Two Steps Forward

What happens when we find our spiritual journey marked by pain and suffering?  When life is difficult, how does Christ lead us forward to the peace he promises?

Those questions form the premise of Two Steps Forward, the new book by Sharon Garlough Brown, and the sequel to the book Sensible Shoes that I recommended last year.

In her new book, Browns invites us to enter back into the lives of four unique women who met in a spiritual disciplines class.  Each woman’s story shows God’s grace as he calls them to a deeper relationship despite the circumstances around them.

  • Charissa is a perfectionist graduate student working on her Ph.D. in literature.
  • Hannah, a pastor on a forced sabbatical, wrestles with how to separate her professional and spiritual life.
  • Mara is in a difficult marriage, trapped by feelings of rejection and fear.
  • Meg, who has been stymied by grief and loss, is headed to England in an effort to reconnect with her college-age daughter.

Two Steps Forward has launched a new category of Christian fiction called “spiritual formation fiction.”   There are some wonderful nonfiction books on the spiritual disciplines (Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster or The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg) but fiction is a wonderful accompaniment to enhance our understanding of the spiritual disciplines. The beauty of Sharon’s work is that the fictional characters become mirrors where we can see ourselves in their stories and experience what is means to practice spiritual disciplines.  As we are drawn into the beautifully written story, we identify with the triumphs, and the failures, of the characters.  As we identify with them, we can allow the Holy Spirit to gently guide us on our spiritual journeys as well.

I had the priviledge to read the manuscript for Two Steps Forward and I hope that you are as anxious as I was to jump back in the lives of these four courageous women.

As an encouragement to add this book to your reading list, following is a 40% off coupon for preorders.  At the IVP Press webiste, enter the coupon code below. There is a $5 shipping fee but you will have it as soon as it is available.


Happy Reading!



Elisabeth Elliott Tribute

Margaret Ashmore Drawing of Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliott, pioneer missionary and Christian author, entered the presence of Jesus on Sunday, June 14, 2015, after a long battle with dementia.   A prolific author, her most famous book, Through Gates of Splendor, told the story of five missionaries (including her first husband Jim Elliott) who died while trying to reach the Auca people in Ecuador.  Splendor had a significant impact on me as a young adult as I encountered men and women in the pages of the book who were willing to give all in the service of Christ. And, not only did they give all but they considered their sacrifice worth it in the service of their Savior.  Jim Elliott famously wrote in his journal, 

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep

to gain that which he cannot lose.

The day of her death, I just happened to re-read These Strange Ashes, the book detailing the first year of her life as a single missionary woman in the jungles of Ecuador and the faith lessons that she learned.  Each lesson ultimately centered on the the sovereignty and goodness of God — in other words, how she learned to submit to the assignment given to her by God.  But, she wrote about submission to God’s will with a full understanding of the cost.  She wrote,

To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss. The great symbol of Christianity means sacrifice and no one who calls himself a Christian can evade this stark fact.

I had the opportunity to meet her, but I only really knew her through her many books and articles.  Through those vehicles, she was a teacher and an encourager.  More often, she was one who rebuked me as she asked the Lord to “deliver us from our sad, sweet, stinking selves!”

She ends the most recent epilogue of Through Gates of Splendor with these words that are a fitting match to the current sermon series:

We are not always sure where the horizon is.  We would not know which end is up were it not for the shimmering pathway of light falling on the white sea.  The One who laid earth’s foundations and settled its dimensions knows where the lines are drawn.  He gives all the light we need for trust and obedience.

Christianity Today has an excellent summary of her life here, with a lot of links if you want to learn more about her extraordinary life.

All is well,


(picture from

Wrestling with Desire

As Christians, we often picture desire as a vice — a seductive, fleshly, sinful part of us that is attempting to tear us away from God’s authentic plan for our lives.

Then we read verses that say, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” If a good God is granting faithful children the longings of their heart, can the desires really be wrong?

