Between Heaven and the Real World [Book Review]

How has 2017 been for you? At the end of last year I was surprised to see so many of my Facebook friends share that 2016 had been one of the hardest for them. There was a familiar theme with these end of year posts: 2016 had been especially hard in one way or another.

For me, 2017 has been one of the hardest emotionally and spiritually. I’ve been through a difficult season of spiritual dryness, the challenges of fathering three young children and working on marriage was a challenge I constantly felt I was failing, the church I co-pastor was growing and the added stress of overseeing so many ministries and leaders was wearing me down, and I just felt tired all round.

To help out of this difficult season I began reading biographies. I started with reformers like William Tyndale, Nicolas Ridley, and John Calvin. And then a few months ago I saw that the biography of my personal favourite Christian artist – Steven Curtis Chapman – had been released and I finally finished it over these holidays.

For those who don’t know, Steven is a songwriter and performer of contemporary Christian music, has released over 20 albums, won 5 Grammy Awards, and 58 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards (more than any other artist in history). He has sold over 10 million albums, and has 10 certified Gold and Platinum albums.

I became a Christian in 2001 and was shortly afterwards introduced to the music of Steven Curtis Chapman. His music has remained a staple in my personal listening ever since. His music and lyrics have always come at timely points in life. I’ve played and sung ‘I Will Be Here’ at multiple weddings for friends, and to my own resplendent bride I sang Steven’s song ‘We Will Dance’. In times of hardship and lowliness to mountain highs and joy Steven’s songs have been with me to encourage and articulate my emotions, feelings, and faith.

But the book itself doesn’t need for you to be a fan, though I think it certainly helps – especially in quite a few places Steven retells his story in a way as though he was writing the lyric to a particular song. And in a few instances his life story helped inspire those songs.

In short though, having read this biography, I have been immensely encouraged to keep persevering in my faith and keep pressing forward to the Day when we SEE that it was all true.

The book itself can be roughly divided into three parts.

The first part deals with Steven’s childhood, upbringing, and entry into the music world. To be honest I had to wrestle with this part of the book as unfamiliar names and places and references just piled up. There are some sweet moments, and his relationship with his own father certainly shaped not only his personality (especially his ‘Mr Fix It’ personality), but also his parenting for the future. Thematically there are some important themes of Steven’s life which are brought up in this first part and trace themselves through the rest of the book. And even though this was the least familiar part of the biography for me, I persisted because I knew what would happen in part three, and I wanted to push through to that.

The second part details Steven’s rise to music stardom, marriage and family joys (and woes), and culminates in the adoption stories of his three girls – Shaohannah Hope, Stevie Joy, and Maria Sue – from China.

This part of the book really begins to pick up. Now the music and albums I am familiar with is being spoken of and stories are being shared about their creation. All fascinating for the fan. And the stories of his children, especially his adopted girls, are tender and lovely. Stories of how Maria would lose dots on a ladybug chart for poor behaviour, and the way that Steven would have to lovingly discipline her are heart-warming. But knowing that the song ‘Cinderella’ was inspired by Maria makes what happens next all the more profoundly tragic.

The third part of the book opens with the accident. Maria’s accidental death when she was run over in the family drive way by her older brother Will. Grief and the process of moving through it and finding some healing take up the remainder of the book. If you haven’t gotten a box of tissues already then you will most certainly need it here.

Overall three major themes in the book struck me clearly and encouraged me deeply.

The first was the humility of Steven. Humility in recognising that as his musical career was beginning to take off that the impact it had on his marriage was intense. Recognising this, and humbly questioning whether he should drop it all and get a ‘regular job’ to provide the sort of predictable life that his wife, Mary Beth, had always hoped for. Humility in recognising that even though he had written the song ‘I Will Be Here’ that his own marriage was not bullet proof – and they would wrestle with these challenges for a long time.

