09 December 2013

Perceived Corruption — A Threat to Develpment

I am not an economist — I took precisely one course in economics in university and that was an entry–level course that I took primarily to get the hours I needed for graduation. (Hindsight: I wish, now, I had taken the course more seriously.) But, it doesn't take an economics genius to see that when an investor (either national or expatriate) is considering whether or not to spend money and energy in developing a business in a particular place, a country that is perceived to be corrupt is not going to be high on that investor's list of places to go.

Transparency International has released its 2013 report on Corruption Perception Index. I think it's very important to note that this report doesn't attempt to measure actual corruption — merely the perception of corruption in the public sector (bribes, backroom deals). And, in this case, it may well be true that perception is reality. For more details, go to TI's site. For a quick look at a particular country, put your cursor over that country. Scores range from 8 to 91, with 8 being the countries (Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan) perceived as being the most corrupt. Rankings are 1-177, with those same 3 countries tied for worst with a ranking of 175.

Having lived in Kenya for most of the past 27 years and now looking forward to moving to Uganda, it is very sad to me that the corruption in both of those countries has such a huge negative impact on the citizens of those countries.

Run well, y'all,

16 November 2013

Book Review: "Unleader" by Jane Overstreet

Unleader: The Surprising Qualities of a Valuable LeaderUnleader: The Surprising Qualities of a Valuable Leader by Jane Overstreet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Overstreet compares and contrasts the lives of Saul and David to illustrate the character and qualities of a Godly leader. Best chapter is 4 "Do I Use Up or Build up People Under My Leadership" b/c she talks about a righteous leader helping people to move beyond their potential. (David and the rabble who became "mighty men".) Take-aways: be more interested in the wellfare of followers than of your own; own mistakes and immediately repent of sin; find security in God's love, not in approval or winning; the end does not justify the means.

The book is not without small problems. She was slow in pointing out that Saul referred to God as "the Lord **your** God" (emphasis mine) and then only mentioned 1 of 3 instances. She also didn't point out that Saul was sorry that he disappointed Samuel and not, apparently, that he had sinned against God. But, these are also matters of interpretation and don't take away from the value of the book.

View all my reviews

Book Review: "Christ-Centered Preaching & Teaching"

Short book (36 pages) but good, quick overview of the topic.

Christ-Centered Preaching TeachingChrist-Centered Preaching Teaching by Ed Stetzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compilation of blog posts from Stetzer's blog on Christianity Today. For me, this was a somewhat unfamiliar topic and I felt like they were splitting hairs, straining at gnats in distinguishing between ways to approach Christ-centered preaching. For one not familiar with technical theological vocabulary (soteriology, eschatology, etc.), have a dictionary available. The consensus seems to be that the best preaching and teaching is to take the tack that all of Scripture shows God's plan of redemption that was completed in Christ. Good about pointing out the pitfalls of this approach. The examples of how to treat Samson and Delilah and David and Goliath were very helpful for me and the best part of this short book.

View all my reviews

10 November 2013

Book Review: "Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales"

(I read the Kindle edition.) Really good book. Landon, a former SEC quarterback who was convicted of point shaving, gets out of jail, immediately marries girlfriend & mother of child. In prison, finds faith in God and finishes law school. Finally gets hired by lawyer, Harry, about whom he initially questions his ethics but develops a high respect for his investigative and trial gut sense and, though he doesn't always agree with Harry, realizes that he is ethical.

Kerri, Landon's wife, is a budding investigative journalist who gets some unusual breaks. Both Landon and Kerri are suddenly immersed in intrigues -- murder trial for which Landon is the assistant lawyer to Harry, client is accused of insider trading, Kerri is being "sponsored" by the head of a clandestine security agency and is offered an easy path to a dream reporting job. Things begin to fall apart when 3 lawyers with Landon's firm are killed and Landon takes the lead in the murder case.

There are a number of twists and turns in the book that compelled me to continue reading to find out what would happen. Singer weaves the plot skillfully so that the end is never clear. Both Landon and Kerri struggle with attraction to someone else but are held in check by their love for each other and their strong faith, though Landon's friendship with Rachel crosses an emotional line.

The story deals with friendship, true loyalty, temptations and testing, and faith in ways that I did not find obnoxious. (DISCLAIMER: I share the principles of the main characters. Some will find the Epilogue too evangelistic, but it's consistent with both the faith of the characters and with Singer's 'day job'.) There's even a twist at the end that's reminiscent of O. Henry stories and Jeffrey Archer books and short stories.

To me, the biggest problem with the book is that it seems very unreal to have a rookie, first-year lawyer develop instincts and insights so quickly -- taking on a 1st amendment case, talking seriously about opening his own law firm in DC, etc. Frankly, that's the only reason for 4-stars instead of 5-stars -- Landon and Kerri are just a bit too good at what they do. I thought the book was as good as Grisham and the language was less offensive, as in no foul language. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

09 November 2013

Book Review: "An Exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, Vol. 1"

John Davenant (London, 20 May 1572 – Salisbury, 20 April 1641) was an English academic and bishop of Salisbury from 1621. He also served as one of the British delegates to the Synod of Dort. (Wikipedia article)

Davenant seems to have advocated a middle-ground position between Arminianism and strict Calvinism termed by one observer as "hypothetical universalism, a general atonement in the sense of intention as well as sufficiency, a common blessing of the cross, and a conditional salvation. All these views stood in close connection with the theology of the well-meant offer of salvation to all." (Hanko, Prof. Herman C., "The History of the Free Offer", Chapter 5)

Davenant's "Expositio Epistola D. Pauli ad Colossenses, had been delivered in a series of Lectures to the Students at Cambridge, as Lady Margaret's Professor. This, as it is his most valuable work, so was it the first he issued. It was published at Cambridge in 1627, republished in 1630, and went into a third edition in 1639; each edition being in small folio. There is also a quarto edition, printed at Amsterdam in 1646. The character of this book has been happily expressed by a popular writer in the following terms: "For perspicuity of style and accuracy of method; for judgment in discerning and fidelity in representing the Apostle's meaning; for strength of argument in refuting errors, and felicity of invention in deducing practical doctrines, tending both to the establishment of faith, and the cultivation of holiness, it is inferior to no writing of the kind; and richly deserves to be read, to be studied, to be imitated, by our young divines."* We may also subjoin the testimony of an invaluable living writer, who in a letter to the translator, observes, " I know no exposition upon a detached portion of Scripture (with, perhaps, the single exception of Owen on the Hebrews) that will compare with it in all points. Leighton is superior in sweetness, but far inferior in depth, accuracy, and discursiveness."" (John Davenant (2013-01-01). 1 - An Exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians (Kindle Locations 567-576). Hamilton, Adams and co.. Kindle Edition)

Though at times, both because of 19th century English writing and because of the formatting, this book was quite tedious to read, there are some real gems of insight in Davenant's exposition of Colossians 1-2. I especially liked his explanation on Col 2:14-15.