UnknownIn her book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of Faith,” author Jen Pollock Michel writes a practical theology of biblical desire. Deeply rooted in scripture, as well as rich in examples from literature and modern life, the beautifully written book is loosely structured around the Lord’s Prayer.

Michel travels through the prayer that the Lord taught his disciples to pray, and guides our understanding that while desire can be corrupted, it is “good, right and necessary. It is a force of movement in our lives…. Growing into maturity doesn’t mean abandoning our desires, but growing in discernment of them.”

One chapter I really appreciated is “Be My Neighbor,” a chapter on community, specifically community found in the church. Many Christian books disregard the importance of the church in spiritual growth, but Michel argues for the “mysterious, unparalleled holy energy when believers gather together for church” even when it is messy and even when we are hurt.   Jim and I deeply believe in the power of church, which is helpful when you are pastoring in a local body, but this chapter still served as an encouragement.

Teach Me to Want would be an excellent book to read with your community. Each chapter ends with reflection questions, and there are additional discussion questions at the end of the book.

We had the opportunity to get to know Jen and her family this past summer, and she is as authentic, engaging and lovely as her writing.  I am not the only one to commend this book. The book was selected by Christianity Today as the best book of 2015 in the “Christian Living” category, as well as the magazine’s overall pick for the best book of the year.

All is well,


The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Several weeks ago, Jim mentioned this book in a sermon.  Several people have asked about the book title (it is a little tricky to remember) so I wanted to post the information.

OB-XG686_bkrvfl_GV_20130429130208The whole title is The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.  It is written by her brother Rod Dreher, a journalist who goes from living in the “big city” back to his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana with a population of 2,000.  The book is the story of his journey out of a small town but ultimately his return home.

The book is his memoir but toward the end it shifts to an insightful discussion of history, family roots and community.  In our culture where many of things are not valued, it is a good reminder of why we should consider these ideals.

The catalyst to his return home is his sister’s death from cancer so the book also highlights issues of loss and grieving.  It is beautifully handled but with such vivid imagery that I would suggest a large tissue box near you for most of the book.

My only caveat to the discussion, and one important aspect that is not addressed in the book, is Jesus’ response to Peter in Mark 10.

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.…”

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming would be a great book to read and discuss with your community.

All is well,


Freefall to Fly

In the middle of this Lenten season, I encourage you to carve out some intentional time to reflect on what you are learning through your fast.

If you are giving up some form of technology, you might be wrestling with some of the ideas that author Rebekah Lyons discusses in her book, Freefall to Fly.  Reflecting on social media’s affect on her, she writes:

freefallThese worlds are fun to create.  They allow us to imagine a world that’s a little brighter, fuller, shinier, fancier and more fashionable than the ones we actually live in.  The “Rebekah” on my Facebook page or filtered Instagram profile is a moldable piece of clay, and I am the sculptor.  I can shape her to be as hip and glamorous as I want her to be, and she doesn’t even have to look, sound, or behave like the real me.  These alternative realities fill our waking hours and give the impression that we are contributing to the world when deep down we feel unremarkable.

These technological creations, while interesting for everyone else, have the opposite effect on us.  Instead of confirming our worth, they only add to the pressure to perform and strive.  Have you made every recipe on your Pinterest board?  I haven’t.  How many of us have homes that look like the images we pin?  Perhaps a few pins are accurate, but over time it becomes too much to keep up with.

So the images created to bring us meaning end up making us feel worse about ourselves.  Because we know how unlike our true selves they are.  When I create a bliss-filled Pinterest fantasy, for example, it may send me to a dreamy place for a brief moment.  But then I’m reminded that my closet – and my décor – is already outdated according to the latest trends.  So off I go to spend.  To update.  To consume.  The experience is worsened on those late nights when I need a mental break and find myself watching and observing, wondering if everyone else is living a better story than I am.