Humility is also wonderfully on display in a story I didn’t previously know. First, Steven constantly doubted his singing ability, and when it seemed to be affirmed with worldly success he doubted his motivations in performing. There is an earnest, and wonderfully encouraging, desire that his music lift up Jesus and not Steven. And in the kindness and goodness of God, this desire has been met with the help of loving Christian mentors and his family – especially his wife, whom he writes ‘remained unimpressed with my celebrity’!

The second theme that runs through the entire book are the prayers of Steven. His prayers are short, simple, and powerfully and refreshingly honest and open. He prays about his weaknesses and fears. The most heart wrenching prayers come when he stands at the deathbed of his daughter Maria, pleading with God to raise her and bring her back – like he did with Jesus before. And his desperate prayers continue as he wrestles with how to live without her, and how to lead his grieving family through this as well. His prayers have encouraged my own – if only that I should pray more and just be honest with my struggles through them.

Finally the key theme that shines most strongly in the final part of the book is hope. What conceivable hope could there be after the loss of a child? Steven and his family wrestle with this – they are not superheros who simply trust and declare the sovereignty of God, it took them quite some time to get there. But once they did, even though they grieve (and still do), hope in the future resurrection and new heaven became their anchor. Steven writes,

“Of course, we still have plenty of days when the weight of grief comes and knocks the breath out of us again. Tears come freely without warning or even any explanation. We know there’s a day coming when every tear will be wiped from our eyes – just not yet.

We understand that we really are in between heaven and the real world, living day to day with the sure hope of heaven before us. And we also know how important it is for us to show up in the here and now, where God has us today. This life is so short, and there is much good to be done and much love to be shown in these few days we have on this side of the veil.

So we make it out prayer to live with our eyes wide open to SEE what’s right in front of us and with our eyes looking forward in anticipation of SEEING Jesus and Maria – with all her ladybug dots glued on for good!”

This book is a refreshing, honest, and authentic journey of someone trying to live out their faith in Jesus Christ. He’s no awesomely powerful Christian, but his life to date shows what trusting in an awesomely powerful Saviour might look like: a journey with hills and valleys sometimes much steeper and deeper than you would think, and yet knowing we’re going to make it and get there through trusting our Saviour Jesus. Sometimes the journey between the real world and heaven is longer than we expect.

Surviving and Thriving in Seminary by Danny Zacharias (eBook Review)

In between changing wet nappies and trying to rock my newborn daughter to sleep I’ve found some time to catch up on reading. One of the books I started a little while ago, paused, then picked up again is this ebook – Surviving and Thriving in Seminary by Danny Zacharias. (available from Amazon only as an eBook as far as I can tell).

My theological college has a rather special place in my heart. It was probably the most fruitful and best three years of study I’ve ever had. I know other minister friends who didn’t really jump into the College life scene, but with entrance into a relatively small college I took the opportunity to be a part of the community as much as possible. I got to know my fellow students and lecturers fairly well and count them as friends not only in ministry but also in life. In some ways I can’t speak highly enough of my time at study.

So I brought a whole heap of experience to this book that I only picked up really at the beginning of this year. Surviving and Thriving is a very practical book on what it looks like to enter theological study.

Most book reviews outline the content of a book before reviewing its strengths and weaknesses. This time around I’m just going to look at the practical and not-so-practical aspects of the book with particular reference to what it is like to study in Australia.

Let me say from the outset: this is a must read book for those considering or about to enter into theological study.

There are two main sections to the book. The first part is primarily about preparing yourself for the intricacies and challenges of studying theology. Chapters 1-3 include preparation for the mind, for your relationships, and for the discipline of study itself. Zacharias very helpfully outlines what it means to study the bible and in particular some of the discomfort some students feel while studying – in particular being introduced to new concepts, challenging ideas and new ways of reading the scriptures. He encouragingly warns:

‘[Theological Study] will force you to rethink your [theological beliefs] and articulate [them] better. Or you may change your mind altogether. Change is uncomfortable. But uncomfortableness is good for us. More than that, it is essential if you want to keep growing as a human being.’