I used the Google Books edition and then used Amazon's app, Send to Kindle, to convert Google's PDF to Kindle format. That resulted in OCR transcription errors and tended to insert footnotes in odd places in the book. A few times it was best to go to the PDF scan in order to find where the actual text left off and continued.

As would be expected in the early 1600s, there is a fair amount of anti-Catholicism in Davenant's writing. He contrast what he sees as an accurate interpretation of Colossians with the Catholic Church's doctrine.

Davenant does an excellent job of explaining Paul's view on the sufficiency of Christ for salvation and the errors of depending on traditions, works, and human effort to gain God's favour.

If you're willing to wade through the difficulties, this is a good book. Purchasing a printed copy of the book from Amazon would probably make for an easier read. Or, reading the PDF scan on a device and app that faithfully reproduces the scan would also be easier (the Kindle eReader does a poor job of reproducing pure PDFs).

08 November 2013

Book Review: Strange Fire, by John MacArthur

Strange Fire (release date, 12 November 2013) is an important book for Christians who long to be faithful to biblical teaching. It will be controversial as Dr. MacArthur takes a very confrontational stance on the charismatic movement. MacArthur is a strident cessationist, believing that the spiritual gifts commonly referred to as "sign gifts" (healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues) and the office of Apostle ceased to exist at the end of the Apostolic Age (roughly the end of the first century AD). He also issues a stern warning about the so-called "Prosperity Gospel" — the belief that those who are truly saved and who have enough faith will experience financial prosperity and physical health He calls out prominent charismatics and accuses them of fraudulent teaching about and use of these spiritual gifts and their teaching on "blessings" (the prosperity gospel), going so far as to say that they are completely unbiblical and are from Satan rather than God's Spirit. A few times, he references a Pew study that concluded that in some countries, 90% of all Pentecostals believe the same as these prominent figures.

MacArthur paints with a very broad brush, splattering paint everywhere. He challenges the teaching of several non-pentecostal evangelicals and calls them to move to a cessationist position on these spiritual gifts — John Piper, Henry Blackaby, and others.

In spite of the fact that I think MacArthur is too broad in his condemnations, this is a good book. It is written in 3 parts, each part having 4 chapters:

Part 1: Confronting a Counterfeit Revival
Ch 1 Mocking the Spirit
Ch 2 A New Work of the Spirit?
Ch 3 Testing the Spirits (Part 1)
Ch 4 Testing the Spirits (Part 2)
Part 2: Exposing the Counterfeit Gifts
Ch 5 Apostles Among Us?
Ch 6 The Folly of Fallible Prophets
Ch 7 Twisting Tongues
Ch 8 Fake Healings and False Hopes
Part 3: Rediscovering the Spirit's True Work
Ch 9 The Holy Spirit and Salvation
Ch 10 The Spirit and Sanctification
Ch 11 The Spirit and the Scriptures
Ch 12 An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends

He concludes the book with an Appendix tracing cessationist thought from the 4th century forward.

Best Chapters: In Chapters 3 and 4, MacArthur uses 1 John 4:1-8 to give a biblical method of testing the validity of any claim to the working of God's Spirit. This is excellent exegesis which builds on an exposition of Jonathan Edwards as he evaluated the Great Awakening of the 18th century. The appropriate questions to ask are:
1. Does the work exalt the true Christ?
2. Does it oppose worldliness?
3. Does it point people to the Scriptures?
4. Does it elevate the truth?
5. Does it produce love for God and others?

Any supposed movement of the Holy Spirit that does not do all of those, is not a movement of God's Spirit and is, therefore, false.

Key Quotes:

Introduction: The “Holy Spirit” found in the vast majority of charismatic teaching and practice bears no resemblance to the true Spirit of God as revealed in Scripture. The real Holy Spirit is not an electrifying current of ecstatic energy, a mind-numbing babbler of irrational speech, or a cosmic genie who indiscriminately grants self-centered wishes for health and wealth. The true Spirit of God does not cause His people to bark like dogs or laugh like hyenas; He does not knock them backward to the ground in an unconscious stupor; He does not incite them to worship in chaotic and uncontrollable ways; and He certainly does not accomplish His kingdom work through false prophets, fake healers, and fraudulent televangelists. By inventing a Holy Spirit of idolatrous imaginations, the modern Charismatic Movement offers strange fire that has done incalculable harm to the body of Christ. Claiming to focus on the third member of the Trinity, it has in fact profaned His name and denigrated His true work.

Charismatic theology has turned the evangelical church into a cesspool of error and a breeding ground for false teachers. It has warped genuine worship through unbridled emotionalism, polluted prayer with private gibberish, contaminated true spirituality with unbiblical mysticism, and corrupted faith by turning it into a creative force for speaking worldly desires into existence. By elevating the authority of experience over the authority of Scripture, the Charismatic Movement has destroyed the church’s immune system–uncritically granting free access to every imaginable form of heretical teaching and practice.

Chapter 1: Some might argue, however, that such heretical elements represent only the lunatic fringe of an otherwise orthodox movement. More moderate charismatics like to portray the prosperity preachers, faith healers, and televangelists as safely isolated on the extreme edge of the charismatic camp. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Thanks to the global reach and incessant proselytizing of religious television and charismatic mass media, the extreme has now become mainstream. For most of the watching world, flamboyant false teachers–with heresies as ridiculous as their hairdos–constitute the public face of Christianity.

Chapter 2: Edwards argued with his usually lucid logic that intense physical phenomena such as “tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body or the failing of bodily strength” did not prove anything one way or the other about the legitimacy of a revival.

Chapter 4: A comparison of Ephesians 5:18 with Colossians 3:16 demonstrates that the command to “be filled with the Spirit” is parallel to the command to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” since they both produce the same results (cf. Eph. 5:18–6:9; Col. 3:16–4:1)...It is not possible for God’s Word to dwell in believers unless they are filled with the Spirit; and conversely, Christians can’t be filled with the Spirit without the Word of Christ dwelling

Chapter 6: ...if someone declaring himself a prophet proclaims any supposed “revelation from God” that turns out to be inaccurate or untrue, he must be summarily rejected as a spokesman for God.

Chapter 10: being “slain in the Spirit” is a modern charismatic invention. The practice is mentioned nowhere in the Bible; it is completely without scriptural warrant. The modern phenomenon has become such a common and popular spectacle that the average charismatic today takes it for granted, assuming it must have some kind of clear biblical or historical pedigree. But not only is this phenomenon completely absent from the biblical record of the early church; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Spirit.