Worse still, these fantasy-laden lives isolate us from communities where we are truly known.  To be sure, I love knowing what my friends are up to, near and far.  Technology helps me feel more connected to them.  But unless I reach out and actually talk to them, the closeness is limited to a newsfeed.  A faux sense of friendship.  I feel connected with them even though we haven’t spoken in months.  And when we do speak, I sense a most awful pressure to keep up appearances I’ve worked so hard to construct online.

Gabe [her husband] is a helpful barometer to keep me accountable.  He knows when the real Rebekah and the virtual ones grow disconnected.  And he raises a red flag when my iPhone gets more attention than he does.  It makes him jealous when I act as if I’d rather be somewhere else than beside him.  Only those in our midst – our physical lives – can accurately assess when we’re embracing our true selves.

Like Rebekah, perhaps the Lord is revealing something to you about how technology impacts you in order to help you live an authentic life.

All is well,


Glittering Vices

undividedcoverIf you have additional questions from the sermon this morning about identifying the root of sin in your life, consider reading Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by Calvin College philosophy professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung.

In her book, DeYoung explores the “seven deadly sins” or “capital vices.”  DeYoung prefers the term “capital vices” because “vices concern deeply rooted patterns in our character, patterns broader than a single act but narrower than our sinful human condition in general.”

Although there is no official historical list of the vices, DeYoung settles on envy, vainglory, sloth, avarice, anger, gluttony, and lust, dedicating a chapter to each one.  You may be surprised to see that pride is missing from the list, but DeYoung argues that pride is the root of all sin, underlying all the capital vices.

If some of her capital vices sound like outdated terms, consider a few of her definitions:

  • Vainglory —  excessive desire for others’ attention and approval; “Maybe vainglory is the vice for those convinced deep down they will never really be good enough to shine without artificial lighting and a little extra polish.”
  • Sloth — spiritual laziness; allowing work, busyness or anything else to crowd out time for our spiritual life
  • Avarice —  overzealous desire to acquire and keep material goods; “the desire to be able to provide fully for ourselves, and therefore not to have to depend on God.”
  • Gluttony — “Gluttony is really not about how much we’re eating, but about how our eating reflects how much pleasure we take in eating food and why.”

In addition to defining each capital vice and examining the destructive behaviors or sin that result when we allow these sins to go unheeded, Glittering Vices offers suggestions to allow God to transform these areas.

For additional insights into the book, you can click to read this 2009 Christianity Today interview with DeYoung.

All is well,


Leap Over a Wall

Leap Over a WallIf you are looking for a summer book to read and are interested in a book to go along with our study of the Psalms and 2 Samuel, consider Leap Over A Wall by Eugene Peterson.

Jim and I both appreciated Peterson’s look at the life of David.  When we considered including a review of the book on the blog, Jim said that Josh Mateer, Calvary’s Pastor of Pastoral Care, was the person who had recommended the book.  So, we asked Josh to write a review of the book, which follows:

A number of years ago I was working on a study of the life of David and I came across Max Lucado’s book Facing Your Giants. When I pick up a new book I enjoy starting by skimming through the acknowledgements section. A bit of an odd habit to be sure but it is always intriguing to see who authors thank. In this book about the life of David Max Lucado took the time to highlight one book in particular that impacted him greatly. It was by Eugene Peterson and this is what Lucado said about Peterson, “Each reading of your books touches me. Leap Over a Wall changed me. Where my words sound too much like yours, forgive me—you get the credit.”

If Eugene Peterson’s book on David changed the life of an author as influential as Max Lucado, I wanted to read that book as well. Once I secured a copy for myself I now found myself staring at the cover contemplating the title. Leap Over a Wall sounded more like a zoo attendee’s worst nightmare of having a lion or bear leap over the retaining wall into the unsuspecting onlookers who moments earlier were disappointed the animals were not moving, rather being a book about David. But as I quickly discovered, Peterson based this title from David’s own words in Psalm 18:29, “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall” (ESV).