Added to that:

‘You also need to firmly remind yourself of the fundamentals of your own faith. You will very often be challenged on many fronts, but very rarely are students being challenged on the fundamental sof orthodox Christian faith. Remember, unless you’ve chosen to go to a seminary that is very different from your own faith tradition, most of your professors will hold to the same fundamentals too.’

That last paragraph should be a cornerstone of studying theology. If you’ve been guided towards a helpful college then you should try to remember that despite some of the strange and challenging ideas and readings of scripture you will have to interact with, your lecturers are your friends and are there to help – because they most likely believe the same things as you!

As intimidating as it is though there is this encouragement:

‘In short, you are now the one being given all sorts of arguments on all sorts of topics and being asked to think through which argument is best and which aligns best with scripture. It is a daunting and overwhelming task. And it is absolutely worth it!’

Take it not only from Zacharias, but also from me – it is absolutely worth it!

In some ways I found these first three chapters to be the most pivotal in the book. They are primarily about your mindset going into College, and getting this right means at least half the battle is won before you open up your Greek and Hebrew textbooks.

The rest of the book focuses on lots of practical tips from managing debt, managing homework, very helpful tips on how to read a lot of material very well and how to write an essay. Zacharias infuses a lot of his charm and personality through the pages so while there is heaps of practical tips there’s never a sense that you’re being talked at: he’s more like a friend who has been there and done that and is sharing his own experiences with you as well.

So the book is very practical. Where is it less practical?

The answer is in its Americanness. Specifically, the chapter dealing with debt.

I don’t fully know the American system of higher education, but the chapter dealing with debt (though practical!) seemed a little foreign. From all accounts Zacharias is firmly encouraging his readers to not accumulate any student loan debt for their studies by the time they finish their degrees. That’s wise counsel for sure, but Australia’s socialist leaning governance has allowed studying for Australian citizens to be much less stressful.

So while I encourage applying the helpful tips on debt management and use of money, the tips on student loans are less to consider if you’re studying in Australia. Here’s why: FEE HELP.

Here’s what I can gather from the Australian Government websites on studying and FEE HELP as well as my understanding of how it works (best to check with your local government contact to find out more though!):

  • FEE HELP is designed to assist with the payments of degrees during study. Once a student graduates and begins full-time work, and once their income reaches a certain threshold, the Australian Tax Office automatically deducts a small percentage to pay off the FEE HELP loan over your working life.
  • If a person dies the outstanding balance of the FEE HELP debt is cancelled (all other required taxes are to be paid by the deceased’s estate).
  • A Pastor’s ‘wage’ is often legally worked (by means of fringe benefits) to substantially reduce the amount of taxable income they might otherwise be required to pay.
  • Therefore if someone remains in ministry for the remainder of their lives, the will never pay off their FEE HELP debt.
  • The Australian Government was made aware of this when they moved from HECS to FEE HELP but is still willing to include theological studies under FEE HELP as they recognise pastors and ministers perform a necessary social work/benefit they do not provide.

So there you go, studying in Australia, thanks to an incredibly generous government, is made possible and less stressful for Australian citizens. We should keep praying the government remains as generous!

Now, all that said, it’s still worth investigating what options are available for you (Australian citizen reader) for theological study.

Coming back to the book, I still think it’s a must read for those thinking about or about to enter into study. The practical tips are things I wish I knew beforehand, and other tips (especially the opening chapter) I whole heartedly agree with.

Review: Saving Eutychus

Saving Eutychus Cover

I begin writing this review having spent one tedious hour working on the opening illustration to my sermon last Sunday (while juggling whether I really nailed the big idea and big question). I’ve been at the work of preaching for just over a year, and I’m privileged and very thankful to be working with friend and mentor Ben Ho.

I should also start this review where my friend Nathan Campbell started: a disclaimer. Gary Millar is a friend and principal of the college I attended, Queensland Theological College. Phil Campbell is also another friend who taught me preaching while at QTC. So I can’t say that my review will be completely impartial, but I don’t think it matters that much.