...for those who wonder if they are truly being filled with the Holy Spirit, the proper question is not, “Have I had an ecstatic experience?” Rather, it is, “Am I becoming more and more like Jesus?”

Chapter 11: ...the Reformation was the inevitable and explosive consequence of the Word of God crashing like a massive tidal wave against the thin barricades of man-made tradition and hypocritical religion.

Recommendation: MacArthur's defense of cessationism is compelling and has caused me to rethink my own position as a non-charismatic continuationist — though I'm probably more accurately labeled a functional cessationist.

There is much truth in this book in spite of the confrontational tone. It is worth reading by both charismatics and non-charismatics. MacArthur's exposition of Scripture should be taken seriously.

UPDATE: John Piper has responded to inquiries about MacArthur's comments related to his views as a continuationist. Frankly, I think both oversimplified the issues, particularly of prophecy, but this is a good counter to MacArthur's comments about Piper: Piper Addresses Strange Fire and Charismatic Chaos.

(DISCLAIMER: I received this book, Kindle edition, free for pre-publication review from the publisher's Booksneeze blogger's review program. I received no other compensation except for continued participation in the program and have been free to write the review that I think the book deserves.)

26 October 2013

Review: The Race Before Us

Bruce Matson is a Richmond lawyer who ran a marathon in college but is now 49, overweight, and out of shape. He's also a church regular who is questioning his faith — "Do I really believe what I recite in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds on Sundays?" He skillfully weaves together his twin struggles to get in both physical and spiritual shape. He took the spiritual quest seriously, wrestling with major philosophical and historical approaches to Christianity and finally realizes that, ultimately, though the intellectual assent is important, the key is trust. One of the things I liked about the book is that I know the places he ran (though, even so, I thought a couple of his descriptions of runs were a bit too detailed). I have also asked myself some of the same questions about faith.

He alternates chapters devoted primarily to running with those devoted primarily to his search for meaning in his faith. Matson deals with some questions and issues of faith that require some deep thought — a lot of Christian apologetics in this book. It was challenging and an excellent refresher on some of my seminary courses from 30+ years ago.

Some good appendices:
  • Top Ten Arguments for the Existence of the God of the Bible — He touches on and explains most of these in the text of the book, but this is a good summary list. (Christian apologetics) Throughout the book, though, he emphasizes how much he was aware that Christian faith or trust was not solely dependent on the truth of these arguments.
  • Bibliography — If one wants to explore any of the topics, these are all good sources. Matson does not just include those that support his final conclusion on faith.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book free from the author in exchange for a review. However, I was free to write the review I thought the book deserved. I expect no further personal gain.)

Review: A Man Called Blessed

There are credible clues about the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant — in the monastery that Caleb and parents have rebuilt in Ethiopia, the same monastery where Caleb lived until he escaped when he was ten (Blessed Child). Caleb is the key. Both Jews and Arabs are trying to get to Caleb first. If the Jews find the Ark, they will feel compelled to destroy the mosque on the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the temple. The Arabs want to prevent that. Better than Blessed Child, perhaps because Caleb is more mature. Characters were better developed and plot line flowed more smoothly. I still didn't care for the dancing but the miraculous events were a lot easier to take and were more in line with miraculous escapes in the Old Testament. Caleb struggles with his faith — not losing it, but taking it for granted. Rebecca has killed too much and wants to be loved as a "woman" and not just identified as an assassin — will she find that with Caleb, even though he is a Christian?

Though I like it better than the first book in the series, Blessed Child, this is still not a typical Dekker book. It does have the supernatural elements but it's not the somewhat bizarre psychological thriller like Thr3e or the Boneman's Daughters.

It was helpful to have read Blessed Child first. It gave me the background to follow the story better. However, it is not necessary and apart from a few references to Caleb's child-like faith 15 years earlier, I don't think you would be lost.

(Disclaimer: I received this book free from the publisher as a part of their blogger review program, BookSneeze. However, I was free to write the review I thought the book deserved. I receive no further compensation besides continued participation in the blogger review program.)

13 October 2013

Book Review: "Blessed Child", Ted Dekker and Bill Bright

This is now my least favourite of Ted Dekker's books, replacing House and the short story, The Keeper. Thr3e defined Ted Dekker for me — a psycho-thriller with lots of twists and turns, a bit eery, clean, good wins over evil. Boneman's Daughters and Shadowdown continued those elements. The Circle Trilogy were good fantasy, again with a battle between good and evil. In all of those books, I really felt like I was in the story, seeing the world through the eyes of the characters.

Blessed Child just didn't hook me into the story in the same way. I cared about Caleb and what happened to him; I wanted Jason and Leiah to quit bickering; I wanted Crandal and his henchmen to get their due; but Dekker and Bright didn't draw me into the story.

The story was clean with just enough arguing between them and just enough mutual attraction to make the relationship between Jason and Leiah to keep their interactions believable, without cluttering it up with gratuitous physical intimacy. (Slight spoiler here.) The development of their relationship was "normal" and satisfying. The problem for me was perhaps my expectations. Dekker had set me up, in others of his books that I've read, to expect characters that seemed normal but with a hint of some intangible oddness. Jason and Leiah seemed written more like super-heroes (somewhat like Clive Cussler's characters) and Dekker and Bright just didn't pull that off well.

Caleb is a young boy who Jason and Leiah rescue from an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery just as it's being attacked by a contingent of Eritrean People Liberation Front soldiers who destroy the monastery. The EPLF soldiers pursue Jason, Leiah, and Caleb into a box canyon (not sure how else to describe it) where the first of numerous odd events, somehow connected to Caleb, occurs — an EPLF soldier is supposedly killed but then stands up and flees.

As the story develops, I really liked the tensions between Jason and Leiah on the one hand and Father Nikolous on the other. Another odd bit to the story is that Father Nikolous' church is Greek Orthodox — maybe that's only odd because of my ignorance of the similarities or connections between the Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and it's really not pertinent to the story. Also, the developing tensions between Charles Crandal, Jason and Leiah, Caleb, and Father Nikolous was well done.

The two sub-plots in the books actually helped the story. I got angry at the self-promotion of Father Nikolous and the way that he used Caleb for his own benefit. Crandal's end-justifies-the-means and win-at-all-costs approach to being elected President helped bolster the story. However, I didn't think the resolution of either of these was very satisfactory.

I suspect that some of the problems I had with the book have to do with the fact that this was an early Dekker novel — his second, published in 2001 after Heaven's Wager. Blessed Child has apparently been newly released as a Kindle edition. In later books, Dekker finds his voice and his own character development. Perhaps the fact that it was co-authored — by Bill Bright, in this case — detracts from Dekker's genius. "House", I think, suffered from the same problem (co-authored by Peretti and Dekker). Nothing against either co-author, it's just that perhaps the real Dekker doesn't come through when he writes with someone else. 