In this book Peterson succeeds in getting across the truth of this unique verse. It is not David who accomplishes great things for God, but rather God who accomplishes great things through David. When David acknowledges, “For by you I can …” he is really acknowledging two things. First, David had the humility to recognize that apart from God he could not accomplish anything. And second, he had the confidence to believe that with God he could accomplish even the most profound tasks.

In a world enamored by fame, power and prestige we are constantly clamoring for the next great model to follow. And in Christian circles what better model could we follow than “a man after God’s own heart”? But when looked at as a model for Christian living David’s life falls woefully short. Rather than shy away from this, Peterson makes this the point of his book. David becomes an example of God working in and through man’s frailty. The subtitle of this book captures that focus, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians. The goal of this book is for the everyday, ordinary, earthy Christian to experience God’s presence and power like David did, no matter what they face.

Peterson puts it this way, “As an instance of humanity in himself, he [David] isn’t much. He has little wisdom to pass on to us on how to live successfully, He was an unfortunate parent and an unfaithful husband… But David’s importance isn’t in his morality or his military prowess but in his experience of and witness to God. Every event in his life was a confrontation with God” (p. 5). Peterson then spends the rest of the book showing how God intersected with the life of David and explains the profound truths to be learned about God through his victories and shortcomings. God is at center stage in this book because God was at center stage in David’s life.

This God-focus started early for David. “In the Bethlehem hills and meadows, tending his father’s sheep, David was immersed in the largeness and immediacy of God. He had experienced God’s strength in protecting the sheep in his fights with lions and bears. He had practiced the presence of God so thoroughly that God’s word, which he couldn’t literally hear was far more real to him than the lion’s roar, which he could hear” (p. 40).  When David was at his best it was because his thinking was thoroughly God-dominated.

Peterson works his way through David’s life bringing the stories to light in a way that makes you feel you are right there living it out with David. As a reader you begin to identify with David so much so that you actually start to believe that God could work that way through you… right now… where you are. As Peterson unfolds David’s relative obscurity and insignificance before his call you start to sense God could call anybody. As the book continues through the stories of the narrative describing David’s friendships, wanderings in the wilderness, grief, love, suffering, sin and last days, rather than seeing a superhero larger than life, the reader sees a God who is large enough for every aspect of life … even if your zoo experience someday does involve a lion or a bear.

My Heart In His Hands

The following letter was written to John and Rebecca Hasseltine to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage:

I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean, to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness, brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Saviour from the heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?

The year was 1810, and Ann Hasseltine and Adoniram Judson desired to get married and serve as some of America’s first overseas missionaries. Amazingly, the Hasseltines allowed their twenty-year-old daughter to decide what God was calling her to do. She said “yes” to Adoniram and life on the mission field.

51jvVk7tIIL._SY320_[1]This story is just one of many amazing episodes in the life of Ann Judson, as written in the biography My Heart in His Hands: Ann Judson of Burma by Sharon James. The Judsons initially set out for India but became trailblazers of the gospel in Burma, now called Myanmar, that had fruitful results although they waited six years before seeing their first convert. Ann was an dedicated and amazing woman. In addition to sharing the gospel, Ann wrote a catechism and translated two books of the bible into Burmese. She also holds the distinction of being the first Protestant to translate any of the scriptures into Thai.

Because her letters and journals were published in the U.S., Ann and Adoniram were well-known in the 19th century church, inspiring countless believers. However, until recently coming upon this book, I had never heard their story.

This biography is strongest when the author quotes from their letters, journals, and other writings. While I wish that the entire narrative was stronger, I highly recommend this book. It serves as a good reminder of the sacrifices men and women have made for the sake of the gospel. It also details the life of a missionary in the 1800s and provides a beautiful account of a missionary couple that worked together accompolishing significant work to further Christ’s kingdom.

My Heart in His Hands was my first introduction to Ann Judson, and I am thankful to know her story.

All is well,

Old Books

I love books.  As a child, my secret goal was to read every book in the youth and children’s section of the local library.  I’m sure I never even came close to that goal (due in part to the fact that libraries keep adding new books all the time!) but it was not for lack of giving it a significant effort.

