The Wondering Years – A Book Review

The Wondering YearsWhen you’ve spent a good deal of your life absorbing pop culture, it only makes sense that you would filter everything else in your life, including spirituality, through the lens of pop culture. That’s just what Knock McCoy did, as he grew up and began to come to grips with spirituality and with his own Christianity, he took lessons that he had learned from all the pop culture he had been exposed to and used them to try to make sense of things.

McCoy plays to his strengths in “The Wondering Years.” He is a writer and screenwriter and he lets his own sense of humor bleed through. He also uses his gift for screenwriting to bring humor to certain chapters, inserting screenplay excerpts pertaining to the crisis he is describing at the moment in the chapter.

No topic seems to be off limits for McCoy and he isn’t afraid to throw himself under the bus, over and over again. Punches in the face as a child. Admissions testing for a private school. High school athletics. Getting married young. McCoy hits as many topics as he can and through it all, he weaves his way through the various pop culture icons he encountered on his way to growing up.

Reading through the pages of “The Wondering Years” is like watching an old 8MM home movie. There’s a bit of nostalgia, some awkward memories that might rear their ugly heads, and a whole lot of smiling. It’s not a book that I would read over and over again.

McCoy is a gifted and humorous writer. As an introduction to him, this book made me want to explore other things that he has written. If nothing else, this book is entertaining. It isn’t replete with deep theological nuggets or biblical references, but I doubt anyone came looking for that here, and if they did, they’ll be disappointed.

(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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The Plague of Complacency

objects in the mirrorBack in my engineering days, I went back to grad school and got a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Among the various classes that I took for my degree was an environmental law degree. I had always fancied myself a hack in the area of law and imagined that if I hadn’t taken the career path that I had, I may very well have ended up in the law profession.

I don’t remember a whole lot about the class other than the fact that we talked about a mindset and way of thinking that was prevalent among people called “Not In My Backyard.” We abbreviated it NIMBY and I remember evoking NIMBY often for years to come as I saw the trend play out in land development and beyond.

The basic premise is that people generally don’t care about things until they directly impact or affect them. Something tragic, difficult, or unjust may be happening to other people in other places of the world, but until it directly impacts us, we can have a tendency to turn a blind eye and even move towards complacency.

To be honest, I’ve seen this played out in my own life and in the life of others in my peer group and older. We can be given warnings and cautions but we continue to act like I did while in my 20s, as if I were ten feet tall and bulletproof. We think we are invincible and that nothing can touch us and then after countless times of ignoring warnings, when the inevitable takes place, our jaws drop and with a dumbfounded look on our faces, we exclaim, “How did this happen?”

It’s the parent who constantly lets their child get away with more and more until the child finally pushes the envelope and injures himself or someone else. It’s the individual who continues to think that “that can’t happen to me” and tests the boundaries until the very thing that could “never happen” to her ends up happening worse than she could have imagined.

Complacency is a plague, but unlike the plagues of history where people were warned and mostly understood the imminent dangers, the plague of complacency is more subtle and the its lethalness is undermined and diminished. After all, it certainly can’t happen to me.

The worst part about complacency is that I just don’t know how to fight it. In our culture, in our part of the world, complacency doesn’t really look like complacency, and just like so many other socially accepted behaviors, we not only excuse it away but we sweep it under the rug, ignoring it, justifying it, or condoning it. When we finally realize it for what it is, the damage has been done and we pick up the pieces, wondering just how to put them together again.

Complacency isn’t something new. John the Revelator wrote to the churches in the Book of Revelation and talked about complacency, or being lukewarm. Be hot or cold, but don’t be somewhere in between. Spit is lukewarm and none of like that swirling around our mouths too much. We spit it out.

The only thing to do with complacency is to deal with my own. Break it up. Destroy it. Don’t promote it. Don’t condone it. Call it for what it is and then move on from there.

The problem with complacency within the church is that we can often mask it by doing a lot of things, often a lot of good things. We meet, we plan, we execute plans, but complacency is luring beneath the surface. Instead of evoking the power that has been given to us by the ever present Holy Spirit, we conjure everything up in our own strength and power, with seeming success.

Years ago, in ministry, I heard about an Asian pastor who was critical of the western church. In seeing just how much was accomplished, he exclaimed, “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish without the Holy Spirit.” That wasn’t a compliment.