Blessed Child was a good book and a decent read. It's must not great.

This doesn't affect my review, but I continue to wish that Thomas Nelson would include page numbers and Kindle's X-Ray function in their blogger review editions. "X-Ray" is one area where Kindle really shines and it's a glaring omission.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of "Blessed Child" free from the publisher as a part of their Booksneeze blogger review program. I have been free to write the review that I thought the book deserved. There has been no other compensation except continued participation in Booksneeze.

28 September 2013

Book Review: "Afloat"

An interesting premise — floating condominiums built over a cove. Even without reading the story, my first thought was that the safety of living there would totally depend on the integrity of the support structure. But, I also immediately thought, "How cool would that be?!"

Healy did a reasonably good job of developing her characters. I mistrusted Tony (developer) from the get-go. I liked and trusted Vance (architect) throughout the whole story - he seemed afraid to commit, though. I felt sorry for Danielle — she was so desperate for love, affirmation, and acceptance that she was willing to compromise her principles and to believe her own lies about who really cared for her.

I was intrigued from the beginning: Who was the man in the wet suit? What kind of structure was he swimming around? What were the containers for — it did sound sinister? What were the sardine-sized creatures that flashed? Add to that, the complicated relationships between Danielle, Tony, and Vance, a freak storm, the danger of not only the destruction of the floating condominiums but the danger to the lives of the group in the occupied unit, and the building awareness that there is real evil at work and this turned into a really good story.

There are some glitches: Who summons up communications on a phone? (loc. 1287) Danielle's desire for giving Tony a 2nd chance (loc. 7462) seems highly unlikely — though, her extremely low self-esteem may account for that. However, the things she knew about Tony perhaps made her legally complicit in his crimes. Personally, I thought the silver, flashing, sardine-sized creatures were an odd addition. While those things keep me from giving this 5 stars, they really didn't detract from the compelling nature of the story.

There were shortcomings in the Kindle edition — enabling the X-ray function would have been nice; including real page numbers would have been nice; calling up the menu, tapping "Go To", and selecting "Beginning" took me to location 7635 which is the "about the author" page. However, all of those may be corrected in the actual retail edition of the book — my copy is a review copy straight from the publisher.

Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher's BookSneeze blogger review program in exchange for a review of the book. I was free to write a review that truly reflects my views of the book. There has been no other compensation.

01 July 2013

The Most Ethnically Diverse Country on the Planet

Surprising? This map shows the planet's most and least ethnically diverse nations in the world. The countries in green are the most diverse, while those in red are the least.
This morning, a couple of Facebook friends posted links to a news article about a report from Harvard University's Institute for Economic Research regarding the most and least diverse countries and continents in the world. The article in Daily Mail Online is the most comprehensive I've sound so far. The conclusion of the study was that Uganda is the most ethnically diverse country on the planet and Africa is the most ethnically diverse continent. When I first read the news reports, I immediately thought they were wrong. After all, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has more than 300 different language groups.

I've given this some more thought. While the conclusion seems counter-intuitive — i.e., there are many countries, including the US, that have more ethnic representation — I think there are at least two items in this report that give clues about the methodology that led to the outcome. First, the Daily Mail article and the Pearl Guide report mention, "Uganda is home to more than 40 different indigenous ethnic groups...." The first key may be "indigenous" — the US, for instance, has fewer "indigenous" ethnic groups. I say "may" because, not having seen the original report, I don't know if that was really a factor in the research or simply an addition by a reporter.

Second, and probably more significant, is that it appears that the conclusion is based on what might be termed 'ethnic density' (my term — I started to say, "ethnic diversity density"). Note the question that the study attempted to answer, "If you picked two people at random in any nation and asked them their ethnicity, what are the chances that they would give a different answer?" A higher number of ethnic groups combined with a lower overall population would increase the odds that two people picked at random would be of a different ethnic group. Note that one couldn't just walk up to two people in, say, Mityana and expect those probabilities to hold true — it would have to be random selection out of the population of the entire nation.

I would be very interested in reading the study. I haven't found it, yet, so if someone comes across it, please post the link.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen

13 June 2013

American "Christian" Animism

If anyone actually reads this, it may stir up some pretty strong feelings. When Americans think of animism, we generally think of African traditional religions or the voodoo of the Caribbean. We don't generally associate animism with "normal" Americans. However....

I'm always a bit uncomfortable when I hear someone say something like, "Claim God's promises for you." It's not that I don't believe God is gracious; it's not that I don't believe that God has made and will fulfill his promises. I do believe both of those, but I also believe that often promises are taken out of context and applied to situations that God never intended. A colleague expresses it well when he says, "All the Bible was not written to me but all the Bible was written for me."

Several years ago, I taught a class on discipleship to a group of Kenyan pastors. When we talked about prayer, I used this phrase over and over, "Maombi si uchawi" (Swahili: Prayer is not witchcraft), to try to communicate that prayer is not a formula or ritual that we use to manipulate God into doing what we want. So, these paragraphs caught my attention.
Animistic salvation is utilitarian, selfish, human-directed, and this-worldly. An animist is chiefly concerned with self: He seeks power to fulfill his own earthly needs. Conversely, Christian salvation is a response to grace, altruistic and self-giving, God-focused, and includes the immediate as well as the eternal. A Christian, unlike the earthly focused animist, seeks to fulfill the purposes of God.
Such utilitarianism has also invaded the church. Prayer has frequently become a magical potion to extract human wants from God. When Christians order God to fulfill his promises, as "We claim the promises which you, God, have already granted us," they superimpose their own will upon God's sovereign will. Such prayers demand that God fulfill human desires. However, prayer should give homage and praise to God and plead with him to act while acknowledging his sovereignty.
(pp. 13-14 in Conclusion of Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, Gailyn Van Rheenen)
Often, not always, that kind of praying takes God's promises out of context. Any time we seek to manipulate God to do what we want rather than humbly bowing before Him, waiting to obey and receive what He wants, we're practicing animism rather than faith.

Running is a metaphor for a life of faith and obedience. Right now, I hope the metaphor doesn't describe my life — I rolled my ankle on Tuesday, so, my running is on the shelf for a few days. That's the 4th time in about 16 months and it's not fun. Frustrating.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

06 June 2013

Book Review: "Outreach and the Artist"

God is the ultimate Artist, is the first sentence of Con Campbell's "Conclusion" of his book, Outreach and the Artist: Sharing the Gospel With the Arts. That sentence could easily be the thesis of the whole book. It summarizes well why Christian artists occupy a natural position from which to share the Gospel, why the arts should be seen as a legitimate avenue for sharing the Gospel, and why artists need the Gospel. Campbell does an excellent job as an apologist for all three positions.