So, it is probably not a surprise that one of my favorite Christmas traditions is giving each kid a book to read aloud as a family.  It has been so great to re-read books that I loved as a child, such as the Little House books by Laura Ingalls, as well as discovering great new books.

Some of my favorite quotes about reading come from C.S. Lewis, who says:

It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.
No book is really worth reading at age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty–except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.
…a children’s story which is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.

Even though I am not to 50 yet, one of the great joys of having school-age children is rereading “children’s books.”  They are treasures of history, imagination and adventure.  It is often interesting to read them through an adult or parent lens.

As I child I didn’t realize that when Laura Ingalls wrote about being hungry during an extended blizzard in The Long Winter that they weren’t just hungry.  When I was young – and living in Texas – being shut inside during a blizzard sounded a little like a great adventure.  But, when I reread it as an adult, I came to the shocking realization that they were literally starving to death.  In addition, to read about the amount of work Ma Ingalls had to do in order to feed the family takes on a far different meaning now that I am preparing three meals a day for a similar size family.

We just finished reading Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.  I had forgotten how much I loved the story.  But, it is funny to read some of the sections from the perspective of an adult…and a pastor’s wife.  Here are my favorite quotes after absorbing myself in the world of Anne of Green Gables:

…isn’t it nice to think that to-morrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?  (Chapter 21)
I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does.  It has a fascination of its own, that bend, Marilla.  I wonder how the road beyond it goes – what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows – what new landscapes – what new beauties—what curves and hills and valleys further on. (Chapter 38)
And besides, we met the new minister and his wife….His wife is very pretty.  Not exactly regally lovely, of course – it wouldn’t do, because it might set a bad example.  Mrs. Lynde says the minister’s wife over at Newbridge sets a very bad example because she dresses so fashionably.  (Chapter 21)
Mrs. Lynde says that sound doctrine in the man and good housekeeping in the woman make an ideal combination for a minster’s family.  (Chapter 21)
It’s always wrong to do anything you can’t tell the minister’s wife.  It’s as good as an extra conscience to have a minister’s wife for your friend. (Chapter 24)

As a young girl, I am sure those statements about the minister’s wife didn’t even make me pause but now they make me laugh – a little from acknowledgement of the truth that people often have certain expectations of the minister’s wife and thankfulness that most of those stereotypes are gone.

Now that winter has finally arrived, perhaps you can find your favorite “old” book and take some time this winter to enjoy it afresh.

I also would love to know your favorite “old” book.

All is well,


Me, Myself and Bob

We don’t agree about olives and coffee, but we usually agree on books.

Lisa and I both just read an excellent book: Me, Myself and Bob by Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales (and voice of Bob the tomato).  This book is his autobiographical look at the rise and fall of Big Idea Productions, the media company he founded.

Here’s why I loved this book:

It is really well written, very funny at times and movingly sad at others.  The book is a great read and took me just a couple of days to finish it.

Phil Vischer is only a few years older than me so I resonated with his experiences of television, technology and Christianity. In addition, I heard about VeggieTales as it was a growing phenomenon.  I remember going to a 3-2-1 Penguins release party; I remember hearing that the Jonah movie overwhelmed the company (it was much more than that); and I remember when VeggieTales started focusing more on morals and less on the Bible (now I know why).  The behind-the-scenes look was fascinating.

If you like books on business, the chapter on the lessons he learned from leading this business is better than most business books I have read.

Most importantly, Phil Vischer is brutally honest about his own failings and the book is a testimony to the glory of God.  By the end of the book, not only was I entertained, I felt like I had just read a deeply spiritual book that helped me see God in new and fresh ways.  The painful question he asks at the end – “Why didn’t God come and rescue me and the company” – and his answer are worth their weight in gold.  It also doesn’t hurt that he started out thinking God was uninterested in guiding his life and ended up at a place expecting guidance from God.

I would strongly encourage you to read this book!  Once we return our copy, it will be available from the church library.