To the book.

Saving Eutychus gets its nifty title (partly inspired by Nathan’s blog) from the little incident in Acts 20. It’s Paul’s final evening with in Troas and he’s probably pretty keen to impart as much teaching as possible – even going way into the evening. By around midnight Eutychus, who was listening in, struggles to stay awake and ends up falling asleep. On a window sill. Three stories up.  As Phil jokes, with a little apostolic first aid, the young man’s ‘terminal velocity’ wasn’t as terminal as it could have been.

But Phil outlines the problem this story highlights for the average preacher, “…what took Paul many hours of speaking to achieve—near-fatal napping—takes most of us only a few minutes speaking to a well-rested and caffeinated crowd on a Sunday.

So true.

I’ve seen the droopy heads. I’ve seen the glazed eyes. Every so often I can grab everyone’s attention with an illustration only to lose it again as soon as I begin talking about the text for the morning.

I find preaching really hard work. So I was both encouraged and deflated by the opening lines to this book, “Preaching is hard work. And—we’re sorry to break this to you if you’re just starting out—it doesn’t seem to get much easier.

Deflated, yes. But the rest of the book serves up some real encouragements and challenges.

As a young preacher struggling to find a groove in my preparation and ‘performance’ this was a most timely book. But as I read through it became clear that this book isn’t just pitching at the young preacher, but essentially at any preacher who is genuinely, and humbly, seeking to improve their craft. Preaching is deadly serious business and should be afforded the appropriate amount of time for preparation. Gary puts the weight of the task in this way:

“I want to know that God has addressed me through his word. I want to be challenged, humbled, corrected, excited, moved, strengthened, overawed, corrected, shaped, stretched and propelled out into the world as a different person. I want to be changed! And if I’m the one who’s teaching the Bible—whether it’s to my children, to our students in college, to our church family in Brisbane, or to anybody else—I long for that change to happen in the hearts of those who hear. I long for Jane to find new security in Christ, and for Rob to discover real joy in following Jesus. I want Ian to stop doing that because he realizes it is dishonouring God, and I want everyone to be bowled over by the power and beauty of God. I want people (myself included) to become more like Christ. To borrow Edwards’ language, I want people to be affected. I want to preach in a way that results in change. Real change. Heart change.”

Real change in the lives of believers isn’t just for their benefit, but also taps into God’s purposes to make known his glory to this world.

It’s at this point that Gary impresses upon the reader that expository preaching is the best form of preaching to accomplish this grand purpose. I found myself fist-punching the air a number of times, especially during Gary’s 8 advantages of expository preaching. However I felt like this could have been teased out a little more. Perhaps not so much as to be preaching to the choir, but I would have appreciated a little more given the state of some choirs…

Gary’s chapter on preaching the gospel from the Old Testament is also very helpful. Prior to the start of my ministry apprenticeship I grew up on a diet of very poorly taught Old Testament sermons. There is enough in this chapter to whet the appetite, and enough references to do further reading.

And that’s one of the great strengths of this book overall. It’s both encouraging and challenging. It sympathises with the weakness of the preacher who is reading, while at the same time pointing them forward, with hope (!), to a better future.

Phil’s top ten tips in chapter 3 bring back a lot of memories. There’s plenty there, as well as some helpful website links to gauge sentence length. It’s a very Phil chapter.

But probably the most heart-warming, or at least to me, chapters was Gary’s on ‘Faithful Wounds: the importance of critique’. Gary steps through the importance of faithful constructive criticism to grow our preaching. In this regard my partner in ministry, Ben Ho, has been a faithful friend. Particularly as a young Gen-Yer, who finds it difficult to separate my performance from my personhood (as is a general flaw of Gen-Y and Millenials), Ben has faithfully walked me through each of my sermons, shown the strengths and the weaknesses and has encouraged me along. The wounds of a friend are faithful indeed.