The author is unapologetically Christian, so the book may not appeal to everyone. However, I come very close to saying that every pastor, every gospel strategist, and every Christian artist ought to read this book. I suspect that every church either has, among its congregation, gifted artists who sincerely desire to use their gifting in ministry or that the community around the church includes artists who need the Gospel. While Campbell doesn't give many how-tos in the book, he presents a solid understanding of why and how art can be used in ministry.

There are 4 key points that the book highlighted for me. Other readers will almost certainly find different points that speak to them:
  • The need for the church to understand, accept, nurture, and mentor artists instead of automatically writing them off because of their unique lifestyles and perspectives.
  • The difference between the message and the medium (art as an avenue for sharing the Gospel) and the medium and the message (the art contains the message). Both are valid, according to Campbell, but the latter is usually too subtle to be the only way art is used to share the Gospel.
  • The value in approaching the artistic community as an unreached people group with its own culture — common values, language, and focus. Christian artists are best placed to reach other artists because artists tend to assign influence based on "meritocracy".
  • The understanding that art becomes god for many artists. This idolatry needs to be addressed. The medium (art) is not the issue and does not need to be abandoned; one's perspective on art is the issue.
Each chapter is followed by an "Artist Profile" of a Christian artist in which Campbell asks the artist to describe his or her artistic interests, the struggles of being a Christian in the arts, the ministry the artist has through the arts, and what that artist sees as the single biggest barrier that hinders other artists from coming to Christ. He includes musicians, visual artists, thespians, and others to give a broad perspective of the arts. This personalizes the focus of the book.

There were some formatting issues in the Kindle version that I got from the publisher. There were several divided words like "ser vice" and a few odd words like "115Christian". The font size used for the "Artist Profiles" was larger than that used for the rest of the book and I found that a little distracting. I don't know if these items are just in the review copy or if these errors also exist in the commercial edition available from resellers. Those issues were minor distractions and did not take away from the messages of the book.

DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book through the publisher's blogger review program in exchange for a review of the book. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved.

02 June 2013

Book Review — Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith That Drives the St. Louis Cardinals

I have never been a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I don't have anything against the Cards, but I'm a life-long Yankees fan and have also become a Braves fan in the past 30 years (yes, I'm old enough to have been a Yankee fan for much longer than I've been a Braves fan). Until this weekend, I probably could not have named a single Cardinals' player. So, when I saw this book, Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith That Drives the St. Louis Cardinals (Kindle edition), I didn't decide to read it because of the team. Frankly, I decided to read it because a good friend and my brother-in-law are rabid Cardinal fans and I wanted to know something about the team. Secondly, I decided to read it because I was intrigued that a baseball team would be known for its cadre of Christian players to the point that someone would write a book about that.

What I found is that this book is not really a book about baseball. You won’t find juicy tidbits of gossip about the players. There’s no recounting of deals gone sour. For the most part, there are no play-by-play retelling of games. Except for chapter 17, "The Postseason", about the Cards in the 2012 playoffs, this is really a book about baseball players and how their faith in Christ impacts their lives both on and off the field. I was disappointed at first and I really think the book would have benefited from a bit more baseball. In the end, though, I really enjoyed the book. I didn't find the book preachy but I recognize that I'm biased towards the perspective of this book.

With 2 exceptions, Rains uses a separate chapter to talk about the faith of each of 18 different members of the Cardinals' organization — almost mini-biographies. The 2 exceptions are one chapter in which he talks about 2 players and the 17th chapter in which he talks about the 2012 postseason.

There are several themes that run through the whole book, many of them in almost every chapter:
  • God has a plan that may not match our plan
  • God is not selecting the winners because he's more interested in the relationship (between Him and an individual and between individuals)
  • Baseball is a game based on errors - you fail most of the time
  • You have to understand that not every day is going to be a good day
  • A believer has to be excellent in everything he does, do his best, because he's working as unto the Lord
Manager Mike Matheny's quote near the end of the book sums it up well:
I believe in every aspect of my life that I am called to excellence. I believe, through my faith, that I am called to high expectations....
This was a good read and I recommend it. (A book has to really grab me to get a 5-star rating.)

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Intentional Walk through the publisher's blogger review program, BookSneeze, in exchange for a review. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved.)

Run and read well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

31 May 2013

Book Review: "American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile That Saved American Independence"

American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile That Saved American Independence intrigued me, but what a long title. It's about my favourite period of American history — the development of the American republic. It's about two people about whom I was mostly ignorant — John Quincy and Louisa Adams. Plus, since my childhood, I have loved biographies. It's a good read and I recommend it even though I think there are enough faults in the book to warrant a 3-star rating rather than a 4-star (a book has to really capture me to get 5 stars out of me).

American Phoenix is not a complete biography of the Adams. The bulk of the book covers the period 1809, when Adams was appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. Petersburg [Russia], through 1815 when Adams led the US delegation that successfully negotiated the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812 with England. Adams and his wife, Louisa, and this biographer, Jane Cook, considered this period of 6 years as a time of exile for John Quincy and Louisa. But Ms. Cook also considers this time period a major turning point both in the political life of Adams and in the national life of the United States of America — both phoenixes that rose from the ashes of near disaster to become prominent and powerful.

Ms. Cook demonstrates that the Adams' accomplishments during this period were important to the ongoing independence of the United States of America. Adams' ability to build and maintain relationships with Russia, especially in obtaining Russian sanction for the USA as a serious world trader, strengthened the ability of the USA to survive. Louisa played an important role in her ability to relate to both the Czar and his family. And, Adams' negotiating skills and his courageous initiative to propose treaty terms that had not, yet, been sanctioned by the President helped to end the War of 1812 on terms that were advantageous to the USA. But it seems to me that the successes of the US navy against the British navy, considered unbeatable in 1812, as well as the US military's successful stands against the British forces at Baltimore and then in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 were at least as important, if not more so.

Ms. Cook's assertion that this time period was a key factor in John Quincy's revitalized political career seems to me to be on shaky ground. With all of her speculations about how much easier and more successful Adams could have been with modern communications technology, I have serious doubts that the American voting population were well-informed about Adams' diplomatic successes, at least not sufficiently so to move them to elect him as the 6th President of the US — something else had to account for that. But, perhaps Adams' accomplishments were sufficient to rescue, in the eyes of fellow politicians, a political career that had been grievously damaged by Adams' support of Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807.

