals profiled in the book.

The format is a great idea, and it was compiled in honour of the 150th anniversary of the College. The chapters are organized chronologically, which helps the reader follow the development of the College. The book begins with the early years of the school, beginning with William Dawson, a Presbyterian scientist who was the Principal of McGill University from 1855 to 1893. It was his vision that brought about the founding of Presbyterian College as a seminary of the Free Church, which broke away from the (Auld Kirk) Church of Scotland as a result of the Disruption of 1843, which made its way to Canada in 1844 (even though the issue that brought about the split was not an issue for the Canadian church).

What Dawson was to the University, D.H. MacVicar was to the College. His writing on the role of ruling elders in the church, which accompanies the biographical sketch, was helpful in his day and remains helpful today.

What follows are stories of people who are variously remembered who made significant contributions to Presbyterian life in Montreal and Canada, and to the College specifically. They include Jane Drummond Redpath (a key promoter of mission; her husband’s family name remains on many bags of sugar to this day), A. Daniel Coussirat (who pioneered French work among Presbyterians in Quebec), Andrew S. Grant (a pioneer in western Canadian church extension), James Naismith (the creator of the game of basketball; how many of those tall American men who play can credit their game to a Canadian Presbyterian minister?), George C. Pidgeon (a major Presbyterian player in the cause of church union, a student of MacVicar, and the first Moderator of the United Church of Canada), W.G. Brown (preacher, journalist, politician, and missionary to the Canadian west), Cairine MacKay Wilson (the first woman senator in Canada), John W. Foote (Presbyterian military chaplain), C. Ritchie Bell (pastor and teacher of pastors), Alison Stewart-Paterson (one of the early women to graduate from the College to ordained ministry), and R. Sheldon MacKenzie (pastor and educator).

Each of their stories is unique, with a common connection to the Presbyterian College. And each of their contributions to the life of the denomination was significant. I’m sure the editors could have chosen many other individuals to profile, but their choices were good ones, helping the reader to see a broad view of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and one of its colleges.

The contributors were clergy and laity, and it was often easy to tell which was writing by her or his understanding of the context of the history of the denomination. The pieces written by those who had enjoyed a personal relationship with the subject were especially engaging because of that personal connection. Not all articles followed what seemed to be the desired structure, which, while not a significant factor in gaining the knowledge intended, these felt ‘different’ in their flow. Some repeated information within the chapter itself, which the editors could have fixed without changing the integrity of the contributions. And, as happens more and more commonly in books nowadays, there were small errors in spelling and word intention that could have been picked up either by the editors or at the publisher’s end. However, that set aside, it is a good and helpful read, giving one a good sense of the context of the Presbyterian College and enabling the reader to celebrate what God has done and is doing through the College.

In my opinion, the best-written and perhaps most interesting chapter was William Klempa’s piece about Andrew Grant. Other readers could choose other contributions, of course. I found each chapter was of a length that it could be read in a single sitting, allowing the whole book to be read in about 13 sittings.

In the preface, current Principal Dale Woods says that this book seeks “to capture the spirit and passion of those who helped shape the life of the College and those who graduated from the College” by enabling them to “speak in their own words.” With that goal in mind, the authors and editors have succeeded. Anyone wishing to read a decidedly different but entirely interesting history of one of Canada’s lesser-known but highly influential seminaries will find this to be a most engaging read.

Still Voices – Still Heard, published in 2015 by Wipf & Stock, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute. ISBN 978-1-4982-0831-4.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “KINDLING DESIRE FOR GOD” by Kay L. Northcutt

You know how, every once in a while, you go shopping for one thing and come home with more than you bargained for? That happens to me when I visit Amazon. Their version of the “up-sell” is that section on the page for the book you’re interested in that says, “People who bought XYZ also purchased…”.

It’s a trap. Really. But when you’re stricken with bibliophilia, as I am, it’s an inevitable trap.

That’s how I came across Kindling Desire for God. Had I known much about the author’s theology, I probably would have skipped it. But, as so often happens, the subtitle got me: “Preaching As Spiritual Direction.” As both a preacher and a spiritual director, I had to know what this was about. So I bit.

Amazon wins again. But, in truth, so did I.

Kay Northcutt is a preaching professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a certified spiritual director. While I would not share her theological position, I greatly appreciate how she handles this different paradigm for preaching.

As a preaching professor, the author is exposed to all manner of different preaching styles, and this book seeks to help preachers, whether certified spiritual directors or not, to see preaching as a form of spiritual direction. All pastors, whether trained in spiritual direction or not, do undertake a measure of it by virtue of office, and that can extend from the study to the pulpit.

To that end, Northcutt seeks to encourage pastors to reclaim the authority that is rightfully theirs, spiritually – to move from being problem solvers to being spiritual guides. The authority, though, is seen not in CEO terms, but is “grounded by prayer, intimacy with God, and an explicit knowledge – as well as felt experience – of being the ‘God-person’ and the spiritual guide for congregations” (58).

She laments the loss of what she calls our “own inherited texts” – not only Scripture, but the early church mothers and fathers,41cSqihmgHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ and spiritual classics. We would rather quote Jack Welch than Julian of Norwich. We would rather cite Oprah than Origen. The author encourages preachers to make their preaching a spiritual act. At the end of the book, she offers some examples of her own preaching, showing how preaching can be a form of spiritual direction.

I would not suggest that these sermons are models of outstanding biblical exposition, but there is a pastoral, spiritual element to them that all preachers could learn from.

If you’re looking for a different kind of preaching text, give this one a try. If nothing else, it will call you to a deeper relationship with God – something every preacher and congregation can benefit from.

Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction by Kay L. Northcutt. Published in 2009 by Fortress Press in Minneapolis. ISBN 978-0-8006-6263-9.