This book is not just for the young preacher, though this young preacher benefited from it greatly.  It’s not even just for the old preacher. But anyone who wants a glimpse at the process of crafting a sermon. I know some preachers who would benefit from this book greatly. I also know plenty of sermon listeners who could do with reading this book, if only to be better listeners.

This is a great book. The message to preach clearly with simplicity for maximum gospel punch is given clearly and with simplicity. What’s more is that each chapter is fairly personal. Gary’s chapters are very Gary. Phil’s chapters are very Phil. I felt like I wasn’t reading a how-to book on preaching, but was sitting in a bar, chewing the fat and listening to two of my favourite preachers chat about their craft.

Saving Eutychus will be available from Matthias Media towards the end of March/early April.

Breaking News (maybe?): Book Announcement

I’m pretty slow on the news, but this was a pleasant announcement from two lecturer friends. QTC Principal Gary Millar and QTC Lecturer/Pressy Minister Phil Campbell, both great blokes, have a new book coming out.

Looks exciting, and when I get my hands on one you can be guaranteed a book review here…and I’ll most likely get signatures and photos with the authors.

Watch this space!

Update:

Here’s what Dale Ralph Davis says about the book:

Let me invite you to eavesdrop on an Irish-Aussie conversation about preaching. This book teems with ‘plusses’: it is short (as a tome that takes Eutychus as its poster boy must be); it is stretching (they force one to deal with longer texts—and leave one asking, ‘Why can’t I summarize extended passages like that?’); it is specific (they include actual sermons with critique); it is searching (in case you skip the first chapter, ‘pray’ occurs eight times in the conclusion); and stirring (you still want to preach when you’ve finished reading). If you don’t buy the book, don’t cry if Eutychus isn’t saved!

Update II:

Believe or not I think I beat Nathan Campbell to the post!

Update III:

I’ve just received an advanced copy for review. Watch this space indeed!

‘The Manga Bible’ – Review

The Manga Bible – From Genesis to Revelation by Siku
When I picked up this ‘ The Manga Bible’ (TMB) I was quite excited. As I got into it the excitement grew, perhaps this would be the Manga Bible I was hoping to encourage my teens to read (that in so doing they might be interested in reading their bibles more, much for the same reasons that ‘The Aussie Bible’ was written).
However by the time I finished I was not only disappointed, but deeply troubled. Here’s my review broken down into it’s parts (this will be a relatively concise review – please ask me for more details if you wish).
Positives:
  • the animation is superb, probably some of the best Manga I’ve seen. (you can see some of it here)
  • a lot of the characters are painted in very masculine ways, which I sometimes forget may have been true of the characters in real life (eg, Samuel is a hulk of a person, and quite a dominating character, whereas I sometimes think of him as a frail elderly chap)
  • the storyline keeps relatively true to the text of scripture…(but)…
Minor Quibbles:
  • …sometimes the narrative strays from the intention of the text and some narrative remarks are more reflective of the authors of TMB than of the bible itself
  • cf the last point – some books of the bible are condensed too much (eg Revelation is only given three pages, with much animation but very little content)
  • The animations, in the version I have, go right to the binder, so in some instances it’s hard to read what’s being said because it’s too close to the binding
  • Some pages, though few, are full 2-page spreads and I got lost trying to follow the speech
  • there are some minor spelling and grammatical mistakes, which are less forgivable in Manga, I think, because of the relative lack of content
  • In places the animation can be quite graphic (eg, a nude outline of Bathsheba, the violent beheading of Goliath)
  • Paul is animated a bit too ruggedly handsome in my opinion…
However these minor quibbles give way to some major issues I have with the TMB
Major Issues:
  • The presentation of Jesus is less human and more divine. That is, Jesus is presented throughout TMB as commanding, dominating and a force to be reckoned with. For instance the temptation in the wilderness doesn’t seem to faze Jesus one bit. He’s able to deal with Satan without breaking a sweat. And throughout the rest of the Gospel’s animation Jesus just comes off too powerful, which wouldn’t give me confidence to know that he was ‘[able] to sympathize with our weaknesses, but … has been tempted as we are…’ (cf Hebrews 4:15)
  • The back of the book contains some transcripts of interviews with the script author (Akin) and the animator (Siku). This is probably the most troublesome part of this Manga bible. Firstly there is speculation about secret ‘bible codes’ written into the book of 1 Kings (which are presented as facts rather than speculation). Secondly there are unhelpful discussions about theodicy (problem of evil) in Jonah and genocide generally in the OT. The authors don’t seem to have any theological grounding for the statements and conclusions they reach (and I suggest that their conclusions are slightly unbiblical).
I have no idea why the authors of TMB decided to include the speculative and unhelpful interviews at the back of their book. Minus this and I might have recommended the book for my teens. But the portrayal of Jesus I think is overall unhelpful also. At least with ‘The Manga Messiah’ there is a very real attempt to portray Jesus’ humanity. With TMB I just simply could not connect with Jesus. Jesus, the focal point of the entire bible, is not treated well in TMB.
So despite the positives, the negatives outweigh, I think, any recommendation for teens. My search for a Manga Bible continues…