This biography focused as much on Louisa Adams as on John Quincy. There is a similarity in Ms. Cook's treatment of Louisa Adams and David McCullough's treatment of her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams in his biography, "John Adams." Both women played important roles in the successes of their husbands. Louisa was a brave wife of a diplomat. She managed to befriend both the Russian Czar and his family and to satisfy, at least to them, the social demands of a diplomat's wife even though the Adams operated under severe financial constraints, Louisa was terribly unhappy about being separated from her two oldest sons, and she had at least 2 miscarriages while in Russia. She demonstrated her bravery and her stamina when, in 1815, she undertook what turned out to be a perilous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in the winter and through territory in which Napoleon's forces had been or were soon to be fighting against the official forces of France.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and think it was worth reading. I learned about a facet of US history that I did not know well at all. I appreciated the focus on Louisa's contributions to the diplomatic success of her husband. The book offers detailed insights into the development of American diplomacy and the difficulties of that endeavor in the early 19th century when the US was a new, barely recognized country and when international communications were so slow as to be almost nonexistent, a fact exacerbated by the long Russian winters that drastically further slowed any communication.

Even though I enjoyed the book, I think it would have worked better as a historical novel and/or that it should have been shortened by 100-200 pages. There were too many instances of speculative statements of the type, "perhaps Louisa did...." or "it's possible that John Quincy did...." Ms. Cook's reliance on metaphors got a bit tedious and seemed more appropriate to a fictional work than to a biographical work. At one point in the book, she compares the negotiations in the Congress of Vienna to an orchestra and there are at least 12 references to that metaphor in a span of approximately 2 pages. The timeline of Louisa's treacherous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris completely threw me. As I read that section, I thought it was concurrent with the negotiations in Ghent. Suddenly, I discover that the negotiations had been successfully concluded prior to Louisa's departure from Russia. There were also abrupt shifts in time, backwards and forwards, between Ghent, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and France.

(DISCLOSURE: I received a free, review copy of this book, the Kindle edition, from the publisher through its blogger review program, BookSneeze. I was free to write the review that I felt the book deserved. )

Run and read well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

04 May 2013

More Alternatives to Google Reader

TidBITs, a digital publication about Macintosh computers that's been around for a long time, recently published an article about the demise of Google Reader and alternatives for RSS feeds. It talked about some alternatives that I hadn't seen before. I'm still happy with Feedly, but you might want something different: Explore Alternatives to Google Reader

Running? What's that? No, seriously, I'm trying to get the routine reestablished but it ain't easy. Walking more — some short walk breaks during my runs but more walking in the evenings with my wife. I thoroughly enjoy the time with my wife but want to do both — walk with her and run.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

30 April 2013

I Love Music

At best, I am a for my own pleasure musician. As long as I'm not soloing in front of other people, I enjoying singing or playing guitar (well, with the guitar, I would add ...and as long as the chords stay within a narrowly defined range). You won't get me to do so for anyone else, but I even (painfully) play a bit of piano to my own amazement.

I love music. Partly, it's my family heritage. My grandfather loved to play the piano and sing. I could be wrong, but my memory tells me that he couldn't tell you a "C" from an "F#" — he read and played shaped-notes. As a kid, I was amazed.

Music speaks to me. And mostly, it's the music itself more than the words. Our son and, especially, our daughter hear and learn the words of songs almost immediately — it baffles me. For me, even as a teenager, it's the music. My tastes are pretty eclectic ... light rock (especially from the 60s and 70s), blue grass, country, instrumental classical.... For worship, I don't mind, at all, praise choruses (as long as they're not mindless repetition) and CCM (I don't know what the current in vogue term is). I even like some Christian rap (think Propaganda), but in this case, it's the words, not the music, that I like.

The first time I heard Francesca Battistelli, I heard Free to Be Me on the radio and it immediately resonated with me, both the words and the music (okay, When I was just a girl.... doesn't describe my experience — LOL!):
‘Cause I got a couple dents in my fender,
Got a couple rips in my jeans;
Try to fit the pieces together,
But perfection is my enemy.
On my own I'm so clumsy,
But on Your shoulders I can see—
I'm free to be me
As much as I like all kinds of music, though, when it comes to worship, hymns are my preference. Yes, I like the music of (most) hymns. I enjoy a good 4-part harmony, in just the right range so that I can sing bass. But, it's the words that move me. I can hardly sing the third verse of It Is Well With My Soul without tears:
My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought: my sin not in part, but the whole — is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul!
They don't have to be old hymns, either. Lynn DeShazo's Ancient Words is a moving testimony to the power of God's Word, the Bible. Keith and Kristyn Getty are writing and singing excellent hymns that present truth in ways that speak to present Christians.

In oral-preference cultures — cultures where, no matter what their literacy level, the preferred method for storing and passing on information is in stories — songs are used to teach, reinforce teaching, and to help people remember important lessons. Hymns have performed the same function for Christians and Jews for millennia. Here's an excellent example and an interesting story of one way hymns have been used to teach — the free download is an old hymn in a modern style:

Hymn Stories: The Church's One Foundation (+ Free Download)

Oh, and let's keep the running theme of this blog. One of the ways that I motivate myself when I'm running is with music. Not via an MP3 player and earbuds, but singing in my head — whatever happens to be there.

Run well, y'all,
Nairobi, Kenya

25 April 2013

Book Review: "7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness" by Eric Metaxas

In 7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas endeavors to return readers to a clear and correct understanding of "manhood" by answering two questions: 'What is a man?' and 'What makes a man great?' Metaxas seeks to counter what he sees (and I agree) as misunderstandings of manliness as either brutish bullying to get one's own way or moral weakness in order to get along with everybody.

These questions are never addressed directly in the book after the introduction, but Metaxas seeks to provide an answer to them by giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of seven men that he believes deserved to be identified as great: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), and Charles Colson. In doing so, he tries to set these men up as examples to be followed, as role models worth imitating.

I think he succeeds to a great extent. However, if one were to read the short biographies without reading the introduction, one might come away thinking that each of the subjects was a good man who largely succeeded in his own life, but might not catch the Metaxas' intent to identify true manhood.

Metaxas demonstrates that greatness is neither age-dependent nor country-dependent. Each died in a different decade of life — 60s, 70s, 40s, 30s, 50s, 80s, and 70s — and most reached their pinnacle of greatness near the end of their lives. One criticism, though, could be leveled against Metaxas because he limited his choice of subjects to those who came from the broader western cultures — the USA, Germany, England, Scotland, and Poland. He could have broadened the scope of his subjects by writing, for instance, on Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. (Side note: Mandela would have been an "odd man out" as all of the subjects of Metaxas' biographies have died — or, as a Kenyan friend has said, "They are past tense.")

At least one reviewer has already taken Metaxas to task for his heavy reliance on secondary sources. But, 7 Men is not intended to be a scholarly treatment of the lives of these men. Rather, they are used to illustrate Metaxas' thesis (in my reading of the book) that greatness, that true manliness is demonstrated when one stands firm on one's convictions even when such a stance leads to rejection, ridicule, suffering, and even death. In this case, reliance on secondary sources is not a detriment.
7 Men gives a good introduction to the lives of these 7 men who are admirable. But it goes beyond that to show the foundation of their greatness. This is a good read; highly recommended.