I don’t know how to fight complacency, so I’ll do my best to avoid it myself. But I can’t do it on my own. I want to plan, but I don’t want to plan first and pray later. I want to pray before I plan. I want to act, not of duty and responsibility, but out of the beating of my heart which wants to love as Jesus loves.

Complacency may seem innocuous when it’s not in our backyard, but I think it’s kind of like the passenger side mirror on cars, objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.

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.

 

How’s Your Soul? – A Book Review

hows-your-soul“You can have millions in the bank, a Maserati in the driveway, and more Instagram followers than the pope, but unless your soul is healthy, you won’t be happy.” So Judah Smith writes within the first pages of “How’s Your Soul?” and then he spends the whole book talking through just what it means to take care of your soul.

As I dove into this book, I entered skeptically. I knew that Judah Smith had risen through the ranks to become one of the most popular hipster pastors of late. But was he for real? While I’ve read his book “Life Is…” the jury was still out in my mind as to where he stood. I’m fine with people writing encouraging and inspirational books, but I was wondering whether or not there was any depth to Smith. After all, there’s already one Joel Osteen in the world, I’d rather not see any more like him.

Judah Smith is the real deal. He’s funny. He’s quirky. He’s self-deprecating. He’s grounded. As much as he is all these things, he brings gospel truth, not compromising the message of the cross or the gospel and clearly laying out the essentials of the Christian faith. Smith writes with a winsomeness that allows for those who aren’t quite there yet in discovering who Jesus is. He’s not pushy or arrogant, but neither does he pull punches when it comes to the truth of the gospel. That won me over.

As Smith talks about the soul, he’s honest about the beginnings of our problems. He doesn’t shy away from the word “sin” and says, “…if we try to apply these…elements to our souls without dealing with the sin issue, it won’t work.” He’s also honest about the work that we do for ourselves and the work that God has done for us when he says, “Self-effort is noble and admirable, and it will carry you through some things; but a love birthed in self will never be strong enough for all things. We need a love that transcends human ability and experience.”

His words are reminiscent of Augustine’s words when he writes, “As our souls find themselves in God, our lives will find their purpose, place, and value in him as well.” We will not find rest in our souls until we find that rest in God alone. He speaks of living lives that are surrendered and surrounded. We surrender to God and surround ourselves with others with whom we can walk. Even if we don’t fully get it or fully believe, it’s important to belong as we enter the process.

I appreciated what Smith said about belonging before believing. Too often Christians can be guilty of asking people to clean themselves up and then coming to Jesus. Smith encourages us to seek ways to allow for people to belong first rather than getting all the behavior right. It is a journey, we belong, then we believe, and then we behave. To try to behave first without belonging and believing is not only counterintuitive, it’s contrary to what Jesus taught us.

“How’s Your Soul?” was a pleasant surprise to me. There is no deep theology here, but that’s not what Judah Smith is going for, he’s just reminding his reader of the importance of soul care for living. It’s a fast read with some worthwhile truth. Check it out!

(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.)

Confess

confessI got a phone call from a friend the other day. He had been struggling and I guess he just needed someone to talk to. As I listened to him talk through his struggles and recounting the past weeks, I realized that he was confessing to me.

For a moment, I stopped and thought of the confessional booth in the Catholic church. The priest goes in one side while the confessor goes into the other side. The confessional booth seems shrouded in darkness and secrecy. It’s a secret place where sins can be confessed without fear or worry of listening ears or prying eyes.

My friend needed to tell someone else what had happened over the past few weeks. He needed to get it off his chest, to feel like he wasn’t the only one bearing the burden. He needed to know that despite his shortcomings and faults, he was still okay.

1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Despite our trust and faith in God, it can be difficult to simply read words on a page to understand and know that there is forgiveness and absolution for our sins. We want more, we want something tangible.

I think that’s why it’s so difficult for many of us to embrace the idea of grace. We feel like we should do something, that there needs to be an action, a punishment, a penalty, a payment that WE should be making. Instead, we can fail to see that the action, punishment, penalty, and payment have been made once for all. There is no need for additional payment, but there is a need for additional confession and repentance.

