Miracle In Shreveport – A Book Review

miracle in shreveportAs twin brothers, David and Jason Benham shared everything from a young age. From their room, all the way to their dream of playing professional baseball. They did whatever they could to pursue that dream, as did their father and the rest of the family.

“Miracle In Shreveport” is the story of their pursuit of this dream. Every summer on the way to their vacation, they would see the lights of Fair Grounds Field in Shreveport, the home of the Shreveport Captains, a minor league baseball team, and dream of playing there together some day. Their father would always pray with them as they would pass that field, even if he had to wake them, that their dream would one day be realized.

David and Jason take turns telling their story, from their beginnings in Garland, Texas, to their pursuit of their major league careers. They tell of the love for baseball that they inherited from both their father and grandfather. They tell of the lessons that their father would constantly drill into them as they would pursue their dream, reminding them that dreams don’t accomplish themselves but can only be achieved through hard work. Their father was equally interested in his sons becoming the best people and men as he was that they become the best baseball players.

The Benham brothers’ pursuit of their dream was certainly the stuff of storybooks. One would get close and have the wrench thrown in their gears only to be setback from their goal. The other one would take strides towards making a name for himself, and then would find himself coming up against impossible odds. Over and over again, they would almost be able to see and taste their dream when it would retract like a yo-yo, moving once again beyond their reach.

The brothers’ faith is on full display in this book, as is the faith of their father, a pastor and avid pro-life supporter, and the rest of the family. The brothers talk of their father’s constant arrests in his demonstrating against abortion rights. The boys’ commitment to God and their commitment to prayer are highlighted as well. There are times when this commitment to prayer seems a little excessive, pray your prayer, ask for what you want, then wait for it to come true. While that is overly simplistic, there are moments when that’s the way that it feels.

At the same time, the Benham brothers are equally ready to abandon their dream if they feel like that’s what God is calling them to do. Through it all, there is a healthy awareness of the potential of baseball to become an idol, and a real wrestling on display in them both to ensure that it never becomes one. When things don’t go as they would have liked them to go, they are ready to move on to the next thing, but it seems that God continues to bring them back.

As the story moves on, it’s hard not be become engrossed in the story. The boys and their self-deprecating (as well as twin-deprecating) humor have a knack for storytelling. By the end of the book, I think most readers will be rooting for them, hoping that their dream of playing professional baseball together becomes a reality. Just as I did with one of their favorite movies, The Natural, that they make reference to countless times throughout the book, I found myself cheering out loud in the end, experiencing the magic of baseball that has captivated these brothers and countless millions of others since its inception. While there are moments when the story feels repetitive, nothing feels contrived or fake. The genuine faith of these brothers plays a significant part in this story and that faith along with the heartfelt telling of their story makes this book a worthwhile read for young and old alike.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

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Activate – A Book Review

activateOne thing I can say for certain about Nelson Searcy and the Journey Church is that they are incredibly generous in their distribution of the wealth of information that they have gained in becoming a church that reaches a lot of people. Having read other books by Searcy in the past, I was anxious to see what he had to say about small groups and the role that they play in the local church.

On page 27, I knew I was going to like their insights when he shared that, “Jesus designed the church to be an outwardly focused organism.” This plays out of Searcy’s first big idea, “Think from the outside in, not from the inside out.” He starts his discussion on small groups pointing to the fact that internally focused small groups result in stagnancy.

The material in the book is set up in a very logical and helpful way. The book is divided into two parts: the Activate Mindset and the Activate System. Searcy explains the mindset and paradigm shifts that have resulted in the Activate System by walking through twelve big ideas. Each big idea is set up by first identifying what “conventional wisdom” has said and then offering “Reality.” Then each chapter unpacks that, explaining what has led the Journey Church to adopt the methodology and mindset that they have regarding small group ministry.

The second half of the book, The Activate System, breaks down the approach of Journey Church into the four areas that they use to frame up and approach small groups. They label these the Four Fs: Focus, Form, Fill, and Facilitate. Part 2 of the book is divided into these four areas and Searcy walks through each area, giving clear guidelines and instruction on how they go about practically carrying out the system that has seemed to have been successful to the Journey Church.

While there may be times that the reader considers the approach that Searcy lays out and questions its validity in their own context, Searcy has an awareness of this. He fully admits that there may be certain factors in certain contexts which limit the application of some of the methods outlined in this book. He gives the reader full permission to abandon those when they don’t fit.

I found myself reading through “Activate” and wondering whether the ideas were valid. The discomfort that I felt at times was mostly a result of the paradigm shift that Searcy talks of in the book. Many of the ideas and methods that they have adopted directly oppose some of the familiar and adopted practices that I have seen in many churches who have embraced small group ministry as a means for connection and growth. My bristling at some of these methods doesn’t make them wrong, and I think that the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Searcy talks about the experience that they have had with these methods.