I read the Kindle version. Both the Kindle and the hardcover editions are scheduled for release on 30 April 2013. I received a pre-publication copy of 7 Men from the publisher, through their BookSneeze blogger review program. I was not required to write a positive review. Disclosure

09 April 2013

Book Review: "Stress Test" by Richard Mabry

Life is good for Dr. Matt Newman. He has finished his last day in private practice. He's ready to start a new job tomorrow as an assistant professor of surgery at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas — less stress, more regular hours, time for a life, and a happier girlfriend. As he walks out of Metropolitan Hospital after an emergency call and gets to his car in a deserted part of the hospital's parking garage, he's suddenly attacked, bound with duct tape, tossed in the trunk of his car, and driven off to his certain demise. When he escapes, Detective Grimes doesn't believe his kidnapping story but goes after Dr. Newman for the murder of Cara Mendiola, an IT technician at Metropolitan found dead in the trunk of his car. Defense attorney, Sandra Murray, takes his case but life goes downhill fast for Dr. Newman.

This is how Richard Mabry begins his most recent medical mystery. I've read 3 of 4 of his medical mystery series, Prescription for Trouble, and enjoyed every one of them. Stress Test was equally enjoyable. Mabry's treatment of the characters was consistent — if they had been actors, one would say they stayed in character. He does a good job of intertwining the lives of the characters to introduce some internal as well as interpersonal tension. For example, Ms. Murray has just broken off a relationship with Dr. Ken Gordon because he doesn't share her faith in God. She has concluded that all doctors are probably like Dr. Gordon — so wed to science that they can't have faith in God. Dr. Gordon becomes Dr. Newman's neurosurgeon when Dr. Newman suffers a serious head injury in his kidnapping. And, Ms. Murray not only takes Dr. Newman's case, she begins to be emotionally attached to him.

While Mabry keeps his characters in character, they are sometimes a bit shallow. For instance, it seems unlikely that someone like Ms. Murray, who is very good as a defense lawyer, would jump to the conclusion that all doctors were faithless just because Dr. Gordon wanted nothing to do with religion.

This is a "Christian mystery" so references to faith and God should come as no surprise. These elements are believable and portrayed as normal facets of life for the characters. Some might question Ms. Murray's breaking off of the relationship with Dr. Gordon because of his unbelief as odd, but it's not odd in the Christian world. Dr. Newman's faith grows throughout the story. Other characters have to confront their own lack of faith as the story progresses.

There were some plot quirks. For instance, near the end of the book, Mabry has Detective Ames saying that a certain deputy sheriff probably called the police dispatcher. She speculates that Detective Grimes had alerted the dispatcher to let him know about any calls related to Dr. Newman. However, just one screen later, Detective Ames says that the police got lucky because the deputy sheriff called the detective division rather than the police dispatcher.

All in all, this was worth reading.

There were some interface errors in the Kindle edition. Navigating to "Go to...Beginning" took me to the author's page at the very end of the book. Neither Kindle's X-Ray function nor real page numbers were enabled — perhaps that's because I was reading a review copy from the publisher but the X-Ray function, especially, would have been helpful.

Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. See http://cmp.ly/1

22 March 2013

CAPTCHAs and Spam

I tried an experiment a couple of days ago — I turned off word verification to see what would happen. For a couple of days, there were a very few Anonymous spam posts. Then, this morning, I woke to about 120 e-mails notifying me of comments on this blog from Anonymous — all spam, all posted between 2130 and 2200 GMT. Now, many of them complimented me on the extraordinary nature of my blog posts and my incredible talent as a webmaster. LOL! Really?

Well, fortunately, my self-esteem doesn't depend on anonymous postings from people who want me to click on a link to their (likely) virus-infested web sites. And, I certainly don't want an ever-increasing number of spam notifications filling up my inbox. So, I've reenabled word verification for comments.

Maybe hate is too strong, but I get seriously annoyed by CAPTCHAs. About half the time, I can't figure out what I'm supposed to type and either get it wrong or have to click on the button that gives a different CAPTCHA. (The example to the left is easy to decipher.) However, I find the other option — having commenters register or sign-in — equally annoying. My apologies. I do really like legitimate comments. I like reading other opinions. I like knowing that someone has found a post interesting or helpful. It's nice to know that someone has taken a moment from their day to let me know they read what I wrote.

As an aside, did you know that CAPTCHA actually means something? Google's Help page says this:
The term CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, they developed the first CAPTCHA to be used by Yahoo.

  • What security measure do you find least annoying for blog comments — CAPTCHAs or something else?
Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

21 March 2013

Calling All Skeptics — Could Jesus' Resurrection be True?

Christianity makes some pretty audacious claims. We celebrate one of those on 31 March — Jesus' resurrection. If you're a skeptic looking for truth or even a believer who wants to strengthen your belief, this may be a good book to read, "Raised? Doubting the Resurrection" by Jonathan Dodson and Brad Watson. It's free and available for Kindle (.mobi), Nook/iBooks/Sony (.epub), or as the generic PDF. The authors and publishers are encouraging people and churches to give it away. (I haven't, yet, read the book but read and liked another book by Dodson, "Unbelievable Gospel", so feel good about recommending this.)

16 March 2013

Goodbye Google Reader, Hello Feedly

I have no idea how many of my friends use an RSS reader. RSS is a geekonym (my made-up word for a geek's acronym) for Really Simple Syndication. An RSS reader gathers, in one place, posts from blogs to which one has subscribed — in other words, instead of bookmarking every blog you want to read, you subscribe to those blogs in your RSS reader and you can find all the blogs in one place. It's simple and convenient. I have used Google Reader for several years. It lists the blogs to which I subscribe, shows me how many posts on each I haven't read, shows me a preview, and allows me to go to the full blog post if I want. Simple, easy, and it was free.

On Wednesday, Google dropped a bombshell for users of Google Reader by announcing the they will shut it down effective 1 July 2013 — A second spring of cleaning

Devastated? No. Unhappy? Yes. I immediately went on the search for a new RSS reader. I checked out the following — all are browser-based and not stand-alone applications:

  • Newsblur — the problem with Newsblur is that in the free version, I can only subscribe to 12 blogs. To have unlimited subscriptions, I have to pony up $24 per year — not bad and the demise of Google Reader may be an indicator that a paid service is the way to go. But, I also found that Newsblur hung up more than once while I was trying to import my 12 blog subscriptions from Google Reader.
  • The Old Reader — Well, frankly, I can't test The Old Reader. I set up the account yesterday and tried to import the OPML file that I exported from Google Reader. Still today, The Old Reader says that they've had a massive influx of new users, their servers are overwhelmed, and my import is in the queue. (OPML is another geekonym for Outline Processor Markup Language — yeah, like you wanted to know that!)
  • Feedly — Simple, free, unlimited subscriptions, and there are versions for Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Android, and iOS. An article on their blog, Transitioning from Google Reader to feedly, was very helpful. I was able to import my blog subscriptions directly from Google Reader without using an OPML file and Feeldy promises a seamless transition to their own proprietary service once Google Reader shuts down. Feedly also offers several different ways to view your subscribed blogs — as a list of clickable headlines, in a magazine-like layout with graphics and post previews, the full post. I'm still learning my way around, but for now, Feedly is my choice — and frankly, I'm unlikely to change. In fact, as of today, I don't plan to go back to Google Reader, even during the next 3 1/2 months before Google shuts it down.
There are other options available, some free and some paid.
  • If you currently use Google Reader, what do you plan to use after 1 July?
Since this is a blog that was started about running — I ran today. It was only 3.4 miles and included several walking breaks, so it was slow. But, I was out there. What about you?