Confession is a mysterious thing to me. It’s something that we are called to do and when we do it, most of the time, we find ourselves feeling that burden lifted once we’ve confessed it. While 1 John 1 tells us about the need to confess to God, there is another aspect of confession that I think my friend subconsciously realized that James makes reference to in James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” We are called to confess to one another.

In a perfect world and a perfect church, this would most likely not be a problem. Frankly, I think our social media culture has made this more ominous and challenging. Why should we confess our sins to one another when everyone else seems to have it all together? Why should we give someone the ammunition that they might need to exploit us, to abuse us, to question us, and to judge us?

Our hesitation to confess to one another has more to do with fear than anything else. We are afraid of what those confessions might turn in to when in the wrong hands. We are afraid that in our confessing, others won’t feel led to confess in kind.

What would it look like if we all followed the urging of James and confessed to one another? I’m not talking about the, “I kicked the dog on the way to work this morning” confessions, I’m talking about REAL confessions:

“I thought lustfully about someone today.”

“I saw my neighbor’s new car and I wanted it more than anything.”

“I found my fingers and my eyes wandering when I was on the computer last night and I ended up somewhere no one should go.”

“I found a way to make a little extra money at work but I know it’s not legal.”

The list could go on and on, but I wonder how often we utter those confessions to one another. How different would our lives look if we were to have the freedom to confess to one another? How intimately would we need to know someone for us to confess these things to them?

I don’t have the answers, but I was struck by the fact that a friend was willing to make himself vulnerable and lay his burdens down. I wonder when I’ll feel like it’s okay for me to do the same thing.

 

Experiencing the Loss of a Family Member – A Book Review

Experiencing the Loss of a Family MemberIf we live on this earth, we will all experience loss. Sometimes we wade into the losses that we experience while other times, we dive right in, experiencing the loss of family members or friends who are close to us. When we experience loss and dive into a time of grief, how do we appropriately wade through it? How do we venture through grief, especially when our society seems to want to push past it and not even address it?

H. Norman Wright has experienced loss of his own. He lost his 22 year old son who was severely disabled and his wife who succumbed to breast cancer. It is out of the depths of this loss that Wright is able to write and share. He is not coming in as a counseling or therapy expert alone, he is able to share his thoughts and guidance through grief because he has personally experienced deep and painful loss himself. His voice of experience speaks volumes when it comes to grief.

This book is laid out in such a way that it can serve as a handbook, so you can pick and choose the chapters that may be more applicable to your own experience if you don’t want to read the whole book. There are insights throughout the book on the journey through grief, tucked in among the specific chapters. Wright starts out with an overview of the world and process of grief and then walks through chapters that deal with specific losses such as the loss of a spouse, the loss of a child, the loss of a parent, and the loss of a sibling. Wright even adds chapters on losing friends and pets (as pet lovers can attest to the fact that pets become part of your family).

Part of the strength of this book is the permission that Wright gives to the reader/grieving one. He says, “Everyone grieves differently, and there isn’t one right way to grieve. Never compare your grief with another’s; your grief is uniquely your own.” He talks about the potential physical implications that will be seen as one journeys through grief, the complexity of emotions that will be experienced, and some helpful hints as to how to make the journey less bumpy. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that the journey through grief is easy, but his suggestions can at least help to ease the pain a little.

Throughout the chapters, there are questions that can be asked by the reader (or others) to try to explore and even get to the heart of grief. Wright offers advice from others who have written on the subject of grief and includes helpful Scripture references that may bring salve to the wounds of grief that are experienced.

Wright’s style of writing is such that you almost feel yourself reliving some of your own losses as he describes the emotions experienced. I felt myself knotting up inside as I read through some of the implications of losing parents. Wright’s experience in loss is an asset for him as he doesn’t describe the process of grief in psychological jargon but in conversational prose. He makes a connection with his reader with this approach. The only criticisms that I have for the book are that it can feel a little overlong if you read it from front to back rather than using it as a manual. The other criticism is that there are times when the scriptural reference seem rather forced or obligatory rather than flowing naturally out of an essential part of coping with loss. A deeper theological treatment of grief would have been helpful.

Besides those few critiques, the book was good. It’s a book that I could easily recommend, in sum or in part, to someone who has experienced grief and is looking for some answers for their own coping. If you know of someone who has experienced the loss of a family member or if you have experienced that loss, you might give Wright a try.

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