Searcy is also quick to point out that they have had to make course corrections along the way. They didn’t get it right out of the gate. There were failures and wrong assumptions that they’ve adjusted as they’ve refined the process more and more with every passing iteration of offering small groups.

Whether you’ve read a lot of resources on small group ministry or are just getting started, Searcy’s insights and approaches are at least worth a perusal. You may open the book and disagree with everything he lays out, but have an open mind, you may find that despite your disagreement, the things he says actually make a lot of sense when you apply them.

As I mentioned, I’ve read multiple books by Searcy. In being forthcoming with a wealth of information regarding how they do things at the Journey Church, he constantly points people to a website where readers can find additional information. He does the same thing with other books that he has written. On this website (and others connected with other books he’s written) there are some resources available, but the resources hardly seem to be as wonderful as Searcy makes them out to be in the book. Instead, the website seems to be more about selling additional resources for church leaders to use. I understand the premise and reason for this, but an honest depiction of them in the book would result in a much more realistic expectation by the reader once they get there.

Overall, I’ve appreciated most of what Searcy has shared in his books. He doesn’t feel arrogant to me in his sharing, he feels genuinely concerned to help others as they travel on similar paths in ministry. “Activate” is laid out in such a helpful way that a reader could easily move through the various sections, reading only the sections that seem to be most beneficial and useful. Even after a complete read of the book, the contents are extremely helpful to find the specific focus areas that he discusses.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Be Who You Are

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago by the organization from whom I received my StrengthsFinders training. The main topic of discussion was team values.

As the hosts talked, I felt myself nodding my head over and over again like a bobblehead doll as they talked about looking at their organization and having this sneaky suspicion deep inside that what they said were and what they really were did not agree. The head of the organization said that as they looked at their values, at least their stated values, they began to realize that that was all that they were, stated values. They weren’t bad or wrong, but they weren’t who they really were. Deep inside he could tell that there was a discrepancy and the stated values did not necessarily represent reality.

In other words, the things that they said they valued were not necessarily the things that they really valued. What they said they valued may have represented the best of intentions, what they wished that they were, but they were not reality and it was that which had caused the unsettled feeling within the head of the organization. It evoked a discussion about what the organization valued based on observation rather than desire or intentions.

It resonated with me because I can relate. There are times that I may claim one thing or another about myself, but those claims are false, not representing reality. Instead of claiming what is real, I sometimes claim what I WISH to be real. For instance, someone may say that they are charitable, giving when not asked, being generous always, and rarely being selfish in what they have, but the reality may be that they are patronizing at best, reluctantly giving when asked, self-serving at worst.

I don’t suspect that I am the only one who deals with this. If we are all honest, I wonder how many of us would say that the values we claim are actual reality. Is there good alignment between what we say we are and what we wish we were?

Within the church, I feel like this is a major point to ponder. Churches may put forth their vision and mission statements, they may tote values that align with the teachings of Jesus, but how many times are the values that are trumpeted the actual values that are exhibited? Are we being consistent in our language or are we simply saying that we are something that we are not?

It lends itself to a thorough questioning and soul searching if we truly want to get to the heart of this issue. The church aligns itself with the teachings of Jesus, in theory, but I think that there are times when we are selective about to which teachings of Jesus we adhere, often casting out the difficult or problematic ones. If we lack consistency between what we say we are and how we actually behave, then we are really guilty of false advertising, saying we hold to the teachings of Jesus but only embracing them in theory rather than in practice.

I fully understand that a vision is something to which we aspire. We set up visions in order that we would progress towards them, promoting forward movement towards something. A vision is something that gives us a picture of the future, of what could be. But what happens when our pursuit of vision seems endless? Is that the purpose?

As followers of Christ, we are constantly being reformed and transformed, at least we should be. We will not reach full perfection or Christlikeness (to use a recurrent term) until we meet Jesus face to face. So where do we set our vision? Should vision be constantly changing?

I am growing weary of the self-realization that what I say I am ends up being more like what I wish I were than what I really am. The journey of self-awareness will lead us to this reality if things are off. My hope and prayer is that I will constantly be asking myself how aligned I am with what I say I am and what I really am. If I can’t get this right myself, I certainly can’t expect those whom I lead to follow suit.

 

A Call To Action

a call for courageIn the introduction of “A Call For Courage” George Barna writes, “We have become a nation of self-sufficient individuals who dismiss the idea that God will judge us. His statement sets the tone for Michael Anthony’s book. It is our apathy and complacency, specifically the apathy and complacency of those who follow Jesus that Anthony speaks to throughout his book.