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

06 March 2013

Book Review: "Heaven's Lessons: Ten Things I Learned About God When I Died" by Steve Sjogren

I'm not really sure what to say about this book. Sjogren talks about 10 things he learned as a result of his "near death" experience. While there were some good, Biblical principles (and some good secular principles) in the book, for me it was "wrapped" in such a way as to make it difficult to take. With a near death experience, professional dream interpreters, unresolved (in the book) leadership struggles in a church or ministry (the struggles were not clearly identified in the book), it just left much to be desired. It's not that there's anything wrong with the book, it just didn't resonate with me, except for the chapter on Quit Quitting.

Undoubtedly, Sjogren grew from his experience of near death and through the struggles he went through afterwards to regain his health, strength, and just his ability to function. His willingness to trust God through those years and not to give up are inspiring. The ten things Sjogren identifies that he learned were:

  • We live in a spiritual world
  • God is big
  • Success works backwards
  • God especially enjoys irregular people
  • Don't fear death
  • Quit quitting (best of the chapters — helped me)
  • God heals gradually
  • Get over it!
  • Face your fear
  • Be thankful.
Some chapters were unremarkable. I think there are likely better books that accomplish the same thing.

I read a pre-publication copy of the Kindle edition of the book. While not as distracting as some Kindle editions, there were formatting errors in TOC and a few other places like in the section on "How can I grow in thankfulness" beginning around location 1870. Hopefully, those have been cleared up in the edition that was actually published.

(Disclaimer: I received a free preview copy of this book in exchange for a review. The opinions are my own; I was not paid to give either a positive or negative review; I was encouraged to say what I actually think.)

23 January 2013

Getting Back in Shape

I know people who are absolutely consistent with everything they do. Since, October, my running has taken a nosedive. Much of that is just due to life interfering but a bit of it is just my own inconsistency. About 6 weeks ago, I was in Turkey for a meeting. I had taken my running gear but just hadn't run. About the 4th day of the meeting, we had the late afternoon off and another participant said he was going to run. I asked if I could join him and we took off after about 10 minutes. Great run even though I hadn't run a lick in about 3.5 weeks. When I mentioned that to him, he was amazed and said he didn't think he had ever missed working out. (Boy, that made me feel good! Seriously, I just thought, "Well....")

Anyway, once we got home, I ran a couple of times but just couldn't get into the routine ... rainy mornings, not sleeping great after travelling, our adult kids and others here for Christmas, lots to do, some missing "wanna's". It just didn't happen.

Now that Christmas and New Years are behind us, I'm trying to get back. I had run so little, that I'm trying to take it easy. Only 2.8 miles or so every other day. Even with that, it's more than I've run since October.

Getting back in shape at my age (58+), at this altitude (5700'+), and at my weight (...never mind) just ain't too much fun. But, I'm getting there. My distance isn't going up and my weight isn't going down, yet, but without trying at all, I've already cut some time off. And, I can already run farther before having to walk.

The other thing I haven't done is stay consistent with this blog. Not that you care, probably, but I need it to stay motivated. So, let's see what happens.

Run well, y'all,

22 January 2013

Book Review: Running for My Life by Lopez Lomong, with Mark Tabb

Running for My Life
(Disclosure: Review copy — I get nothing from posting the link, below, to the Kindle version on Amazon.)

I had seen the pre-publication announcements for this book and really wanted to read it for a couple of reasons. First, I live and work in Kenya and the issue of child soldiers is a hot topic around here. The Kakuma refugee camp is huge. So, a first-hand account of one who has experienced that holds a lot of interest for me. Second, I enjoy running. Now, I'm old and fat and slow, but I'm still attracted to stories of runners for whom running has been a way to work through and overcome challenges. Lomong's story fit both of those and I was glad to get the chance to read and review the book through Thomas Nelson Publisher's "BookSneeze" program.

In my experience, autobiographies have to be taken with a grain of salt. Most seem to come across as highly self-serving and, frankly, somewhat pompous. This one did not, perhaps because of the capable guidance of the co-author. I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging the book was.

Is it possible to quantify mistreatment? While Lomong was not beat during his captivity nor was he ever sent to battle by the rebel soldiers, it was difficult to read his account of being kidnapped and then his time in the rebels' camp. Any time I thought about him being only 6 years old and forcibly kept from his family and in those conditions, it was heartbreaking. At the same time, though, the thoughts he recounts from that time could hardly be the thoughts of a 6-year old — he's certainly projecting adult thoughts back to that time. Not that that's wrong because I think it's the nature of autobiographies.

It was fun to read of Lomong's "wonder" at all the new experiences he faced. He saw Kakuma as a haven (it's not, at least from an American middle class perspective) because he could go to school, he was away from war, he had food ("...I looked at the scraps of food from the dump as a blessing."), he could play football (soccer), he could run! Later in the book, as Lomong talks about facing a major 1500M race, he writes:

Pressure is trying to make a UN food allotment stretch for thirty days. Pressure is watching friends die of malaria and wondering who in the camp will be next. Pressure is writing an essay that will determine your entire future in a language you do not know. A footrace, even a championship race, did not make me feel pressure. (Kindle book location 2293-2295)

Lomong will help you see your own troubles in a new light. I think you will also be inspired by how Lomong has used his success to try to make a difference in the lives of other southern Sudanese — perhaps that's what makes this autobiography so different from others.

Running for My Life is a good read. While autobiographical, it's not pompous. If you're interested in the life of one elite runner, you'll enjoy this book. There are numerous references to Lomong's faith in God (personally, I'm very sympathetic to that perspective) but he rarely gets preachy — it's just who he is. I think you'll celebrate with this kidnapped boy who, with a lot of help from strangers, organizations, individuals, teachers, and friends, was able to escape from dire circumstances and use his freedom to help others. Maybe you'll even be inspired to help a lost boy. This would be a great read for anyone working with immigrants — it will help you know how to help them adjust.