The Manga Messiah – REVIEW

As part of our SAint Lucia Teens (SALT) budget for each year we set aside some funds to build up our library. It’s been a lot of fun shopping at our local Christian bookstore for material suitable for our teens.

So when I stumbled upon the Manga Messiah I just knew it was worth picking up for the sake of reading through. I have previously puchased other types of ‘Manga Bible’ which have gone down successfully. The prime aim of making these available in our library is not as a replacement for bible reading, but as a means of creating enthusiasm for the Word, very much for the same reasons the Aussie Bible was written.
So, what did I think of the Manga Messiah? Let me break this down into three parts:
1. Good points:
A lot of the animation is brilliantly done, vivid and artistic. I found myself moved in a number of places whilst reading, so in essence the message is delivered well. I found some of the background narration helpful and roughly on the mark. And in the end the authors leave with an evangelistic challenge to consider the message of Jesus and how it affects the reader.
2. Minor Quibbles:
  • Some of the animation seems a bit amaturish. By this I mean some of the wide-angle scenes seem a little too roughly drawn and less-mangaesque than I’m use to.
  • There was also a strange decision by the writers to use the Hebrew names for some key characters, eg. Yeshua (Jesus), Yosef (Joseph) and Miryam (Mary). I found this strange because most other character names were left untouched – Peter, Judas Iscariot, Thomas…etc
  • All the animated characters look a little too Japanese, but this is a very minor quibble..
  • there seems to be only two Pharisees following Jesus around to test him…and they are caricatured a little too much
  • the soldier at the foot of the cross looks too similar to Pilate – in fact, I still can’t tell them apart!
  • Judas Iscariot has an earing…which he wouldn’t have.
  • The disciples are given a little bit too much credit in being able to figure out what Jesus is saying


3. Major Quibbles:

Probably the largest quibble I have with the ‘Manga Messiah’ is that the authors chose to synthesise the Gospels. By this I mean they have chosen to try and harmonise each gospel account to present an overall picture of the life and teachings of Jesus, with some sort of chronology developed through splicing together each Gospel account. This leads to some interesting issues:
– not all of the disciples are ‘called’ in the early part of the book, but some are ‘called’ later on
– some events appear out of the order we may be use to in order to accomodate the authors interpretation of the flow of events
The problem I have with attempting this synopsis is that it undercuts the theological motive for each gospel writer in presenting their material as chosen. It also suggests that the gospel writers may have gotten some bits wrong or didn’t give a full enough account.
Conclusion:
So would I recommend the Manga Messiah. I’m not sure. There’s a couple more versions of the Manga Bible out there so I want to read through them. But the Manga Messiah, whilst overall being well presented, I think falls just a little short because it tries to do too much. A theological editor probably would have been helpful to the authors.