Anthony raises concern over the state of the United States. Things have been happening, legislation has been passed, laws have been changed, all of which should be concerning for those who consider themselves to be followers of Christ. There is a reverse intolerance that has taken place, an ideology where it is no longer acceptable to disagree or see things differently. Instead, disagreement becomes intolerance or hate or prejudice.

Christians, Anthony writes, are partly to blame for the current state of affairs. The lives of believers look suspiciously similar to the lives of those who don’t consider themselves to be Christ followers. Various attitudes among Christians have been embraced to avoid engagement with some of the issues at hand. The focus of Christian churches and their leaders has been skewed, with an emphasis on speed, size, and numbers rather than life change and transformation. As Anthony writes, “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

Despite the overwhelming opinion to the contrary among evangelicals, Anthony does not believe that change happens based on who is elected as president. In fact, he believes that the change happens within the church as Christians begin to engage the issues, stand up and fight for their rights, and stop longing for the day that Jesus returns to make everything better. While that longing is important, an overemphasis on Jesus’ return has the potential for Christians to disengage from culture and society and simply sit and wait for Jesus’ return. Yes, hope and wait, but in the meantime, take action and stand up.

Anthony points his readers back to the Bible, encouraging them to see the Bible as the story of God rather than the story of us. The Bible is full of stories, he writes, and people who were ordinary and unlikely yet who were used by God to make a difference in the difficult places where he planted them. Christians need to begin to see themselves as part of God’s story and ask how they might be involved in change to which he is calling them.

Anthony takes time in the book to correct misunderstandings of certain laws and legislation that has been grossly misunderstood. He explains his perspective on the separation of church and state and reminds his readers that our inalienable rights are ours not because they have been given to us by a government or a Constitution, but by God himself. He encourages an embrace of the First Amendment in not only the prohibition of the establishment of a religion by the government but also a protection of the practice and exercise of one’s religion without infringement or attack.

Speaking the truth in love is important. Anthony shares from his own experience with those with whom he disagrees, pointing out that it is still possible to disagree and yet still love and care for people deeply. While I’m not a fan of the cliché phrase of “love the sin, hate the sinner” that he embraces, his point is not lost on me. We can love someone and still not agree or condone their behavior or viewpoint.

“A Call For Courage” is really a call for action by Anthony. He implores readers to be involved and be informed. He shares his concerns with examples of various actions by our government that should raise concern among Christians. Anthony by no means is encouraging militaristic rebellion against the government, he is simply calling Christians to not be lulled to sleep by the culture, but instead to take a stand for the rights that they may not have unless that stand is taken. We can make a difference by simply changing some simple things that are right in front of us. We need to focus on our own sin before loudly pointing out the sins of others. We need to get our house in order before thinking that we can conquer the world through politics and presidents.

Overall, “A Call For Courage” was a good read. While I am not in 100% agreement with everything Anthony writes, I appreciate his call to action and his emphasis on the love that Christians need to share with those around them, especially those with whom they don’t agree. Anthony’s emphasis for change is focused more on what the church can do within herself. While there is still a call to be active and involved in politics and society, Anthony is reminding followers of Christ about the importance of consistency in their own lives while fighting this battle.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

 

Christian Leadership and the Cross

cross and christian ministryThe subtitle of D.A. Carson’s book, “The Cross and Christian Ministry” is “Leadership Lessons From 1 Corinthians.” Carson takes a substantial amount of time in the beginning of the book to emphasize (maybe even overemphasize) the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Carson’s emphasis on God’s wisdom and the cross of Christ sets the tone for the entire book, especially as it relates to leadership. After all, when leaders within the church overemphasize their own wisdom versus the wisdom of God, the situation within the church can increasingly look like the world.

This book should not be seen as an exhaustive commentary on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Instead, Carson focuses on a good portion of chapters 1 and 2 as well as chapter 3, 4, and a portion of chapter 9 as well. Remembering the focus here is on Christian ministry and leadership, herein is where Caron’s emphasis lies.

Although there is a great distance both temporally and culturally between the Western church and the context to which Paul was writing, the lessons are no less applicable to us. The church is not a place for celebrities, Carson says, especially not in the pulpit. We are constantly looking back to the cross, remembering that worldly wisdom pales in comparison to the wisdom of God. Relying on our own wisdom will surely lead to our own lauding and may even lead to us forgetting just where any of our wisdom comes from to begin with.

Carson gets his point across regarding the centrality of the cross and the wisdom of God. How he gets that point across may not necessarily be as engaging for some as they would like. At a little over one hundred and fifty pages, this book was not lengthy, but it was not a quick and fast read. There were multiple times that I felt as if Carson was belaboring his points, beating a dead horse even, not trusting that he had gotten his point across the first time around.

If you choose to dive into this book, be patient with yourself and with Carson. There are choice morsels within here that you can find, it just may require more patience and digging than you may be accustomed to.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)